Poland at the edge of an abyss

Marshal law was imposed in Poland 25 years ago

Piotr Chmielinski

Saturday evening, 12 December 1981, is calm and peaceful in the communication centre in Warsaw. Maria works on the second floor, in the department of national and international telegraphs. Together with her colleagues she waits for another colleague who has just retired and has promised to have a farewell party at midnight after work. One of the workers has just gone to the toilets and the other two have began knitting to kill the time.

Threatening a women with a bayonet

Suddenly Maria can hear some dull crashes in the corridor. The whole building begins to shudder. Chaotic lights can be seen on the control board. After a while the door opens violently and five soldiers rush into the room. At first Maria thinks that these are parachutists in battle uniforms, with camouflaged netting on their helmets and bayonets on the gun barrels. One of the soldiers shouts, 'Chairs to the wall! Do not move!' The second soldier threatens Maria with a bayonet. She shouts indignantly, 'How dare you threaten a woman with a bayonet!'
But the soldiers ignore the protests. One of them comes to the glass behind which there are levers and buttons that initiate the whole system in the hall and begins to switch them off. Maria is horrified and thinks that the soldiers have gone mad. She spontaneously looks at the large electronic clock that has stopped. It is 11.20 pm.
This is the beginning of marshal law in Poland as described in the book 'Noc generala' [The Night of the General] by Gabriel Meritik.

Polish house in ruins

Telephones were cut. People could not make any phone calls. Those who had to phone the ambulance to come to the sick or the dying experienced a drama. On the morning of 13 December the special issue of 'Trybuna Ludu', the official organ of the communist party, informed on the front page that the Military Council of National Salvation had been formed and declared marshal law all over the country. Jaruzelski, wearing dark glasses and with a grave look on his face, delivered frequent speeches on television and radio. 'The Fatherland finds itself at the edge of an abyss. The achievements of many generations, the Polish house emerged from the ashes, is in ruins. The state structures have stopped functioning. Every day new blows are struck against the stagnant economy', Jaruzelski said. And he addressed all people on the front page of 'Trybuna Ludu', 'I appeal to all citizens; an hour of ordeal has come. We must face this test and prove that we are worth Poland'. People, going to church, were accompanied by tanks and growing fear what would happen. Who knew what exactly marshal law meant. All people associated it with war. And if it were a war one should consider the possibility of dying.
The State Council announced many rules and restrictions. All gatherings were banned, many associations and unions were disbanded, theatres, concert halls and numerous editorial boards were closed. Letters were censored and a curfew from 22.00 to 6.00 was imposed. One of the paragraphs of the Decree concerning marshal law informed that 'Polish citizens over 17 years of age, who are suspected because of their previous conduct that if they are free they will not obey the legal order or will carry out activities against the interests of security or country's defences can be interned and sent to penal institutions for the period of marshal law'.

Help for the interned

Numerous Solidarity activists were already interned during the night. In the morning they were transported to prison in Bialoreka in the north of Warsaw. The conditions were terrible: cold cells with double-decker beds, filth in the corridors; the sewage system was out of order or frozen. The interned did not know how long they would stay there. But they were not left alone. It was only a few days after the imposition of marshal law that Primate of Poland Cardinal Jozef Glemp established a committee to help the interned. Bishop Wladyslaw Miziolek was appointed as the head of the committee. Wladyslaw Rodowicz, who witnessed those days, and who wrote 'Komitet na Piwnej' [Committee in Piwna Street] (the headquarters of the committee was St Martin's Church in Piwna Street in Warsaw) recollects, 'Five thousand people were interned and taken to prison during one night. Many of them were taken in their pyjamas, without any coats and that's why we organised warm clothes at first. I went from door to door in my district of Zoliborz. It was amazing that even those people whose members had not been interned gave pullovers, coats and warm underwear. In a short time we collected two cars full of clothes'.
Marshal law was lifted on 22 July 1983. But many Solidarity, KOR and KPN leaders remained in prison.

I have used fragments of Gabriel Meretik's book 'Noc generala'.

"Niedziela" 50/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl