25 years on the memory of martial law in Poland remains strong

25 years ago, on a snowy Sunday morning, Poles woke up to an entirely new reality; martial law - imposed by the Communist authorities in an attempt to halt the pro-democratic forces of Solidarity. Poles and the world were shocked.

General Wojcich Jaruzelski
One hour before midnight on December 12th 1981, all telephone connections in Poland had been broken. Radio and television programs were discontinued at midnight. Army units with tanks and special riot police squads rolled out of their garrisons.

During that night, with the official date of December 13th, the State Council issued a decree proclaiming martial law throughout the country. Communist party first secretary and Prime minister general Wojcich Jaruzelski had also been appointed head of the Military Council For National Salvation, assuming absolute dictatorial power.

First arrests were made among the Solidarity leadership and most active Union members.

The justification for martial law had been alleged attempts by Solidarity and the pro-democratic forces rallied around the first independent trade union in the then Communist block to take over the country. In the opinion of the Communist party bosses, the very consideration of such scenario could trigger a Soviet military intervention.

A sonorous voice of support for the fighting democratic forces of the Polish political underground had come from US President Ronald Reagan.

"Poland is not East or West. Poland is at the center of European civilization. It has contributed mightily to that civilization. It is doing so today by being magnificently unreconciled to oppression."

Many analysts claimed, it had been the strong reaction of the American side that trimmed pressure of the Soviet military brass for intervention in Poland.

Poland 1982
But besides its international dimension, martial law in Poland was first and foremost the daily fear and hardship of thriving in a state ruled by Communist military dictatorship. The horror of the situation had been accurately captured by British news photographer Chris Niedenthal in what became the symbol of the Polish situation in world media - an armoured vehicle with soldiers in front of Moscow cinema, one of Warsaw's most popular movie theaters then. It had just started running 'Apocalypse, Now'.... with a huge billboard title over the entrance. Chris Niedenthal:

"I simply took it, because I saw it - the juxtaposition of all three facts. Anybody who saw it would have realised it's a great picture. But it's not easy under martial law. I quickly grabbed some shots and ran!"

An American volunteer working for a Christian mission based in Vienna recalled the atmosphere of shock and uncertainty during trips to martial law Poland.

AMERICAN: "One of our colleagues was in Warsaw. And here he was in Poland as a foreigner. He was able to take some Americans out to the West. It was a freightning thing for us. We were sitting in Austria, not knowing if he would get out to what we called "freedom" then. Back in those years, it was very difficult to come to Poland. There were border restrictions and we never knew if we would actually get to come in and visit our friends."

The imposition of martial law in Poland took by surprise many Poles travelling abroad at the time. Sociologist Marek Garztecki was in London.

"I arrived in Britain and on the second day someone knocked on my door and said there's a war in Poland. What kind of war? I went out and bought the Evening Standard. there was this picture of tanks in the streets and a big headline "State of War in Poland". Obviously, I was very scared. I left my family, my first child and my wife, here. A few days later, the Solidarity people stranded in Britain formed a kind of committee. In due course, the underground Solidarity leadership decided to form a network of Information Offices, a kind of Solidarity embassies."

Martial law in Poland, although officially lifted a year later, extended well into 1986. The various restrictions on public activity had been dropped very gradually. The paranoid and aggressive behaviour of the Communist authorities sensing the imminent crumbling of the system was fueled by growing discontent and anger of society. Thousands of Poles paid a high price for this contempt of the regime. Some, like the the protesting miners at the Wujek colliery, even the highest.... And though a quarter of a century has passed since the imposition of martial law, Poles remember vividly the plight they had been subjected to by the Communnist rulers of the country.