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The fleeting memory of December 1970

In December 1970 violent riots broke out in the Polish cities of Szczecin and Gdynia, while in Gdańsk strikers surrounded the seat of the Polish United Workers’ Party. Clashes with militia erupted and the central committee of the communist party decided to brutally quell the rebellion. These events became an important founding myth for the struggle against the communist authorities. Fifty years later, how are these events remembered?

In December 1970, 14 years had passed since Wiesław Gomułka became the first secretary of the communist party in the People’s Republic of Poland. At that time, both the thaw of 1956, which allowed Gomułka to return to power, and hope for reforms that he promised (the so-called Polish way to socialism) were already a fading memory. It was not the right moment for a nostalgic journey to the past. And with Christmas just around the corner, everyone was busy stockpiling goods that were hard to come by.

November 16, 2020 - Piotr Leszczyński - History and MemoryIssue 6 2020Magazine

The Monument to the fallen Shipyard Workers 1970 (right) with the building of the European Solidarity Centre on the left. Photo: Adam Reichardt


Brushing aside the deteriorating social mood, the authorities decided to raise food prices, which, in a communist state, were regulated. Poles had feared these increases, especially the price of meat. When the price of bread went up, tongue-in-cheek comments were made that at least “locomotives were still getting cheaper”.

These brutal “price regulations” – as the communists called them – as well as their timing in the pre-Christmas season, led to an unrestrained outburst of an already growing public discontent. The latter was a clear result of declining living standards under Gomułka’s rule. Once the bad news was shared with the public by official media outlets, unrest started to brew in northern Poland. This region, which is located along the Baltic Sea coast, was home to many state-owned enterprises, including the huge shipyards where temporary breaks at work were introduced by the workers. The workers also set up strike committees to enter into talks with the authorities. Clearly, they were driven by the belief that dialogue would either lead to a suspension of the planned price increases or bring about a rise in the workers’ pay. On the side of the communist authorities, however, there was no will to talk or concede.

As a result, violent riots broke out in the cities of Szczecin and Gdynia, while in Gdańsk strikers surrounded the headquarters of the Provincial Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party. Clashes with militia erupted, the building was burned down and the streets became scenes of violent fighting. The communist authorities, still headed by Gomułka, called the protests an anti-socialist revolt and the central committee of the communist party decided to quell the rebellion immediately. They were joined by official radio and television stations which started calling the workers to end the strikes and return to work.

In parallel, the army divisions arrived to the region with an order to pacify the strikers and re-establish law and order. The shipyard workers, who were the largest labour group in the region, obeyed the orders and returned to work. However, when they arrived at the premises they were faced by military cordons sent there to separate the workers from the shipyard. Shots were fired and some of the workers were injured or killed. With as many as 45 workers killed in Szczecin, Gdynia, Gdańsk and Elbląg, this was the most tragic event in the region’s contemporary history, and the bloodiest one since Second World War.

Shattered hope

The strikers were punished with reprisals. Many lost their jobs and hundreds were detained. Gomułka was also pushed aside and eventually lost power. He was replaced by Edward Gierek who became the new leader of the communist party. Over the next couple of months, the mood became calmer, which allowed the public to, once again, put trust in the communist authorities. With Gierek a new era began with more economic prosperity, which was financed largely by funds borrowed from the West.

Evidently, the experience of December 1970 shattered any hope that the Polish public placed in communism. The bloody clashes with workers, albeit not the first ones in post-war history (in 1956 similar events, supposedly ignited by party dignitaries, took place in Poznań), left the society with no illusions. The reality was a far cry from what they expected after 25 years of building communism. In addition to the fatalities, several thousands were injured or badly beaten by the militia. This experience was so widespread that almost every family living in the region knew someone, be it a cousin or a neighbour, who was either injured or beaten up.

December 1970 became an important founding myth for this part of Poland. This was especially true for Szczecin, which was previously devoid of its own history. After the war and the establishment of Poland’s new borders, the city became home to many newcomers. They arrived from different parts of the country as well as from the territories of former Poland’s borderlands (Kresy). Early on they could not associate with their new place of residence. The only experience they shared together was the strenuous rebuilding of the ruined city. Yet this myth got blurred during the depressing 1960s. Consequently, Szczecin remained somewhat detached from the rest of the country. Residents, when going on holiday to other parts of the country, often said they were going to Poland (sic!). In many oral history testimonies from that period, you can hear expressions such as “the Republic of Szczecin”, which shows that the residents finally started to feel the city was their home.

Impact and faith

In other cities the situation was no different and the experience of this extremely difficult time was rooted in the memory of the people living in Gdynia or Gdańsk. The unrest turned into one of the main topics of dinner conversations, while the story of the shipyard workers and the fate of their families were secretly passed down to younger generations. Despite being virtually non-existent in official media discourse, the legend of the workers’ rebellion continued to grow and affect the next generation of leaders. Among them was Donald Tusk, the former prime minister of Poland and a democratic opposition activist in the 1980s. In one interview, he admitted that, at the time of the riots, he was still a young boy, and on his way home from school he witnessed scenes that he could not forget for the rest of his life. Evidently, anyone capable of telling right from wrong did not have any doubts about which side to support. Many of these people forever remained under the influence of those events.

The memory of the December 1970 riots remained alive throughout the whole communist period. Despite the ban imposed by the party, illegal celebrations were organised to commemorate the victims. People were demanding the truth about the repressions. Year after year the number of people participating at the rallies was getting bigger and bigger. It showed how significant the memory of the workers’ protests was to the people.

The largest rally took place in 1979. It was organised on the ninth anniversary of the riots, and around 5,000 people assembled beside the shipyard gate in Gdańsk. Thanks to this massive gathering, the democratic opposition gained faith in its power, which was further reinforced by the election of a Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyła, as the new pope. His first papal visit, as John Paul II, was to Poland and in the summer of 1979. His words: “Be not afraid!” provided a huge boost to both the opposition and society at large. They entered Polish history books as a breakthrough moment.

By the end of summer 1980, a new series of strikes broke out in Poland, along the Baltic coast. Once again, like ten years earlier, they were caused by the worsening economic situation. Strike committees were established again, yet, unlike December 1970, the shipyard workers did not come out on the streets. This time they stayed in the shipyards where they did a sit-in strike. The brilliant film by the Oscar-winning Polish director, Andrzej Wajda, titled Man of Iron is probably the best artistic expression of the atmosphere of this time.

The monument and today’s conflict

On August 17th 1980 a list of demands were issued by the Inter-factory Strike Committee to the communist authorities. It included 21 postulates – the first one being the right to establish free trade unions. One of the other demands was for a monument to be built for the fallen shipyard workers. It was constructed, in the form of three gigantic crosses, which were erected in the centre of the square to symbolize the first three fallen shipyard workers. Polish poet and Nobel Laureate in Literature, Czesław Miłosz, prepared a special dedication. It reads:

You who wronged a simple man,
Bursting into laughter at the crime,
Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date. […]

[Translated by Richard Lourie]

The monument immediately became an integral part of Gdańsk’s landscape and remains so today. It is seen as a symbol of the fight for dignity and freedom. During the ceremony of its unveiling in December 1980, which was attended by a crowd of over one hundred thousand people, Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the trade union Solidarność and the whole democratic movement, said the following words: “It was a year ago that here, in this very place, I promised you that on the 10th anniversary of the December riots we would see a monument. If not in a different way, then we shall all fetch rocks and gather them here for the monument to stand”.

Later, the monument became a landmark on Gdańsk’s tourist map. But it has also remained a location where new demonstrations would be organised. It is also here that, in 1987, during his first visit to Gdańsk, Pope John Paul II prayed in complete solitude as cordons of militia set up barricades to block ordinary people from attending.

The new building of the European Solidarity Centre, an institution that was created based on the idea of the former opposition leaders of the Solidarity movement, was opened here in 2014. Its goal is not only to commemorate the historic events that happened in Gdańsk’s shipyard and on the city’s streets in 1970 and 1980, but to show the value and uniqueness of the non-violent transition to democracy that was initiated by Poland in 1989. The establishment of this museum and public institution, a certain kind of modern agora, would not have been possible had it not been for the determination and dedication of the late mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz. Today, six years after its opening and one year after Adamowicz’s murder during a public charity event, the centre remains a popular destination for visitors and researchers from all over the world.

Whose memory?

What remains of the memory of December 1970 today? Without a doubt, the current interpretation and memory of these events, which took place half a century ago, are now victim to the deep political conflicts that have been dividing Poles in recent years. The division of the former democratic opposition movement into a liberal and a national fraction has dominated not only Polish political life in the last thirty years, but has also impacted the assessment of historical events.

Historical policy has proved an effective weapon in political fights. As a result, parallel anniversary celebrations have now become the new normal. We now see former activists of the Solidarity trade union associated with the Law and Justice party, standing far away from those who are against the current government and support the parliamentary opposition. Also, the loneliness of Lech Wałęsa, the legendary Solidarity hero of both 1970 and 1980, has become a very powerful sign of our time. As a die-hard revolutionary, and probably still the most recognisable Pole in the world, Wałęsa is now all by himself when he lays a flower wreath at the foot of the monument to the fallen shipyard workers.

Evidently, the young Poles do not want to be a part of their parents’ and grandparents’ conflict. They refuse to participate in the dispute, which they see as both confusing and fruitless. This is understandable. For them, the year 1970 or 1980 seems as distant as the French Revolution or the outbreak of the Second World War. They were born in a free and democratic country and are unable to understand what statutory price regulations, goods shortages, empty shops, or the general dullness of the Polish People’s Republic was like. They have no memory of censorship, or fear of the authorities and the militia. In this way, one of the crowning moments in Poland’s recent history may be relegated to memory and lost forever.

Translated by Justyna Chada

Piotr Leszczyński is the publisher and editor of Przegląd Polityczny (Political Review), based in Gdańsk.

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