Monday, December 13, 2004

Remembering the martial law 

Yesterday, December 13, was a twenty third anniversary of the introduction of the martial law in Poland; the event at the time widely thought to have finally and irrevocably brought to an end the era of "Solidarity", but which with hindsight only delayed for a few more years the coming of democracy in Poland and the fall of the Soviet Empire.

I was nine and a half. I remember it snowed when I woke up on Sunday morning. I got up and went to switch on TV to watch "Teleranek" (TV Morning), a weekly program for kids that always aired at 9am. But there was only snow on the screen, too. We didn't know what has happened, but the phone lines were cut off as well, and that was a bad sign. The streets were eerily empty, as if every family in every apartment around, faced with the same snow on TV and the same dead signal on the phone, was also drawing into themselves and waiting for somebody else to make the first move.

In fact, since we were all still alive, we could discount the possibility that a nuclear war has broken out while we slept. Remember, this was the end of 1981, with that warmongering cowboy not even a year in the White House and already trashing detente and ratching up the temperature under the ailing geriatric Brezhnev. And Krakow was a big enough city to be among the first targets should all hell break loose.

No, there were only two real possibilities: either we (the opposition, the overwhelming majority of the nation) did them (the communists) in, or they did us in. At midday, when the radio stations stopped playing somber classical music and the vision came back on TV screens, we knew it had been the latter. General Jaruzelski, stiffened by his orthopedic corset, his eyes hidden behind large dark sunglasses (a legacy of a Siberian internment by the Soviets, when strong sunlight reflecting off snow damaged his eyesight), faced the nation and read a proclamation declaring martial law. The army has taken over the government to suppress the opposition and save Poland from inevitable bloodshed. What freedoms there still existed under our communist government were suppressed; curfews imposed, freedom of movement within the country restricted. "Solidarity", the movement of some 10 million members (out of the population of 36 million) was cleanly decapitated just after midnight on Sunday morning, when the security forces swept in and arrested almost all of the trade union's leaders attending a national congress in Gdansk.

Only my father eventually ventured out of the house late in the afternoon. There were tanks and armored personnel carriers on the streets, and checkpoints manned by young soldiers, cold and miserable under the inglorious Polish December. We couldn't really hate them, not just because the Army was, aside from the Church, the only widely respected institution in our society, but also because the conscripts were almost as scared and uneasy as everyone else. And they were all strangers in unfamiliar places; the General Staff had sent the units away from their home towns so that if the fighting broke out the troops would not have to fire on their fathers, brothers, and friends. It's easier to shoot strangers, after all.

My father braved the snow, the chilling wind, and the bundled up sentries, and went to our parish church for the evening mass. The church was full. People were crying and singing old religious hymns with patriotic overtones. "Free fatherland, return to us, O Lord..."

13 December 1981 remains a divisive date in Polish history. Jaruzelski and his supporters (and there are more of those than you would think) have always maintained that martial law was necessary to save Poland from an even greater tragedy of the Soviet invasion and likely bloodshed and civil war. Jaruzelski's detractors say he was always Moscow's stooge who volunteered to do the dirty job of suppressing "Solidarity" for the Soviets. Twenty three years later passions still run hot. This from a Polish newspaper:
"Overnight from Sunday to Monday, around 200 people have gathered outside the General's home. The supporters and detractors of the decision to introduce martial law were separated by a police cordon. There were verbal skirmishes, chanted slogans and singing. Members of Law and Justice, Confederation of Independent Poland and the Republican League sang "Rota" [a very old Polish military-patriotic hymn], members of the Young Social Democrats Federation and the Union of Democratic Left - "The Internationale". One side chanted "We thank you, General", the other "We'll find a bat for the General". One side sported banners saying "Here lives a communist criminal" and "Jaruzelski - we condemn your crimes", the other "Hands off General" and "No to extremism."
Martial law was to last less than two years. In that time I got used to passing on my way to school a backpackers' hostel converted into temporary military barracks, its carpark normally full of tourist buses now packed with the APCs. My family used to joke that at least I would be very safe getting to school.

I can only say thank you to the rainbow coalition out there who supported us in any way they could. To Ronald Reagan who kept a candle lit every night in the window of the White House to show his thoughts were with us - and, on the other side of the spectrum, to people like Francois Brutsch in Switzerland, who with others organised a committee of socialists, Trotsyites and independent leftists opposed to the Soviet oppression of Eastern Europe (link in French, but you can translate the page with Babel Fish).

The martial law was not the end. The system merely stagnated for another few years, and then in 1989 collapsed from within, when the communist leadership realized there was no more room for maneuver and nothing left to save. Poland was the first domino to fall - some, like Serbia, Georgia or Ukraine are still falling, fifteen years later. It been a long revolution, and nothing like we'd expected that Sunday morning, December 13, 1981. But that's history for you - you never know where it's going to lead. One morning you wake up and there's nothing on TV, another morning there are dozens of Western channels on cable.


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