Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Martial Law, Poland, December 13, 1981...

...tasted like plastic.

There is an evocative free gift with this week’s edition of Newsweek Polska. It’s a little box of chocolates.

Inside the period looking box are two chocolates: one is made of real chocolate; the other is made of the ersatz chocolate (czekoladopodobny) that was all most Poles could get hold of during Martial Law, a period of rationing of food stuffs.

A family was allowed one average sized chocolate bar a month. People said that there were less squares of chocolate in the bar than days of the month.

The ersatz chocolate given away by Newsweek must bring back memories in a very tangible way for Poles. What better way to conjure up a memory than by letting people taste it?

I just tried a piece of martial law chocolate. It tasted of plastic. But it also brought back memories of what cheap chocolate tasted like when I was a kid back in London. I am sure I remember that taste of cheapness before.

Many of the people that I know have memories based around what it was like to be a kid back then. Many say the first thing they knew about martial law was when they went to turn on the television on a freezing cold Sunday morning. Instead of seeing the cartoons that were played every week at that time by the one TV channel they had – TVP – they were confronted with the now infamous image of General Jaruzelski. Minus his dark glasses for the momentous occasion he said:

The Fatherland finds itself at the edge of an abyss. ..In this situation, inaction would be a crime against the nation. One must say: Enough. ..Calling on the army can have, and has, only a provisional, extraordinary aspect. .. May this exhausted country, which has already experienced so many catastrophes and so much suffering, not see even one drop of Polish blood spilt. We will, by a common effort, stop the specter of civil war. Let us not build barricades where a bridge is needed.

For kids it must have seemed bewildering, but the meaning of what had just happened was lost on them, thankfully. For their parents, however, it must have left the taste of something much more unpleasant in their mouths than the cheap, plastic chocolate that would be part of the rations during the year long period of clampdowns.

Around 25,000 people were charged with 'crimes against the state' and 90 people were killed during that period.


This is a print of a famous photo taken by Time photographer Chris Niedenthal of a cinema (Kino Moskwa, where Silver Screen now is on ul. Marszalkowska) in Warsaw during martial law. The film showing that week was: Czas Apokalipsy - Apocalypse Now


polishpenguin said...

And to think that Jaruzelski is still living in Poland "comfortably", should still rattle a few nerves in Poland. This man ordered martial law on his own country and killed 90 or so people as Beat's article mentioned, and how people didn't hang him upside down on his balls and beat him to a pulp is beyond me. It's also funny that he became a "General" at the ripe young age of 32 or so.

Anonymous said...


The correct term is stan wojenny, not stan wojna (wojna - noun, wojenny - adjective). This literally means state of war, as you have correctly noted.


Concerning Mr. Jaruzelski. As each year, we get the pointless media debate whether the man was a traitor our savior. It gets delightfully ironic, when you consider that a couple of years ago a group of his vocal critics went to Chile to give honors to Mr. Pinochet, who, as we read on this blog earlier, was responsible for 30,000 deaths, compared to Jaruzelski's 90.

beatroot's article ignores the crux of the matter, which is critical to judging Jaruzelski, namely: would failure to introduce martial law in Poland result in Warsaw Pact intervention. Jaruzelski's critics argue that there has been no such danger, basing mainly on the fact that the Soviet officials were quoted in several documents as saying roughly "we will not enter" during talks with the Polish side. However, it is also known (although strangely, often ignored) that at the time the armed forces of neighboring countries have been concentrated on Polish borders. Also, an invasive operation against Poland had been initiated in December 1980 (one year earlier) and literally stopped at the last moment.

There have already been several attempts to put Jaruzelski in court for introducing the martial law; there will undoubtedly be some more, until he leaves this world.

sonia said...


Pinochet was responsible for 3,000 dead, not 30,000...

In 17 years of Pinochet rule, that's 170 dead per year, very close to Jaruzelski's 90 dead during the first year of his dictatorship.

Both Jaruzelski and Pinochet were among the least brutal dictators of the 20th century. And ultimately, they were both forgiven by their countrymen (50% of Chileans still support Pinochet, and 50% of Poles say that martial law saved Poland from a Soviet invasion)...

michael farris said...

opamp, thanks for being pedantic about stan wojenny, now I don't have to! No, on second thought I will. Stan wojenny was the official term, but in everyday language many (most?) people just called it wojna (war).

polishpenguin, Polish people remember the past as a rule and certainly can hold grudges, but not that many really want to act on them and many people who directly suffered from martial law are in favor of moving on. Enough people buy Jaruzelski's explanation about wanting to avoid a Warsaw Pact intervention (which would probably have killed many, many more than 90) that there's no consensus about punishing him.

Anonymous said...

Come on, beatroot, if you want to taste ersatz chocolate, just buy any of Cadbury's products:)

Anonymous said...

Beatroot, can I also be pedantic? Silver Screen (on the site of the former Kino Moskwa) is on Puławska, not Marszałkowska.

They are showing the film tonight at Silver Screen at the same times as it should have been shown. Apparently, if anyone turns up with a ticket for 13 December 1981, they get in free.

Kind regards.


Anonymous said...

in everyday language many (most?) people just called it wojna (war).

Yes. However I haven't heard anyone refer to it this way nowadays. Wojna by itself is usually is reference to World War II (i.e. 'Before the war, I lived in Lwow').

I have also seen the term wojna polsko-jaruzelska, which I sort of like, because it nicely describes what actually happended.

Oh, and regarding wyrób czekoladopodobny... I remember these from the late 1980s. And, we can't skip it's inseparable companion, etykieta zastępcza (substitute label). The economy under Jaruzelski has been unable to produce even the labels.

See here: http://www.polskaludowa.com/codzienne/wyrob_czekoladopodobny.htm

Anonymous said...

I love the chocolate idea Newsweek came up with!

The Jaruzelski myth continues, patriot or traitor. In my opinion every thing points to the latter, at this point I would demand swift execution, but this pathetic Quisling isn’t worth the cost of a pistol bullet. There is a measure of justice allowing this scum to live out the rest of his life grinding his teeth at the site of a free and independent Poland.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that's fair and just enough as long as his living circumstances are modest.

And I would have been just as satisfied to see Pinochet live and die in equal circumstances in a free, independent socialist Chile.

beatroot said...

But are Jaruzelski and Pinochet equivalent?

Statistical comparison: Jaruzelski = 90 dead or missing, thousands arrested. Torture (to my knowledge) nil.

Pinochet: 3,000 dead, 30,000 imprisoned. Tortured LOTS.

To my knowledge Jaruzelski never significantly financially benefited for his authoritarianism. Pinochet has millions stolen from Chileans and stashed away in foreign bank accounts.

Jaruzelski the world could do without. But compared to Pinochet, he was a pussy cat.

Anonymous said...

Jaruzelski and Pinochet are not equivalent, in that Pinochet acted on what he perceived to be in the best interest of the country while Jaruzelski was a puppet of Moscow and acted against Poland for nearly the entirety of his career.

A great historical myth still carries on in Poland that the actions of Jaruzelski and the General Staff were in some way independent. This is a totally wrong, Jaruzelski was prepared to go along with an invasion or martial law depending on what Moscow ordered. It was Moscow’s decision to go for the martial law option because the downside potential of invasion was too great.

There is still a state of denial in Poland when facing the grim reality of the nation being betrayed by it own armed forces.

Beatroot said: “never significantly financially benefited for his authoritarianism” not exactly correct his house (under legal treat from the real owners); the Polish and Swiss bank accounts are courtesy of the state.

Beatroot said: “Torture (to my knowledge) nil.” Physical and psychological abuse was commonplace and resulted in a few people committing suicide.

beatroot said...

Jaruzelski was a puppet of Moscow and acted against Poland for nearly the entirety of his career.

And here is the crux of the argument about Jaruzelski.

He claims that if he did not begin martial law then the Soviets would have done it for him. Many Poles, as you know, Jan, agree with him.

Foreigners often don’t realize that there are many in this country that think that the decision to crackdown was in Poland’s interests.

I disagree - I would have firebombed the bastards. But then I wasn't there then. I was at home in London with my pet cat (called Kat).

polishpenguin said...

If he did it for the interest of Poland, he would of apologized for it like he did for the Czech for what he did in 1968. He went to Russia and received a medal from Putin for his actions. And yet some people might call him a patriotic man? Nonsense.

Anonymous said...

BR wrote: I would have firebombed the bastards. But then I wasn't there then.
Exactly. And the people there then did not firebomb the bastards. Seems that Martial Law was imposed and maintained pretty much without any acts of violent resistence.

beatroot said...

But he would say that he did save Poland from a fate worse than…well. Martial law.

You know the phrase that was used all the time then; the ‘geopolitical reality’. It meant that the tanks were on the border. Many in the west back then criticized Solidarnosc for ‘going too far’…according to these people the Poles were ‘asking for it’.

So I think that those wise people would agree with Jaruzelski: don’t push too far, too fast.

In more people’s eyes than maybe we find comfortable – Jaruzelski saved Poland from Soviet retribution.

Anonymous said...

Prior to any decision for martial law or even preparatory planning for it, the General Jaruzelski and the general staff were aware that foreign armies were massing on the border.

His duty required him to prepare the nation for self-defence but what were his actions?

No planning for self-defence was permitted.
No mobilization.
No notification was given to the civil defence apparatus
Reconnaissance teams (military officers in civilian clothing) from the Soviet, Czech and East German Armies were allowed into Poland to carry out preparatory work.
Tens of thousands of Polish uniforms are transferred to the Soviet Army.
A Polish delegation (two senior staff officers) is sent to Moscow to review the invasion plan and be briefed on the roll of the Polish Army.
The Polish Army will be held in barracks and its weapons secured, some individual units would be transferred to direct Soviet command by replacing the command structure with Soviet Officers.

Had the General stood with the people and mobilized, the invasion plan would have been thrown into disarray because it would have lacked the resources as it was based on dealing with minimal and disorganized resistance.

There just aren’t too many countries that would not define these actions as treason and issue the corresponding death sentence.

beatroot said...

Geez: you are right. The restraint shown by Poles then I find amazing. I try and imagine how Londoners like me would have reacted, and of course, I can’t imagine how we would have reacted. But I really don’t think it would be as restrained as Poles always have been.

Can you imagine how you would feel if you saw a tank coming down your street?

I would have firebombed the bastards….maybe.

beatroot said...

The ‘thread’ has become confusing because we are all here at the same time.

But Jan: His duty required him to prepare the nation for self-defence but what were his actions?

But there was not any prospect of Poland defending itself from the Soviets. That’s the point. Back then they were thinking about Budapest 56, Prague 68…the stakes were very high…

So that option was not open to Jaruzelski. He had two choices: let Solidarnosc push and push and get more and more…or martial law.

sonia said...


There just aren’t too many countries that would not define these actions as treason

Here I disagree. The country you are talking about was PRL - People's Polish Republic, not independent Poland. PRL was a Communist country. Jaruzelski wasn't a traitor to PRL. He did everything to save it. He didn't do anything to save independent Poland, but independent Poland didn't exist between 1939 and 1989. PRL did.

We have to be consistent. Communism is evil. But a Communist who defends Communism isn't a traitor.

Jaruzelski wasn't a traitor. He served an evil cause, that's it.

Anonymous said...

Can you imagine how you would feel if you saw a tank coming down your street?


I was visiting Wroclaw in 1984 when the anniversary of Solidarnosc was spozed to be observed with a boycott of public transportation. There wasn't much of a boycott but I wanted to see if something was going to happen in the stare miasto or whereever so I was walking around. There were tanks and halftracks and all kindza trucks and Zomo all over the place. It was scary. Incredibly grey and depressing. Repeatedly stopped by milicja, I just wanted to get the hell back to the house I was staying, safe and sound. And out of Poland. That was enough for me.

Anonymous said...

Beatroot said:
"I try and imagine how Londoners like me would have reacted, and of course, I can’t imagine how we would have reacted. But I really don’t think it would be as restrained as Poles always have been."

You are kidding, right? You have a government that took a country into an illegal war, that lies and spins the truth on daily basis, and what do you do? Your re-elect it. Even you students, normally the most radical part of the society, allow themselves to have tuition fees imposed and then increased without any protest.

If there ever was martial law in the UK, there would be no protests. The upper classes would keep stiff upper lip, and the lower ones wouldn't give a fuck, as long as footy was still being palyed and beer hasn't run out.

beatroot said...

You have a government that took a country into an illegal war, that lies and spins the truth on daily basis, and what do you do? Your re-elect it.

As I said, I don’t know how Brits would react to something like martial law. Would they have as peaceful as the Poles (and I mean peaceful, not passive)? Dunno.

But you are comparing two very different things. Iraq war, however barbaric, is not like having martial law imposed.

The British have become very passive and empty politically, but having martial law declared goes beyond politics.

I do think that the British in some areas would have reacted differently. And certainly if it had been imposed in parts of Ireland then it certainly would have been fought violently (check out the reaction to what was close to martial law imposed on northern Ireland for over two decades).

Anonymous said...

Beatroot said: “Many in the west back then criticized Solidarnosc for ‘going too far’…according to these people the Poles were ‘asking for it’”

Yes this is correct but their motives were nothing to do with a desire to spare Poland the horrors of war. As we all know in those days there were many friends and apologists for the Soviet cause in media and academic circles in the west. Solidarnosc was a deadly threat to the ideology these people were sympathetic to, the revolt of the working class in a communist country pulled at the very ideological underpinnings of the entire system.

Geez and Beatroot: “the restraint shown by Poles then I find amazing”

Not really, in terms of martial law the decision not to get violent started with events back in 1976, after the violence of that year new tactics were formulated. It was viewed that violence played into the hands of the authorities. The idea of the occupation strike, numerous simultaneous strikes and coordination of resistance activities with intellectuals and students was the new plan. The automatic benefit was the support of the church for this course of action. With non-violent resistance Solidarnosc held the public relations high ground during the entirety of the struggle domestically and abroad.

Beatroot said: “there was not any prospect of Poland defending itself from the Soviets”

I agree that at anytime the Soviets made the decision to move against Poland they would have won in the end. The question that remains would they have put forward the resources necessary if confront with a population and Armed Forces determined to defend the country. If this were the condition at the time the allocated invasion force would have had to be doubled, this would have brought the Soviet Union into a state of near full military mobilization with all of the international implications that that implied. The risk versus benefit equation changes completely.

Sonia said: “Jaruzelski wasn't a traitor to PRL”

That’s correct but I continue to hold the opinion he was a traitor to Poland, I think we both agree the PRL was nothing more than the occupation administration the Soviet Union installed after WWII. Holding a PRL passport doesn’t give license to any Pole to betray his country. The existence of the PRL had no basis in legality but differed in methodology to similar occupation authorities such as General Government under the Nazis.

sonia said...


Holding a PRL passport doesn’t give license to any Pole to betray his country

That's not the point. The point is that Jaruzelski's real nationality was 'Communist', not 'Pole'. And he was faithful to that nationality.

I know it might seem like splitting hairs, but it became important later on, and it saved Poland from a bloody civil war. When Gorbatchev ordered Jaruzelski to institute real democratic reform, he faithfully obeyed his master once again.

But Ceauşescu (who was a traitor to Communism) refused to obey Gorbatchev and all Romanians suffered the consequences...

Anonymous said...

I think I can go along with your point on “nationality was Communist”, as a possibility. Lets not forget the word opportunist, as there were very few ideological communists in Poland. I say this because there is little in his background to suggest he was driven by ideology.

One historian's evaluation of Jaruzelski’s career went like this:

“conformity with the requirements of the power-that-be and his shrewd discernment as to whom they might be . Cautious opportunism and constant submission to the Soviet Big Brother are the two immutable traits in his career.”

On the point of democratic reforms, he saw the writing on the wall and decided to be practical, as he had no other course of action available to him. Gorbatchev’s key pronouncement was no more Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe and that was the end of the line for the regime. Everyone understood these regimes were not self-standing entities but wholly dependant on Soviet military force to keep them in power or at least the treat of it.

sonia said...


Lets not forget the word opportunist, as there were very few ideological communists in Poland.

If you knew real Communists (in Russia and elsewhere) as well as I had the misfortune to know them, you would know that 'ideological Communism' and 'opportunism' are EXACTLY the same things. From the very begining, Bolsheviks's ideology was Opportunism hidden behind a Marxist mask. An ideological Communist NEVER, EVER cared about equality or social justice, only about capturing and holding power, using FALSE PROMISES of equality and social justice to achieve that goal. Even in 1989, the Communists remained faithful to that opportunist ideology: to peacefully give up power was the only way to preserve their political viability in an emerging democratic society. Now, they are waiting for the next opportunity (which hopefully will never come)...

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