The Polish Crisis of 1980-81 was unusual in comparison with earlier cases of social unrest in Poland, most notably those of 1956 and 1970, in that it mobilized wide swaths of society: besides workers at numerous factories, it included intellectuals, students and farmers engaging in strikes, demonstrations and in the new and independent trade unions and supporting organizations. This broad appeal of the popular movement centered on Solidarity found reflection in its membership statistics: upon legalization of independent trade unions—which Solidarity initially purported to be—as many as 9 million people joined “S” in a country of then 36 million,[4] while at the same time communist party membership dwindled rapidly.[5] Especially worrying to the PZPR[6] was the ideological support of KSS KOR[7] for this popular movement, which was suspected of trying to subvert independent trade unions for the purpose of its political goals of reforming the socialist regime and of possibly dismantling it altogether.[8] Thus, strikes and demonstrations coordinated by Solidarity leaders were clearly perceived by the communist government of Poland not simply as workers’ demands for better living standards and working conditions but as a stepping stone for extracting fundamental political reforms.

In view of a crumbling economy, food shortages, raging inflation, and a country paralyzed by frequent general strikes, unrest was spilling onto the Polish streets in form of demonstrations.[9] In this environment it cannot surprise that the communist government felt compelled to act in the face of a vital threat to its hold on power. The response of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who was simultaneously holding the offices of defense minister, Secretary General of PZPR, prime minister, and chairman of the Committee on National Salvation (KOK) in one person, to this threat was to impose martial law.

The imposition of martial law itself came hardly as a surprise to anyone involved at a political level: the leaders of Solidarity had learned early on about the planned “operation Wiosna,”[10] and warned the communist elite already during the summer of 1981 against having the Sejm grant special emergency powers to the existing government. Plans for a military crackdown were drawn up an entire year in advance, and lists of opposition members to be interned quickly ballooned to exceed 10,000.[11] The military even conducted dry runs of its anticipated scheduled arrests.[12] The U.S. administration had been kept up to date about Polish and Warsaw Pact military planning for a good decade by their intelligence asset Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, who was also a member of the military planning commission for martial law until he defected to the U.S. in early December 1981. Needless to say, the Kremlin continuously advised the Polish Politburo and was in turn kept up to date by its Polish counterpart with detailed reports on current developments.[13] Therefore, publicly displayed shock and dismay at the event as it was professed by all interested parties must have been part of a political kabuki dance for the consumption of a global audience. Everybody who mattered knew well in advance and in some detail what was coming.

Foreign media sometimes have described the imposition of martial law by General Jaruzelski as a “military putsch.” 30 years later it is still inconclusively debated whether the act itself was constitutional and legal under Polish law in effect at the time.[14] As Jaruzelski explained,[15] there was no clause in the Polish constitution to declare a “state of emergency” that is the first step in Western European law before the declaration of a “state of war”. There was only a clause about a “state of war,” without, however, stating any particulars as to its implementation, much less provisions governing it. The declaration of a “state of war” required a vote of the Sejm (Parliament), which Jaruzelski knew he could not possibly hope to obtain.[16] The alternative was to sidestep the required Sejm approval by issuing a decree of the State Council declaring a state of war and endowing the government with extensive emergency powers. This was the course of action opted for by Jaruzelski. However, the legal definition of a “state of war” required the existence of a threat to the sovereignty of the country: even a threat of civil war was not sufficient. It is therefore understandable that the State Council, while declaring a “state of war” (imposing martial law) in the night of December 12-13, 1981, invoked a need for “protection of the sovereignty and independence of the People’s Republic of Poland,”[17] aside from securing public order. General Jaruzelski himself alluded to the objective of the measure of protecting Poland’s sovereignty, thus implicitly suggesting a threat of Soviet military intervention. Based on historic precedent, this argument appeared so convincing at the time that even several decades later a large part of the Polish population still believes that Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law was indeed a necessary step to prevent a Soviet invasion.[18]

It is therefore no surprise that Wojciech Jaruzelski and Stanislaw Kania, past Secretary General of the PZPR, kept insisting ex post facto that there had existed a very real danger of Soviet military intervention that they had been able to avert only by their drastic measure of imposing martial law, which also had the consequence of sealing-off Polish borders. One needs to understand that the version of events as described in their memoirs and later interviews was necessarily skewed towards self-defense against the unfavorable judgment of posterity that they anticipated. Their self-serving testimonies before a Polish parliamentary commission were a readily transparent play to assure their survival—Jaruzelski was, in fact, on trial at the time for crimes committed by his government under martial law (including the unlawful detention of some 9,000 opposition activists and the deaths of workers during crack-downs on strikes by army and police[19]), and he could very well expect to face a court martial under a charge of high treason. What is surprising, though, is that the threat of Soviet intervention was also exaggerated by an insider of the Polish armed forces, U.S. spy Colonel Kuklinski. And yet, looking at the precarious position of a military spy who had been sentenced to death in absentia by a Polish court martial in 1984,[20] it is again understandable that a man who knew he would be executed upon discovery was trying to make his contribution to U.S. intelligence as valuable as possible, not only by passing on actual military and technical plans to the tune of some 40,000 pages, but also by sounding a heightened alarm whenever there was a chance of dramatic events actually taking place. His urgent letter of December 4, 1980[21] is just one such example: based on mere hearsay of other officers, he presented contingency plans for a Warsaw Pact intervention as actual developments to be forthcoming within a matter of a few days. The CIA’s analysis[22] showed that Kuklinski’s reports were not taken quite at face value: comparing his account with other intelligence sources, including spy satellite photographic reconnaissance, the CIA’s reaction was rather lukewarm. The facts including limited accumulation of Soviet troops near the Eastern border and of East German build-up by Poland’s Western border could be interpreted as part of Warsaw Pact exercises[23] then in progress, or as attempts to seal off the Polish borders in the event unrest were to spin out of control, but they were certainly not consistent with a major movement of troops comparable to those preceding the invasion of Afghanistan. Only following President Carter’s decision to issue statements warning both U.S. allies and the USSR against Soviet invasion[24] did the CIA issue a report that an invasion was to be expected, although it said it was not clear when the invasion would occur.[25] Significantly, NATO did not corroborate any such threats by evidence even on December 13 and 14, 1981.[26] Just like Jaruzelski, Kuklinski had his own head to protect as he needed the CIA to facilitate his safe extrication to the U.S. For all these purposes, the advertised Soviet military scare was as powerful an argument with the American public as it was with Polish audiences.

Analysts such as Vojtech Mastny,[27] besides relying heavily on memoirs of actors personally involved in the events of 1980-81, most notably Kuklinski , Jaruzelski, and Kania, to support an often emotionally charged interpretation of the events of 1980-81 in Poland, also tend to mention Warsaw Pact meetings and Politburo minutes discussing a Warsaw Pact or Soviet military response to the increasing Polish threat to socialism. In retrospective analysis, it does make sense that the traditionally conservative communist regimes of East Germany and Czechoslovakia would call for a Soviet crackdown: they very likely believed that there was no other realistic way to prevent contagion by a “counterrevolutionary,” “anti-socialist” movement from spreading to other countries of the communist bloc including their highly vulnerable selves. Both the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia had experienced Soviet intervention in the past.[28] Therefore it is also not entirely inconceivable that they could wish for Poland to experience her own medicine this time around.[29] Unfortunately, there is not much if any confirmable evidence that other Warsaw Pact countries ever demanded a Soviet intervention in Poland, or that Brezhnev insisted on it but somehow did not receive approval from his own Politburo.[30] It is also worth noting that, while known hardliners Erich Honecker and Todor Zhivkov did, in fact, call for decisive “administrative measures” (read: a military crackdown) at the much-cited Warsaw Pact meeting of December 5, 1980, every participant at that meeting stressed that any measures involving the use of force needed to be carried out by Polish units acting alone.[31] On the other hand, the Soviet Union as the sole power believed to pose a real threat to Polish sovereignty, demanded a political solution. To be sure, the Polish leadership was roundly criticized for its perceived lack of decisiveness and for too many compromises accommodating the “counterrevolutionary” opposition forces represented by Solidarity—but there no real evidence that the Soviet Union threatened Poland with a military intervention.

Of course, one might assume that threats were understood to be implicit, and this argument does carry a certain weight. Brezhnev’s policy was at all times to keep ambiguity about how far liberalization—or destabilization—could go before the Soviet Union would lose patience. However, if the Kremlin had, in fact, been seriously considering military intervention, it is wholly inconceivable that the Politburo would not have discussed it, or at the very least have mentioned it during one of its meetings. And, yet, the entire evidence of hitherto declassified documents, especially the Suslov Commission file,[32] does not reveal any tangible indications that the Politburo was actually envisioning and preparing for an invasion.[33] However, what the Politburo documents do show was that the Soviet Union was busy giving notably detailed orders to the Polish leadership on how to handle the crisis, including urging Jaruzelski to staff key positions in the government with trusted and disciplined military officers[34] and to implement martial law before the Solidarity movement would gain too much momentum. Soviet documents do not show Jaruzelski fighting to prevent the sovereignty of his country—in fact, they show Jaruzelski himself requesting a Soviet military backup,[35] which the Politburo repeatedly outright denied[36] while it prodded him impatiently to take decisive action at long last to crack down on the civil unrest and disobedience caused by Solidarity.[37] After the Kremlin’s initial enthusiasm for Jaruzelski, who was expected to restore order in Poland,[38] Brezhnev and his entourage grew increasingly restive and disappointed with the time it took him to implement the Soviet plan of quenching growing unrest through exclusive reliance on Polish forces. Especially irritating to Kremlin was the fact that Jaruzelski tried to use the situation to extract concessions in the realm of economic aid in exchange for obeying Soviet directives with regard to imposition of martial law.[39] The implementation of martial law had been long prepared, both in terms of legal paperwork and administrative structures, not to mention military and secret police plans that included previously rehearsed drills. In summary, the overwhelming weight of the evidence shows that it had actually been Jaruzelski himself who, however “indirectly,” had clearly requested—but equally clearly failed to receive—Soviet “military assistance.” It turned out that the Mikoyan Doctrine, originally formulated to protect Soviet interests, found woefully few sympathizers among the endangered communist leaders of other Eastern Bloc nations.