December 17 marks 51 years since Poland’s communist rulers used the military and tanks to violently suppress strikes of Polish workers who were protesting difficult living conditions, exacerbated by increased food prices introduced by the regime.
Piotr Brzeziński, Ph.D., a historian at the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) in Poland, talked to The Epoch Times about the circumstances that led to the massacre of Polish workers striking in December 1970. Brzeziński is also an author and co-author of several books about the history of communist-era Poland including two books about the massacre.
Why Workers Went on Strike
On Dec. 14, 1970, shipyard workers in Poland’s coastal region went on strike to protest a price increase of food, fuel, and construction materials.
At that time, an average Pole spent half of their earnings on food so the price increase announced two days earlier not long before Christmas made the situation very difficult, Brzeziński said adding that the increase in food prices was significant, ranging from a dozen to a few dozen percent, depending on the product or assortment.
“This was due to the system that prevailed in Poland at that time, i.e. real socialism where all prices were decided by the state. There was no capitalist economy there; you could not go to a cheaper store because all prices were centrally set.”
“Real socialism” was a term coined by communist authorities in the Soviet Union and Poland to describe the economic system adopted by the communist bloc that had not yet evolved into full-fledged communism.
“What was then in Poland, was actually an authoritarian system … where the state was the main employer and dictated all working and living conditions to citizens,” Brzeziński explained, adding that real socialism was different from the socio-economic system adopted by the Scandinavian countries, which is often called socialism.
“In reality, the Nordic countries [Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark] practice mostly free-market economics paired with high taxes exchanged for generous government entitlement programs,” Jeffrey Dorfman, a professor of economics at the University of Georgia, wrote in Forbes.
Protesters in Poland were mostly young or very young people, Brzeziński said. “The youngest of the victims of December 1970 were children. They were 15-year-old boys who died in Gdynia—who simply wanted to see what was going on. Whereas most of the victims … were young men in their twenties.”
It was the baby boomer generation with not much life experience, the historian noted.
Strikes Broke Out
Brzeziński explained that the price increase was announced on Saturday, Dec. 12, 1970, when people did not have any chance to buy food at lower prices.
On Monday morning, workers at a shipyard in Gdańsk went on strike. Although the strike was organized spontaneously, workers were very calm and behaved peacefully.
“A crowd of people gathered in front of the shipyard’s management building and demanded an explanation [for the price hikes]. The [company] director told them that it was not his business and it was outside his competencies.”
The workers left the shipyard and marched through the city to the provincial headquarters of the communist party, officially called the Voivodeship Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party in Gdańsk.
The head of the provincial party committee was not present but one of his deputies started talking to workers calling them comrades—a term used by communists to refer to other communists—and also told them the price increases were outside of his competencies.
Disappointed workers left the communist party headquarters and some of them returned to the shipyard but some went to a local state-owned radio station to broadcast a message about the strike. The historian said that according to documents, the security forces intentionally damaged the radio equipment to prevent the message from transmitting.
The workers planned a rally at the party committee around 4 p.m. on the same day but this time a large group of unarmed strikers was attacked by police with truncheons, tear gas, and petards—for no reason. “From that moment on, street fights began in Gdańsk.”
Brzeziński believes that those riots could have been avoided if police forces had not attacked the workers, because police did not assault workers in at least two smaller towns where strikes also started.
“In these smaller towns, local officials simply listened to workers’ demands. They did not promise them anything except one thing—they would pass the demands to higher authorities. And it turned out it was enough for the workers to disperse.”
On the next day, strikes also broke out in two other big cities in the coastal region, Gdynia and Szczecin, as well as in some other cities in Poland.
In Gdynia, people knew how riot police acted in neighboring Gdańsk, so their strike was very peaceful without any violence, Brzeziński noted.
Meanwhile in Gdańsk, when the first person was shot by police on the second day of strikes—Dec. 15—the crowds got radicalized. They surrounded the provincial seat of the communist party and set that building on fire.
The building burned down but nobody was injured as all officials and employees of the communist party committee did not come to work after the riots in the city started.
Disappointed workers also went to the city police station in Gdańsk and tried to break into the building after they heard a rumor that their colleagues were being detained there.
At that time, with police permission, Lech Wałęsa appeared at a window of the police building and tried to calm the crowd down through a bullhorn—but to no avail.
At that moment, some strikers perceived Wałęsa as a traitor for his action, but on the other hand he called for calm and prudence, so looking from a broader perspective, he acted in the common interest, the historian noted.
Wałęsa later co-founded Solidarity, the first trade union independent of the communist regime in the communist bloc. He became its chairman and was elected Poland’s president after the fall of communism.
“But the brutality of the police was so big that at that moment, no verbal arguments appealed to the demonstrators, because they saw how their colleagues were killed or injured. The violence used by police bred violence on the side of the demonstrators.”
“There were many people beaten, wounded on both sides … The policemen had truncheons and starting December 15 used firearms, while the demonstrators defended themselves using everything they could get their hands on such as stones, planks, tools that they had on them. These were already classic street fights.”
“Each time, these fights were initiated by the so-called law enforcement forces, which at this point did not maintain order, but only aggravated the situation.”
Workers Attempt to Negotiate
Brzeziński described to The Epoch Times what happened on the second day of the strikes.
Workers from a shipyard in neighboring Gdynia not only went on strike but also formed a kind of inter-factory strike committee in order to coordinate strikes in other state-run companies.
Workers’ representatives came up with a set of demands and tried to present them to a city committee of the communist party— officially called the City Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party—but the committee head, seeing approaching workers, fled to the building of the naval command.
Workers then went to city hall where they talked to the city president who promised to pass workers’ demands to higher authorities. He assigned a place with a typewriter for workers where they could write down their demands and signed a written agreement with the workers but was criticized later by his superiors for negotiating with them.
Brzeziński also noted that among the workers’ demands was a postulate to make trade unions independent of the communist regime. It was not clear whether strikers envisioned the creation of new trade unions or wanted only to reform the existing ones, which obeyed the regime’s orders instead of protecting workers–but the idea itself scared the regime.
“Therefore, the reaction of the authorities was very brutal and they decided to drown the workers participating in the December protest in blood.”
On the second day of strikes Poland’s communist party head Władysław Gomułka—de facto leader of Poland—permitted the use of firearms to quell the demonstrations, but earlier, riot police had already started using firearms in Gdańsk, because they were afraid of the demonstrators.
During the night of Dec. 15 to 16, riot police arrested and beat worker representatives in Gdynia. After brutal interrogations, some workers renounced the strike and cooperated with police, aggravating the situation.
Gdynia workers, outraged by the arrest of strike leaders, began to rebel. The central communist authorities responded by blocking access to the shipyard and port in Gdynia, on the third day of the strikes.
Despite the blockade on day three of the strikes, Deputy Prime Minister Stanisław Kociołek gave a speech that evening, broadcast on radio and television.
Kociołek called on all workers to return to work the next day, telling them that the situation in both Gdańsk and Gdynia was under control and they could go back to work.
Brzeziński interviewed a number of people who worked at that time at the shipyard or other enterprises nearby. They told him that they felt assured by Kociołek that they could safely return to work and they wanted to return, especially because they were not paid while on strike.
Most of the workers in Gdynia took commuter rail to get to work and they did so on Dec. 17, the fourth day after the strikes broke out.
Every few minutes, many people got off the train at a small station near the shipyard but to their surprise, the area on the other side of the overpass for pedestrians was blocked by the military and police forces as well as a tank and armored personnel carriers. Messages urging people to go home were broadcast through bullhorns.
The armed forces stood near the station platform blocking the road that led to the shipyard and other workplaces nearby, which prevented people from getting to work. Brzeziński said the shipyard, the port, and other plants nearby employed about 30 thousand people in total at that time.
There was also not enough space between the platform and the military forces for people to quickly disperse and go back as they were asked to. To get back to the platform people either needed to cross railway tracks or use a very narrow overpass.
“At around 6 a.m., shots were fired. A dozen or so people died there. They weren’t really the people who wanted to organize any demonstrations. They had in their backpacks and bags sandwiches, some drinks; they were going to work. They got ready for the whole day of hard work [but] they never reached their workplace. … After these shots, people rushed to escape through railway tracks, through the overpass which was very narrow … there was no chance for those thousands of people to retreat expeditiously.”
“Unfortunately, we also know from documents and reports that soldiers and policemen shot people who were running away. Ballistic analysis and autopsy reports show that many of the victims of December 1970 in Gdynia were shot in the back, in the back of the head, so they were not the people who were attacking. They were running away.”
As a result, 18 people were killed in Gdynia, while in four other coastal cities—Gdańsk, Gdynia, Szczecin, and Elbląg— a total of 45 people were killed, and 1165 wounded, the historian said.
“The authorities decided to cover up tracks of their crimes and a good example of it were night burials of the victims just after the strikes were pacified. The families of the killed were often not even given a chance to prepare for the funeral properly and with dignity. For example, they were informed in the evening of a given day that a funeral would be held in a moment and they would either be given a ride to a burial place or the funeral would take place without them.”
Andrzej Gwiazda, a prominent anti-communist opposition leader, one of the founders and former Vice President of Solidarity, the independent trade union that led Poland to the overthrow of communism, participated in workers’ actions that led to burning the building of the provincial committee of the communist party in Gdańsk.
Gwiazda commented on the December 1970 massacre in a video on Dziennik Baltycki: “Gdynia— it was revenge for Gdańsk. It was Gdynia that paid with blood for our rather careless actions. But the [December] 1970 [strikes] showed that unorganized protests did not bring any lasting success.”
Brzeziński noted that the brutality in suppressing the strikes was much greater in Gdynia where no street fighting or property damage took place than in Gdańsk where such things happened.
“[In Gdynia], organized workers who were aware of their rights and made specific demands were the greatest threat for the authorities of that time, much greater than any spontaneous street demonstration whose participants did not have any postulates or program. The fact that the inter-factory strike committee was established [in Gdynia] was a phenomenon at the level of Polish history. In my opinion, this is why the response of the communist authorities was so brutal. They got much more scared of the calm workers of Gdynia than of those who fought, threw stones at the policemen, and fought with them in the streets of Gdańsk.”
After the fall of communism in Poland, 12 people were brought to justice for the December 1970 massacre.
The trial started in 1995, and the court finally ruled after 18 years in April 2013, when only three defendants remained, Brzeziński told Onet.pl.
One of them, Kociołek, who called on strikers to return to work, was acquitted, and two officers of the army who gave orders to shoot the workers in Gdańsk and Gdynia were sentenced to two years, suspended for four years, Brzeziński said. “It can therefore be said that, in principle, no one was punished.”