Gierek, Edward (1913–2001)

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GIEREK, EDWARD (1913–2001)


Polish Communist leader.

Edward Gierek was born in 1913 in the village of Porąbka near Dąbrowa Górnicza, in the Russian part of Poland. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had been coal miners; all died in mining catastrophes. His widowed mother worked hard to raise him and his sister. In 1920 she remarried, and in 1923 the family migrated to France in search of job. Edward completed the French elementary school and, at the age of thirteen, started working as a miner. In 1931 he joined the French Communist Party, and after a strike in 1934, he was deported back to Poland. After two years of military service, having married and unsuccessfully sought a stable job, he left Poland again, this time for the coal mines in Belgium. There he joined the local Communist Party; during the German occupation he was involved in the Resistance. In 1945 he joined a pro-communist Polish association and was elected the chairman of an immigrant umbrella organization. A young worker and skillful organizer, who had not been involved in any of the prewar factions or stained by their ideological "deviations," he attracted the attention of the Polish Communist Party headquarters in Warsaw. In 1948 he was called back to Poland and assigned to the party provincial committee in Katowice.

In Upper Silesia his miner background helped him advance through the party ranks. He became a member of the Central Committee (CC) and director of the CC department for heavy industry beginning in 1954, a CC secretary in 1956 and, briefly, a Politburo member in 1956. In 1952 he became a deputy in the Sejm or Diet. To the career in Warsaw he preferred Upper Silesia, where he returned as the first secretary of the provincial party committee in the period 1957–1970. In this most industrialized region of Poland, with the largest party organization, Gierek built a solid power base. He earned a reputation as a pragmatic manager, keeping distance from intra-party factional struggles. He kept the CC secretary position, and in 1959 he regained his seat in the Politburo. During the student rebellion of 1968 he firmly supported Władysław Gomułka, as well as the "anti-Zionist campaign" and reprisals against the students.

When strikes and bloody riots followed an increase in food prices in December 1970, Gierek replaced Gomułka as the party's first secretary. He managed to calm the unrest, promising economic reforms, withdrawing from the price increases, and replacing Gomułka's men in the party leadership and government with younger technocrats. They launched ambitious plans of industrial expansion and technological modernization, combined with significant increases in individual consumption. Investments, wages, and consumption actually began to grow rapidly, thanks to the importation of Western technology, Western credits, and the Soviet blessing under the detente era. Gierek also improved relations with the Catholic Church, liberalized cultural policy, and allowed for more contacts with the West. He paid many visits to Western capitals and hosted many Western leaders, while enjoying very good relations with the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Yet the economic miracle did not last long. Since the mid-1970s, the consequences of a lack of structural reforms combined with the economic downturn in the West put increasing strains on Poland. Attempts to remedy the situation through economic maneuvers (including price increases) did not improve matters but brought riots to Radom and Ursus (1976), which were violently suppressed. Through late 1970s, foreign debt, food shortages, and queues in shops grew. Gierek and the regime were losing authority, especially since the election of the Polish pope John Paul II in 1978. Now dependent on Western credit, the regime tolerated emerging opposition groups. Another price increase in summer 1980 set off protests across the country, which culminated in a massive strike in the coastal cities. To avoid the bloody scenario of 1970, the party leadership accepted strikers' demands, including the right to strike and the independent Solidarity trade unions, and removed Gierek from power a few days later. He and his friends were removed from the Politburo, the CC, and the party and were blamed for all the trouble and the various alleged abuses. When Poland's military leader Wojciech Jaruzelski introduced martial law the next year, he even interned Gierek and some of his collaborators for several months.

Through the 1980s Gierek remained politically marginalized. In the 1990s, when the social costs of economic transformation made many Poles nostalgic about the "old good days" of his rule, Gierek regained much popular sympathy, despite reminders from economists of the debt that Poland was continuing to pay back. Until his death in 2001 Gierek lived in his native region, where he published his memoirs Przerwana dekada (1990) and Replika (1990).

See alsoEastern Bloc; Gomułka, Władysław; Jaruzelski, Wojciech; Poland; Solidarity; Warsaw Pact.


Lepak, Keith John. Prelude to Solidarity: Poland and the Politics of the Gierek Regime. New York, 1988.

Rolicki, Janusz. Edward Gierek. Zycie i narodziny legendy. Warsaw, 2002.

Dariusz Stola