Gomulka, Wladyslaw (1905–1982)

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Polish Communist leader.

Born on 6 February 1905 near Krosno, in the Austrian part of Poland, Władysław Gomułka was the son of an oil industry worker and socialist party member. At the age of fourteen he had to leave school and start working. He joined a socialist youth organization but tended toward more radical ideas, and in 1926 he joined the Communist Party of Poland (KPP). As he later wrote, his "faith in the party and in the socialist idea was most similar to the Roman Catholics' faith in God and the holy Church" (Pamiętniki, Vol. 1). This devotion encompassed his private life, which he shared with Zofia Szoken, a party member since 1921. His party activity focused on trade unions, he visited the Soviet Union for trade union congresses. Under police observation since 1927, he was arrested several times and eventually sentenced to prison in 1933. Temporarily released in 1934, he fled to the USSR, where he obtained political instruction and intelligence training in the Lenin International School. He returned illegally to Poland and resumed his party activity, which ended with a seven-year prison sentence in 1936.

Imprisonment likely saved his life (as he avoided the Soviet Great Purges), and the war brought him release from prison. In the 1939–1941 period he lived in the Soviet zone of occupation but did not play any political role there (albeit he joined the Soviet party). After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 he moved to his native Krosno, and in 1942 he was called to Warsaw to strengthen the leadership of the new Polish Workers Party (PPR). Following the mysterious murders of two consecutive party leaders in 1943 he became the PPR secretary general. As comrade "Wiesław" (his nom de guerre) he proved his skills as leader and as conspirator.

Beginning in late 1944 he combined the top position in the party with that of the first vice-premier and minister of the new, Soviet-backed government. He served alongside Bolesław Bierut, a key figure in the new regime. He supported the brutal crushing of the opposition but called for a "Polish path to socialism" rather than a crude imitation of Soviet patterns (collectivization in particular), and he tempered his comrades' revolutionary zeal. Fully loyal but not servile to Moscow, he attempted to restrain Soviet excesses in Poland and even dared to criticize Joseph Stalin for his policy on Yugoslavia in 1947. His fall came the following year with the noisy campaign against "right-wing nationalist deviation." He did not enter the Politburo of the now monopolist Polish United Workers Party (PZPR), was gradually removed from his positions, and was eventually arrested (along with his wife) in 1951. Gomułka spent more than three years in isolation in a secret prison of the Ministry of Public Security, waiting for a planned show trial (similar to those of László Rajk or Rudolf Slánský). Yet, for reasons not clear, the trial did not come; he survived until the fall of 1954 when destalinization brought his release.

In 1956, with the rise of social unrest and intra-party factional struggles, Gomułka's restoration came. In October he returned to the political scene, elevated straight to the top position of the PZPR first secretary. His image as a "national communist" and as "Stalin's prisoner" gave him great popularity, a position further strengthened by his open critique of Stalinist "errors and deformations," the sending back of Soviet so-called advisors (who were actually supervisors of those advised), and the discontinuation of forced collectivization and the war against the Catholic Church. Decreases in military spending and some economic reforms resulted in an increase in real wages and the supply of consumer goods. However, when the regime restabilized, Gomułka purged the party of "revisionists," tightened the grip on the media, returned to the old path in economic policies (except in agriculture), and renewed attacks on the church. He closed the period of brutal sovietization and quasi-revolutionary turmoil but did his best to keep Poland a one-party police state, a command economy, and a Soviet satellite.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, when stability turned into stagnation, popular frustration rose and his authority eroded. In spring 1968, to pacify student protests, Gomułka approved brutal police reprisals and the scapegoating of Jews in an antiZionist campaign; in the summer of that year he warmly supported the Warsaw Pact military intervention in Czechoslovakia. In December 1970, right after signing the treaty with the Federal Republic of Germany—his major success in foreign affairs—he sent troops to crush the wave of labor unrest in Gdańsk and Szczecin, a decision that resulted in more than forty people killed and one thousand wounded. The crisis raised serious concerns in Moscow, which allowed younger Politburo members to replace Gomułka with Gierek. Forced to retire, Gomułka lost all political influence, his popularity long gone. He died in 1982.

See alsoBierut, Bolesław; Eastern Bloc; Gierek, Edward; Poland; Slánský Trial; Warsaw Pact.


Primary Sources

Gomułka, Władisław. Pamiętniki. 2 vols. Warsaw, 1994.

Secondary Sources

Bethell, Nicholas. Gomulka, His Poland and His Communism. London, 1969.

——. Le communisme polonaise 1918–1971. Gomulka et sa succession. Paris, 1971.

Werblan, Andrzej. Władysław Gomułka. Sekretarz Generalny PPR. Warsaw, 1988.

Dariusz Stola

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Gomulka, Wladyslaw (1905–1982)

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