Poznan Workers' Riots

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Poznan Workers' Riots

Poland 1956


On the morning of 28 June 1956, about 16,000 factory workers in Poznan, Poland, walked off their jobs and staged an impromptu street march to protest their low wages. The action quickly turned into a mass protest by 100,000 citizens of Poznan against the communist regime that governed the country under the close supervision of the Soviet Union. The mass protests were put down by violent repression that left an estimated 80 demonstrators dead. The incident also led to a power struggle within the Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, PZPR), which governed the country as its only recognized political entity. In the end, public pressure plus the support of some key PZPR officials brought Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had been silenced in 1951, back into power in October 1956. The appointment was at first opposed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who allowed it to go forward only after he was convinced of Gomulka's willingness to keep Poland firmly within the Soviet orbit. Gomulka's ascension to power on the basis of public support was a stunning development for the Soviet Bloc and influenced the abortive Hungarian Revolution that began on 23 October 1956. It also led to reforms within Poland, as Gomulka eased censorship and other repressive measures against the populace.


  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1951: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are convicted and sentenced to death for passing U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets.
  • 1953: The people of East Berlin revolt against communist rule, but the uprising is suppressed by Soviet and East German tanks.
  • 1956: Elvis Presley appears on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town, where he performs "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender" before a mostly female audience. Nationwide, 54 million people watch the performance, setting a new record.
  • 1956: By now firmly established as the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev denounces the crimes of his predecessor and mentor, Josef Stalin.
  • 1956: First aerial testing of the hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll. The blast is so powerful—the equivalent of 10 million tons of TNT—that it actually results in the infusion of protons to atomic nuclei to create two new elements, einsteinium and fermium, which have atomic numbers of 99 and 100, respectively.
  • 1956: Egypt seizes control of the Suez Canal, and Israel attacks Egypt on the Sinai Peninsula. Britain and France intervene against Egypt and only relent under U.S. pressure.
  • 1961: President Eisenhower steps down, warning of a "military-industrial complex" in his farewell speech, and 43year-old John F. Kennedy becomes the youngest elected president in U.S. history. Three months later, he launches an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
  • 1966: In August, Mao Zedong launches the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," which rapidly plunges China into chaos as armed youths plunder the countryside, rooting out suspected foreign collaborators and anti-Chinese elements. Along with rifles and other weapons, these Red Guards are armed with copies of Mao's "Little Red Book."
  • 1971: East Pakistan declares its independence, as the new nation of Bangladesh, from East Pakistan (now simply known as Pakistan); civil war, exacerbated by famine and a cholera epidemic in Bangladesh, ensues.

Event and Its Context

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin declared to his Western allies that free elections would take place in Poland after the end of World War II. It was an empty promise; the Soviets quickly engineered a series of rigged elections, combined with outright repression, that eliminated their political opposition. After the democratic and Western-oriented Polish Peasant Party (PSL) was crushed in rigged elections on 19 January 1947, a one-party system under the Polish United Workers' Party—as the Polish Workers Party was called after absorbing the Polish Socialist Party in 1948—governed the state without question. The PZPR would remain in power until 1989.

The chairman of the PZPR, Boleslaw Bierut, faced a host of problems in rebuilding Poland after the devastation of World War II. With six million casualties, over 15 percent of the country's population had perished during the war. Two-fifths of the country's production capacity had been destroyed along with a third of the nation's wealth. Most of its major cities lay in ruins. The Soviet-backed Temporary Government of National Unity moved to nationalize production immediately, and industrial operations with more than 50 employees came under direct state control in January 1946. The PZPR also started a collectivization program in agriculture; although such efforts in Poland always lagged behind other Eastern-bloc countries, about one-quarter of the country's land was collectivized by 1955. To staunch political and grassroots opposition to its programs for industry and agriculture, the PZPR expanded its secret police force to 200,000 agents by the early 1950s.

Stalinist Poland

The PZPR injected itself into civil society on an unprecedented scale in postwar Poland. Pro-Soviet propaganda influenced all levels of education, and university instruction in English was abolished save for one program at Warsaw University. Although funding for the arts expanded, cultural programs were used to glorify the communist worker-hero, the friendship and guidance of the Soviet Union, and the great gains made by Poland under the PZPR. The Roman Catholic Church was banned from conducting activities in the nation's schools and in 1953 the state demanded loyalty oaths from all clergy. For his opposition to the plan, the PZPR jailed Poland's religious leader, Primate and Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski.

In emulation of the Soviet Union, Poland implemented its first Six-Year Plan for industrial production in 1950 under PZPR official Hilary Minc. Like the Soviet-style command economy, Poland's blueprint for progress emphasized investment in heavy industries such as steel and iron works over the production of consumer items. Results were measured in production figures, and success was gauged by meeting established quotas; quality and productivity gains were not factored into the equation. The regime's proudest accomplishment was the construction of the massive Lenin Steel Works at Nowa Huta, a planned suburb adjacent to the university and cultural center of Krakow. The site was supposed to bring peasant workers fully into the industrial age but instead became a symbol of the alienation and inefficiency of a centrally planned economy.

After the death of Stalin in March 1953, demonstrations broke out in neighboring Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic. To forestall violence within Poland, the PZPR cautiously allowed some popular discontent to surface. Some censorship controls were lifted and articles critical of the Soviets began to appear in the press. A few hard-liners in the PZPR were ousted from office, and others who had previously been purged were released from jail. In January 1955 the PZPR even released a public critique of the excesses committed during the previous 10 years. The criticism increased after Bierut's death, which occurred while he was attending the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow on 12 March 1956. The PZPR took advantage of Bierut's demise by blaming him for much of the popular discontent; it also began circulating copies of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech that denounced Stalinism before the Congress.

The Poznan Uprising

Following Bierut's death, the PZPR immediately installed Edward Ochab as its new leader. Ochab was soon engulfed in the first widespread protests that the regime had experienced in the postwar era. On 28 June 1956 nearly 16,000 workers at the Hipolit Cegielski engineering plant (also known as the ZISPO works) walked off the job to demand higher wages and lower production quotas. Workers in the part of the plant that produced locomotives had led the grievances; with parts delivered to their section late and incomplete, meeting their production quota had been impossible that month. After a workers' delegation to Warsaw had been rejected, strikers marched to the city's center on the morning of 28 June. The crowd grew to include about 100,000 Poznan citizens, a full third of its population. Many in the crowd carried the national flag, sang religious songs, and chanted the impromptu slogan of the march, "Bread and Freedom," as they massed in Wolnosci Square.

Riots broke out when some of the demonstrators attacked a radio station that was jamming broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and the BBC; others attacked the city jail and freed the prisoners. The scene turned violent when part of the crowd attacked the PZPR headquarters and built a bonfire out of police files; the secret police fired into the crowd and turned them back. For the next several hours, various battles broke out throughout the city, with the police sometimes siding with the demonstrators in protest against the regime and its policies. Estimates of the final death toll that day ranged from 53 to 80 victims, with at least 300 injured. The fighting continued through the next day and was finally extinguished in the early morning hours of 30 July.

Once the army had quashed the uprising, the PZPR moved to place the blame for the incident on secret agents in league with Poland's capitalist enemies. It abruptly changed course, however, and in the weeks following the Poznan uprising announced that workers' councils would take a more active role in managing their factories, wages would rise, and industrial production goals would be revised. The split in the PZPR's outlook also affected its leadership, with reformist elements arguing for a return to power of Wladyslaw Gomulka. Gomulka had previously lost to Bierut in a power struggle and was jailed between 1951 and 1953. A committed communist, Gomulka was nevertheless viewed as more independent-minded than other PZPR leaders. His commitment to a "Polish Road to Socialism" was disturbing to the country's Soviet handlers.

Realizing that they had little chance of electing Gomulka to the PZPR chairmanship, his supporters conducted a public campaign for his elevation through the workers' councils that they controlled in factories across the nation. The workers' meetings spilled over into carefully staged, public mass rallies in support of Gomulka's leadership. In this tense atmosphere, the PZPR met for its Eighth Plenum on 19 October 1956. Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders also attended the meeting, which took place as the Soviets massed their tanks on the Polish border for a possible invasion. Other Soviet troops within the country started to head toward Warsaw. After Khrushchev expressed his rage that the PZPR had tried to change its leadership without consulting with him, he met privately with Gomulka throughout the night. After Gomulka convinced the Soviet leader of his sincerity in keeping Poland in the Soviet bloc, Khrushchev backed down from his threats. Gomulka was elected first secretary of the party on 21 October 1956, concluding a dramatic shift in Poland's political fortunes. It was the first time that popular opinion had proved decisive in a change of leadership in the Eastern bloc.

The "Polish October"

The Poznan uprising and "Polish October" also influenced events throughout the region. Just as Gomulka was being confirmed as Poland's leader, a protest in support of Poland's defiance took place in Budapest. A huge crowd in the Hungarian capital paid homage to a statue of General Jozef Bem, a Pole who had fought for Hungarian independence in 1848. On 24 October 1956 the demonstrations grew violent, and the Hungarian Revolution had begun. It was crushed by Soviet tanks on 4 November and served as a reminder to Gomulka how close his nation had been to invasion.

The Polish October of 1956 resulted in few concrete reforms. Capitalizing on his political momentum, Gomulka secured an agreement from the Soviets to repatriate Polish war prisoners who were still being held. Gomulka also managed to send some of the worst of the hard-line advisors back to the Soviet Union. Cardinal Wyszynski was released from jail in October 1956, and censorship was applied with a lighter hand than in other Eastern-bloc nations. Yet the country's centrally planned economy remained hopelessly inefficient, and wage gains were soon wiped out by inflation. Civil liberties remained largely repressed; combined with the economic mismanagement of the country, Poland witnessed another round of disturbances in 1968 and 1970, when Gomulka was thrown out of office.

Key Players

Bierut, Boleslaw (1892-1956): After Bierut led the Polish Communist Party resistance effort during World War II, Josef Stalin chose him to become Poland's first postwar leader in rigged elections. Bierut's leadership prompted the rebuilding of a substantial portion of the country's housing and infrastructure; however, the period also witnessed the gradual restriction of political freedom through a series of rigged elections and outright repression. Bierut's death while attending the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow in March 1956 led to a year of political instability that culminated in the "Polish October" of that year.

Gomulka, Wladyslaw (1905-1982): Gomulka became secretary of the Polish Communist Party in 1943. He lost out to Bierut in a power struggle in 1951 and served two years in prison. Gomulka later returned to power after Bierut's death when the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) named him secretary of the party in response to calls for reform during the Polish October of 1956. Gomulka enjoyed some genuine support in the 1950s and early 1960s as he eased censorship and other restrictions on civil liberties in Poland. Faced with renewed protests against the regime from 1968 to 1970, however, Gomulka ordered reprisals that made him a reviled figure. He was ousted from office in 1970.

Wyszynski, Cardinal Stefan (1901-1981): Ordained as a Catholic priest in 1924, Wyszynski served in the underground resistance during World War II. In 1946 he was appointed bishop of Lublin and in 1949 became the primate of Poland and archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw. After Wyszynski was named a cardinal in 1953, Poland's Communist rulers jailed him for speaking out against government interference in church affairs and the spiritual life of the nation. Wyszynski served three years and was released after Wladyslaw Gomulka came to power in 1956. Wyszynski remained a voice of the opposition until his death in 1981.

See also: Hungarian Revolution and Workers Councils; Solidarity Emerges.



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—Timothy G. Borden