Poland in 1956 - New Interpretations of the Social Protest and Political Crisis
On Wednesday, September 19, Pawel Machcewicz, WWICS Public Policy scholar, and a former WWICS fellow, discussed his research in the causes, effects, and developments of the Polish 1956 events. He analyzed the situation from a social, grass roots, level, moving beyond the initial studies of top level politics and into the effects elicited by the reaction of the popular masses to the events taking place in the spring, summer and autumn of 1956.
Pawel argued that while Stalin's death did not lead to immediate liberalization of the regime in Poland, the years to follow demonstrated a move away from the status quo provoked mainly by the demands of social movements. The spring of 1956 became a pivotal point in the process of de-Stalinization. Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin's legacy was circulated widely both among the Polish party elite and, at least at the beginning, among the Polish people. Only after three weeks after the initial release, was the speech restricted to party activists. The publicity, which it received in that short period of time, produced certain social effects, mainly demands for democratization, including an appeal for the return to power of Wladyslaw Gomulka, overt criticism of the dependence on the Soviet Union, and an interest in regaining eastern territories lost in WW II.
In June 1956 Poznan and the Wielkopolska region became the arena of public unrest against the "handicapped" social conditions, resulting from low salaries, unjust taxation and poor local governance. Workers from the Cegielski locomotive factory marched in protest of the economic conditions. Social slogans: "We want bread," quickly became political: "Down with the Red Bourgeoisie," "We want free elections." The upheaval reached a new dimension as protestors seized a radio transmission van and broadcast the demonstration live. Overcome by the momentum of the movement, workers stormed the Communist Party headquarters and besieged the Public Security building. The riot was put down by open fire against the demonstrators. Mass arrests and public trials followed.
The "battle for Poznan" convinced the Polish Communist Party leadership that decisive measures were needed in order to avoid disaster. Wladyslaw Gomulka returned as a party leader in 1956. His flexible approach to politics assured that the demands of the anti-Soviet social movements be met in a manner that would not provoke a military intervention in Poland. The nationalistic sentiment of the revolts dominated the political scene. Gomulka used this sentiment to channel the upheavals in a direction that was not perceived as a threat to the Soviet domination in Poland.
It was in the end Gomulka's ability as a politician that saved Poland from the same fate Hungary was to experience shortly thereafter. Using nationalist themes, Gomulka channeled the reforming desires of the population away from anti-communism and toward a limited anti-soviet, and general anti-Stalinist direction, effectively creating what Pawel Machcewicz called a "controlled, channeled revolution." Even later, Gomulka would effectively use the nationalist themes to solidify his control over both party and government institution, something that continued into 1957, until he felt confident that he had effectively defeated all challengers.