146. One More Reason For Communism's Collapse: Television In Poland, 1951-1989

By
Robert Ponichtera

The Polish United Workers' Party (PUWP) believed television had a specific function in socialist society. From the earliest days of the medium, party leaders sought to use TV as a vehicle to transmit socialism to the masses. They found out, however, that television was a very problematic device. The inability to control television fully and completely (try though the party may), and perhaps more importantly, the party's misunderstanding of the myriad functions of TV in society, prevented it from achieving its goals. In fact, one can even suggest that the government's television policy was a contributing factor in the collapse of the Polish socialist state.

There are several limitations on analyzing television as a social indicator in Poland. First of all, the foremost instrument of government propaganda for a good portion of the period in question was radio, not TV. In addition, before 1970, there were relatively few televisions in the country (3 million for a population of 36 million in 1968). Only one channel broadcast a few hours a day, and its quality, due to technical limitations, left much to be desired. Finally, the broadcasting area didn't include all of Poland until the early 1970s. Yet despite these drawbacks, party members recognized the enormous potential of the medium for conveying ideas to the masses. In fact, evidence shows that the governing members of PUWP looked to TV as a panacea for social ills. For example, in 1960 a parliamentary commission issued a statement claiming that television would bring culture to the masses, and would also bring village and city closer together, thus helping to eliminate what it called "the provincial behavior" of people living in districts removed from Warsaw.

In the early days of Polish broadcasting, party leaders observed more successes than failures. TV launched various programs on economic and political topics, which surveys claimed were well-received by viewers. The medium also played an important role in coordinating and celebrating socialist holidays and commemorations. For the 20th anniversary of the Polish People's Republic, television contributed a year-long cycle of historical programming that stressed the role of the Polish Communist Party in the fight against the German occupier, the work of Polish Communists in the wider European resistance movement, and the development of the so-called reclaimed territories in western Poland.

Party leaders discovered, however, that their ability to influence the political attitudes of TV viewers tended to decrease over time. Why was this so? It is appropriate to suggest that the heads of Polish TV ignored more sophisticated theories of television, preferring instead to focus only on TV's purported ability to indoctrinate. In other words, the PUWP leadership mistakenly equated its monopoly of the medium with a monopoly on the truth. And this it did at its own peril. The same viewers who approved of television news in the 1960s began to have serious doubts about its veracity because of the reporting on events of political and social significance: the shootings of shipyard workers in December 1970, and the beatings of strikers in June 1976. Luckily for the institution of Polish television, however, these were disturbances at the local level. Residents of Krakow or Lublin, wary of the stilted and contrived language of the TV news in explaining the incidents, still had no way of confirming, or disputing, events taking place in Gdynia or Warsaw. The event that broke Polish TV, however, was Pope John Paul II's visit in June 1979. The pontiff criss-crossed Poland over a nine-day period, addressing hundreds of thousands of people in every major city. Polish television's awkward and clumsy attempt to censor the visit, by limiting the amount of coverage, by steering cameras away from the masses, even going to the point in one famous incident of keeping focused on a brick wall so as not to reveal the size of the crowd, was now taken by Polish viewers as a distasteful symbol of the government's falsehood. The continued inability of party authorities to control the perceptions of TV viewers in the aftermath of John Paul's visit is nothing new. Yet this inability precisely underlines the fundamental importance of attitudes and perceptions--of both ruling elites and society in general--in explaining the collapse of socialism in Poland. Simply put, the Communist government fell victim to its own propaganda planning. Having observed scattered successes in the years leading up to 1981, the highest government officials convinced themselves that an additional dose of political education would do the trick to defuse social tensions. When this failed, the government could only resort to sterile evocations to its strength, which just faded in meaning as time went on. Yet the PUWP had no choice in the matter--it had to continue its same old line. Its only other option was to begin an open dialogue with society, a shift that would not come until the government's collapse.

Dr. Ponichtera spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on November 12, 1997.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant