“All the Telephone and Telex Lines are Disconnected” – RFE and the 1981 Martial Law in Poland

Benedek Pál

“Citizens of the Polish People’s Republic! I turn to you today as a soldier, and as the head of the Polish government. I turn to you in a matter of supreme importance. Our country has found itself at the edge of abyss. The achievements of many generations, the house erected from Polish ashes, is being ruined. The structures of the state are ceasing to function.” These were the first lines of General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s speech aired 40 years ago at 6 am, on December 13, 1981. Jaruzelski, the country’s Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and First Secretary of the Polish United Worker’s Party, announced that after midnight a martial law had been imposed for the whole territory of Poland, and the Military Council of National Salvation (Wojskowa Rada Ocalenia Narodowego, WRON) was established, an extraconstitutional body aimed to restore “order.”

Forrás. [Source., or Boiling point] is a blog series by the Blinken OSA staff at the Hungarian news website 444.hu. Benedek Pál, currently a PhD student at CEU, is a former Assistant Archivist at Blinken OSA. His post on the 40th anniversary of the martial law in Poland originally appeared on osaarchivum.444.hu in Hungarian.

On that day, the military took over power in Poland, and basically sealed off the country from the outside world. Radio Free Europe (RFE), in the previous one and a half year, could access information on Polish affairs from a wide range of sources. After the Gdańsk agreement signed on August 31, 1980, which legalized the Solidarity free trade union, news in the Polish state media became much more pluralized and fact-based compared to other Eastern Bloc countries. Furthermore, a large contingent of foreign correspondents was present in the country, and the Polish opposition itself was sending dispatches to the West on a daily basis. After December 13, the most common phrase in RFE reports became, “little is known for certain.” Most of the Solidarity journalists were arrested, the remaining foreign press were struggling to gather reliable information, while the official TV, radio, and newspapers of the country were broadcasting propaganda. 

Photograph illegally distributed in 1982, documenting police action in Poland during the martial law of 1981–1983.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The morning of December 13, a Sunday, which otherwise came with “a bright sunshine, that made the snow-covered [Warsaw] glister” as The New York Times wrote, put an end to the 16-months-long “carnival of Solidarity.” The martial law outlawed the Solidarity free trade union, its leadership and many of its activists were arrested and interned. Just during the first night of martial law, more than 3,000 people were arrested, and the number grew to 5,000 by the end of the first week. The regime introduced several other measures; a night curfew, the ban on strikes and public gatherings—except religious services—, the suspension of all social organizations. The military took over the country’s communication and media networks, enterprises in strategic industrial sectors. All private phone and telex lines were cut off, mails were subjected to censorship. Although phone calls could be made through exchange operators, they would be interrupted, if authorities found their “content was threatening the security of the state.”

The Solidarity trade union, founded in the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard during the strikes of summer 1980, with its 10 million members, seriously challenged the authority of the Polish regime. As a social movement this vast, it was an unprecedented phenomenon in the Eastern Bloc. Solidarity followed a strategy described by Polish social scientist Jadwiga Staniszkis as “self-limiting revolution.” They did not question the one-party rule and Poland’s position in the Soviet sphere, however, their demands, such as the workers’ and social rights, the pluralization of the society, media freedom, and democratization through workers’ self-governance, turned out to be impossible to accommodate by the regime. Nevertheless, not just Solidarity’s demands, but also the growing impatience of the Soviet Union with the situation pushed Prime Minister Jaruzelski for a radical solution. 

Prior to the introduction of martial law, the 16 months of negotiations between the regime and the opposition led to a stalemate and the further escalation of the country’s grave economic and social crisis. The trajectory of these events is present in the daily dispatches the Solidarity Press Agency sent by telex to Radio Free Europe’s central office in Munich. The detailed reports contain accounts on the process of negotiations and the Solidarity congress held in September 1981, as well as on protests, strikes, the gradually more frequent food shortages, and the rising food prices.

Workstation at the Central News Department at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Munich. Dispatches came in through telex machines, a technology fundamental for press agencies before fax became popular.
(HU OSA 300-1-8 Records of RFE/RL, PR Photographic Files)

The series of telexes end on December 13, shortly after midnight. The preceding Saturday, Solidarity activists reported on the meeting of Solidarity’s National Commission held in the Gdańsk shipyard, where the leadership decided to push forward a general strike and a referendum in response to the regime’s plan to assign extraordinary powers to the government to tackle the crisis. However, the leadership did not know, that the decision on martial law had been made weeks before, and the unfolding of events had already started during the afternoon. The last dispatches on Saturday reported movement of military vehicles in the Gdańsk area, however, the activists could not gather more information. The very last telex was sent on Sunday, at 1:45 am, at this point the martial law was already in effect, and the Polish military took hold of the country. The journalist, who cannot be identified, wrote that the telex connections were not functioning, still the message went through, carrying a last alarming news on the beginning roundup of Solidarity activists. He or she ended the dispatch with the following:

“It is possible, that everything ends well, but I am afraid. Maybe today I will not sleep, it is horrible, for what they are capable, what are they doing with those people? I am working on this for longtime, but even I cannot comprehend how humans can be capable for such evil acts, and unfortunately the worst is yet to come. Let’s hope nothing happens with those good people. Greetings.”

Afterward, from Sunday, the RFE staff could only rely on two remaining sources from Poland: foreign correspondents or travellers, and Polish state media. While in the first days of martial law, all the telex and telephone lines were cut, journalists of major international news agencies (AP, UPI, Reuters) could fill in their dispatches through cable. Sunday and Monday, many ground reports were sent about streets patrolled by soldiers and the “calm on the surface.” However, by mid-week all the cables were disconnected, leaving foreign journalist unable to communicate with their Western centers. After one week, Polish authorities permitted correspondents to use one censored telex line, allowing them to submit reports exclusively based on news from state media. Due to the travel ban inside Poland and the difficulty to access sources, for Western media, eyewitness accounts of foreigners leaving Poland became valuable. Dispatches from other European cities were sent to Munich, detailing the experiences of, for instance, passengers of the Chopin express from Vienna, a Swedish boxing team arriving home from Norther Poland by ferry, and a Dutch lorry driver.

RFE summary on the Polish situation on December 15, 1981.
(HU OSA 300-50-1 Records of RFE/RL, Polish Unit)

The other source, the Polish state media, was easier to access, through the radio and press monitoring center in Munich. However, by putting it under military control, the official media in Poland was further restricted. From Sunday, two dailies remained available in the country; one was the official Party organ, Trybuna Ludu (People’s tribune), and the other was Żołnierz Wolności (Soldier of freedom), the official daily of the army. TV and radio channels were reduced to one, and TV announcers appeared on screen in military uniforms. The official narrative of the events emphasized that people were calm and welcomed the “restoration of order,” production in factories continued without problems. As one TV presenter put it, “on December 14, Poland once again became a country of working people.”

Most of the news sources echoed parts of General Jaruzelski’s speech. According to this, the martial law had saved the country from civil war and an economic collapse. For the situation, the blame was put on the radical leadership of Solidarity. An article from Trybuna Ludu, titled “Was the martial law necessary?,” argued that the military takeover was a last resort provoked by the opposition; as the author held, “if somebody asks whether the martial law was necessary, this question has to be directed to the Solidarity leadership.” Articles, similarly to Jaruzelski’s speech, were calling for a national unity and calm, in order the reforms to be continued. The latter was a crucial message of the Military Council; the leadership emphasized that the martial law did not mean a return to the mistakes of the pre-1980 era, and that the “Socialist renewal” did continue. No coincidence, that Edward Gierek, former First Secretary, as well as other Communist politicians, were also arrested during Saturday night.

UPI report on December 17, 1981.
(HU OSA 300-50-1 Records of RFE/RL, Polish Unit)

Obviously, these accounts were read with reservations in Munich. Especially, about the intentions to continue with the reforms; as a report from RFE’s Research Analysis Department put it sarcastically, “[n]o one would want to quarrel with the presumed intentions of the general, but some doubt could be voiced as to the compatibility [of the reforms] with the letter, and the spirit of the legal measures themselves.” Most importantly, it was unclear whether with whom and how the power wanted to continue the dialog, since the whereabouts of Solidarity’s leader Lech Wałęsa and the fate of its imprisoned activists was unknown. A further question was the reaction of the society, which upon Jaruzelski’s success depended. There was a possibility that a failure of pacification would trigger a Soviet intervention. Foreign accounts on Monday were yet unaware of workers’ resistance present in the country, the report of the UPI agency was a typical Western account about the situation, “[t]he streets were quite in downtown Warsaw. People went about their business, queueing for food, going to work.”

However, in the second half of the week, dispatches started coming in about strikes and protests in major factories. This information was based both on accounts of journalists returning from Poland, and Radio Warsaw broadcasts. Beginning the week, sit-in strikes were organized in Kraków, Warsaw, and Katowice, while in Gdańsk protesters clashed with the militia. The unrest lasted the longest in the Silesian mine region, where the most brutal scenes of pacification took place. In the Wujek coal mine on December 16, the special forces of the militia shot 9 miners, in the clashes 23 miners and 41 militiamen got wounded. One West German journalist’s account, who returned from Silesia, described the region as depressed: “The streets emptied by late afternoon and by mid-evening restaurants were closed. Queues up 50 meters long formed during the day in front of even small shops selling food and other goods”.

UPI report on December 18, 1981. While the Dutch truck driver in the report recalled 66 casualties, and UPI quotes the Polish state media to admit 7, the actual number of deaths in the Wujek massacre was 9.
(HU OSA 300-50-1 Records of RFE/RL, Polish Unit)

An RFE analyst highlighted the contrast between the official narrative and the reality, “it might appear that Poland has been turned into a disciplined and orderly community of frightened individuals, guarded by soldiers mingling on the streets, lectured by uniformed speakers from television screens, and ruled by a relatively anonymous group of senior military officers.” However, as the author continued, this picture was largely undermined by workers’ protest, which even the official media had to admit. For the authorities, the most disturbing aspect of this fact was that the resistance was organized by ordinary people, since the “radical” Solidarity leadership was already imprisoned.

Christmas brought the relaxation of certain measures, but the citizens of the crisis-ridden Polish People’s Republic were facing shortages and increasing food prices. Even General Jaruleski admitted this in his Christmas speech: “Dear Countrymen, I cannot wish you a merry and prosperous Christmas. This year’s holiday is modest, but it is safe.“ The telephone connections were restored, authorities lifted the ban on selling alcohol, and relatively eased the travel ban for the holidays, which allowed elderly people freely visit their families. However, as Western relief workers reported, the country was suffering a shortage of milk, medicine, soap, and fuel. Even though Carp, a traditional Polish Christmas meal was, contrary to expectations, available, its price increased threefold since last year. AP reported about a Warsaw woman, who “traded an entire month’s meat ration for two fish.”

Until the end of the year, the last sit-in strikes in the Silesian mines ended; the longest took place in the Piast mine, where miners spent two weeks underground. The martial law lasted until July 22, 1983. Solidarity remained functioning as an underground organization, protests and strikes sporadically, but kept going. Most of the society chose everyday resistance, one example of which is the Polish journalist’s, whose article was filed in the RFE archives. Stanisław Danielewicz wrote a seemingly innocent piece about Amanda Lear’s 1981 album titled Incognito. However, if we read the first letters of the paragraphs, it gives one of the slogans of the underground opposition: “WRONa skona,” that is the “crow dies,” referring to the ruling Military Council (WRON).

On the left, the article from 1982 with circulated letters reading “WRONa skona,” the “crow dies.”
On the right, Polish opposition samizdat stamps featuring two crows, the Solidarity logo, the eagle from the coat of arms of Poland,
and the inscription “Return our motherland to us, Lord.”

(HU OSA 300-50-1 Records of RFE/RL, Polish Unit; HU OSA 300-55-7 Polish Polish Underground Ephemera)

Reuters, on December 24, 1981, was trying to judge, whether General Jaruzelski could implement something like the Kádárist consolidation in the 1960s. In Poland, such a scenario never took place. Even though the Polish regime only lost power in 1989, the country had stood stayed in a permanent crisis with a plummeting economy, and with a society largely hostile toward the regime.