Wladislaw Gomulka (1905-1982) ruled Poland for 14 years as first secretary of the Communist party. His career in politics reflected the difficult relationship between nationalism and international communism in Eastern Europe after 1945.
Wladislaw Gomulka was born in February 1905, into a working-class family in Krosno, in southern Poland. He began work as a plumber at the age of 14 and soon became involved in political agitation. He joined the clandestine Polish Communist party in 1926 and became an active and effective organizer of strikes. After 2 years in prison for conspiracy, he went to Moscow in 1934; after returning in 1936, he was imprisoned again but escaped when the Germans invaded Poland 3 years later, and again went to the Soviet Union. During his two years there, he had no significant involvement in communist politics, and he remained a home-grown and locally oriented Communist more Polish than Soviet. His appointment in 1942 to a top executive position on the Central Committee of the Polish Workers' party encouraged other local party activists to believe that local control of the party might be possible.
During the war, Gomulka was a very active member of the Communist section of the resistance to the German occupation. In 1943, Stalin appointed him general secretary of the Polish Workers' (Communist) Party, and in 1944 he became deputy premier in the new Polish government formed under Soviet auspices. In the same year, he became party secretary of the newly formed Politburo, the party's ruling executive committee.
Gomulka and his associates were purged from the party in 1949, essentially because they were nationalists who refused to accept without question policies dictated by Moscow. Oddly, he was not arrested until 1951 and was kept in seclusion until 1954 but no case was brought against him in a show trial, as had been common in other communist-ruled Eastern European countries, and he was not executed. Stalin died in March, 1953, and pressure on the Polish leaders to be harsh died with him.
The "de-Stalinization" which occurred in early 1956 at the famous twentieth congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union helped loosen Moscow's ideological and operational control of other communist parties, and Gomulka's ideas of a specifically "Polish road to socialism" came back into favor. In the summer and autumn of 1956 the wave of strikes and riots centered on Poznan facilitated Gomulka's return to the Central Committee and to the Politburo. At a crucial meeting in Warsaw on October 19/20, he convinced Nikita Khrushchev, general secretary of the CPSU, and other Soviet leaders that Poland's independence would have to be respected, a remarkable achievement given that Soviet troops were within striking distance of Warsaw. On October 21, Gomulka was unanimously elected the party's first secretary, effectively, the head of state.
One consequence of this dramatic turn of events was that for the first time in the history of communism in Poland, the party became supported by the masses. This was unsettling for some of the party veterans, for it meant that policies in Poland would have to be devised with greater attention to Polish public opinion and Polish social needs. In the next several months, Gomulka and Khrushchev remained in direct communication, and concessions granted to the Poles during Gomulka's official November visit to Moscow (cancellation of Poland's debts to the USSR, extension of new credits, and some Polish control over Soviet troop movements in Poland), significantly strengthened Gomulka's political position at home. He became a symbol of political change and patriotic renovation.
Gomulka began his regime as a moderate; he moved quickly to improve relations with the Catholic Church, among other things, by releasing Cardinal Wyszynski and numerous bishops and priests from detention; in return, the Church urged all Catholics to take part in the January 1957 parliamentary elections, which Gomulka's party won with an absolute majority.
With solid support in the country, Gomulka turned to strengthening discipline within the party, first by attacking those who opposed his stability-oriented measures, then by changing the editorial staffs of all party publications, imposing censorship, and establishing permanent commissions for control of science, culture and education within the Central Committee apparatus. Next came intraparty purges, which eliminated more than 261,000 members from party ranks (about 20 percent of the total). After two years of such measures (in 1958 the tasks of political and organizational consolidation appeared to have been completed) Gomulka's agenda turned to resuming the process of socialist construction.
Gomulka was cautious, lest he rekindle tensions with major changes; he never elaborated boldly about "the Polish road to socialism," and his regime gradually grew into authoritarianism at home and loyal obedience to the Soviet Union in foreign relations. His popularity eroded; discontent and dissatisfaction grew. Ironically, in time his political strength became based on his close personal relationship with top Soviet leaders Khrushchev, followed by Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksei Kosygin and in time, Gomulka became an isolated leader within his own party.
Gomulka's rule had become highly personalized and restrictive, another irony, for he had years earlier condemned Stalin's "cult of personality." His personal characteristics became the defining elements of the political system in Poland: "stubbornness, arrogance, manipulation, a finger in every pie and a sense that he would be ruler for decades to come."
In early 1968, intellectuals and students began protests against the party's restrictive cultural policy, precipitated by the regime's banning a theatrical production. In March, several hundred students were arrested at Warsaw university for demonstrating; many were tried immediately and sentenced on charges of "hooliganism and insulting the police." This provoked violent confrontations between police and students throughout the country.
In a speech that same month, Edward Gierek, a party official and Politburo member, gave his semi-official blessing to the campaign of purge and intimidation that was to spread throughout the county. A week later in a speech to Warsaw party activists, Gomulka attempted to take a relatively moderate position, but militant party members interrupted him continuously in front of national television cameras, chanting Gierek's name; in many ways, party members were actively in revolt against the stagnation of Gomulka's rule.
Gomulka's authority was strengthened somewhat by the August 21 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact military forces, including some Polish troops, out of grave concerns that the liberal Czech model of "socialism with a human face" was destabilizing other Eastern European communist regimes; Soviet leader Brezhnev later praised Gomulka as "the faithful son of the Polish working class and leading activist of the international communist movement" but ultimately, this did little to solidify Gomulka's power.
From late 1968 on, the party's attention turned toward redefining economic policy, including proposals to reform the industrial wage system by tying it to hoped-for increases in efficiency and productivity specifically by forcing greater productivity with threats of increased unemployment and economic deprivation. Inevitably, tensions among workers increased. In December, 1970, the government announced increases in the prices of food and fuels ranging from 15 to 30 percent. Workers' protested; government suppression of workers set off a chain reaction of demonstrations and strikes, and ultimately a national political crisis. Two months later, the food price increases were revoked, but it was too late; Gomulka associates' suppression of workers (particularly in Gdansk) led to thousands wounded and hundreds dead. Protests spread throughout the country, and to party officials, generalized revolt seemed imminent. Given this, several Politburo members and numerous Central Committee members announced their opposition to Gomulka. The split in the party hierarchy came to a head on December 19, 1970, when Gomulka suffered a sudden heart attack. After seven hours of deliberations, Gomulka was asked to resign from the Politburo and the Secretariat. He was replaced by Edward Gierek.
Further Reading on Wladislaw Gomulka
The best work on Gomulka is Nicholas Bethell, Gomulka: His Poland, His Communism (1969), an admirably concise and objective work which is both a biography of Gomulka and a history of modern Poland. Other important works are M. K. Dziewanowski, The Communist Party of Poland (1959); Richard Hiscocks, Poland: Bridge for the Abyss (1963); and Hansjakob Stehle, The Independent Satellite (1963; trans. 1965). See also Jan B. de Weydenthal, The Communists of Poland: An Historical Outline (1978).