The Polish 1968 student revolt

avril 2018

The Polish 1968 has become ingrained in the historical canon of so-called “Polish months” through the events surrounding the student revolt in March 1968. The student rebellion was not the only development of importance in this period. It also served as a significant catalyst for several other processes and events: the anti-Semitic thrust of the so-called “anti-Zionist campaign”; a witch-hunt against members of the intellectual and cultural elite; a power struggle between different factions within the ruling Communist party elite and establishment, the Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza (PZPR); and the regime’s reaction to the Prague Spring. Moreover, it is through the lens of the student protest movement that one can discern both the domestic and international aspects of Poland’s “March 68” (Marzec 68). While the worker revolts that shook Poland in the Communist period remain more powerfully inscribed in the national memory, the events of 1968 carried no less an important legacy for the decades to come.


Par Tom Junes

In terms of geopolitics the Global Sixties in Poland were equally framed by the Cold War as in the West though the major issues of contention would play out differently. Vietnam was not a mobilising factor as in the West, the communist regime’s propaganda against West Germany had superficial resonance, and the Six-Day-War in the Middle East sparked the onset of the anti-Semitic campaign. The Prague Spring on the other hand reverberated to the extent that it represented a transnational influence on developments in Poland. While there was no emergence of a New Left in Poland, the challenge of Marxist revisionism in the wake of destalinisation process from the mid-1950s onwards showed some similar traits. It is often pointed out that the student revolt in Poland was an exceptional and unique case because as part of the Soviet bloc the country was separated from the West by the Iron Curtain. As such, it was supposedly insusceptible from the processes that bellied the outbreak of youth revolt in western Europe and the United States. However, the Iron Curtain was not an impermeable barrier and it is certainly possible to perceive the influence of the Global Sixties in Poland as well. 

It was exactly among Poland’s youth that its echoes were most felt through the emergence of youth fashion trends or the growing popularity of rock music. The communist regime which had undergone some limited liberalisation as a result of the destalinisation process ceased to try and control the private sphere of young people’s lives. More so, while Poland saw a small grassroots hippie movement emerge, it were regime-sponsored events like the Rolling Stones 1967 concert in Warsaw that brought the Global Sixties more visibly to Poland. Nonetheless, the communist establishment’s attitudes and reactions to popular youth cultural trends were comparable to those of conservative milieux in western Europe. This was tangible in the official propaganda. Initially, the regime seemed to approach youth rebellion in the West with some sympathy as it showed the deficiencies of the capitalist system, but soon enough it started portraying the spreading youth revolts as a symptom of western decadence that had to be staved off. Notwithstanding this, Poland, as other countries in the late 1960s, was starting to show signs of structural political, social, economic, and demographic problems that would precipitate the potential for the outbreak of a youth revolt.

The historical roots of 1968 student revolt can be traced back to the destalinisation process and the crisis that the communist regime in Poland went through in the mid-1950s. These years saw among others the collapse of the Stalinist model of youth organisation which would have significant consequences for the regime’s capacity to both control and mobilise youth politically. By the late 1950s, the tribulations of the destalinisation process were over and the regime under the new PZPR first secretary Władysław Gomułka had stabilised politically. A societal consensus had been reached in which the regime committed itself to a more liberal political course and a limited improvement in living standards while the population at large refrained from challenging the political status quo. By the middle of the next decade though, this modus vivendi was coming under increasing strain. The economy was starting to show symptoms of a general slowdown. The regime started cracking down on cultural and intellectual milieux, while internally factional strife was gradually materialising. In addition, in 1966 the communist regime’s legitimacy was challenged by  the millennial  celebrations of Polish Christianity which had been organised by the country’s influential  Roman Catholic Church. 

The growing malaise that would precipitate the political instability at the end of the decade was felt among the younger generation. The official youth organisations were plagued by problems resulting from mutual competition  and overly bureaucratic ways of functioning. As a result, they lacked the power of attraction and political efficacy for which they had been conceived. In the student milieu, this led to political apathy and resentment which in some cases translated into pockets of independent student activism. In 1965 an underground conspiratorial organisation involving students, Ruch (Movement), was set up but its conspiratorial nature made that its impact remained limited and the organisation was ultimately broken up by the security apparatus at the end of the decade. More significant than Ruch with its anti-communist patriotic-nationalist orientation were the students who became active in the Catholic Intelligentsia Clubs or the student parishes in various academic centres.

However, the most important contentious student political activity in the 1960s was represented by the milieu of the so-called Komandosi (Commandos) in Warsaw. This milieu consisted of several student groups who became increasingly politically active during the 1960s. Some among them were natives of Warsaw and even children of high-ranking communist party members, while others had come from the countryside and resided in the city’s dormitories. They had strong links with older veteran student activists like Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski who had been imprisoned for their regime-critical Open Letter to the Party as well as revisionist intellectuals and academics like Leszek Kołakowski who themselves had contacts with critical Marxists abroad like the Praxis group in Yugoslavia. The Komandosi’s activities ranged from organising reading groups to more public actions like interventions at youth organisation meetings or disruptive demonstrations at official rallies. Their contentious activity became a thorn in the side of the regime and as a result some of them suffered repressive disciplinary measures. Nevertheless, over the span of a few years, these groups of students became more consolidated and their actions would lay at the base of the outbreak of the student revolt of March 1968.

Following the Israeli victory in the Six-Day-War in 1967, the regime unleashed an "anti-Zionist campaign". Simultaneously, in neighbouring Czechoslovakia, events took place that would eventually lead to the Prague Spring. While both developments would play a significant role of influence in the student revolt, it was a domestic event that set things in motion. This event was the banning of the classic play Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve1) in late 1967. The banning of one of the penultimate plays from the Polish literary canon reverberated with consternation among Poland’s intellectual and cultural milieux. It also incensed the Komandosi who had been energised by the release of Kuroń and Modzelewski a few months earlier. As a result, the Komandosi started a campaign against the banning of the play which was met by a counter-campaign by the regime and the youth organisations. After the play’s last performance in January 1968, a student demonstration took place against which the regime cracked down.

In reaction to the regime’s repression and campaign with anti-Semitic overtones against them, the Komandosi decided to organise a rally on 8 March on the premises of Warsaw University. What transpired from 8 March onwards was in many ways unexpected. Firstly, the rally was a huge success drawing the attendance of about 2,000 students, many of whom were female. Secondly, the regime unleashed brutal violence against the peaceful students by sending in so-called worker aktyw (card-carrying worker party activists) to beat them up followed by the notorious riot police. Thirdly, this crackdown triggered an escalation of protest and violence not only in Warsaw but in other academic centres as well as non-academic cities and towns all around the country. For three weeks, student strikes were accompanied by street riots in which thousands of young people took an active part. Students were joined on the streets by high school pupils and young workers as evidenced by the records of those arrested in which not students, but young workers constituted the single largest group. Finally, during those three weeks a fledgling student movement emerged that managed to formulate a platform of demands for political, economic, and cultural reform that was striking in its maturity and analysis of the country’s problems.  

Though the March 1968 student revolt itself lasted a good three weeks, its reverberations and aftershocks continued for some time with some consequences even being felt several years after. The revolt served as a catalyst for the Party’s anti-Semitic and anti-intellectual campaigns to go into full swing. As a result, universities, party and state institutions were purged and thousands of people emigrated in the months following the revolt. The purges coincided with a forced generational change within the party and state apparatus - as older functionaries were pushed out their place was taken by party members from younger cohorts who had risen through the ranks during the Stalinist era, but whose further advancement had been blocked by the "old guard". Yet, Gomułka managed to hold on to power despite the factional infighting. He would only be removed from power two years later following the outbreak of worker revolt in December 1970.

The wave of repression unleashed against the student and broader academic milieu was also significant. Some university departments were closed down or its students expelled while the party and state purges affected the professoriate which in many cases represented an unprecedented blow to the overall academic standing of Polish universities. While young workers and high school pupils who had been arrested during the riots were released soon after, hundreds of students were forcefully drafted into the army never to return to the university again. Finally, several high profile trials took place against student activists -mainly from the Komandosi milieu- in the months and years after the revolt, in which prison sentences up to 3.5 years were handed down.

Nevertheless, student resistance albeit limited continued in the wake of the March revolt and the regime’s crackdown. This resistance mainly took on the form of spreading flyers or emigre publications, which in the case of the latter led to another crackdown on a group of student activists, the so-called Taternicy (Tatra mountaineers) who were engaged in cross-border smuggling of  publications. It must be stated that such acts of resistance were largely inspired by the hope emanating from the developments in neighbouring Czechoslovakia where the Prague Spring had come into full swing. It was only with the crushing of the Czechoslovak reform movement through the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968 that the last pockets of student resistance gave up.

There is a pervasive myth regarding the March 1968 revolt that it merely represented a rebellion of students and intellectuals while the working class remained aloof. This myth, however, does not withstand the empirical evidence. Both the worker aktyw who attacked the students and the ensuing worker rallies condemning the student protests were organised by card-carrying party members and not necessarily ordinary shop-floor workers. The fact that young workers were the single largest group among those arrested during the riots in March further testifies to an apparent working class dimension of the revolt, which is best classified as a rebellion of the younger generation. More so, when workers rose up in December 1970, students did not vengefully dissociate themselves as the same myth claims. Evidence has emerged of students participating, being arrested and even losing their lives during the December 1970 uprising in the coastal cities. Furthermore, students also showed their solidarity with their working class peers in academic centres like Kraków where they staged protests in support of the workers’ demands and against the deadly violence unleashed by the regime. Security apparatus documents have revealed that the students who took part in these demonstrations were veterans of March 1968.

Finally, the regime moved to implement changes in its youth and student organisations which for all intents and purposes failed miserably to prevent the outbreak of the March revolt. In the years following the revolt, the party attempted to reassert political control over the younger generation by abolishing the pluralist model of official organisations and merge them again into one structure following the model of the Soviet Komsomol more strictly. Though ultimately these changes did not turn back the clock to the Stalinist era, a unification of the youth and student organisations was completed in 1973, around the time when the last cohorts of students who had experienced the March revolt were leaving the universities. It was only indicative that the few attempts to resist this unification came from student activists who had been involved in the revolt.

The main consequence of the March revolt was that it discredited the official ideology in the eyes of the first generation that was born and raised under communist rule. Those who had been affected by the March revolt moved away from Marxism, those who identified as Left found a rapprochement with Catholic milieux possible. Some of the student activists like Adam Michnik later became renowned dissidents, though many more students who had taken part in the revolt lived the rest of their lives in oblivion. Among those on the other side, several activists in the official student organisations evolved to become reformers or pragmatists within the communist establishment. The rebellion of the first generation to have been born and raised under communist rule played an important role in the demise of communism two decades after the March revolt. In this sense, Poland’s 1968 became a precursor to its 1989.

Despite historians in Poland stressing the uniqueness and exceptionalism of the Polish 1968, it would be wrong to take this at face value. Poland’s younger generation rose up in an anti-authoritarian revolt just like their peers who rebelled elsewhere. Though it is certainly true that Polish students were confronted by the specific repressive authoritarianism of the communist regime, it is not so that they alone faced unprecedented regime violence. There were no fatalities among Polish student protesters unlike at Kent State University in the United States. More so, March 1968 both influenced and was influenced by the Prague Spring. When Yugoslav students rose up in protest three months after their peers in Poland they were strikingly aware of their Polish peers’ plight. The younger generation’s dissatisfaction and potential to revolt in the Soviet bloc was a shared transnational phenomenon, which became clear during the World Festival of Youth and Students in Bulgaria in July and August 1968 and again when students in Romania engaged in protest at the end of 1968. 

The fact that widespread protest broke out in Poland often blurs the fact that the same potential for revolt among the younger generation existed elsewhere, and for similar reasons. After all, had the 8 March rally not been violently attacked by the regime, Poland might not have seen a student revolt on the scale it did in 1968. The persisting juxtaposition of the Polish student revolt as representing a struggle for basic civil rights in contrast to a hedonistic "sexual and cultural revolution" of western students owes more to the success of erstwhile communist propaganda than to fundamental differences of how students and young people saw the world around them in the late 1960s while it also does injustice to the struggles of young people in the Global South. Poland’s 1968 was a domestic crisis, but it had transnational dimensions and is part of an entangled history of the Global Sixties.

  • 1. Les aïeux en français

The author

Tom Junes is a historian and a post-doctoral researcher with the Human and Social Studies Foundation in Sofia. His research interests cover Eastern European history and the history of student movements. He is the author of Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent and has published widely on student movements in Eastern Europe.

Références bibliographiques

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JUNES, Tom. « Confronting the ‘New Class’ in Communist Poland: Leftist Critique, Student Activism and the Origins of the 1968 Student Protest Movement ». Critique, 2008, vol. 36, n° 2, p. 257-272.
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FRISZKE, Andrzej. Anatomia buntu: Kuroń, Modzelewski i komandosi. Kraków : Społeczny Instytut Wydawniczy "Znak", 2010, 912 p.
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GROSS, Irena Grudzinska. « 1968 in Poland. Spoiled Children, Marxists, and Jews ». ln : Promises of 1968. Crisis, illusion, and utopia. Budapest : Central European University Press, 2011, p. 43-53
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OSĘKA, Piotr. « The People of March.' A Self-Portrait of Poland's Generation '68. ». ln : 'Talkin' Bout My Generation.' Conflicts of Generation Building and Europe's '1968'. Göttingen : Wallstein, 2011, p. 137-159
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