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March 1968 Events

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March 1968 Events

The Polish 1968 political crisis, also known in Poland as March 1968 or March events (Polish: Marzec 1968; wydarzenia, wypadki marcowe) pertains to the major student and intellectual protest action against the government of the People's Republic of Poland. The crisis resulted in the suppression of student strikes by security forces in all major academic centres across the country and the subsequent repression of the Polish dissident movement. It was also accompanied by a mass emigration following the antisemitic "anti-Zionist" campaign waged by the Minister of Interior, Gen. Mieczysław Moczar, with the approval of the Communist Party General Secretary Władysław Gomułka. The protests coincided with the events of Prague spring in neighboring Czechoslovakia – raising new hopes of democratic reforms among the intelligentsia – and culminated in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on 20 August 1968.[1][2]

The government's anti-Jewish campaign already began in 1967. It was a policy carried out in conjunction with the Soviet withdrawal of all diplomatic relations with Israel after the Six Day War – with factory workers across Poland forced to publicly denounce Zionism - and also involved a power struggle within the Communist party itself. The subsequent purges within the communist party, led by Mieczysław Moczar and his faction, failed to topple Gomułka's government, but resulted in an actual expulsion from Poland of thousands of individuals of Jewish ancestry, including professionals, party officials and the secret police functionaries blamed "for a major part, if not all, of the crimes and horrors of the Stalinist period."[3][4][5] Before the end of 1971, 12,927 Poles of Jewish origin emigrated.


Protest in 1968 Europe

Political turmoil of the late 1960s – exemplified in the West by increasingly violent protests against the Vietnam war – were reflected in the East by the events of the Prague spring which began on 5 January 1968.[1][2] A growing wave of protests in Czechoslovakia marked the highpoint of a broader series of dissident social mobilization. The protests of the workers within the communist framework seemed to recall the 1956 protests in Poland. Numerous events of protest and revolt, especially among students reverberated across the continent in 1968, but many followed rather than preceded the Polish crisis.

A growing crisis of communist party control over universities, the literary community, and intellectuals more generally, marked the mid-1960s. Among those persecuted for their political activism on campus were Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik.

Polish student and intellectual protest

At the end of January 1968, on behalf of the communist government, Zenon Kliszko banned the performance of a play by Adam Mickiewicz, (Dziady, written in 1824), directed by Kazimierz Dejmek at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, on the grounds that it contained Russophobic and "anti-socialist" references. The play had been performed 14 times, the last time on January 30. Dejmek was expelled from the Communist Party and later fired from the National Theatre. – He returned to his job in Warsaw as an artistic director only 5 years later.[6]

The Warsaw Writers' Union condemned the ban on March 2, followed by the Actors' Union. A crowd of some 1,500 students protesting at Warsaw University on March 8 was met by attacks by the riot police. Within four days, protests spread to Kraków, Lublin, Gliwice, Wrocław, Gdańsk, Poznań, and Łódź. Bands of Communist party "worker-squads" from ORMO (Volunteer Reserve Militia) attacked the students at the university halls, followed by police in Warsaw and Lublin. Mass student strikes took place in Wrocław on March 14–16, Kraków on March 14–20, and Opole. A call for a general strike was issued from Warsaw on March 13. A hardline speech by Władysław Gomułka on March 19 cut off the possibility of negotiation. Further student protests, strikes and occupations were met with the mass academic expulsion of thousands of participants. National coordination by the students was attempted through a March 25 meeting in Wrocław; most of its attendees were jailed by the end of April. At least 2,725 people were arrested for participating. According to internal government reports, the suppression was generally effective, although students were able to disrupt the May Day ceremonies in Wrocław later in the year.[7] The success of the ORMO attack on universities in the wake of growing citizen discontent (see Polish 1970 protests) prompted the Ministry of Public Security to began massive expansion of its rank and file.[8]

Political purges

The Soviet Union withdrew all diplomatic relations with Israel on 10 June 1967 following the Six Day War, and quickly rebuilt the Arab forces. Leonid Brezhnev demanded condemnation of Israel from Gomułka at their joint meeting in Moscow. After his return to Warsaw, on June 19, 1967 Gomułka proclaimed at the Trade Union Congress, that the Israel's aggression had been "met with applause in Zionist circles of Jews – Polish citizens." His new "anti-Zionist" campaign was taken over by General Moczar from MSW (born Nikola Demko).[3][9] The communist party appointed Tadeusz Walichnowski, an "anti-Zionist expert," the head of the minorities branch of the government, and by moving that department from social services to counter-intelligence. In the words of Polish scholar Włodzimierz Rozenbaum, the Six Day War: "provided Gomułka with an opportunity 'to kill several birds with one stone': he could use an "anti-Zionist" policy to undercut the appeal of the liberal wing of the PUWP; he could bring forward the Jewish issue to weaken the support for the nationalist faction and make his own position even stronger..." while securing political prospects for his own supporters.[10]

The government-sponsored campaign of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist propaganda maintained – after the Prime Minister's speech – that there is a risk of "a fifth column to emerge in our country" thus suggesting that the "hidden Zionists" should relocate to Israel.[11] The Communist party began a process of purging Jewish officials, primarily the moral supporters of the liberal opposition movement. Many Poles (irrespective of actual faith) were accused of being Zionists and expelled from the party.[3]

In order to stir the attention of general public away from the Student movement and calls for social reform, which had a liberal background and was centred around freedom of speech for intellectuals and artists, the communist party came up with the idea of Nazi provenance. A leader of a hardline Stalinist faction within the Communist Party, Mieczysław Moczar, blamed the student protests on "Zionists" and used this affair as a pretext to launch a larger antisemitic campaign (although the expression "anti-Zionist" was officially used) to target Jews. In fact, despite the participation of a mix of Christian and Jewish Polish student activists in the protests, the relation of the protesting to Zionism was mixed if not negative. The national strike call from Warsaw opposed both antisemitism and Zionism.[12] A banner hung at a Rzeszow high school on April 27 read: "We hail our Zionist comrades."[7]

However, Gomulka warned that "Zionism and anti-Semitism are two sides of the same nationalist medal", and that Communism rejects all forms of nationalism. Gomulka rejected the allegations of anti-Semitism, saying, "Official circles in the United States had involved themselves in the dirty anti-Polish campaign by making statements accusing Poland of anti-Semitism. We propose that the ruling circles in the United States check whether American citizens of Polish descent have ever had or now have the same opportunities that Polish citizens of Jewish descent have for living conditions and education and for occupying responsible positions. Then it would clearly emerge who might accuse whom of national discrimination." Gomulka went on saying that "Western Zionist centers that today charge us with anti-Semitism failed to lift a finger when Hitler's genocide was exterminating Jews in subjugated Poland punishing with death Poles who hid and helped the Jews." [13]

Emigration of Polish citizens of Jewish origin

Historian David Engel of YIVO Institute wrote: "The Interior Ministry compiled a card index of all Polish citizens of Jewish origin, even those who had been detached from organized Jewish life for generations. Jews were removed from jobs in public service, including from teaching positions in schools and universities. Pressure was placed upon them to leave the country by bureaucratic actions aimed at undermining their sources of livelihood and sometimes even by physical brutality."[14] According to Dariusz Stola of the Polish Academy of Sciences "the term 'anti-Zionist campaign' is misleading in two ways, since the campaign began as an anti-Israeli policy but quickly turned into an anti-Jewish campaign, and this evident anti-Jewish character remained its distinctive feature".[15] The propaganda equated Jewish origins with Zionist sympathies and thus disloyalty to communist Poland. Antisemitic slogans were used in rallies. Prominent Jews: academics, managers, journalists lost their jobs. According to the Institute of National Remembrance, "in each case – wrote the decision of dismissal was proceeded by a Party resolution about expelling from the Party".[16]

Most Polish Jews who claimed their official status at the end of World War II, including Holocaust survivors who registered at CKŻP in 1945, had emigrated from Stalinist Poland already in her first years of existence. Of the fewer than 80,000 Jews who remained, many had political reasons for doing so. Consequently – as noted by historian Michael C. Steinlauf – "their group profile ever more closely resembled the mythic Żydokomuna."[17][18] Many Jews held positions of repressive authority under the new administration. In March 1968 they became the center of an organized campaign to equate Jewish origins with Stalinist sympathies. The political purges affected all Polish Jews regardless of background, even though they were being ostensibly directed at those who had held office during the Stalinist era marked by gross abuse of power and human rights law violations. Over a thousand former hardline Stalinists left Poland in 1968, among them ex prosecutor Helena Wolińska-Brus and Stalinist judge Stefan Michnik.[19] The Polish State Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation (Institute of National Remembrance, IPN) had investigated Stalinist crimes committed by some of the March 1968 emigrants including Michnik who settled in Sweden, and Wolińska-Brus residing in the United Kingdom. Both were accused of being an "accessory to a court murder" which is punishable by up to ten years in prison, as defined by the Article 2.1 of the Journal of Laws of the Republic of Poland issued 18 December 1998.[20][21] As soon as Poland joined the European Union, applications were made for their extradition based on European Arrest Warrants (EAW). However, Polish requests were refused on humanitarian grounds under the statute of limitations.[22][23]

Between 1961 and 1967 the average rate of Jewish emigration from Poland was 500–900 persons per year.[16] In 1968 the total of 3,900 Jews submitted their applications for leaving the country. A year later, between January and August 1969, the number of emigrating Jews was almost 7,300 according to records of the Ministry of Interior Affairs.[16]


One of the reactions of the communist government of Poland to the protests, was a greater support for demonstrations of Polish national feelings. Another consequence was the alienation of the regime from the leftist intelligentsia, who were disgusted at the official promotion of antisemitism. Many Polish intellectuals opposed the campaign, many openly. Another effect was the founding by Polish Emigrants to the West of organizations that encouraged opposition within Poland.

Inside Poland the alienation of the leftist intelligentsia had a long afterlife, and eventually contributed to the downfall of the PZPR dictatorship. Jacek Kuroń, twice a PZPR member and imprisoned for his role in the events, in particular, became a highly effective adviser of the independent workers' movement in Poland. More generally the events - preceded by those in 1956 and followed by 1970, 1976 and then 1980, showed that Poland, with its strong nationalist traditions and a civil society, especially the Church, that had never been fully repressed, was the weakest element in the Eastern Bloc.

The antisemitic campaign damaged Poland's reputation abroad, particularly in the United States. Despite worldwide condemnation of the March 1968 events, for many years the Communist government did not admit the antisemitic nature of the anti-Zionist campaign, though some newspapers were allowed to publish critical articles. Finally, in 1988, the Polish Communist government officially acknowledged that the events were antisemitic, although they avoided taking full responsibility, calling them "political mistakes". After the fall of the Communist government, the Sejm issued an official condemnation of the antisemitism of the March 1968 events in 1998. In 2000, President Aleksander Kwaśniewski gave his own apology for the event in front of a group of Jewish students "as the president of Poland and as a Pole."

On the 30th anniversary of their departures a memorial plaque was placed at Warszawa Gdańska train station, from which most of exiled people took a train to Vienna.[3]

See also

Notes and references

  • Andrzej Friszke, "Intermarium 1:1, 1997, translated from Polish by Dawid Walendowski; original 1994.

External links

  • Article on events of 1967 at
  • March 68. Documentary workshop at

Template:History of the People's Republic of Poland

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