For the Poles the decree of September 11, 1986, seemed one of the most astonishing events in recent history. No one had expected it. All of Poland’s political prisoners, the official announcement said, would be released within five days. Zbigniew Bujak, the head of Solidarity’s Provisional Coordinating Committee (TKK), who only three months earlier had been arrested after eluding the police for nearly five years; Leszek Moczulski, the fiery leader of the small nationalistic KPN (Confederation of Independent Poland); Czeslaw Bielecki, the eloquent writer and architect who had been weakened by a hunger strike 1—all would now regain their freedom along with hundreds of others. In December 1981, Solidarity was caught off guard when Jaruzelski took advantage of the union’s self-confidence and, in a matter of hours, put the entire country under martial law and about five thousand Solidarity activists in prison. Now, when the General (as he is commonly referred to in Poland) seemed to concede one of Solidarity’s principal demands, its leaders were again taken unawares. For nearly three weeks they had little to say.
There were good reasons for the silence. Since martial law was imposed the government had decreed two amnesties, one in 1983 and one a year later. They were not exactly fraudulent, since a number of political prisoners were actually released. They were, however, accompanied by conditions, such as the requirement that everyone released swear he would not take part in “antistate” activities; and after each amnesty, the police rearrested some of the former offenders, and filled the jails with new ones. The language of the so-called Clemency Law, passed on July 17 of this year, was even more vague than previous decrees. The continuing campaign in the press against Solidarity, and especially against its “antisocialist” leaders and advisers,2 offered little hope that Jaruzelski was about to release his opponents from jail. Solidarity had consistently said that if all political prisoners were set free it was ready for “dialogue” and for discussion of “national reconciliation” (much to the dismay of its more radical spinoff groups such as “Fighting Solidarity”3 ). Jaruzelski spoke of “normalization”—a code word for bringing the opposition to heel.
Yet here in September was Interior Minister Kiszczak on Polish television, calmly announcing that some of the government’s bitterest enemies would be freed in the interests of “humaneness” and “national accord.” While the law, he said, would continue to deal harshly with those engaged in “espionage, terror, sabotage, or treason,” the authorities would show “maximum patience, calm, and good will” toward those acting “against the state and public order.” It would use “preventive” measures rather than “penal repressions.”4 (Some of those released under the amnesty had in fact been arrested on charges of treason.) On the same day about three thousand Poles involved in the underground were visited by officials of the Ministry of Interior who gently warned them that their activities would cause harm to their “common motherland” no less than to themselves—an adroit step…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.