First the Militia and the Army moved in, then decrees were passed. Helpless Council?

We associate the imposition of martial law on December 13, 1981, with General Wojciech Jaruzelski and his black glasses, the Military Council of National Salvation, with shots fired at the Wujek Coal Mine and internments. Somewhere in the background, somewhat vaguely, there is the Council of State, which formally decided on martial law.

This year marks the 41st anniversary of the introduction of martial law. To commemorate the heroes of those difficult times, Polish Television has prepared a series of documentaries for the second time ”Passports of Freedom”, profiling distinguished anti-communist activists who after 1989, for various reasons, remained in the shadows, forgotten.
Profiles of underground activists can also be viewed on the special TVP website – Paszportywolnosci.tvp.pl – where we’ve also put archival TVP materials, documentaries and feature films, TV theater, programs, as well as journalism devoted to the Polish road to freedom.
A particular feature of the countries referred to as “communist” and once called “people’s democracies” was that actual power didn’t necessarily overlap with formal power. At the end of 1981, the decisive role in Communist Poland was played by the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (KC PZPR) and at the same time Prime Minister – General Wojciech Jaruzelski. But the “collective president” was the Council of State, with as many as 17 members. Its chairman, Henryk Jabłoński, a former Polish Socialist Party activist, no longer played any role: for several months he had been outside the KC PZPR and its Politburo. Most members of the council had also lost their party positions during the so-called “Solidarity Carnival”, such as Tadeusz Witold Młyńczak from the Alliance of Democrats (former chairman) or Zdzisław Tomal from the United People’s Party (former vice-chairman). The most important figure was Kazimierz Barcikowski, secretary of the KC PZPR, formally only a member of the council.

But the decision was in their hands: to pass decrees on martial law or not. To declare martial law or stop such a move.

December 13, Midnight

We know these scenes from many descriptions. The middle of a frosty, snowy night. Pounding on the door. Sleepy people open them, and militiamen rush inside. They order them to get dressed and come with them. And the detained activists from Solidarity and other opposition structures end up at police stations and are packed into cells...

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Everything looked the same here at first. After midnight, someone rang the doorbell of Krystyna Marszałek-Młyńczyk’s apartment. This Alliance of Democrats activist was the second, next to Młyńczak, member of the Council of State. And like the former head of the Alliance, in 1981 she lost her high position in the party – before that she had been the secretary of the Central Committee. She went to the door. Two officers entered.

“I was terribly scared,” she later said. “I was sure they would arrest me.”

  But they showed her some document and told her to come with them immediately.

It was quite similar in the case of Ryszard Reiff, president of the Pax Association, a government-licensed organization of “lay Catholics”. He described these events himself in his memoirs. A lieutenant colonel and a major came to him in a black Volga car. Reiff opened the door for them wearing pajamas and a bathrobe.

The lieutenant colonel showed him a document. He said he couldn’t give it to him; Reiff had to read it in front of him. The head of Pax went to get his glasses and finally saw the document they had brought. He offered to go in his car half an hour later, but the lieutenant colonel objected, saying that there might be problems on the road. So Reiff got dressed and left the house a moment later. Soon, it turned out that the destination of his short, nighttime journey was the Belvedere Palace [in Warsaw]. Because the Belvedere was the seat of the Council of State.

Not all council members were present. Among others, Młyńczak was missing. However, unexpected guests appeared – as many as four generals, including Tadeusz Tuczapski, secretary of the National Defense Committee and – as it turned out later – one of the main authors of the provisions on martial law. The deputy minister of justice also arrived.

There were three groups among those present. The first were those who knew perfectly well what was coming, because they had organized these events themselves: Barcikowski, Tuczapski and a few others, probably also Jabłoński. The second: the insignificant members of the Polish United Workers’ Party, who, regardless of the course of events, were prepared to unconditionally support the decisions of the party authorities. And the third: members of the United People’s Party, Alliance of Democrats and unaffiliated, including the so-called secular Catholics. Their behavior remained unknown, and much depended on whether they had been sufficiently frightened. But they were in the minority in any case.

After 1 am

The meeting started at 1 am. Unfortunately, it’s unknown whether a stenographic record survived; the minutes say little, some light on the course of the meeting is shed by the reminiscences of Reiff and Barcikowski, and the author of this article also had the opportunity to talk to Krystyna Marszałek-Młyńczyk (she died in 2007). The course of the proceedings is thus reconstructed and is perhaps not fully consistent with what really happened.
Warsaw, 1981. From the left: Kazimierz Barcikowski, member of the Council of State, and Henryk Jabłoński, chairman of the Council. Photo: PAP/Grzegorz Rogiński
Jabłoński began by announcing Tuczapski’s speech. And he spoke very harshly. He said that the situation in the country was dramatic and that counter-revolutionary forces were raising their heads. There was danger of new strikes instigated by the enemy. Riots threatened in the very middle of winter. The result – in his opinion – would be the complete destabilization of the state. And then, Tuczapski concluded that politicians had turned out to be unable to control the crisis. Thus, the military decided to take matters into their own hands. The general proposed that the council adopt a resolution on the introduction of martial law and that it adopt decrees containing the relevant legal provisions. This included the most important one – the decree on martial law. It should be said at this point that the members of the Council of State found the drafts of these documents lying on the table. They didn’t have time to even give them a cursory reading.

Then Ryszard Reiff took the floor. Descriptions of this speech are in his memoirs. The chairman of Pax protested the rejection of the possibility of a political resolution to the conflict. Just like the agreements signed in Gdańsk [August 1980] were a success for both sides, martial law would be a failure for both sides, he argued. And he contended that the social energy revealed by the working class, especially by the young generation, would be destroyed by martial law. “The most valuable capital we have, that is human commitment, will be crossed out,” he said, adding that socialism would lose its social base, which would inevitably lead to a deepening of the separation of the authorities from society. Reiff also added that the army had entered the right path by undertaking field interventions at the end of 1981. That’s precisely how it could build its authority. “Unfortunately, it would now lose that authority by going against society,” he concluded.

After Reiff had finished his speech, Tuczapski quite unexpectedly announced that the purpose of sending troops into the field was precisely to prepare martial law. So Jan Szczepański, a non-partisan, professor, sociologist and former vice-president of the Polish Academy of Sciences, interjected. He suggested that the PZPR should also be dissolved – in his opinion, then there would be a chance that martial law would succeed. But Tuczapski retorted that this could not be done due to the constitutional provision on the leading role of the party.

Several other council members also spoke. The former member of the Politburo of the KC PZPR, Władysław Kruczek, called for unanimity, because in his opinion, if even one of those present voted against it, it would mean that martial law was primarily to serve to defend the authorities. But Reiff again objected, arguing that the enactment of martial law would turn the odds of victory into defeat. And he pointed out that martial law would be costly. In particular, he was talking about economic cooperation with the West, which could make it impossible to complete the investments begun in previous years.

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Among the speakers was Eugenia Kempara, a PZPR activist and former head of the Women’s League. Her speech, delivered in a very ideological tone, was a passionate defense of the proposal to introduce martial law. Kempara argued that whoever opposed martial law was on the side of the counter-revolution, on the side of forces hostile to the “people’s homeland.” She stressed that it was the party and only the party that expressed the will of the working class. Only through the party did the working class make use of its energy. Saying that socialism in Poland was losing its social base was simply a counter-revolutionary thesis, she pointed out. And in her opinion, the introduction of martial law was simply right.

Barcikowski also spoke in a similar tone, although more calmly and specifically. He regretted that politicians had failed to prevent the dramatic conflict into which Poland had plunged. Therefore, he announced, he strongly supported the draft decree on martial law, as well as the introduction of martial law. And he called for unanimity.

But then Professor Szczepański again took the floor. He announced that the members of the council had received drafts of exceptionally important decrees, which they had not even had time to read, to familiarize themselves with their content. He said he wouldn’t be able to vote “yes”. And if the military wanted to act, let it act, but without legal authorization. “Just let it put things in order,” he said.

Tuczapski joined in again, pointing out that the army’s action was already underway, soldiers had taken control of many institutions, people threatening the legal order were being detained, both among enemies of the people’s government and those who held high offices in the past, but had betrayed the challenges that they had been faced with. And in his opinion, only the Council of State could give all these activities a legal framework.

Krystyna Marszałek-Młyńczyk also spoke. She said she didn’t know how to vote because she had no way of contacting her party’s leadership. She suggested that she abstain. And then Jabłoński reacted sharply, calling her “child”. He said there was nothing to discuss, and she shouldn’t object at all. “I was just scared,” she said later.

Before 2 am

And then the chief military prosecutor, General Józef Szewczyk, spoke. He presented a draft of another decree – on special proceedings in cases of crimes and misdemeanors during the martial law period, introducing, among others, summary proceedings. Subsequent draft decrees concerned the transfer of certain cases to military courts and abolition towards perpetrators of certain crimes. And then Henryk Jabłoński ordered a vote. Ryszard Reiff voted against, Jan Szczepański abstained, Krystyna Marszałek-Młyńczyk, together with the remaining members, voted “for”. And so ended the most important meeting in the history of Communist Poland’s Council of State. It only lasted an hour.
Wojciech Jaruzelski announcing the imposition of martial law on December 13, 1981. Below is a fragment of his speech to the Polish nation, published in the –People’s Tribune a day later. In it, he invoked the decision of the Council of State. Photo: PAP and Piotr Mecik/Forum
Kazimierz Barcikowski was probably the only member of the council who had a specific task to fulfill, assigned by Jaruzelski – to go to Primate [of the Catholic Church in Poland] Józef Glemp and inform him about martial law. The others returned home in police cars. Along the way, they must have seen soldiers, armored personnel carriers, and police columns. The army and the police actually started their operations well before the Council of State had passed anything – certainly before midnight.

Most of the members of the council remained in their positions until the end of the term, so until November 1985. Reiff was dismissed from his position already in 1982, in the same year, Professor Szczepański left the council. Krystyna Marszałek-Młyńczyk was dismissed a year later. And essentially, this was their punishment for their behavior on the night of December 13, 1981.

After 1989, attempts were made to bring members of the Council of State who voted for the decrees on martial law before the State Tribunal. The fact was indisputable: the council violated the Constitution of Communist Poland – it could only pass decrees outside sessions of the Sejm, and such a session had been in progress. Ultimately, however, this did not happen. On the other hand, in 2011, the Constitutional Tribunal found the decrees adopted on December 13, 1981, to be illegal, contrary to both the Constitution of Communist Poland and the International Covenant on Personal and Political Rights of 1966.

Why did the meeting look like it did – generally bland, without much discussion, basically approving what Jaruzelski and his associates had decided? First of all, because since the establishment of the Council of State in 1952, it had been the body masquerading as the state authority. In fact, this power was located elsewhere – it was in the Politburo of the KC PZPR.

In addition, in the case of the council adopting martial law, the selection of its members (conducted by the newly elected Sejm) took place in April 1980, so a few months before that August. And then a lot changed, including the leadership of the PZPR and both “allied parties”. Despite this, very few changes took place in the council – in December 1980, the former First Secretary of the KC PZPR, Edward Gierek, and a little earlier, the former Secretary of the Central Committee, Zdzisław Żandarowski, departed. Those who remained, apart from Barcikowski, who was selected to the council at the end of 1980, knew perfectly well that they would no longer participate in making any key decisions. These were made completely without their input.

Although in fact at 1 am on December 13, 1981, they had enormous power, and they used it – in the way that Wojciech Jaruzelski and his people wanted – because of how this institution was constructed, it was never meant to have even a sliver of independence.

– Piotr Kościński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–Translated by Nicholas Siekierski
Main photo: December 13, 1981. On this day, the communist authorities of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) introduced martial law by decree of the Council of State. The Military Council of National Salvation (WRON) was established and power in Communist Poland was taken over by the army. Photo: PAP/Ireneusz Sobieszczuk
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