We were saved from Soviet intervention by the Chinese and the generals of the Internal Security Corps (KBW)

The quarrel within the family with the brawl at the Belvedere may have had a Hungarian ending, perhaps even a bloodier one, for in the face of Soviet and 'Polish' troop movements towards Warsaw, the internal troops did not behave passively. In the nightly Polish talks, both generals, pre-war communists, gained patriotic laurels.

On the night of 18-19 October 1956, two columns, one armoured and one motorised infantry, set off from bases in Pomerania and Lower Silesia towards Warsaw. There would be nothing to write about if it were not for the fact that these were units of the Northern Group of the Soviet Army stationed in the People's Republic of Poland as part of the Warsaw Pact. Soviet troops in the GDR near the Polish border were also put on alert.

Before noon on 19 October, units of the Soviet Army stopped less than a hundred kilometres from the capital. Closer to Warsaw, just in the suburbs, were the units of the People's Polish Army coming out of Legionowo and Modlin on the orders of Polish Marshal Konstanty Rokossowski, Minister of National Defence. The "Polish" units, commanded by Soviet officers, stopped and waited for the arrival of Soviet troops.

The army's movements were prompted by the announcement that the Eighth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR, Polish Comunist party) was to convene on 19 October, during which new party authorities - which in those days meant the authorities of the country - were to be elected without consulting Moscow.

Unrest in Warsaw

Although Stalin had already been dead for three years, Stalinism in the USSR was doing quite well and the Soviet comrades had to treat such self-will as counter-revolution, and this required intervention. So a Soviet delegation with Nikita Khrushchev (first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Anastas Mikoyan and Marshal Ivan Konev, commander of the Warsaw Pact troops, landed at the Boernerowo military airfield on the same morning. They came without invitation.

The First Secretary of the Central Committee of the PZPR, Edward Ochab, had been notified of the delegation's arrival the day before, along with a proposal to postpone the plenum until after talks with Khrushchev. Ochab did not postpone the plenum, so the situation was tense.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Already at the airport, Khrushchev greeted first the Soviet generals and also the Soviet marshal in Polish uniform, Konstanty Rokossovsky: - 'These are the people on whom I rely,' Khrushchev was to say, while threatening the Polish authorities with his fist: "The treacherous role of Comrade Ochab has been revealed" and "This trick will not go through you". - Polish officials reportedly heard.

Khrushchev, after greeting the leadership of the PZPR, pointed to Wladyslaw Gomulka and asked: "Who is he?". He knew perfectly well who Gomulka was; after all, it was because of him that he had come here, although formally Comrade 'Wieslaw' was almost a nobody, having only been co-opted to the Central Committee on 12 October. He was not yet in the Politburo or the Secretariat of the Central Committee, and in the system of power in the People's Republic that was all that really mattered.

In order to stop Khrushchev's rhetorical fervour, Edward Ochab explained to the unexpected guest that he was inviting him to the Belvedere, a more suitable venue for the talks - the Polish dignitaries were accompanied by security guards, drivers and others. A scandal was brewing.

At the Belvedere, according to Ochab's memoirs, things started sharply. Khrushchev resented the convening of a plenum at which new party authorities were to be appointed. Comrades enjoying the confidence of the Soviet Union were to leave the Politburo and be replaced by others with Wladyslaw Gomulka typified as First Secretary. This was a counter-revolution, a weakening of the unity of the socialist camp and other terms from the dictionary of communist doctrine were uttered. What was a deviation from the canon was always decided in Moscow.
A year later, Nikita Khrushchev appeared in Czechoslovakia. Photo: PAP/CTK
Ochab, he recalled, was said to have asked whether the Soviet comrades agreed with Warsaw on the membership of their government. "Nu, chto vy, chto vy" - replied Khrushchev with surprise and amusement. To the Soviet secretary's words that the USSR was ready to intervene, Ochab was to reply that he had already been in prison and was not afraid.

However, it was not Ochab, formally of the highest rank on the Polish side, who led the talks. Władysław Gomułka, ousted from power in the early 1950s for "right-wing nationalist deviation", spent more than two years in solitary confinement under guard in a villa in Miedzeszyn. Released in 1954, he lived to see the changes known as the "Polish October" in a sanatorium in Ciechocinek. He did not initiate them, but was at the forefront of the changes.

The first self-limiting revolution

The first impulse of the Polish October was the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in Moscow in February 1956, at which Nikita Khrushchev revealed the scale of Stalin's crimes in a secret paper. The leaders of the socialist countries were present at the congress, and while they kept it discreet, in the People's Republic Khrushchev's paper was widely circulated, not only among party members.

Domestically, the Six-Year Plan brought an expansion of heavy industry, including that working for the army, but this did not translate into living standards. Wages and supplies were deteriorating, which led to a workers' revolt in Poznan in June 1956. The revolt was bloodily put down, but the ferment was growing. Everyone was fed up with the Soviet model of economy, culture and social life.

There were rallies in factories and universities demanding change. The reaction of the authorities to Poznan kept people in fear, and the death of Boleslaw Bierut, a symbol of Stalinism who had not returned from the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, raised hopes. The 1956 revolution was self-limiting long before Solidarity was called a self-limiting revolution.

Everyone knew what the conditions were and knew the scale of the manoeuvre, led by Wladyslaw Gomulka. His reaction to the years of Stalinism had elevated him to the rank of providential figurehead, not only in the party. He had a reputation in the nation as a Stalinist prisoner who wanted a Polish road to socialism, that is, some degree of independence from the USSR in internal affairs. For example, he opposed the collectivisation of the rural areas. He was forgotten for installing the new system after the war as General Secretary of the Polish Workers' Party (PPR).

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Nikita Khrushchev was misinformed by the embassy and some comrades in Poland. In Gomulka's plans for foreign policy, Poland was one with the Soviet Union, the progress of socialism in the world was as close to it, and there was no question of leaving the Warsaw Pact. Gomułka could therefore be counted on. Back in the days of the installation of the system as General Secretary of the PPR, he told someone from the rival Polish Peasant Party (PSL) before the elections: "we will never give up power once gained". He also used to say that "dogmatism is the flu, and revisionism is tuberculosis".

It was therefore a quarrel within the family based on a social misunderstanding, or more seriously, on the intrigues of a hard-headed faction within the PZPR and Marshal Rokossovsky. Gomułka was taken for someone other than he really was. "Wieslaw" remembered the support communism had in Poland before the war and that, without the USSR, that power in the People's Republic would not have lasted.

At Belvedere, Khrushchev had to be persuaded that he was dealing with communists loyal to the idea. Everything was discussed - the underpricing of coal at which the People's Republic of Poland sold it to the East, the destructive role of Soviet advisers in the army and the criminal role in the security services and, on the Soviet side, the hostile press statements towards the USSR, of which there was no shortage during the October "thaw". Władysław Gomułka was determined. At one point he switched to Polish and spoke faster and faster, no one could keep up with the translation. He spoke like someone wrongly accused of wanting to break the "eternal friendship with the USSR". This forgetfulness due to emotion is said to have impressed Khrushchev as proof of the sincerity of his intentions.

Beijing shows the power

The talks lasted until one o'clock in the morning and on 20 October Khrushchev left reassured, but not entirely convinced. During the talks, the Polish side demanded the return of Soviet troops to barracks. They heard that it was just a long-planned exercise. After Khrushchev's departure, the Soviet troops continued to stand in the field. So it was understood that the intervention had been halted, but not abandoned. The Kremlin was considering what to do next, and China helped in making a decision favourable to the People's Republic.

The USSR, prior to the departure to Warsaw of a delegation with Khrushchev, notified the fraternal parties in the GDR and Czechoslovakia (countries bordering the People's Republic) and China (because of their rank in the camp) of its intention to intervene by force if the talks did not have the desired effect. The German and Czech comrades supported Khrushchev. China was strongly opposed. Beijing sent a government delegation to Moscow to reiterate its position. At the time of the Belvedere talks, Khrushchev may not have known about the Chinese objection, but on his return to Moscow he had to consider it.

At the same time, similar insubordination by local communists was faced by the USSR in Hungary, and there, too, China's opinion mattered.

Beijing did not oppose the intervention in Poland out of sympathy for the Poles, it simply wanted to indicate its role as a superpower, that there was more than just one decision-making centre in the socialist camp. When the Russians succumbed in the case of Poland, Beijing gave the green light in the case of Hungary.
On 4 November 1956, USSR troops began the bloody pacification of Budapest. Photo: PAP/KEYSTONE
On 23 October, Soviet troops entered Budapest. The Prime Minister, Imre Nagy wanted - in contrast to Gomułka - the neutrality of the country and an exit from the Warsaw Pact. On 4 November the bloody pacification of Budapest began. In the People's Republic of Poland, loyal to the principals, Soviet troops withdrew to barracks on 23 October.

Legends about the Polish October

On 24 October, at the famous rally on Warsaw's Parade Square, Gomułka announced this to the assembled crowd. The 600,000-strong crowd also heard what it wanted to hear, because Wladyslaw Gomulka did not really say anything hopeful. He ended his speech with a call to get to work. Only very few realised that the Polish October had just ended.

A year or so later, the media were gagged again, and freedom of discussion within the party was suppressed shortly after the elections to the Sejm in January 1957. For in what, from a contemporary perspective, should be called an election campaign, unheard-of things happened - comrades in the factories even demanded the return of Vilnius and Lvov to the Motherland.

It is true that Soviet advisors left, Primate Stefan Wyszynski was released from internment and nine thousand political prisoners were released from prisons, production cooperatives in the countryside were abolished, and socialist realism ceased to apply in art. For the few, passports were granted, the Security Office (UB) was dissolved and the investigative methods of the Bierut era were gone forever. The daily terror and fear disappeared. Religion was introduced into schools for a few years.

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However, the crowd gathered on Parade Square on 24 October expected more and even heard that there would be more normality. Thus, in the public memory, October 1956 has its own legend - we stood up to the Russkies, even the party, and Gomułka is admittedly a communist, but ours, a national one. Gomułka's internationalism, i.e. sticking together in every respect with the USSR, only manifested itself in 1968 with the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Stagnation and lack of prospects for improving everyday life - much earlier.

The quarrel within the family with the brawl at the Belvedere could have had a Hungarian ending, perhaps even more bloody, because in the face of Soviet and 'Polish' troop movements towards Warsaw, the internal forces did not behave passively.

There were no longer any Soviet officers in the entire internal forces, which made up a quarter of the army and consisted of the Internal Security Corps (KBW) and the Border Protection Forces in 1956.

The KBW took up positions in the suburbs of Łódź, which forced Soviet troops to bypass the city, and in the suburbs of Warsaw. The capital was patrolled. A workers' militia was formed at the FSO factory in Żerań, building barricades - the army obeying Rokossovski would have to go that way from Legionowo.

The KBW had its own artillery, tanks and aviation - a remnant from the days of this formation's fight against the independence underground. The KBW would not have defended the city and Poland from intervention, but it would have significantly increased its costs. Khrushchev at Belvedere must have known about the attitude of the internal troops, as well as the fact that the workers were organising.

Historical events grow into legends. The biggest of the October legends is Wladyslaw Gomulka himself. The other is the news that workers at the Żerań Passenger Car Factory (FSO) received 800 small arms, several machine guns and grenades from the KBW. This was never mentioned by Lechosław Goździk, party secretary at FSO, and he - a man of October - would have to know something. Years later, the sensation was firmly denied by General Juliusz Hibner, then deputy interior minister in charge of the internal troops.

While the Soviet troops were still standing in the field, the same Hibner had a conversation with Gomulka. Gomulka asked if it was true that there were no Soviet officers in Hibner's subordinate formations. Hibner confirmed to the just-elected 8th Plenum secretary that it was true. A further question as to whether the army would obey every order. "Every one except shooting at the working class," was Hibner's reply.

What orders were on Gomułka's mind? We will never know, and those directly issued to the KBW were by General Wacław Komar with the approval of General Juliusz Hibner. By taking up defensive positions, the Internal Security Corps improved its disastrous reputation from the time of the installation of people's power and its consolidation. In late-night Polish conversations, both generals, pre-war communists, earned patriotic laurels. Hibner outlived Komar. As long as Komar was alive, there was more talk of him around the cafés. After his death, about Hibner.

Two generals

The role of each of the generals in October 1956 is difficult to establish precisely - when the Minister of Defence and member of the Politburo was the 'Marshal of Two Nations' Konstantin Rokossovsky, the generals acting against him obviously did not give written orders.
As long as Wacław Komar (left) was alive, people tended to talk about him in the cafés, then Juliusz Hibner became a hero. Photo: Wikimedia
Both were pre-war communists. Komar an activist of the Comintern, in addition to the Polish Communist Party he was also a member of the Soviet and German Communist Parties. The assignments given to him threw him around Europe. It is written about him that he was in a cell of the Polish Communist Party liquidating police provocateurs. A man of great confidence whose tasks before the war can be illuminated by the inaccessible Soviet archives. Like many Comintern activists, he fought in Spain in the Communist International Brigades. He was one of the commanders in the Brigade named after. Jaroslaw Dabrowski.

General Juliusz Hibner was also a Dąbrowszczak. However, he was not an activist of the Comintern. While studying in Lvov, he was wanted as an activist of the then illegal KPP. He had to flee. Through the green border, or rather several borders, he got to Spain. During this three-month journey he stayed with a wealthy uncle in Zurich, who wanted the relative to stay and even undertook to finance his studies. Hibner did not take advantage, which is testament to his dedication to world communism.

After the war, Komar, before he could command the KBW, was head of military intelligence and director in the Interior Ministry. When Stalin's last - anti-Semitic - obsession prevailed over the socialist countries, he found himself imprisoned by Military Intelligence. He was investigated for 'right-wing nationalist deviation', i.e. for Gomulka.

He was released after two years as a result of the Radio Free Europe broadcasts made up of revelations made by an UB officer who had fled to the West, Jozef Swiatlo. Swiatło was familiar with the Komar case, from which it was deduced during the investigation that he had worked for three intelligence services, had ordered the assassination of General Świerczewski and had prepared Yugoslavia's exit from the socialist camp three years before it happened. From what Swiatlo said, absurdity chased absurdity. It was an embarrassment for Military Intelligence (IW). Officers arrested with Komar were released from prison, and resignations were flooding in in IW.

Julius Hibner did not serve a seat, although, like Komar, he had been in the West too long and had a Jewish background. Probably a shield against the crazed guardians of the right party line was the Golden Star Hero of the Soviet Union, won at Lenino.

Komar lasted in the army until the purges in 1967 and retired not entirely voluntarily. Hibner didn't wait for them to relegate him. He discharged himself from the army in 1959. At the age of 50, he stopped saving the visible world and started describing the invisible. He did a master's degree in physics, then a doctorate. He worked as a quantum physicist in Poland and France. This was not the typical end of a communist officer's career.

When Juliusz Hibner told Gomulka that the KBW would carry out any order except to shoot unarmed civilians, he was also speaking for Waclaw Komar. These two idealistic and exemplary communist internationalists were therefore prepared to shoot at armed 'soviets'? The USSR was the nucleus and centre of world communism, so how could it be? Had proletarian internationalism shown its limits?

What remains of the Polish October '56 is the patriotic legend of the KBW and the generals. Unlike the legend of the armed FSO, however, someone moved these troops from the barracks.

– Krzysztof Zwoliński
– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: The crowd gathered at Warsaw's Plac Defilad on 24 October 1956 expected more and heard in Wladyslaw Gomulka's speech what they wanted to hear. Photo: National Museum in Warsaw/PAP/Wiesław Prażuch
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