by Jan Skórzynski
In Paris, West Berlin, London, and Rome, the spring of 1968 was
marked by student protests against the Vietnam War. In Warsaw, too,
students were protesting, but their cause was not the same as their
Western counterparts. Young Poles took to the streets of Warsaw not
to chant "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh" in solidarity with the Viet Cong, but
rather to defend their own country's freedom and culture against a
smothering Communist rule.
Instead of chanting Ho's name, young Poles put flowers under the
monument of Adam Mickiewicz, a 19th-century poet whose drama
Forefathers Eve , written in praise of the struggle for freedom, had
recently been declared subversive and anti-Soviet, and its
performance at the National Theater in Warsaw closed down.
These are only a few of the differences between West and East
European students in that springtime of rebellion of 40 years ago.
Although the two youthful revolts were undertaken by the same
generation and took similar forms of street demonstrations and
sit-ins, there were far more differences than similarities as
students rebelled on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
It was, of course, the context that made the difference. The point of
departure for Western students – freedom of speech and assembly,
ideological pluralism, and a democratic political system – was, for
their Eastern colleagues, a distant objective that they were unlikely
Unhappy with the capitalist consumer society that was metastasising
all around them, West European and American students attacked the
system from far-left positions. Polish, Czechoslovak, and Yugoslav
students directed their protests against the Communist dictatorship,
which was depriving their societies of elementary civic freedoms. For
the Westerners, the main threat was American imperialism, blamed for
the "dirty" war in Vietnam. For the Poles and other Easterners, the
threat was Soviet imperialism – a threat soon realised in Brezhnev's
crushing of the Prague Spring. While the former wanted a revolution,
the latter demanded only – but no less audaciously – that the
authorities obey the law.
"The press lies!" demonstrators shouted in Warsaw and burned
Party-controlled newspapers. For Wladyslaw Gomulladyslaw Gomulka,
then Poland's Party leader, and other Communist brass, free media was
a bourgeois aberration. That same spring, demonstrators in Paris
burned cars in opposition to the bourgeois lifestyle. What you see
depends on where you sit. While students in Paris and Berkeley turned
against academic science, their contemporaries in Warsaw and other
Polish cities demonstrated in defense of the traditional role of the
university and its autonomy, and were supported by many of their professors.
Unlike in the West, intergenerational conflict played a minor role in
the Polish 1968. Writers and scientists, who were also enraged by
official censorship of Mickiewicz's play and national culture, joined
the young in protest.
The student movement in Poland took on a mass character during a
demonstration at the University of Warsaw on 8 March, 1968. Students
united to support two of their colleagues who had been expelled for
their protests at the National Theater. One student was Adam Michnik,
later a long-term political prisoner, who became a political
strategist of Solidarity in the 1980s.
The peaceful demonstration was brutally dispersed by the police and
"volunteer" party vigilantes. No dialogue was ever sought. In
violation of a centuries-long tradition of university autonomy, the
police marched onto campus, beat up students, and arrested a large
number of demonstrators. In response, a wave of protests spread to
universities around the country, often supported by young workers.
Mendacity in the Communist press, which distorted the protests'
meaning and personally attacked student leaders, inflamed matters
more. The party resorted to anti-Semitic propaganda, pointing to the
Jewish ancestry of some of the student leaders.
The campaign of hatred that followed underscored the country's utter
lack of free speech. The demand for the abolition of censorship was
one of the first political slogans of the Polish March '68. Demands
for freedom of assembly and the right to organise followed.
Crucially, the protesters did not demand free elections. In this they
were realists, but they did demand a measure of civic control over
the authorities, both in the political and the economic sphere. One
slogan was "No bread without freedom."
After 1968, Western student protestors gradually entered their
countries' political and intellectual establishments. The Polish
dissidents found themselves in prison or exile. Several thousand were
expelled from universities, and 80 were imprisoned following
political trials. The authorities also sacked prominent professors
who had influenced and supported the students. The regime's darkest
response, an anti-Semitic purge, resulted in an exodus of more than
10,000 people, who were also deprived of their citizenship.
The springtime of protests that many in the West remember fondly led
to very different outcomes. Anti-capitalist radicalism pushed many
Western protesters toward the extreme left, rejection of liberal
democracy, and, in some cases, terrorism. The ideological evolution
of the Polish students led in the opposite direction – from efforts
to "improve" socialism in the name of "true" Marxism to
anti-totalitarian opposition and the construction of a free civil society.
Imprisonment completed the evolution of the March combatants and left
them free of illusions. In the 1970s, they created the biggest center
of opposition in the socialist "camp." The Solidarity movement of the
1980s and the peaceful overthrow of communism was, in large measure,
the work of their generation. It was the only suitable end to the
road begun in 1968 under the monument of Mickiewicz.
Jan Skórzynski is former deputy editor-in-chief of Rzeczpospolita and
author of several books about the history of the Polish democratic
opposition to communism and the Solidarity movement.