|Table of contents|
2 The events
3 The resolution
Gomulka's temporary political success could not mask the economic crisis into which Poland was drifting. Although the system of fixed, artificially low food prices kept urban discontent under control, it caused stagnation in agriculture and made more expensive food imports necessary. This was unsustainable, and in December 1970 the regime suddenly announced massive increases in the prices of basic foodstuffs. It is possible that the price rises were imposed on Gomulka by his enemies in the Party leadership who planned to manoeuvre him out of power. The rises were a fatal miscalculation, for they turned the urban workers against the regime. Gomulka believed that the agreement with West Germany had made him more popular, but in fact most Poles appear to have felt that since the Germans were no longer a threat to Poland, they no longer needed tolerate the Communist regime as a guarantee of Soviet support for the defence of the Oder-Neisse border.
Demonstrations against the price rises broke out in the northern coastal cities of Gdansk, Gdynia, Elblag and Szczecin. Gomulka's right-hand man, Zenon Kliszko, made matters worse by ordering the army to fire on the workers as they tried to return to their factories; he was afraid of sabotage. Another leader, Stanislaw Kociolek, appealed to the workers to return to work. But in Gdynia the soldiers had orders to stop workers returning to work, and they fired into the crowd of workers emerging from their trains on December 17: hundreds of workers were killed. The protest movement then spread to other cities, leading to strikes and occupations.
The Party leadership met in Warsaw and decided that a full-scale working-class revolt was inevitable unless drastic steps were taken. With the consent of Brezhnev in Moscow, Gomulka, Kliszko and other leaders were forced to resign: if the price rises had been a plot against Gomulka, it succeeded. Since Moscow would not accept Moczar, Edward Gierek was drafted as the new leader. The price rises were reversed, wage rises announced, and sweeping economic and political changes were promised. Gierek went to Gdansk and met the workers, apologised for the mistakes of the past, and said that as a worker himself he would now govern for the people.