March '68. Historical facts
The student rally held at the University of Warsaw on 8 March 1968 and brutally suppressed by the communist authorities turned out to be a spark that ignited one of the most complex socio-political crises in the postwar history of Poland. The crisis resulted in the pacification of Polish intellectual life and in forced migration of 13,000 Polish Jews who had fallen victim of a brutal antisemitic campaign launched by the authorities.
The society’s disgruntlement with the policies of Władysław Gomułka, the first secretary of the communist party, had been growing for several years. The intelligentsia and artistic milieus were particularly affected by the growing restrictions on the freedoms secured on the wave of 1956 de-Stalinisation:
- liquidating numerous independent initiatives,
- increased censorship,
- restrictions on contacts with the West.
At the same, a behind-the-scenes struggle for power was taking place inside the Polish United Workers’ Party. The influence of the so-called Partisans, an anti-liberal faction centred around the Minister of the Interior Mieczysław Moczar, was growing as they tried to gain social support with nationalist slogans.
The anti-reformist policy of the Polish United Workers' Party was also contested by a circle of students led by, among others, Adam Michnik. It was this very group who organised a demonstration under the slogan “independence without censorship” in front of the statue of Adam Mickiewicz on 30 January 1968, following the ban imposed on the performance based on the poet’s play Forefathers’ Eve (the play's anti-Russian themes, interpreted as anti-Soviet allusions, provoked spontaneous reactions from the audience).
On 8 March 1968, the militia and military groups of the so-called “worker-activists” broke up the rally held at the quadrangle in front of the University of Warsaw Library in defence of Adam Michnik and Henryk Szlajfer who had been illegally expelled from the University. The rally provoked a nationwide wave of protests of young people and students. In many cities, street riots (also involving high school students and young workers) and sit-in strikes at universities took place. Students protested against the authorities’ brutality and propaganda, putting forward demands for democratisation of the system. They were also inspired by the "Prague Spring" reforms in socialist Czechoslovakia.
The authorities responded not only with repressions (2,700 people detained, 700 charged with misdemeanours, 60 put on trial, thousands of students expelled from universities and dozens of academics dismissed), but also with a propaganda hate campaign in which the antisemitic motif played a central role.
The first stage of the anti-Jewish campaign took place as early as 1967, in connection with Israel's victory in the so-called Six-Day War with the Arab states supported by the Soviet bloc. After Gomułka had publicly referred to Polish Jews rejoicing Israel’s victory as a "fifth column", the anti-Israeli propaganda campaign turned into an antisemitic campaign. It entailed anti-Jewish purges in the state and party apparatus, especially in the army.
In March 1968, the authorities yet again resorted to antisemitism. The fact that some of the student protests’ participants were of Jewish origin provided a pretext for accusing them of Zionism. Although the official propaganda avoided the word "Jew", the authorities cynically played on anti-Jewish sentiments present within the society in an attempt to disgrace their opponents. Reference was also made to the negative stereotype of "żydokomuna" (Jewish communism). According to the propaganda message, aside from the imperialist "Zionists", the prime movers behind the protests were politically "bankrupt" Jewish communists—former Stalinists. Thus, the Partisans who aspired to power gained a pretext to initiate an exchange of elites. The so-called "March docents" who replaced the expelled professors at universities grew to become a symbol of the said exchange
By appealing to people’s antisemitism, the authorities organised “anti-Zionist” rallies in towns and cities, as well as staff meetings at workplaces. This demonstration of hatred triggered a new wave of purges within the party apparatus, administration and economy, which affected thousands of people. Some of them, apart from state antisemitism, experienced hostile behaviour from within their immediate surroundings. At the same time, however, those who sympathised with their Jewish friends and colleagues were also subjected to attacks.
The mass antisemitic campaign affected the entire Jewish community in Poland, along with its institutions. In its wake, approximately 13,000 Jews decided to leave the country. Those who decided to emigrate were deprived of Polish citizenship. March ‘68 brought the end of organised Jewish life in Poland.