Monument of victims of massacres during Polish 1970 protests in Elbląg.
The Polish 1970 protests (Polish: Grudzień 1970) occurred in northern Poland in December 1970. The protests were sparked by a sudden increase of prices of food and other everyday items. As a result of the riots, which were put down by the Polish People's Army and the Citizen's Militia, at least 42 people were killed and more than 1,000 wounded.
Władysław Gomułka's temporary political success of 1956 could not mask the economic crisis into which the People's Republic of 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 Gomułka by his enemies in the Party leadership who planned to manoeuvre him out of power.
The rise in prices proved to be a major shock to ordinary citizens and turned the urban workers against the regime. Gomułka 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 to tolerate the Communist regime as a guarantee of Soviet support for the defence of the Oder-Neisse line.
Demonstrations against the price rises broke out in the northern Baltic coastal cities of Gdańsk, Gdynia, Elbląg and Szczecin. Gomułka's right-hand man, Zenon Kliszko, made matters worse by ordering the army to fire on workers as they tried to return to their factories. The regime was afraid of a wave of sabotage that was being started, which however is often believed to be inspired by the secret police, who wanted to legitimize a harsh response to the protesters.
Another party leader, Stanisław Kociołek, appealed to the workers to return to work. However, in Gdynia the soldiers had orders to stop workers returning to work and on December 17th they fired into the crowd of workers emerging from their trains; hundreds of workers were killed or wounded. The protest movement then spread to other cities, leading to strikes and occupations. The government mobilized 5,000 members of special squads of police and 27,000 soldiers equipped with heavy tanks and machine guns. Over 1,000 people were wounded and at least 40 killed (other numbers often cited are 39 and 44 though the exact death toll remains unknown) and 3,000 arrested, by modern accounts. However, only six people were reported dead by the government at the time. All those who perished were buried overnight, with only the closest relatives present, in order to avoid spreading the riots.
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 Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow, Gomułka, Kliszko and other leaders were forced to resign: if the price rises had been a plot against Gomułka, it succeeded. Since Moscow would not accept Mieczysław 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 Gdańsk and met the workers, apologised for the mistakes of the past, promised a political renewal and said that as a worker himself he would now govern for the people.
Despite the fact that the aims of the protesters were mostly social and economical rather than political, the crushed riots had reinvigorated the dormant political activity of Polish society. Nevertheless, the workers from the Coast did not ultimately prevent the government from implementing its agenda of increased food prices. This was achieved a few weeks later, after the 1971 Łódź strikes.