Władysław Gomułka

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Władysław Gomułka
Wladyslaw Gomulka na trybunie.jpg
First Secretary of the
Polish United Workers' Party
In office
21 October 1956 – 20 December 1970
Preceded by Edward Ochab
Succeeded by Edward Gierek
First Secretary of the Polish Workers' Party
In office
Preceded by Paweł Finder
Succeeded by Bolesław Bierut
Personal details
Born (1905-02-06)6 February 1905
Krosno, Austria-Hungary
Died 1 September 1982(1982-09-01) (aged 77)
Konstancin, Poland
Nationality Polish
Political party Polish United Workers' Party
Religion None[1]

Władysław Gomułka (Polish: [vwaˈdɨswaf ɡɔˈmuwka]; 6 February 1905 – 1 September 1982) was a Polish communist activist and politician. He was the de facto leader of post-war Poland until 1948, and again from 1956 to 1970. American journalist John Gunther described Gomułka as "professorial in manner, aloof, and angular, with a peculiar spry pepperiness."[2]

Gomułka was born in a worker family in Krosno. He received only rudimentary education before being employed in the oil industry of the Subcarpathian region. In 1926 he became a member of the Communist Party of Poland (Komunistyczna Partia Polski, KPP) and was arrested for political activity. Gomułka was an activist in the leftist labor unions from 1926 and in the Central Trade Department of the communist party Central Committee from 1931. In 1932, during a strike action of textile workers in Łódź, he was shot, wounded and arrested by the Sanation police; subsequently sentenced to a prison term. In 1934, Gomułka went to Moscow, where he lived and studied at the International Lenin School for a year. After his return to Poland Gomułka worked as a regional KPP secretary in Silesia. He was arrested in 1936, sentenced to seven years in prison and remained jailed until the beginning of World War II.

During the war, Gomułka became an influential Polish communist and in 1942 participated in the reformation of a Polish communist party (the KPP was destroyed in Stalin's purges in the late 1930s) under the name Polish Workers' Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza, PPR). Gomułka organized the party structures in the Subcarpathian region, but soon was brought to the capital to lead the PPR Warsaw division. After some of the PPR founders, many of whom were previously parachuted or otherwise brought from the Soviet Union, were killed in the internal struggle or eliminated by the Nazis, Gomułka became the Party's secretary general in November 1943 (and remained in that position until September 1948, when Stalin and Beria decided that his leadership no longer served their interests). In occupied Warsaw Gomułka established a national quasi-parliament (the communist version) named the State National Council and was a deputy in that body.

Gomułka was a deputy prime minister in the Provisional Government of the Republic of Poland (Rząd Tymczasowy Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej), from January to June 1945, and in the Provisional Government of National Unity (Tymczasowy Rząd Jedności Narodowej), from 1945 to 1947. As a minister of Recovered Territories (1945–48), he exerted great influence over the rebuilding, integration and economic progress of Poland within its new borders, by supervising the settlement, development and administration of the lands acquired from Germany. Using his position in the PPR and government, Gomułka led the leftist social transformations in Poland and participated in the crushing of the resistance to the communist rule during the post-war years. He also helped the communists in winning the 3 x Tak (3 Times Yes) referendum of 1946. A year later, he played a key role in the 1947 parliamentary elections, which were rigged to give the communists and their allies an overwhelming victory. After the elections, all remaining legal opposition in Poland was effectively destroyed.

Gomułka became the "hegemon" of Poland. However, a rivalry between Polish communist factions (Gomułka was the leader of a home national group vs. Bolesław Bierut of Stalin's group reared during the war in Moscow) led to Gomułka's removal from power in 1948 and imprisonment (from August 1951 to December 1954). He was accused of "right wing-reactionary deviation" and expelled from the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) (as the Polish Workers' Party was renamed following a merger with the Polish Socialist Party).

The Stalinist General Secretary of the PZPR Bierut died in 1956, during the period of de-Stalinization in Poland, which gradually developed after Stalin's death. Edward Ochab became the new first secretary of the Party. In June 1956, violent worker protests broke out in Poznań. The worker riots were harshly suppressed and dozens of workers were killed. However, the party leadership, which now included many reform-minded officials, recognized to some degree the validity of the protest participants' demands and took steps to placate the workers.[3][4]

Gomułka with Leonid Brezhnev in East Germany

The reformers in the Party wanted a political rehabilitation of Gomułka and his return to the party leadership. Gomułka insisted that he be given real power to implement further reforms. He wanted a replacement of some of the party leaders, including the pro-Soviet Minister of Defense Konstantin Rokossovsky.

The Soviet leadership viewed events in Poland with alarm. Simultaneously with Soviet troop movements deep into Poland, a high-level Soviet delegation flew to Warsaw. It was led by Nikita Khrushchev and included Mikoyan, Bulganin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Marshal Konev and others. Ochab and Gomułka made it clear that Polish forces would resist if Soviet troops advanced, but reassured the Soviets that the reforms were internal matters and that Poland had no intention of abandoning the communist bloc or its treaties with the Soviet Union. The Soviets yielded.[5]

Following the wishes of the majority of the Politburo members, First Secretary Ochab gave in and on 19 October the Central Committee brought Gomułka and several associates into the Politburo, removed others, and elected Gomułka as first secretary of the Party. Gomułka, the former prisoner of the Stalinists, enjoyed wide popular support across the country.

A major factor that influenced Gomułka was the Oder-Neisse line issue. West Germany refused to recognize the Oder-Neisse line and Gomułka realized the fundamental instability of Poland's unilaterally imposed western border.[6] He felt threatened by the revanchist statements put out by the Adenauer government and believed that the alliance with the Soviet Union was the only thing stopping the threat of a future German invasion.[7] The new party leader told the 8th Plenum of the PZPR on 19 October 1956 that: "Poland needs friendship with the Soviet Union more than the Soviet Union needs friendship with Poland... Without the Soviet Union we cannot maintain our borders with the West".[8] Seeing that Gomułka was popular with the Polish people, and given his insistence that he wanted to maintain the alliance with the Soviet Union and the presence of the Red Army in Poland, Khrushchev decided that Gomułka was a leader that Moscow could live with.[7]

Gomułka was initially very popular for his reforms and seeking a "Polish way to socialism",[9] and giving rise to the period known as "Gomułka's thaw". During the 1960s, however, he became more conservative and, afraid of destabilizing the system, not inclined to introduce or permit changes. In the 1960s he supported persecution of the Catholic Church and intellectuals (notably Leszek Kołakowski, who was forced into exile). In 1967–68 Gomułka allowed outbursts of "anti-Zionist" political propaganda,[10] which developed first as a result of the Soviet bloc's frustration with the outcome of the Six-Day War.[4] It turned out being a thinly veiled anti-Semitic campaign, pursued primarily by others in the Party, but utilized by Gomułka to keep himself in power by shifting the attention of the populace from the stagnating economy and mismanagement. The result was that the majority of the remaining Polish citizens of Jewish origin left the country. At that time he was also responsible for persecuting protesting students and toughening censorship of the media. Gomułka was one of the key leaders of and supported Poland's participation in the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

A remarkable achievement of Gomułka's politics was the negotiating of a treaty with West Germany, signed in December 1970. The German side recognized the post-World War II borders, which established a foundation for future peace, stability and cooperation in Central Europe.

In December 1970, bloody clashes with shipyard workers on the Baltic Coast, in which several dozen workers were fatally shot, forced his resignation and retirement. In a generational replacement of the ruling elite, Edward Gierek took over the Party leadership and tensions eased.

Gomułka's negative image in communist propaganda after his removal was gradually modified and some of his constructive contributions were recognized. He is seen as an honest and austere believer in the socialist system, who, unable to resolve Poland's formidable difficulties and satisfy mutually contradictory demands, grew more rigid and despotic later in his career. He died in 1982 of lung cancer. Gomułka's memoirs were first published in 1994.

Early life and career[edit]

Władysław Gomułka was born in Białobrzegi Franciszkańskie, on the outskirts of Krosno, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the Galicia region) on 6 February 1905. His parents met and married in the United States, where each went in search for better life in the late 19th century, but returned to the Austrian Partition of Poland in the early 20th century because Władysław's father Jan was unable to find in America a well-paying job. Jan Gomułka worked as a laborer in the Subcarpathian oil industry, while Władysław's older sister Józefa, born in the USA, returned there upon turning eighteen to preserve her US citizenship and join the extended family, most of whom had emigrated. Władysław and his two siblings experienced a childhood of the proverbial Galician poverty: they lived in an old dilapidated hut and ate mostly potatoes.[11]

Gomułka attended schools in Krosno for six or seven years, until the age of thirteen, when he had to start an apprenticeship in a metal- and tool-working shop. Throughout his life Gomułka was an avid reader and accomplished a great deal of self-education, but remained a subject of jokes because of his lack of formal education and demeanor.[11]

In 1922, Gomułka passed his apprenticeship exams and began working at the local refineries. He developed connections with the radical Left, joining the Independent Peasant Party first. From 1926 Gomułka was a member of the Communist Party of Western Ukraine, a branch of the Communist Party of Poland. He was interested primarily in social issues, including the trade and labor movement, and concentrated on practical activities.[11]

Activist in the Communist Party of Poland[edit]

Already known for his activism in the Metal Workers Union, in October 1926 Gomulka became a secretary of the managing council in the Chemical Industry Workers Union for the Drohobych District. Gomułka learned on his own the basic Ukrainian language, but in mid-1927 he was brought to Warsaw, where he remained active until drafted for military service at the end of the year. After several months, the military released him because of a leg disability.


  1. ^ "Above all, however, Mr. Gomulka is an atheist, and he is now strong enough to say so in a country which is not." 'Mr. Gomulka Bolder Against Church', The Times, Wednesday, Feb 08, 1961; pg. 11; Issue 55000; col D.
  2. ^ Gunther, John (1961). Inside Europe Today. New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 332. LCCN 61-9706. 
  3. ^ Rothschild and Wingfield: Return to Diversity, A Political History of East Central Europe Since World War II OUP 2000
  4. ^ a b "The defection of Jozef Swiatlo and the Search for Jewish Scapegoats in the Polish United Workers' Party, 1953-1954" (PDF). Fourth Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities. Harriman Institute, Columbia University, New York City. April 15–17, 1999. Retrieved 2007-10-27. 
  5. ^ "Notes from the Minutes of the CPSU CC Presidium Meeting with Satellite Leaders, October 24, 1956" (PDF). The 1956 Hungarian Revolution, A History in Documents. George Washington University: The National Security Archive. November 4, 2002. Retrieved 2006-09-02. 
  6. ^ Granville, Johanna "Reactions to the Events of 1956: New Findings from the Budapest and Warsaw Archives" pages 261-290 from Journal of Contemporary History, Volume 38, Issue #2, April 2003 pages 284-285.
  7. ^ a b Granville, Johanna "From the Archives of Warsaw and Budapest: A Comparison of the Events of 1956" pages 521-563 from East European Politics and Societies, Volume 16, Issue #2, April 2002 pages 540-541
  8. ^ Granville, Johanna "From the Archives of Warsaw and Budapest: A Comparison of the Events of 1956" pages 521-563 from East European Politics and Societies, Volume 16, Issue #2, April 2002 page 541
  9. ^ "Rebellious Compromiser". Time Magazine. 10 December 1956. Retrieved 2006-10-14. 
  10. ^ Judt, Tony (2005). Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. New York, The Penguin Press (pages 434-435)
  11. ^ a b c Jerzy Eisler, Siedmiu wspaniałych poczet pierwszych sekretarzy KC PZPR [The Magnificent Seven: First Secretaries of KC PZPR], Wydawnictwo Czerwone i Czarne, Warszawa 2014, ISBN 978-83-7700-042-7, pp. 174–175

Decorations and awards[edit]

See also[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by
Paweł Finder
General Secretary of the Polish Workers' Party
Succeeded by
Bolesław Bierut (as General Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party
Preceded by
Edward Ochab
General Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party
Succeeded by
Edward Gierek