Polish Students Reject Censorship and Repression, 1968

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Repercussions of the repression campaign would continue into 1969, however the student movement's campaigns ended in early May 1968.
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Location Description: 
All major academic campuses in Poland and various cities, including Warsaw, Gdansk, Cracow, Poznan, Wroclaw, and Lodz.
A repeal of the censor against the production of Kazmierz Dejmek's "Dziady"; an end to censorship by PZPR, particularly in schools and in the arts; freedom of the press; ending the monopoly of state-controlled media; an end to the repression and arrests used against dissidents; an end to deployment of police on academic campuses.

In early 1968, the Polish National Theater in Warsaw decided to stage a production of “Dziady,” a classic Polish play by the revered 19th century writer Adam Modzelewski. The production’s director, Kazmierz Dejmek, choose to highlight the text’s connection to early Christianity as well as the story of Poland’s struggle for liberation. Although the communist government rejected religion, no pundits viewed the play’s content as an exceptional departure from the guidelines of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR), the governing party of Poland.

After the debut of Dejmek’s production in early January, the PZPR announced that 30 January 1968 would be the show’s final night by order of the police. Unlike other acts of censorship, which usually happened with no prior warning or explanation, the government leaked the order to censor “Dziady” to the public two weeks in advance of 30 January.

On 30 January 1968, three hundred students from the University of Warsaw and the National Theater School marched to the National Theater, where Dejmek’s final production had just finished. The demonstration continued as students marched to the statue of Adam Modzelewski, the playwright of “Dziady,” and laid flowers at the base of the monument. In the following days, students circulated a petition protesting the PZPR’s censorship at the University of Warsaw.

On 3 February 1968, the PZPR’s Department of Science and Education referred to the demonstration of 30 January in a telegram sent to the fourteen Provincial Committees in Poland, asking that Provincial authorities take action if student dissent began in their province.

On 8 March 1968, several hundred University of Warsaw students marched to their rector’s office shouting “No studies without freedom.” As they proceeded to march through campus, five hundred members of the Worker’s Militia (the state’s special police force) arrived and asked to speak to the student demonstrators. Soon after, they used clubs to disperse the demonstration – two hundred police officers who had gathered nearby arrested students attempting to flee.

The following day, 9 March, twenty thousand students marched through the center of Warsaw in response to the militia’s repression - police officers beat the marching students with clubs.

On the same day, the heads of the PZCR Science and Education Department sent a telegram to the Provincial Committees recounting the previous day’s protests and stating that police would prevent any future protests by punishing and expelling students who initiated the demonstrations. The telegram also threatened to discipline faculty who had supported the student dissidents. The propaganda of PZPR, which appeared on campuses in Warsaw, Lublin, and Jagiellonian University on 9 March, characterized the protests as the result of Jewish outside agitators. The same day police arrested Adam Michnik, a Jewish student and well-known dissident leader.

The next day, 10 March 1968, students again assembled to protest the closing of “Dziady” and to express their outrage at the invasion of their campuses by the police and the Worker’s Militia, and the arrests of their peers. Students at the Warsaw Polytechnic School marched through the streets, condemning the “Gestapo” of the Ministry of the Interior and throwing rocks at the police who responded with tear gas before cordoning off the streets and clubbing the students. Meanwhile at the University of Warsaw, police attacked students demonstrating by the church where the heart of composer Frédéric Chopin was buried.

On 11 March 1968, thousands of students protested in Warsaw, Gdansk, Cracow, Poznan, Wroclaw, Gliwice, and Lodz, some of whom attempted to stage sit-ins and boycotts on campus. In addition to protesting censorship, students called for freedom of the press and denounced the state-controlled media. Police, some of whom used water cannons and tear gas, attacked almost all demonstrations.

In Warsaw, thousands of students marched to the Polish Community Party headquarters and clashed with police for eight hours in the streets – the officers clubbed and arrested demonstrators. When additional officers arrived to Warsaw campuses, students yelled “Gestapo!” Later in the day Warsaw students formed a three-person committee to serve as a representative body for the protesters.

In Lublin a thousand students and supporters gathered on campus chanting “Help Warsaw” and “Down with censorship.” In Gliwice nearly two hundred students gathered on the Silesian Polytechnic campus to sing the national anthem and the “Internationale,” a famous anthem of socialist revolutions. The police attempted to disperse the crowd without force and later arrested 43 of the most active protesters as the demonstration ended.

In Lodz students circulated petitions demanding that police stop arresting student protesters and that the government expand freedom of the press. A thousand students joined a march through campus and declared a three-day sit-in.

The PZPR cut the phone lines on the Lodz campus to isolate protesters from each other although students still managed to form a delegation to represent the protesters’ demands.

By 12 March 1968, the student protest movement had engulfed all of Poland’s major academic campuses: Warsaw, Gdansk, Cracow, Poznan, Wroclaw, and Lodz. The PZPR began to identify Jewish students as leaders of protests and to target them for arrest during demonstrations.

Students distributed fliers in Cracow, Prezemysl, and Siedlice that called for a protest on 13 March in solidarity with Warsaw students. At Gdansk Polytechnic, students sent delegates to places of work to explain their demands to workers. The PZPR sent 800 police officers to Cracow, 130 to Gdansk, and 80 to Poznan.

Frequent street demonstrations occurred over the next three days and police attacked and arrested students at each one. Cracow and Poznan students demonstrated on 13 March. Students at Gdansk Polytechnic rallied on 14 March and voted to hold a joint demonstration with workers the following day. On 15 March students in Gdansk, Katowice, Legnica, and Wroclaw held rallies, and two days later several hundred secondary school students in Radom demonstrated, resulting in 41 arrests.

Students at Cracow also formed an inter-university committee to represent the protesters on 13 March. They began a six-day strike on 14 March, which led to a boycott of classes until 20 March. Students at Wroclaw also began two-day strike on 14 March, occupying the campus until 16 March. On 16 March several dozen people departed Cracow en route to Warsaw in hopes of supporting the student leaders at Warsaw University - 50 were detained on the way.

On 19 March 1968, Community Party General Secretary Wladyslaw gave a speech publicly rejecting any chance of negotiation between students and PZPR.

At Lodz University, students and some administrators held a strike from 21 March to 22 March. Strikes also occurred on three Warsaw campuses from 21 March to 23 March.

In response, the Ministry of the Interior arrested the organizers of the Warsaw Polytechnic strike and the members of the Warsaw University Student Committee. Between the beginning of the mass protests on 8 March and 21 March, 2,180 Poles were arrested for participation in demonstrations, including 525 students. Although the PZPR hoped to pit the Worker’s Militia against the students, the arrest records reveal that many workers in the Provinces were disciplined for distributing fliers and protesting in support of the students. During the same period 769 blue-collar workers and 288 white-collar workers were arrested. 825 of the arrestees were released within 48 hours of their detainment.

On 22 March administrators at Wroclaw Polytechnic expelled 1553 students from involvement in the movement.

On March 25, students from Wroclaw, Warsaw, Lublin, Lodz, Cracow, Gliwice, Poznan, Torun, and Szczecin held a meeting in an attempt to coordinate actions. The Ministry of the Interior received information on the meeting and reported that students discussed reaching out to Polish workers to build support for their demands.

On March 28 police arrested twenty-two more Warsaw students, 15 of whom were members of the university-wide committee. By the end of March almost students who had participated in the March 25 planning meeting were in prison.

Some Polish citizens and secondary school students living in the provinces outside the major academic centers supported the students and secretly distributed sympathetic fliers by scattering them in public places or placing them in mailboxes. Three hundred such fliers were distributed in Jelenia Gora on 31 March – police later arrested a secondary school student who confessed to making the fliers that Jelenia had distributed.

In early April students at Wroclaw campuses organized a cafeteria boycott. Schools reported that they only served ten to thirty percent of the usual numbers of meals during the boycott. At the same time Warsaw students called for a boycott of the state-controlled press, where students refused to watch state television or listen to the state’s radio from 5 April to 10 April.

Police seized 153 pro-student fliers in Bytom on 8 April. By 6 April, the total number of arrests since 8 March had increased to 2,725, including 641 students, 937 blue-collar workers, and 272 white-collar workers.

Several campuses called for a major demonstrations and strikes to occur on 22 April, and students distributed fliers for the action in the preceding days.

To preempt the strike, the Ministry of the Interior arrested several dozen students organizers at Warsaw, Cracow, and Wroclaw. The planned demonstrations and strikes did not occur on 22 April.

Students hoped to rally on May Day but continuing arrests, investigations, and threats hampered the dissidents. Police seized 300 pro-student fliers in Mragowo in late April, and another 500 anti-PZPR fliers in Milsko on 30 April.

On 1 May 1968, a hundred students from Wroclaw Polytechnic rallied and dropped a banner emblazoned with: "The arrested are among us," "The truth is on our side," "We demand that the students be freed." Without using force the police persuaded the students to remove the banners and disperse. In Czechoslovakia, May Day demonstrators, including Czech students and citizens, marched to the Polish embassy to protest Poland’s repression of the students. The Czech demonstrators also demanded that the Polish PZPR end its persecution of Jews.

The repercussions of the PZPR’s heavy repression continued in the years following the mass demonstrations. Between March 1968 and 28 February 1969, prosecutors sent 96 arrestees, including 91 students, to be tried in court – 80 out of the total 96 were found guilty and sentenced, of which 33 received prison terms. Soon after, 22 were released which left 9 students – all members of the student dissident leadership – still in prison by 28 February 1969.

Research Notes

The Polish students were influenced by the global wave of student protest in 1968. In particular, Mark Kurlansky notes that the Polish students adopted tactics (sit-ins) from the U.S Civil Rights movement and drew inspiration from student dissidents in Czechoslovakia (see: Prague Spring).

Friszke, Andrzej. "The March 1968 Protest Movement in Light of Ministry of Interior Reports to the Party Leadership," Intermarium, Volume 1, Number 1, 1997; translated from Polish. Original published in Wiez (March 1994).

Kurlansky, Mark. 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. New York: Ballantine, 2004. Print.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Guido Girgenti, 24/2/2014