Fifty years ago, Poland was swept by a huge wave of student protests. It began with a rally at the University of Warsaw convoked by the so-called “commandos,” a group of oppositionist-minded students, on March 8, 1968. The demonstration, which in the light of the law was illegal (because not approved by the communist authorities), was a protest against the tightening of censorship and police repressions. Its main slogan, “We will not let the constitution be trampled upon,” would soon be heard at universities all over the country.
To understand the deeper cause of those events, however, one has to go a few years back. In the mid-1960s, the first postwar Baby Boomers entered Poland’s universities. These young people, born between 1945 and 1948, are sometimes referred to as the “generation of People’s Poland,” because they came into the world just as the communist system in Poland was being established. Socialist ideology, single-party governments and the command economy created the reality in which they matured—they did not know another system. Yet they were also too young to remember the times of Stalin’s terror in the first half of the 1950s; hence they did not experience the fear of repression that paralyzed their parents.
At the same time, sociological research from the mid-1960s drew a portrait of these young people that did not in any way foretell the upcoming revolution. The young were predominantly pragmatic: they believed that achieving a comfortable and peaceful life was more important than changing the world. They wanted to have a happy and healthy family, well-paid work, an apartment, a car, and all the usual comforts of middle-class life.
Be that as it may, an influential circle of politically engaged youth gradually developed at the University of Warsaw around Adam Michnik, Henryk Szlajfer, Józef Dajczgewand, and their older colleagues Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski. Together they organized discussion meetings devoted to sociology, economics, and history, where they talked openly about censorship, the injustices of the political system, and taboo “white spots” in Poland’s recent history. The students met in dorms and private flats, but also attended meetings of the Polish Socialist Youth Association (ZMS) as an organized group—and led the discussion into a zone of debate that was uncomfortable for the authorities.
These “commandos” immediately found themselves targeted by the Security Service. Initially the repressions were moderate, limited to penalties imposed by the university disciplinary commission. Only Kuroń and Modzelewski were sent to prison in 1965, for disseminating their “Open Letter to the Party.” With time, however, the activities of the “commandos” became more and more bold, which prompted the authorities to resort to harsher methods.
In January and February 1968, the youth organized protests against the decision to ban Adam Mickiewicz’s play Forefathers’ Eve, one of the most important works of Polish Romanticism. They organized a demonstration at the monument of Mickiewicz, distributed leaflets, and collected signatures for a letter to the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament. The Minister of Education then made a decision, illegal even by the law in force at the time, to expel Michnik and Szlajfer from the university.
The “commandos” swiftly decided that they must defend their colleagues. Everyone agreed that the lack of a decisive and spectacular protest would only embolden the authorities to squelch any further independent activity. The activists had long considered organizing a major rally at the university, and the Minister of Education’s decision gave them the perfect time to put the idea into practice. The protest was set for March 8.
Although the rally had a peaceful character, it was brutally attacked by the militia and the aktyw robotniczy, the so-called “working-class activists” whom the Communist Party had deployed as a fighting squad to imitate the voice of a society outraged by the intelligentsia’s whims. The unexpected and unprovoked assault backfired: suddenly, the ideals of a narrow circle of “commandos” became the shared concern of the whole academic community. Students who were at the rally by sheer coincidence instantly felt themselves to be members of a great movement. Over the next few hours, stories about pacifying the rally spread like wildfire—mainly through Radio Free Europe broadcasts—and spawned new protests and demonstrations across the country.
The academic unrest reached its apogee over the first two weeks after the rally at the University of Warsaw. In several universities strikes were proclaimed; student rallies and marches were also held in all academic cities, brutally disrupted by the paramilitary ZOMO forces. Thousands of people were detained and hundreds were arrested as students began to demand respect for the constitution, real freedom of speech, and respect for the right to assembly.
Importantly, the young did not reject the system as such, but only demanded that it fulfill its assumptions. One of the songs most often sung at student rallies was “The Internationale.” Yet that fact did not make the authorities’ response any less severe. Within two weeks, the rulers managed to pacify the universities. The strikers were expelled from their courses; many were arrested and punished by conscription to the army. The most severely harassed was the “commando” circle. Between November 1968 and April 1969, based on the provisions of the small penal code proscribing “participation in a secret organization,” 14 people were convicted to prison, their sentences ranging from one-and-a-half to three-and-a-half years.
Party propagandists, along with militias and security agents, also joined the fight against the youth movement. The press presented the student protest as a result of a conspiracy conceived by the “Zionists,” the authorities’ preferred term for Poles of Jewish origin. It was eagerly emphasized that some of the “commandos” came from the families of Jewish communists who occupied prominent positions in the Stalinist period. Propaganda organs tried to win over society by referring to the myth of “Żydokomuna” (“Commie-Jews”), popular in the pre-war Polish nationalist movement.
The first stirrings of the anti-Semitic campaign had come in June 1967, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. The spectacular victory of Israel over the Soviet-backed Arab states upended the Cold War balance of forces. In a public speech soon thereafter, Władysław Gomułka, the first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), compared Polish Jews to a “fifth column,” suggesting that they were a hidden ally of Israel—a country with which the Polish Peoples’ Republic (PRL) had just broken diplomatic relations.
The words of the party leader were taken up by the informal faction in the PZPR gathered around the Interior Minister, Mieczysław Moczar. By the mid-1960s, Moczar had already become the most important player on the political scene by blending communist doctrine with nationalistic rhetoric. His base included mid-level party activists, military personnel, and Security Service officers. Their worldview, often referred to as national communism, combined chauvinism and anti-Semitism with an aversion to the intelligentsia and a contempt for civil liberties. They valued discipline, soldierly bluntness, and obedience.
Many of Moczar’s supporters were part of a generation of 40 year olds known as the generation of the Union of Polish Youth (ZMP), the Stalinist-era PZPR youth movement. When the system stabilized at the end of the 1940s, these ZMP members were too young to attain important places in the power structures. Later, the promotion channels were blocked; in the mid-1960s, the most important positions were still occupied by pre-war communists. Their younger colleagues waited with growing impatience for some significant political turmoil that would finally open the door to their longed-for careers. For their lack of success, they blamed a Jewish clique who allegedly filled all the lucrative positions.
For Moczar and his people, Gomułka’s speech became a pretext to launch an offensive. The Security Service proceeded with the preparation of lists of “Zionists” and put many Polish Jews under surveillance. By the summer of 1967, they had already begun to be removed from the army and some editorial offices, and aggressive articles with anti-Semitic undertones appeared in the press. However, the real purge was yet to come.
The rebellion of the youth in March 1968 was a shock that again activated “anti-Zionist” resentments in the party ranks. The event mobilizing the ranks of Moczarists was a speech by the head of the PZPR branch in Warsaw at a meeting with local party activists. The speaker stressed that “the organizers of the brawls were Polish citizens of Jewish descent” and painted a devious picture of conspiracy: the children of Stalinist dignitaries, alongside members of the Jewish youth club “Babel,” arousing street disturbances to bring their parents back to power.
Just two days after the authorities pacified the rally at the University of Warsaw, newspapers, radio, and television reported mass gatherings in workplaces, during which workers demanded to “ensure peace and take actions against the initiators of incidents,” “punish troublemakers and their instigators,” and “undertake determined action to put an end to all harmful activities, and to finally deal with irresponsible bankrupt politicians.” “If they cannot bring up their own children, then we cannot we let them lead our work,” proclaimed the resolutions.
The workers’ rallies, of course, had nothing to do with spontaneity—they were spectacles directed by PZPR activists from the party’s factory and district committees. Participants of the manifestation were given placards with slogans like “Clean the party of the Zionists”, “Zionists to Dayan,” and “More workers’ children to universities.” The events of the following weeks and months were to be accompanied by an unprecedented propaganda campaign aiming to foster hatred for Polish Jews and for the allegedly privileged intelligentsia.
The campaign to unmask hidden enemies was accompanied by ostentatious concern for the good name of Poland. The aim of the “Zionist conspiracy,” it was said, was to profane Poland’s national martyrdom and erase the memory of the Poles’ heroic past. The “anti-Zionist” propaganda devoted immense space to the “slanders” of the Western press about Polish-Jewish relations during the German occupation and condemned Western historians who wrote about cases of Poles informing on Jews who had been in hiding.
The denouncements signed by “honest citizens,” “plant activists” or “teaching staff” flowed into the Central Committee, radio, and television. The names of “cosmopolitans,” “Zionists,” “members of socio-literary salons” and “people to whom the good of the nation was an alien concept” were enumerated. It was demanded that “Poland be purged of damage-doers.”
Even the full opening of the archives does not allow us to estimate the size of the anti-Semitic purges of these few spring months. It is known that nearly 500 people were thrown out of central offices and institutions such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Polish Scientific Publishers, the Nuclear Research Institute, the Ministry of Foreign Trade, and the State Reserves Office. To this number should be added dozens of lecturers expelled from universities. In spite of the myths accumulated over the years, the victims of the purge were mainly Polish Jews who were not connected with the communist power elite: scientists, doctors, lawyers, actors, engineers, teachers, and students.
By April, the party’s authorities had already decided “that the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should prepare an instruction on the matter of departure of Polish citizens of Jewish origin who would like to emigrate.” Thus began the last exodus of Jews from Poland.
The authorities wanted to create the appearance that “Zionists” left Poland voluntarily, which would confirm their propaganda about a fifth column in the country made up of disloyal citizens. In fact, the departures were more like deportations, albeit employing a more sophisticated form of coercion—both psychological and material—than physical compulsion.
Polish Jews—and those recognized as such by security apparatus officers—were losing their chance for a normal life in the People’s Republic of Poland. They were thrown out of work and deprived of retirement pensions. Anti-Semitic inscriptions appeared on their doorways, while their phones rang at night with threatening calls. Their individual motivations for emigration varied, but the most common included worries about their futures, the desire to pursue a chosen profession (especially important in the case of expelled students), and fear of physical assault.
When they said their farewells at Warsaw’s Gdański Railway Station—from which trains departed to Vienna, the first stop on the emigration route—it was clear that this was a permanent departure. Under the regulations in force at the time, Jews leaving Poland had to renounce their citizenship; in return they received a “travel document” allowing them a single crossing of the border of the PRL.
In total, 13,000 Polish Jews left the country between 1968 and 1971. March’s consequences for Polish science and culture were devastating: Nearly half a thousand academic lecturers, 200 journalists, 100 musicians, and dozens of actors and filmmakers emigrated.
In time, the events of 1968 came to take on a dual character in Poland. The year symbolized not only the rebellion of the young intelligentsia against the authoritarian order but also the marriage of the communist dictatorship with nationalism. In the underground press of the 1980s, “March language” became shorthand for the particular rhetorical blend of anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, and national megalomania unleashed by the authorities.
After the fall of communism, the memory of 1968 became an arena of conflict—one of many—dividing the political elites who grew out of Solidarity. Most of the “commandos” as well as former dissidents from the March generation played a leading role in the opposition of the 1980s, participated in the political transformation of 1989, and for the next two decades shaped Poland’s political life and its major media. The most important rallying cries of the Left and center were strengthening liberal democracy, building a middle class, and integration with the European Union.
On the other hand, right-wing conservative circles questioned the shape of the Third Polish Republic, considering it the fruit of an immoral compromise between part of the opposition and the leadership of the Communist Party. In the narrative of this camp, the postulates of lustration and de-communization were essential, as was the necessity to defend the Christian, Catholic identity of Poland and “national tradition” against the Left and the secular influences of the European Union. The deracinated cosmopolitan elites were set against the patriotic people.
As early as the mid-1990s, there appeared arguments that “Michnik’s salon,” the circle around Gazeta Wyborcza, and several left-liberal parties “appropriated March,” allegedly exaggerating their merits shown in 1968 and imposing their own interpretation of this protest. While the liberal center wanted to see 1968 as a rebellion of the intelligentsia against censorship and anti-Semitism, the right wing viewed the March strikes and demonstrations as an anti-communist and anti-Soviet upsurge, a continuation of the centuries-long struggle by the Poles against their invaders. What for some was a student revolution, for others was a national uprising.
As the national conservative camp increasingly gained influence on the political scene, the conflict between contesting historical memories also sharpened. The double electoral victory of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in 2005’s parliamentary and presidential elections initiated the construction of a completely new narrative about the postwar history of Poland—with an altogether different set of historical heroes and anniversaries.
Right-wing journalists, and with time politicians, increasingly came to emphasize the important role played by the “cursed soldiers” who formed the anti-communist guerilla movement between 1944 and 1947. They stressed the armed struggle against the Soviet-imposed communist regime as a key experience in the history of the nation. In newspapers sympathetic to the PiS and in the texts of some historians, the phrase “anti-communist uprising” appeared more and more often. In this view, the activity of the opposition during the Polish People’s Republic came to lose its luster, seen as too soft and conciliatory. The “round table” of 1989 was presented as an act of national betrayal, allegedly committed by Michnik and Kuron, who (the PiS claimed) suspiciously colluded with the leadership of the PZPR. According to many right-wing journalists, the communists should have been tossed in prison rather than negotiated with. In the national pantheon the place of Solidarity leaders like Lech Wałęsa was to be taken by guerrilla commanders whose clandestine nicknames, pronounced with reverence, made the core of a new historical narrative.
While for leftist and liberal circles, March ’68 constituted the founding myth of Polish democracy, forged by the elites of the dissident movement, the national Right looked at it with increasing suspicion. The group of “commandos” was discredited as connected with the communist movement and thus alienated from the nation. It was emphasized that the real backbone of freedom was not the leftist intelligentsia, but the nation following the voice of the Church.
In addition, some journalists identified with the broadly understood right-wing community were inclined to believe that the youth rebellion was a result of communist provocation. According to this theory, protesting students were only pawns in the game for power between party Jews and party anti-Semites. In online discussions and niche newspapers, various conspiracy theories abounded, their common denominator being the conviction that the events of 1968 were entirely “Jewish intrigue,” and that the purge and emigration were concocted by Jewish Stalinists to deflect responsibility for crimes committed on the Poles. Although these mostly anonymous voices cannot be unambiguously equated with the position of any right-wing group, they remained a key part of the social memory of March.
Another double PiS electoral victory in 2015 even more closely linked the sphere of historical memory with current politics. Jarosław Kaczyński’s party included in its program a separate chapter devoted to “identity and historical policy,” which was to constitute “an extremely important dimension of foreign policy and the existence of our country in the world.”
It soon turned out that the so-called “historical policy” was indeed a priority for the new government. Under the slogan “regaining of memory,” public media and institutions (which were quickly filled by PiS appointees) conducted a large-scale campaign to commemorate the “cursed soldiers.” Characteristically, the boundaries between the past and the present became blurred. The story of heroic partisans fighting against communists—reproduced in speeches by politicians, art exhibitions, television programs, and schools—was treated by the rulers as part of the current policy. The government dressed up its struggle against the opposition in historical costumes.
Genealogical investigations have featured prominently in the “regaining of memory” advertised by PiS. In 2013, three leading right-wing journals published the book Resortowe dzieci (Ministerial Children), which the party has since embraced. The book argues that all the pathologies and iniquities of the Third Polish Republic stem from the fact that the elites—media, business, political and academic—were taken over by the descendants of the communist police and party apparatchiks. The authors devote disproportionate attention to the circle of “commandos” and others from the March generation, and eagerly point out the Jewish names (real or imaginary) of the parents of former dissidents and prominent figures of post-1989 public life. The similarities to the communist propaganda of 1968 are striking: once again, opponents of the ruling party were attacked by being reminded whose children they were. The authors of Ministerial Children even cite the same reports of the Security Service that were used in 1968 by Party journalists.
Ministerial Children has achieved record sales. The publication was enthusiastically received by PiS politicians as well as by right-wing columnists. They praised the “courage of the authors” who did not hesitate to “break the largest taboo of the Third Republic of Poland” and reveal the truth about the “red dynasties.”
Since then, the concept of “ministerial children” has become a permanent feature of Polish political discourse. The Law and Justice Party now openly disparages the “bad origin” of its opponents. The elite circles influencing the political, intellectual, and economic life of Poland are the “spiritual heirs” of communists, the party has argued, so they should be replaced, as one PiS deputy memorably put it, by “genetic patriots.” Conservatives and nationalists often referred to Poland from 1989 to 2015 as “Ubekistan,” a state ruled by descendants of “ubeks” (a derogatory term for Security Service officers). The PiS victory in the parliamentary elections was presented as the fulfillment of national history—the ultimate triumph of the descendants of the “cursed soldiers” over the descendants of traitors.
Jaroslaw Kaczyński, although including himself in the March generation, has accordingly sought to distance himself from the “commandos” circle. “It consisted of people who, in the vast majority—either personally or at least through close family ties—were involved in the support of communist rule,” Kaczyński wrote in his recently published autobiography. “They did not have much in common with the authentic Polish political traditions.”
The “identity-historical policy” exerted by the new government has also affected the sphere of diplomacy. PiS has undertaken a number of activities to popularize abroad their account of the “dramatic” and “heroic” history of Poland in the 20th century, and to fight against supposed slanders affecting its good name. The Polish government has categorically protested against the term “Polish concentration camps” being used in the press, seeing in it “an attempt to transfer on Poles the blame for German crimes,” as Kaczyński put it in a recent interview. PiS politicians equally resolutely reject all critical opinions about the attitude of Polish society towards the Holocaust. Contrary to the opinion of most historians, they stress that the cases of complicity in murdering Jews were few and limited to individuals from the “social margins.” The defense of the truth about the heroic attitude of the nation has been recognized as the essence of the Polish raison d’état. “Polish history should be the queen of world memory,” said Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at a recent press conference.
In January, PiS deputies passed an amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, introducing a provision on a penalty of up to three years for anyone who “ascribes responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or the Polish State for the crimes committed by Third German Reich.” The provision outraged the academic community and part of the public, who feared the restriction of freedom of speech. The Israeli authorities also fiercely protested (seemingly to the surprise of PiS), seeing in the new law an attempt to gag the mouths of Holocaust survivors.
Celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the student rebellion have now been unexpectedly colored by the current context. In response to criticism from abroad and a large part of the Polish elite, PiS politicians and pro-government journalists have unwittingly reached for arguments heard in the communist propaganda of 1968.
“The [fifth] column in Poland, already unlimited, feeling external support, attacks falsely and extremely hatefully and brutal [sic] Your Country,” began one screed on Facebook by Krystyna Pawłowicz, one of the party’s leading politicians. “A state, which, in its goodness,” Pawłowicz continued, “allowed them to join the Sejm, to put together organisations and media, and yet allow [sic] their naivety to lie … on Polish state television…They are looking forward to the death of Poland.”
Similarly, journalists of public media have advised opposition politicians to “give up Polish citizenship and change it to citizenship of Israel.” The leading publicists of the conservative-right media have resorted to anti-Semitic insults, calling Israeli politicians “greedy scabs.” Activists of the opposition have been reprimanded for the (allegedly) Jewish names of their ancestors, and press caricatures have compared the Soviet red star to the Star of David.
Law and Justice activists have written about a “campaign of anti-Polish slanders,” engineered by secret agreement between Germany and Israel. They have attacked the “global Jewish milieu” which allegedly wants to blame Poland for the Holocaust, to humiliate it and enforce upon it staggering reparations. Internet forums and social networks have swarmed with anti-Semitic insults and appeals to “purify Poland from Jews.” Even in the official statements of the ruling politicians there have been implications that journalists critical of the PiS are “foreigners” by descent.
On the other hand, the convergence of the two press campaigns—the present one and that of 1968—was repeatedly pointed out during celebrations of the 50th anniversary of March organized by academic circles. Numerous quotes from the contemporary press were put on display at the anniversary exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and its curators wrote about the revival of “the rhetoric of hatred.” In response, the Minister of Culture, to whom the museum is subordinated, expressed his indignation at “its very deep political commitment” and suggested an imminent change in the management.
The March anniversary celebrations have been celebrated separately by the ruling elite and the former student leaders. Official ceremonies took place almost without the participation of the latter group. It is also telling that the Israeli ambassador, Anna Azari, did not attend the government’s celebration. On March 8 she participated (along with U.S. Ambassador Paul W. Jones) in independent celebrations organized at the Gdański Railway Station.
Attitudes towards the March anti-Zionist campaign have also overlapped with contemporary political loyalties. Opponents of the PiS were inclined to stress that the campaign against Jews in 1968 was supported by a significant part of the society and increased the PZPR’s popularity. Sympathizers and representatives of the government camp, on the contrary, presented the anti-Semitic purge as top-down, planned and imposed by a regime that was alienated from the nation.
This tone dominated in the anniversary speech of Prime Minister Morawiecki. His exceptionally long speech was devoted entirely to the “unjust March mythology.” The head of the government argued that “that country [the People’s Republic of Poland] was not an independent state,” and that the anti-Semitic purges were carried out “in the occupied homeland” and had nothing to do with the Poland that fought for its freedom. The Prime Minister also stressed that the fate of Jews expelled in 1968 must be “seen in the context of 13 million Poles murdered and expelled during World War II.” He finally admonished those gathered that while condemning anti-Semitism, they should “not forget about the anti-Polonism spreading in the world.”
Surprisingly, the tone of the majority of official addresses starkly contrasted with the speech of the President, also from PiS, who had until now sung the same tune as his party. Andrzej Duda paid homage to both the “commando” community and other participants of the student revolt, saying: “You are the heroes of our freedom… No matter what you think today, what kind of views you have and profess. For Polish freedom, for Polish independence, you are monumental characters.”
A significant part of his short but emotional speech was devoted to the victims of the 1968 purge. “I, as President, bow my head before those who were then expelled, before the families of those who were killed then. I want to tell them: please forgive, please forgive the Republic of Poland, please forgive the Poles, forgive Poland of the time, for having perpetrated such a shameful act.”
Andrzej Duda spoke these words in the courtyard of the University of Warsaw, in the very same place where the famous rally took place 50 years earlier. Now also a crowd gathered there, largely composed of former “commandos” and participants of the student protests. The speech of the head of the state was interrupted with whistles and shouts of “disgrace.” Despite the conciliatory content of his address, for those gathered at the University courtyard the President represented PiS, the party responsible for unleashing a nationalist campaign.
It was a telling scene. It clearly showed that March 1968 is not at all seen as part of Poland’s common national history, but as no other anniversary symbolizes the conflict currently dividing Polish society.
 Z. Bauman, Wzory sukcesu życiowego młodzieży warszawskiej [in:] Młodzież epoki przemian, eds. R. Dyoniziak, Warszawa 1965.
 For an example of how the government has conceived this new historical narrative around Polish heroism, see The Unconquered, an animated film commissioned by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q88AkN1hNYM.
 See Aleksandra Rybińska, “Polska pod presją,” Sieci, 4/2018, p. 20-25.