December 13, 1981 - forty years ago. The military coup in Poland.

The Polish communist government wielded much power over Polish society since World War II, when the repression system was carefully created and diligently implemented, supported by its Secret Service and Soviet military powers.

Poles engaged in the systematic undermining of the communist system fundamentals since World War II. In Poland, protests erupted with regularity in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976. All were brutally suppressed with the use of armies and tanks.

The culmination of this arduous work was the creation of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity in August 1980. It was the most prominent independent organization in the communist block and had almost 10 million members at its peak. Solidarity grew from a group of determined strikers in the Gdansk shipyard and strikes organized across the country in the summer of 1980. See MPMS’ publication on this topic “The peaceful revolution 1980".

The Military Coup

On December 13, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski (1923-2014) announced the implementation of martial law, but dramatic arrests of about 3,000 people Solidarity activists and oppositionists had already preceded it. The total number of the interned during martial law has been estimated at close to 10,000. Martial law was a military coup. This fact is often forgotten.

The suppression started a few hours before martial law was officially announced on December 13, 1981. Most recalled this as a terrifying experience that included an unwarranted entry into their homes. Once arrested, people feared that they were going to be tortured, shot, or sent to the Soviet Siberia. Lack of information about the detainees for many weeks magnified the dread.

Photograph by Grzegorz Litynski

Since December 1981, thousands of people had received up to 10-year sentences for participation in strikes, demonstrations, illegal printing, or curfew violations. A release from imprisonment did not end repression. A statewide system of employment verification, disciplinary proceedings, and conscription were implemented. Anti-communist activists often lost their jobs and careers after their detention.

The Exile

The arrested were pressured to leave the country by the communist authorities. Once they received the necessary papers for emigration, families had to choose between countries that were accepting refugees – many selected the United States as their new homeland.

“Faces of Solidarity. Polish Refugees in Minnesota” – MPMS’ art exhibition.

We would like to encourage you to visit our photographic exhibition “Faces of Solidarity” in the Minnesota State Capitol (open till January 7, 2022) or go online to see the exhibition.

Please bear in mind that “Faces of Solidarity” is an ART exhibition - a photographic tribute to the Solidarity era Polish refugees. It is not a history exhibition.

We hope to inspire professional and non-professional historians to continue exploring the topic of contemporary Polish immigrants and refugees in Minnesota with this exhibition.


"The Military Coup - December 13, 1981" by Katarzyna Litak. Minnesota Polish Perspectives, Vol. 1, 2021, pages 6-9