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

Author: Katarzyna Litak, M.D.

The Polish communist government exerted significant control over Polish society in the aftermath of World War II, implementing a repressive system supported by its Secret Service and backed by Soviet military powers. Since World War II, Poles actively worked to undermine the fundamentals of the communist system. Protests occurred regularly in Poland, notably in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976. However, these demonstrations were brutally suppressed, often involving the use of armies and tanks.

The culmination of these efforts came with the establishment of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity in August 1980. Solidarity, which originated from determined strikers in the Gdansk shipyard and nationwide strikes during the summer of 1980, became the largest independent organization in the communist bloc, reaching nearly 10 million members at its peak. For more information, refer to MPMS' publication "“The peaceful revolution 1980""

The Military Coup

On December 13, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski (1923-2014) declared the implementation of martial law. However, prior to this announcement, dramatic arrests had already targeted around 3,000 Solidarity activists and opposition members. The total number of individuals interned during martial law is estimated to be close to 10,000. It is crucial to remember that martial law was essentially a military coup, a fact that is often overlooked.

The suppression of dissent began before the official announcement of martial law, causing great fear and anxiety among the population. Unwarranted entry into homes and arrests were terrifying experiences for many. Detainees worried about the possibility of torture, execution, or deportation to Soviet Siberia. The lack of information about the fate of those detained intensified these anxieties, lasting for several weeks.

Photograph by Grzegorz Litynski

Since December 1981, numerous individuals have been sentenced to prison terms of up to 10 years for their involvement in strikes, demonstrations, illegal printing, or curfew violations. However, even after their release from imprisonment, the repression did not cease. The communist regime implemented a comprehensive system of employment verification, disciplinary proceedings, and conscription, resulting in the loss of jobs and careers for many anti-communist activists who had been detained.

The Exile

Under pressure from the communist authorities, those who were arrested were often coerced into leaving the country. Families were given the necessary documentation for emigration and faced the difficult choice of selecting a country that would accept them as refugees. Many families chose the United States as their new homeland.

MPMS' Art Exhibition: "Faces of Solidarity. Polish Refugees in Minnesota" We invite you to visit our photographic exhibition, "Faces of Solidarity," currently on display at the Minnesota State Capitol until January 7, 2022, or explore the exhibition online.

Please note that "Faces of Solidarity" is an art exhibition and serves as a photographic tribute to the Polish refugees of the Solidarity era. While it does not provide a comprehensive historical account, we hope that it will inspire both professional and non-professional historians to delve further into the topic of contemporary Polish immigrants and refugees in Minnesota.


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


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