Gierek, Edward (Poland)
Edward Gierek was First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party between 1970 and 1980. He replaced Władysław Gomułka following workers’ protests, promising to enforce economic reforms and reverse declining standards of living. He attempted to adjust Soviet party line to suit the conditions of Poland and capitalized on improving East–West relations by securing international investments and loans. However, a fluctuating world economy allied with mismanagement of the Polish economy led to price rises in 1980. Strikes and demonstrations forced recognition of the Solidarity trade union movement and ultimately Gierek’s demise.
Gierek was born on 6 Jan. 1913 in Porabka, near Katowice, in what was then Austria-Hungary. His father was killed in a mining accident when Edward was 4 years old, and he and his mother subsequently moved to France. When he was 18 he became active in the French Communist Party. 6 years later he moved to Belgium, joining the Communist Party and serving in the Belgian Resistance during World War II. In 1946 he chaired the National Council of Poles in Belgium and in 1948 he returned to his homeland, taking a prominent role in the Upper Silesian branch of the Polish Communist Party.
In 1952 he was elected to parliament and 2 years later was given responsibility for heavy industry. He was appointed to the Politburo in 1956 and in the following year he became First Secretary of the party in the Katowice area, a post he held for 13 years. In late 1970 national first secretary Gomułka announced price rises and a wave of popular protests swept the country. Gierek, promoting himself as the most likely economic saviour, took control of the party when Gomułka fell from power.
He set out to reform the economy principally by looking to the West for financial support. This policy brought short term rewards but could not overcome the problems of a failing infrastructure, economic mismanagement of successive governments, and a faltering world economy following the Middle Eastern oil crises. Much of the capital inflow was spent in artificially boosting the consumer sector. Meanwhile Poland was accumulating vast foreign debts. Price rises similar to those that had toppled Gomułka became inevitable.
In 1976 there were protests and riots in a number of cities, notably Ursus and Radom where the authorities used strong arm tactics to maintain control. Some price increases were reversed and Gierek retained his hold on power, but Poland’s economic problems did not improve. By 1980 another set of price rises was decreed and again there was civil unrest.
Following the events of 1976 a Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) was set up. Their demands were encompassed in a Charter of Workers’ Rights. At the centre of the 1980 protests were the Gdansk shipyards, where Lech Wałęsa led a mass strike and co-ordinated similar actions across the country. The government was forced into talks and made far-reaching concessions including the recognition of free unions with the right to strike as well as a relaxation of laws on religion and political expression. The workers’ movement was formally established as Solidarity in Sept. 1980.
Gierek’s health declined during the period of turmoil and he suffered a heart attack. He resigned as First Secretary and was replaced by Stanisław Kania who in turn was replaced by Wojciech Jaruzelski.
Jaruzelski’s administration revealed the corruption of Gierek’s regime and Gierek was subsequently removed from the Party before being interned for 12 months at the end of 1981. Gierek died on 29 July 2001.