Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Uncertainty for Warsaw Pact; Polish Army: how loyal -- and to whom?

There are two questions every intelligence service (and editorial office) is asking as it peers at Poland: 1. In an emergency, would the Polish Army and police shoot at striking Polish workers?

2. In an emergency, would the 15 Polish divisions shoot at an invading Soviet Army of 30 or 45 divisions?

About these ads

Everyone has hunches. No outsider knows for sure.But every fresh comparison made by today's hard-line Czechs between 1981 reformist Poland and reformist Czechoslovakia before the 1968 Soviet invasion poses the questions anew.

Within Warsaw the popular assumption seems to be a "no" answer to the first question; "yes," to the second. Poles pride themselves on sticking together as Poles in a way that by now should preclude the fratricidal violence of 1970. (The Gdansk memorial erected last December to the 1970 victims of police and Army shooting is sufficient reminder of that.)

Poles also pride themselves on a romantic tradition in which every new generation sheds blood -- usually in vain -- for Poland's independence.

As one Polish journalist put it bluntly, "The Russians know that, unlike the Czechs, we would fight. If they were persuaded we wouldn't fight, they wouldn't hesitate [to invade]."

One senior Western diplomat in Bonn was more cautious. When asked these leading questions, he exclaimed, "That's the one thing that's conspicuously absent from [our ambassador's] reporting [from Poland]."

Another veteran Western "Poland watcher" agreed on the need for caution. "There are so many myths and rumors concerning the loyalty or disloyalty of Polish troops," he commented. "There are all kinds of opinions. I think 99.9 percent of them are unreliable."

He pointed out that so much has changed in Poland in the past six months that all previous bets are off -- and that no high-ranking Polish officer has defected to the West in this period to bring fresh insights with him. He added, "Since we don't know, we can assume the Soviets don't know either. So they cannot reliably design their plans."

About these ads

Under these circumstances evaluation of the ultimate loyalties of the Polish Army and security forces under pressure is reduced to guesses based on temperament and history.It was the Polish temperament that the Warsaw journalist was judging by. It is history that outsiders have to judge by.

In the past quarter of a century, then, history shows one example of a Polish leader ready to fight the Soviet Army (Wladyslaw Gomulka, in 1956); one example of a Polish leader ready to invite the Soviet Army in (also Gomulka, in 1970 -- the Russians refused); two examples of lethal repressions of workers by the Polish security forces (Poznan in 1956 and Gdansk and elsewhere, 1970); and two examples of Polish leaders' unwillingness to pit the police and Army against demonstrators (1976 and 1980).

Certainly Poland is the one Soviet neighbor that has gotten away with thumbing its nose at the Red Army in the postwar period. At a time of Polish and Hungarian ferment in 1956 (just days before bloody Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt), Soviet party chief Nikita Khrushchev flew to Warsaw uninvited. He had already ordered Soviet troops stationed in Poland to march on Warsaw and compel a Polish choice of party leader acceptable to the Russians.

Gomulka, a nationalist Polish communist who had been purged and jailed in the Stalinist era -- and hastily reinstated in the Polish Central Committee only hours before -- met Khrushchev at the airport. According to one word-of-mouth account of this meeting, the somewhat tipsy Khrushchev railed at Gomulka and let all his Russian-Ukrainian hatred of the Poles show.

Gomulka replied that he knew that Soviet troops were marching, and he wanted Khrushchev to know that troops of the Polish Internal Security Corps (KBW) were stationed around the capital, with orders to shoot. If the two clashed, Gomulka reportedly stated, "You will be destroyed. I will be destroyed."

The Russians were less willing to commit suicide than the Poles. Khrushchev rescinded his order. The Red Army returned to barracks. The clash was averted.

Notably, this Polish defiance of the Soviet Union occurred at a time when a Soviet marshal was still Polish minister of defense and Soviet generals commanded the Polish general staff, all ground forces, all service branches, and all Polish military districts. What offset this seemingly total Soviet control was the refusal of Polish junior officers to obey their Soviet seniors (extending even to mobilization for resistance by the Polish coastal defense commander and one Polish Air Force commander). The field was thus left to the tough KBW, the Polish Communist Party's strong-arm enforcers, who obeyed Gomulka.

In the wake of the 1956 showdown the Soviet defense minister of Poland was quickly replaced by a Pole, and Soviet generals throughout the Polish armed forces were phased out. Those Soviet officers who remain on permanent or temporary duty in the Polish Army are only liaison, and not line, officers.

The implication of the 1956 experience, the subsequent Polonization of the Polish Army, and the history of periodic Polish uprisings against imperial Russia ever since the early 19th century -- as well as enduring anger about the Soviet massacre of 4,000 captured Polish officers in Katyn wood in the 1940s and Soviet willingness to sit on the eastern bank of the Vistula for two months while the Germans slaughtered 200,000 Warsovians in the 1944 uprising -- is that the Polish Army would fight any direct Soviet invasion of Poland.

Before 1970 this predilection would have had to be balanced against Polish loathing of the West Germans; the memory of the cruel Nazi occupation in World War II and lingering West German claims on Polish postwar territory combined to push Poles into the arms of the Soviet Union strategically. With the Polish-West German normalization of 1970, however, and West German renunciation of any territorial claims, the historic Polish-German hostility is reverting to a Polish-Prussian (i.e., East German) hostility. And this serves to reinforce rather than contradict the Polish-Russian antipathy.

Doubt remains, however, about how the Polish Army would react to any more ambiguous situation than an all-out Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion. The vast majority of Polish officers were trained in the Soviet Union. Their ties with Soviet colleagues are much closer than those of any other Polish elite with its Soviet counterpart.

Some 85 percent of all officers and 100 percent of all senior officers are members of the Polish United Workers (Communist) Party -- and from age and experience probably incline to the less innovative wing of the party. Moreover, officers stand to lose their villas and abundant privileges if the Solidarity trade union continues to whittle away the perquisites of the party hierarchy.

(Here one further caveat is in order, though: The hard line of the Army newspaper Zolnierz Wolnosci should not be misread as the voice of professional officers. It is the organ of the Army's main political administration, or party propagandizers, and is run by the party Central Committee secretariat rather than the Defense Ministry.)

Presumably any prudent Soviet politician would therefore do his best to orchestrate the kind of confrontation in which Polish officers would side with Moscow in wanting to suppress "chaos" in Poland. And if that failed, presumably any Soviet commander contemplating an invasion of Poland would try to assure the neutralization of key elements of their largest Warsaw Pact armed force (317,500 , with twice as many reserves) outside the Soviet Union's own.

In such a situation the thorough Soviet intelligence about Polish air defenses would provide a good preparation for any intervention; air defense in all Warsaw Pact countries comes under Moscow's direct command. And air defense would be crucial; with only two divisions of its own stationed inside Poland the Soviet Union would clearly aim any initial thrust at the Warsaw airport (as it first secured the Prague airport in 1968) to land men and weapons.

What other steps of preventive neutralization of the Polish Army might be undertaken before any invasion can only be guessed at. But so far there is no confirmation -- Western sources here say -- of various rumors about steps already taken. Observers here doubt that the number of Soviet officers on assignment to the Polish Army has been significantly increased (as reported in the Western press in mid-December).

There is no verification for the report that some crack Polish paratroops were assembled for or actually flown to UN duty in the Mideast to get them out of Poland. Similarly, there is no record that some Polish officers declared on a local radio broadcast that if German soldiers (from East Germany) again set foot on Polish soil, they could expect to be shot at.

The companion question about whether Poles would shoot at fellow Poles has been answered variously at different points in Polish postwar history.

In June 1956 the KBW did fire on demonstrating workers in Poznan, killing at least 53. Whether the Army took part in the carnage seems to be a moot point. A. Ross Johnson in his 1980 Rand paper on the Polish Army (apparently drawing on Flora Lewis's 1958 book "A Case History of Hope") says that regular Army units refused to shoot at workers.

George Blazynski's 1979 book "Flashpoint Poland" implies the same. Zbigniew Brzezinski, on the other hand, in his 1961 book "The Soviet Bloc" maintains that soldiers did fire and that junior officers were deeply shamed by this. As evidence he cites both personal conversations and officers' reflections in Polish periodicals in 1957.

In 1968 student demonstrations were suppressed by the Citizens' Militia (roughly, a reserve army and police veterans' formation). There were 3,000 arrests, but no known fatalities, in this operation.

Then in 1970 riot police (and some Army units) were ordered to fire on demonstrators in Gdansk and Szczecin. They did so, killing at least 45 civilians. By the third or fourth day some soldiers became increasingly reluctant to fire, however. Again, there was considerable shame in the Army after the deaths, and the Army has not been used or let itself be used in the same way since then.

In 1976, when workers' price riots broke out, they were suppressed neither by police nor riot police nor Army troops. It was only after prices were hastily lowered again and the demonstrations were over and the police moved in, with arrests and (by numerous accounts) torture.

In 1980, to the astonishment of almost everyone, there was no suppression of striking workers, nor were there subsequent arrests. Workers give much of the credit for this restraint to Defense Minister (now also Prime Minister) Wojciech Jaruzelski.

By now, every Polish commander must doubt whether the 73 percent of conscripts who make up the regular army would open fire on striking Polish workers if ordered to do so. The independent Solidarity trade union has long since become a mass movement; already it must have affected the outlook of the third of recruits who entered the Army after last summer's birth of Solidarity, and the third who will enter the Army this spring.

Tales of Solidarity memberships among soldiers cannot be verified. And there are no Solidarity chapters as such in the Defense or Interior ministries, the only two ministries so exempt.

But one hint of the general feeling among young officer trainees came last November in a contribution to the magazine of a military school near Warsaw. The cadet author, writing in honor of the anniversary of the patriotic Polish uprising of 1830 (which happened to be against the Russians), turned to current events. In their discussions a number of cadets concluded, the article said, that orders should be disobeyed if they didn't correspond with a person's own assessment of patriotic duty. Significantly, the author added, "Our commanding officer agreed with that." Significantly, too, this article was published.

Elite Army units, with a lower proportion of draftees, might be somewhat less susceptible to such independent challenging of command authority by the rank and file. But even the elite units would seem to be risky instruments for breaking strikes. They were not immune to the general Army demoralization that followed their killing of Polish workers in 1956 and 1970.

Nor would the KBW that was ready to defend Warsaw against the Russians in 1956 make a totally reliable strike- breaker today. The KBW had its heyday before the Polish Army was consolidated. Once the party deemed the Army reliable politically, the KBW was transferred from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of National Defense.

It has a different name now, and it lost much of its separate political character in its absorption into the Army. Its members are more thoroughly screened than soldiers in regular units, and it probably would have obeyed any command up until last August. Since then, however, Solidarity's popularity and virtual embodiment of Polish patriotism must give any Polish leader qualms about sending even the KBW against Solidarity.

Even less likely would be use of the 350,000-man Citizens' Militia for internal suppression. This body is not trained for antiriot action. It was adequate to quell relatively disorganized students in 1956 but it would hardly be adequate to quell well-organized workers today.

This leaves the police and other units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, especially the riot police. Again, Western observers believe that up until August 1980 both the riot police and the regular police would have followed orders unquestioningly. Given the yeast that has been working in Polish society in the past half year they are less sure now, however.

They tend to think the riot police would still do whatever they were told to do, but that regular police in provincial villages and towns would be inhibited in using force by the nature of community relations that have developed since last August.

They treat with caution reports that some free trade union chapters have formed inside the ministry itself; they speculate that these unions might involve only service and not professional personnel -- or that ministry employees had to form a new union just to follow today's fashion, and it might not mean very much.

On the other hand, observers point out that the Ministry of Internal Affairs has expanded greatly in the past decade -- and that the standards of discipline and ideological rectitude that once marked the ministry may have been diluted by the influx of new opportunists.

In any case, if the riot police -- estimated at only 1,000 to 5,000 men -- were dispersed between Warsaw and the coast, they would hardly be a strong-enough force to quell the kind of unrest that would rapidly spread throughout the country in today's atmosphere in any tense situation.

"At the moment 500 industrial plants are on strike," Jaruzelski is quoted as having told the Polish Politburo last summer. "That's 500 fortresses." The attribution may be apocryphal, but the fact remains. It is generally assumed that by now every factory has its own contingency plans for occupying and holding its own "fortress" as long as supplies last.

Certainly over the past decade Poles have shown a new talent for decentralized grass-roots organization. Steelworkers spontaneously formed their own "militia" to patrol shipyards and factories in 1970. The Roman Catholic Church fielded an independent and very tough cadre of 40,000 security monitors for crowd control during the Pope's visit in 1979.

And peasants and factory workers in Rzeszov, during the height of sit-in strikes there in January, devised a sophisticated warning system that could trigger a general alert throughout the city in a manner of minutes.

That such grass-roots organization would harness hundreds of thousands of resisters to any attempted strikebreaking is taken for granted. In 1956, 1970, and 1976 angry workers burned down party headquarters and one train station, attacked prisons and police headquarters, ripped up railroad tracks and halted the Paris-Warsaw express, seized police and military vehicles, beat up party officials, and fought pitched battles with police with paving stones and iron bars. It is only the extraordinary self-discipline of Solidarity that has prevented similar actions this time around.

So what is the final conclusion? Probably this: In the present atmosphere the Poles think their own security forces would not shoot down strikers. They think further that their Army and reserves would shoot at any Soviet (and East German) invaders.The Russians probably think the same. And what people think at this point is even more important than what the Poles would actually do.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.