Fitting a Saddle Onto a Cow

Joseph Stalin once remarked that imposing Communism on Poland was akin to “fitting a saddle onto a cow.”[1] Władysław Gomułka, Poland’s head of the Communist party from 1956 to 1970, attempted to fit the saddle onto the cow by ushering in a period of détente with the Polish Catholic Church, offering the Church a reprieve from the more brutal suppression of the Stalinist era. Of all of the conflicts between the Church and state, a little-explicated one is the antithetical conceptualizations of power and influence at play. I intend to give a brief overview of these divergent understandings of power and how they manifested themselves in two specific incidents of power struggle between Władysław Gomułka and the Polish Church, led by the formidable Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński. Gomułka’s idea of power was material in a true Leninist fashion, though not without abstraction. Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński and the Church used material power, but understood the true power of the Church on the spiritual and moral levels. Gomułka would ultimately be outmaneuvered by a Church that held a higher power completely different from his own.

The Catholic Church in Poland has played an enormous role in the public sphere, particularly in statecraft or the lack thereof. The historical record and popular imagination testifies to the Church’s cultural gravitas. Going all the way back to the 15th century, the Archbishop of Gniezno-Warsaw, known as the Primate of Poland, even served as interrex when the throne of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was vacant. The ecclesiastical and cultural influence of the Primate weathered both World Wars.[2] Polish nationhood came to be identified with the Church. However, the Polish Church also had a legacy of tactical flexibility in the face of hostile governments, learning to work with the politicians to keep the peace, including the interwar government of the Polish national hero Marshal Joźef Piłsudski. While the Church’s power-games with Polish politics had its critics, most notably Pope Pius XII, the legacy of 19th-century Polish religious nationalism also popularized the careful distinction between the state as an administrative framework and the cultural Polish nation.[3] This understanding of state and nation is crucial for examining the Church’s political and diplomatic maneuvering in the Communist period and the moral allegiance of the Polish people to the Church. It was in this Poland, where the Church was the only public institution that had retained its structure despite the war, that Władysław Gomułka had to chart what he called “the Polish path to Socialism.”

Władysław Gomułka considered himself a Polish patriot.[4] Gomułka was born into poverty in Polish Galicia in 1905 and joined radical Leftist parties as a young oil worker, surviving Stalin’s Great Purge with only a permanent limp from a gunshot. He made a name for himself during the Second World War as one of the founders of what would become the PZPR, the Polish acronym for the Polish Communist party, along with Bołesław Bierut, the first official president of the PZPR.[5] Though he had spent time with the Bolsheviks in Russia, Gomułka had no taste for Soviet-style Communism, particularly agricultural collectivization, and his commitment to Communism was more pragmatic than theoretical, reminiscent of old-fashioned Marxism.[6] Comrade Wiesław, as he was known in the party, became de-facto First Secretary of the PZPR after the war. Stalin had the PZPR imprison him after a long period of secret police surveillance and install Bierut in his place in 1948. The official record is not reliable on whether Bierut or Moscow first wanted Gomułka out, but there is no doubt as to Stalin’s suspicion of Gomułka’s nationalism and Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.[7]

Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński also had the credentials of a Polish patriot. Born in 1901 in Russian Mazovia into a formerly noble family that despised the occupiers, Wyszyński as a young priest wrote more than hundred pamphlets dealing with economic hardship in Poland and social justice.[8] He solidified his position as a friend of the workers, which would serve him well as Primate and as a foe of the former oil man Władysław Gomułka. Father Wyszyński became legendary for his wartime heroism, including stints as chaplain and medic to the Polish Underground Army.[9] A year after the war he was made bishop of Lublin at the exceedingly young age of 44. After Primate August Cardinal Hlond’s death in 1948, he became the Primate of Poland and the Archbishop of Gniezno-Warsaw around the same time Władysław Gomułka was arrested.[10] Among the postwar difficulties the young Primate faced was the Vatican’s reluctance to recognize Polish ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the roughly 100,000 square kilometers of land that had been given to Poland from Germany at Potsdam, known as the Western Territories. Wyszńyski also saw the worst of Bołesław Bierut’s persecution of the Polish episcopate, culminating in his own arrest and detention in 1952.

Gomułka was released from prison in 1954 after Stalin’s death and he circulated openly in the nationalist circles of the PZPR committed to destalinization.[11] Bierut, who had proven himself to be a complicit Stalinist, died in Moscow in March of 1956 under mysterious circumstances.[12] Gomułka and the nationalists had their chance to reinvent the party without Bierut’s insistence on catering to Moscow. Rebranding Communist governmental policy as specifically Polish was a means by which the government could regain support from the populace, who were beginning to grumble under the strain of poor living conditions. By June of 1956, popular disdain for the government’s economic policies, censorship, and strong-arm tactics had reached a boiling point in the Poznań Riots, aided by the moral backing of the Church.[13]

Gomułka, though not holding an official position within the party, became the lead negotiator with the Soviets after Poznań.[14] Khrushchev flew to Warsaw with Molotov in October, distressed by the civil unrest and the PZPR’s instability, and directly threatened Gomułka with invasion.[15] Gomułka, unfazed, promised resistance should Khrushchev officially invade Poland. He was especially careful to emphasize that he had no intention of removing Poland from the Soviet Bloc, but was clear that the unrest in Poland was an internal matter. He assured Khrushchev that there would be no revisions to the Western Territories and the border with East Germany on the Oder-Neisse river, regardless of what the Vatican had to say about their ecclesiastical administration.[16] Gomułka had been well-received by the Polish people as a reformer, and Khrushchev needed a stable Poland. He was not scared off by Gomułka’s forthright nationalism. Moreover, Khrushchev was dealing with the overthrow of the Communist government in Budapest at the same time.[17]

Władysław Gomułka officially became First Secretary of the PZPR on October 20, 1956. Soviet tanks entered Budapest on October 24.[18] The Church, for its part, was satisfied with Gomułka’s victory at first, recognizing that Gomułka’s promised thaw in relations with the Church would come soon.[19] The massive crowds that Gomułka addressed in Warsaw on October 24 demanded Primate Wyszyński’s release, reportedly greatly wounding Gomułka’s ego.[20] The cardinal held much public credence and sympathy as the hard-nosed head of the embattled Church. Even during Wyszyński’s imprisonment, the Church remained at the forefront as the nation’s repository of national identity. Gomułka was sensitive enough to understand this.[21]

After his release, Wyszyński was just as intransigent as ever toward the government in the public eye. He also knew that Gomułka needed reconciliation with the Church to cement his hold on power and keep Poland stable.[22] Well-attuned to public sentiment, Wyszyński allowed the Church and Gomułka to settle into a sort of détente, also known as the “October Thaw”.[23] Contrary to some in the Polish episcopate, Wyszyński was willing to bend on issues that he considered to be non-essential and his bishops always presented a united front with him in public. He refused, for example, to make a fight out of liberalized civil marriage and divorce laws that Gomułka passed in the late 1950’s. The primate knew well that Gomułka was attempting to break the moral power of the Church by introducing progressive social legislation and bureaucratic red tape, but he had confidence that the Church’s influence would be enough to parry such measures.[24] Gomułka was farsighted enough to see that strong-arm tactics only increased the moral viability and public profile of the Church, and so chose to go an indirect route to compromise the Church’s influence. Gomułka was perhaps more canny than his comrade Bierut in understanding that the Church’s power was primarily moral and intangible, though it certainly would have political consequences if he would not be more open to reconciliation with the Church.[25]

The Church’s honeymoon with Gomułka did not last more than two years, even after the Church encouraged the people to support Gomułka in the 1957 elections. Gomułka decided to limit the Church’s ability to reach the people as his main strategy against the Church. For example, the government banned the use of loudspeakers outside of churches and harassed clergy and laity alike through threats of blackmail by the secret police. Gomulka also turned to social legislation, legalizing birth control and greatly expanding access to abortion in 1958. He also waged an incredible tax-war on the Church, complete with ridiculous stipulations like a 60% tax on the collections taken during Masses. While Gomułka allowed various Catholic publishing houses and newspapers, all of them had to pass through a rigorous censor, emptying their official publications of any real Catholic intellectual content.[26] This was a less bloody plan than Bierut’s thuggery, but it placed an enormous burden on the political power of the Gomułka regime itself. Though the leadership and internal dynamics of the party were relatively stable after 1956, the incremental approach to chipping away at the Church’s influence needed time and an enormous expenditure of manpower and political capital.[27]

Wyszyński and the Church protested every move that Gomułka made against them, particularly as relations deteriorated in the 1960’s. The Church badgered the government about policies that broke the government’s previous agreements with the Church all the while acting against the state behind the scenes by simply conducting pastoral activities.[28] Wyszyński was not planning an insurrection in the Polish tradition of violent uprisings against foreign oppressors, but he understood that adherence to Catholic religious activities was evidence of devout religious practice as well as political discontent. Gomułka certainly understood Polish piety as an act of political discontent, but only as political discontent. Here is where Gomułka truly broke with Wyszyński. The Church was a political entity for Gomułka, a competitor for moral and material influence, but one that he needed in order to keep himself in power.[29] Wyszyński had time and history on his side, so much so that he started planning the ecclesiastical celebration of Poland’s millennium a full ten years before while he was still in prison, recognizing the enormous cultural and religious significance of 1966.[30]

However, the road to the millennium was difficult for Wyszyński. Gomułka especially capitalized on popular unease over the Polish episcopate’s pastoral letter to the German bishops in 1965. The letter expressed forgiveness for German atrocities committed during the war and asked forgiveness of Poland in turn. However, the letter also contained a clumsy apology for Germany’s loss of the Western Territories and the subsequent resettling of Germans.[31] The German bishops responded to the letter coolly. While not quite a blunder for Wyszyński, the Polish people were angered by what they considered to be a concession to Germany. Many ordinary Poles saw the Western Territories as just compensation for Poland’s near-annihilation during the war. Gomułka was incensed that the Polish Church would dare speak on a political matter as sensitive as the Oder-Neisse border with East Germany, though that was not quite the issue at play.[32] Again, Gomułka misunderstood the issue as the letter put it. Gomułka was able to use the letter against Wyszyński in the upcoming celebrations of the Polish millennium.

The 1966 Polish millennium marked the culmination of tensions between the Church and the PZPR during Gomułka’s time. The millennium occasion had its roots in Polish Catholicism, as the first Polish king Mieszko I was baptized in 966.[33] The Church’s millennium celebrations had really begun in 1957 and included pilgrimages, novenas and other public expressions of Polish piety and national sentiment.[34] Cardinal Wyszyński was bold enough to ask Pope Paul VI to come to Poland to mark the millennium. No other high churchman in the Eastern Bloc would have dreamed of inviting the pope to his country, but Wyszyński could and did. Gomułka saw Wyszyński’s invitation as evidence of the Church’s supposed anti-Polish tendencies that sought to align Poland with Western interests instead of those of the Eastern Bloc, which he considered to be epitomized by the previous Western Territories jurisdictional tensions.[35]

The issue for Gomułka was patriotism. Normally wary of attacking the Primate personally, Gomułka did so loudly and used the letter to the German bishops as evidence of Wyszyński’s lack of Polish patriotism. Gomułka was also forbidden by Brezhnev to even consider allowing the pope to come to Poland. He sidestepped the issue and instead enlarged it to the Vatican’s apparent willingness to revise the status of Polish priests assigned to the Western Territories, which to him was a problem of national sovereignty.[36] The Primate resigned himself to arranging for an empty chair with Pope Paul’s photograph to be placed on the stage of the huge outdoor Mass at the shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa.[37] The episcopate’s letter to Germany was the only legitimate ammunition Gomułka had ever had against the untouchable Primate and he used it to keep Pope Paul out of Poland.[38] Gomułka’s stand ultimately worked, though he ended up only further decreasing his popularity, and gave more credence to the Church’s status as the only base of protest against the PZPR.

In December of 1970, Gomułka made the grave mistake of ordering a huge increase in the price of basic foodstuffs right before Christmas. This time, Gdańsk and Szczecin erupted into strikes, with the support of the Church. Not even his earlier signing of the Treaty of Warsaw with West Germany, which guaranteed the Oder-Neisse border and German recognition of the Western Territories and was indeed a legitimate achievement in his long-term foreign policy, could save him.[39] Gomułka sent in the tanks to Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk on December 16, killing dozens. On December 18, Gomułka submitted his resignation as head of the PZPR after making the same mistake that had brought him to power in 1956.[40]

It was Gomulka’s lack of imagination that condemned him in as head of the PZPR. When he came into power in 1956, and even before as a committed Marxist-Leninist, he was convinced of the rightness of an independent Polish road to socialism. What Gomułka could not control was the moral power of the Church. The Primate of the Millennium, Cardinal Wyszyński, intuited Gomułka’s lack of understanding of the Church’s moral vision and acted accordingly. Gomułka’s power, and the extent of his understanding of power, was material, political, and ideological. Wyszyński and the Church’s power was all of those things, but it did not operate for its own ends. Gomułka could deal with Nikita Khrushchev shaking his finger under his nose with threats of bloodshed, but he was ultimately thwarted by a Church that had no threats of violence. The Polish Church had historical and moral authority on its side, expertly employed by savvy churchmen like Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, and Gomułka simply could not compete.

Gomułka’s tactics did not end with him either, as new PZPR head Edward Gierek largely picked up where Gomułka left off and began a new period of détente with Wyszyński and his fellow Polish cardinal from 1967 on, Karol Wojtyła. It is ironic that Gomułka’s time as party boss ended at Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk, the birthplace of the Solidarity labor union and political movement. The cycle, the PZPR panicking after civil unrest and inevitable eleventh-hour negotiations with the Church, repeated itself once more when Gierek’s successor General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law on 13 December 1981. This time, however, the PZPR would not survive the decade. Gomułka’s strategy to take the long road in suppressing the Church’s public influence while saving face in public bolstered his confidence in the short-term, but was ultimately the beginning of the end for the PZPR. Not even Martial Law, the likes of which Bierut could never have stomached, could save the party. The moral authority of the Church, and the adherence of the Polish people to the Church, was too strong. This is what led to the unsaddling of the cow by 1989. What transpired afterwards is a completely different story of saddling a cow.

[1] George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999), 77.

[2] Ibid., 73.

[3] Annd Grzymała-Busse, Nations under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton), 130.

[4] Hanna Diskin, The Seeds of Triumph: Church and State in Gomułka's Poland (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2001), 201.

[5] Anita Prazmowska, Władysław Gomułka: A Biography (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016), 139.

[6] Ibid., 62.

[7] Ibid., 165.

[8] Andrzej Mickewski, Cardinal Wyszyński: A Biography (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 4, 20.

[9] Ibid., 25.

[10] Ibid., ix. See also: Weigel, op. cit., 90-91.

[11] Prazmowska, op. cit., 160-162, 167, 190.

[12] Marian S. Mazgaj, Church and State in Communist Poland: A History: 1944-1989 (London: McFarland & Co., 2010), 55-56.

[13] Diskin, op. cit., 108.

[14] Mazgaj, op. cit., 61.

[15] See: Johanna Granville, “Reactions to the Events of 1956: New Findings from the Budapest and Warsaw Archives,” Journal of Contemporary History Vol 48.2 (April 2003): 261-290, 266-267.

[16]Notes from the Minutes of the CPSU CC Presidium Meeting with Satellite Leaders, October 24, 1956,” The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents. (George Washington University: The National Security Archive, 2002), 2.

[17] Nikita Khrushchev, Edward Crankshaw and Strobe Talbott, Khrushchev Remembers (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1971), 419.

[18] George Weigel, The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism (Oxford: OUP, 1992), 112, 174.

[19] Diskin, op. cit., 108.

[20] Prazmowska, op. cit., 221.

[21] Weigel, The Final Revolution, op. cit., 102.

[22] Micewski, op. cit., 167.

[23] Prazmowska, op. cit., 223.

[24] Diskin, op. cit., 123.

[25] Grzymała-Busse, op. cit., 154.

[26] Diskin, op. cit., 165, 187, 190-191.

[27] Ibid., 152.

[28] Ibid., 131.

[29] Prazmowska, op. cit., 223.

[30] Stefan Wyszyński, A Freedom Within: The Prison Notes of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 312-313, 337.

[31] Weigel, Witness to Hope, op. cit., 179-180.

[32] Prazmowska, op. cit., 243.

[33] Mikołaj S. Kunicki, Between the Brown and the Red: Nationalism, Catholicism, and Communism in Twentieth-Century Poland: The Politics of Bolesław Piasecki (Athens, Ohio: Ohio, 2013), 189.

[34] Grzymała-Busse, op. cit., 151.

[35] Prazmowska, op. cit., 243.

[36] Ibid., 245.

[37] Mickewski, op. cit., 266.

[38] Ronald Monticone, The Catholic Church in Communist Poland, 1945-1985: Forty Years of Church-State Relations (New York: Columbia, 1986), 43.

[39] Ibid., 280.

[40] Jonathan Kwitny, Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II (New York: Henry Holt, 1997), 372.

Featured Image: Sixten, an ox used for riding, Taken on: 26 January 2009, Photo by: liftarn; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Brooke Tranten

Brooke Tranten is a doctoral student in American History at Marquette University.  She holds a Master of Theological Studies in the History of Christianity from Notre Dame and a B.A. in Catholic Studies and History from the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA).  Her research interests include 20th century American Catholic history, the Catholic intellectual tradition, and 20th century Polish history. 

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