Concilium Civitas Almanac 2020/2021 – Professor Anita Jean Prazmowska „1956 and Polish Writers” –

1956 and Polish Writers

Professor A.J. Prazmowska

De-Stalinization was a complex process in Poland. It was not led by the ruling party, the Polish United Workers’ Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, PZPR), but was the party’s response to a multi-strand process of criticism and revision of past failures and crimes, all of which culminated in a change of leadership in October 1956. Individual Polish writers, but in particular the Union of Polish Writers (Związek Literatów Polskich, ZLP), played an important role in articulating people’s grievances during the summer and autumn of 1956. This culminated in the 7th Congress of the Union of Polish Writers, which took place from 29 November to 2 December 1956, boldly criticizing the consequences of Stalinist policies for the creative community and society as a whole. Since the second half of 1955, Nowa Kultura, the ZLP’s weekly publication, and Po Prostu, which was described as the social and literary publication of the Union of Polish Youth (Związek Młodzieży Polskiej, ZMP), had been expressing criticism of state and party policies in relation to issues that went beyond the usual topics covered in both publications.

It is the aim of this article to investigate whether writers self-consciously assumed the role of the voice of the nation, and, in particular, of sections of society that had been victims of the Stalinist system. It is also important to trace the process of the political thaw that took place after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 and that gave writers the courage to speak on forbidden subjects. How were the boundaries of acceptable criticism probed, challenged and extended by those who, though declaring themselves to be on the left, nevertheless took it upon themselves to confront the communist regime? The present investigation relates very specifically to the role that the community of writers in Poland played during the months and years following Stalin’s death and before Nikita Khrushchev’s admission to the ‘distortions of communism’ that had been sanctioned during Stalin’s lifetime. Khrushchev’s admission came at a closed plenary session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956. This article suggests that the Polish writers had initiated a revision of the Stalinist period even before that famous speech.


During the Stalinist era, but also throughout the whole communist period, the Polish writers’ union was always an ostensibly voluntary organization bringing together those who defined themselves as creative writers. It was the only legal association of writers in the years 1950–56. The ZLP was responsible for managing funds, stipends and grants that were disbursed to writers so they could concentrate on their vocation. The union had access to quotas of scarce housing, holiday homes and sanatoriums. Critically, it recommended works for publication to Książka i Wiedza, the publishing house it controlled. Conversely, it could also prevent an author from publishing his or her works. In reality, authors who were not members of the ZLP had no chance of publishing any of their work. The ZLP was an organization through which the party conveyed its political instructions to writers, fully expecting them to be implemented.

At its 1950 annual congress, which met in Szczecin, the ZLP accepted socialist realism as the only form of creative expression. The next congress took place in July 1954 and the following one in November–December 1956. The three congresses mark three different stages in the process of defining the only role that artists were permitted to play during this period in Poland.

Three prominent authors dominated the ZLP during the Stalinist period and also after Stalin’s death: Leon Kruczkowski, Władysław Broniewski and Kazimierz Brandys. Subsequently, the full extent of their control over the writers’ union came under criticism. This was because they had used the union’s economic resources to force its members to write in a prescriptive way and to victimize those who failed to comply with the demand that writers should follow the regime’s expectations on the creative artists’ role in building socialism.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that even though many writers and poets followed these prescriptions, they did so not out of conviction, but to survive. Whereas during the early 1950s they produced crass poems extolling Stalin’s virtues, from 1956 these very same authors started referring to the painful realities of the Stalinist period. Adam Ważyk and Władysław Broniewski were praised in 1954 for works that were particularly good examples of the socialist realism genre. Broniewki’s ‘A Word About Stalin’ and Ważyk’s ‘The People Will Enter the City Centre’ were referenced as particularly inspirational examples of socialist realist writing during the 1954 congress. Wiesława Szymborska was one of the few writers who did not espouse socialist realism, and whose style of writing was considered to be so beautiful that ‘it was better at teaching [presumably the reader] how to love this new life, than those who wrote poems about the building of heavy industry’.[1] That does not mean these writers lacked integrity, or that they were published only because they were willing to eulogize a particularly brutal regime. When it was no longer dangerous to disagree with the party’s instructions, these very same people became prominent critics of the regime. Adam Ważyk’s ‘A Poem for Adults’, published in 1955, is credited with being the first critical assessment of the failures of the communist regime.

The debates that took place during the 1954 and 1956 congresses and reports published in Nowa Kultura show a writers’ community that was essentially left wing and progressive. Many of the writers who were active during the post-war period had been associated with progressive and avant-garde trends during the 1930s, in particular with the Skamander monthly. Some had fled to the West (Antoni Słonimski), others either found themselves in areas occupied by the Soviet Union (Aleksander Wat) or had fled to the Soviet Union (Ważyk, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz). Tadeusz Borowski and Zofia Nałkowska had been imprisoned in concentration camps by the Nazis. Few Jewish writers survived; those who did had had to hide their Jewish origins. The trauma of living in constant fear of betrayal took its toll on them (Mieczysław Jastrun). At the end of the war, those who had been in the West had to face the difficult decision of whether to return to Poland, an act defined as treason by the London-based government-in-exile and the emigré community. The events of the wartime period randomly led to the fact that writers and poets who ended up in Poland after the war and who were artistically engaged during the immediate post-war period were usually associated with progressive if not outright left-wing political ideas. Many suffered ill health and the consequences of the war. None had private means and all were dependent on the state for support. Therefore, in some cases an unspoken accommodation was reached. The ZLP provided authors with material assistance and opportunities to publish their works, in return for which they had to provide an occasional laudatory piece that roughly complied with the definition of socialist realism.

The circumstances of Stalin’s death and the slow loosening of the party’s control over the writers’ community generated an initially tenuous but soon increasingly self-assertive flow of critical articles, works and poems. All were written from a left-wing standpoint, and aimed to rectify past and recent injustices.

The first signs of de-Stalinization were inauspicious and, had it not been for the momentum of the events that followed, could be easily overlooked. The 6th Congress of the Union of Polish Writers met on 8–11 June 1954. Even though this was 18 months after Stalin’s death, few indications of change were visible. The opening was attended by the minister of culture, Włodzimierz Sokorski; Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz; Jakub Berman, a hard-line chief ideologue of the PZPR and member of its Political Bureau; and Edward Ochab, the secretary of the Central Committee of the PZPR. There could be no doubt as to the importance that the government attached to the role writers were to play in Poland. In his wide-ranging opening speech Ochab conceded that production of consumer goods had to increase, but at the same time he stated that collectivization was the only way of modernizing agriculture. These two issues were undisputedly important given the government’s focus on heavy industry and its brutal implementation of the very unpopular collectivization drive since 1951. While maintaining that these had been correct policies, Ochab tentatively suggested that things could have been done better. He nevertheless insisted that it was the writers’ duty, for the time being, to support the government. He continued that writers had been assigned the role of capturing this key historic moment and representing it in literature. They were to ‘convey the dramatic tension of the battle, the spiritual beauty of the selfless fighters for socialism, the birth of the new man in the village’.[2] Since great literature could only be born ‘from the closest association with life’, writers were, on the one hand, to avoid giving a falsely optimistic picture, while on the other, they were to inspire readers with hope so that they would not give up. During the discussions that followed the official opening, Kruczkowski confirmed that the battle for socialist realism would continue and that it would be the guiding ideology for literary work. In case young writers were unclear as to its meaning, they were reminded that it was their duty to convey the workers’ pain and struggle, but this was to be in the context of a larger picture, namely the building of socialism. The ZLP’s leadership took its cue from an earlier speech by Georgy Maximilianovich Malenkov, the Soviet prime minister and member of the collective leadership triumvirate that took over after Stalin’s death. Malenkov had insisted that artists and writers should continue observing the principles that had guided their work earlier. In fact, he attacked Soviet authors for failing to adhere to the socialist realist objectives that were intended to create a positive image of the daily struggle in building socialism. Since these were the guidelines that had been conveyed to Soviet writers, Kruczkowski was also able to explain that Polish authors should be wary of ‘naturalism’, which was distinct from socialist realism, because it lacked the optimism that should guide a good writer.

During the discussions that followed, several authors indicated that they expected something new, perhaps a critical reassessment of the realities of Polish life. Inspired by reports of the 11th session of the Soviet Council of Culture and Arts, the poets Stanisław Dobrowolski and Seweryna Szmaglewska spoke of the need for a ‘new wind in Poland’. Szmaglewska, Dobrowolski and fellow poet Julian Przyboś discussed the significance of the transformation taking place in the Soviet Union, to general applause. But these were small indications of possible future changes. For the time being, control over the ZLP and its policies on the creative arts remained firmly in the hands of three men: Kruczkowski, Iwaszkiewicz and Brandys.

While the ZLP’s congress seems not to have changed much, because it was still not free to become a forum for open debate, during the following months two literary weeklies, Nowa Kultura and Po Prostu, proceeded to address issues that were clearly of general concern. The characteristic feature of the articles which appeared in both publications was that they had very little to do with literary and artistic life. Prominent authors, economists and academics gradually extended the debate in both weeklies. An article published in September 1955 in a party weekly, Nowe Drogi, argued that workers’ hotels, far from being a way of taking young people out of the backwardness of the villages and inducting them into the new socialist mode of production, were actually hotbeds of corruption, exploitation and gateways to criminality. While for present readers this may be a polemical but not surprising point, in the context of the then prevailing uncritical Stalinist portrayal of the benefits of industrialization this was a strikingly bold article.

In September 1955, Nowa Kultura published an article by Tadeusz Konwicki in which he called for dialogue with Polish writers abroad.[3] He argued that the communist regime’s blanket portrayal of all those who had remained in the West as reactionary was no longer acceptable. The article initiated a further debate on the fate of those Poles. In a follow-up article by Zbigniew Florczak the existence of displaced persons’ camps in the West was revealed for the first time, triggering a discussion on the role of the CIA-funded Radio Free Europe.[4] At the root of Konwicki’s article lay a widely felt anxiety that by staying in the West, many intellectuals were losing contact with what was happening in Poland. He concluded that they should not be portrayed as Polish traitors.


At the beginning of 1956, two events had a critical impact on the tone and content of articles published in Nowa Kultura and Po Prostu. The death on 12 March of Bolesław Bierut, general secretary of the party’s Central Committee, brought the battle for the party leadership into the open, and with it the key issues being debated at the 20th Congress in Moscow that Bierut had been attending when he fell ill. Po Prostu led the discussion, with Nowa Kultura taking up themes broached by young intellectuals. On 11 March 1956 three authors, Jerzy Ambroziewicz, Walery Namiotkiewicz and Jan Olszewski, had put their names to an article entitled ‘To Meet People from the AK’.[5] This theme was continued in the 1 April edition when, on the same day, Nowa Kultura published an article entitled ‘We from the AK’. For the first time and with striking authority, both weeklies asserted that members of the wartime AK were patriots who had fought for a free Poland. Both stated that the regime’s outright condemnation of all those who had joined the AK had been wrong and that many injustices had been perpetrated. Inevitably, not all readers agreed that the AK should be rehabilitated, but it was nevertheless accepted that a distinction should be drawn between the organization’s leadership and its rank and file. On 13 May Nowa Kultura published a polemic on the role of the Peasant Battalions (Bataliony Chłopskie, BCh), wartime partisan units loyal to the peasant movement.[6] During the Stalinist period, its members had been described as nothing other than AK stooges. This historic inaccuracy was corrected and attention was drawn to the BCh’s progressive objectives and its uneasy relationship with the AK.

Po Prostu went further in criticizing the stagnation within the Związek Młodzieży Polskiej, the Polish communist youth organization.[7] The publication called for the creation of a truly revolutionary youth organization. This led to an interesting debate as to whether the youth movement should be all-inclusive, or a revolutionary vanguard  organization. The first view maintained that, by excluding Catholics, the youth movement would prevent all but Marxists from engaging in political activity. Andrzej Zabłudowski argued in May that Marxists and non-Marxists should share a progressive platform, the purpose of which would be to build socialism. This was in contrast to the model of an autonomous revolutionary organization that had been advocated in an earlier edition of Po Prostu. The admission criterion was to have been a commitment to ‘revolutionary life’.

At the same time, both literary publications opened up debates on the role of the party in the cleansing process that it was hoped would follow the 20th Party Congress in the Soviet Union. By the beginning of April, the debates had gained an unstoppable momentum. The main themes aired by the above and other publications ranged from attempts to reform the PZPR to the function of the constitution. The stated objectives of both were the building of socialism and the empowerment of the people. Clearly, Khrushchev’s denunciation of past mistakes and his condemnation of the bureaucratic model of management and decision-making led to wider discussions on governance. Empowerment of the people was equated with the rule of law and progress.

Inevitably, Yugoslavia and the reforms taking place there provided a model for those who believed that socialism’s achievements and continuation of the socialist revolution should be the main tasks of progressive forces within Polish society. In June 1956, Nowa Kultura published an article by Jerzy Hojnicz on whether the Yugoslav reforms could offer solutions to Poland’s economic problems.[8] Edvard Kardelj’s reforms of workers’ participation in management decision-making appeared to take the debate back to pre-Stalinist economic models and suggested a return to the idea of decision-making being in the hands of the workers. As Hojnicz pointed out, these were economic and political models that had been advocated by Adolf Warski and Maria Koszutska (aka Wera Kostrzewa), Polish communist leaders who were both victims of Stalin’s liquidation of the Communist Party of Poland (Komunistyczna Partia Polski) in 1938.

By the summer of 1956, the debate on economic reforms acquired further meaning, as events in many large enterprises indicated that the working class had the political maturity to link political freedoms with workers’ control of management decisions. Nowa Kultura had by then become a forum for extensive debates on much-needed economic reforms. Edward Lipiński, Oskar Lange and other economists discussed the merits of workers’ councils having a dominant say in production decisions and in managing enterprises. Interestingly, the discussion took the form of articles, responses and polemics appearing in three publications: Nowa Kultura, Po Prostu and Nowe Drogi. The latter was a theoretical organ of the Central Committee of the PZPR. By September and October, events in large factories around Warsaw confirmed the importance of these discussions. Clearly, while intellectuals were articulating the historic and theoretical aspects of workers taking over management decisions, they were not the ones who were deciding what was happening in the enterprises. It was the workers who were pushing for reforms and setting the pace for change. On 7 October Nowa Kultura condemned the government’s lack of decisiveness and praised the workers for their determination in advancing the reforms.[9]

When, in July 1956, the 7th Plenary Meeting of the PZPR failed to satisfy expectations for major economic reforms, Po Prostu criticized its shortcomings and achievements, while Nowa Kultura voiced positive and negative assessments of Ochab’s limited reforms.[10] Both were still looking well beyond the narrow interests of their readerships. Po Prostu’s articles, which discussed political and economic reforms, went hand in hand with comments on the need for greater openness in dealing with social problems, such as the mistreatment of women, unwanted pregnancies, student poverty and lack of employment opportunities. Until recently, these had been subjects that could not be discussed, because any admission of their existence as problems was treated as an attack on the post-war communist regime’s achievements. A reduction in censorship and the absence of clear directives, which had hitherto determined what topics were permitted, enabled and encouraged the publication of articles dealing with previously forbidden issues.

The 7th Congress of the Union of Polish Writers opened on 29 November 1956. It had been postponed twice; first, due to the events of October, when a mass mobilization of factory workers was followed by the 8th Plenary Session of the PZPR. The session was then postponed again when developments in Budapest connected with the Hungarian Uprising took centre stage.

The congress opened with a letter from the Central Committee of the PZPR. In marked contrast to the previous congress, when Ochab had urged writers to abide by the principles of socialist realism, in November 1956 his message to the ZLP called for support for the party in its new aim. The party’s message to the writers stated that:

Your congress is taking place during the difficult days of the battle to consolidate the achievements of the October Days, the achievements of the 8th Plenum. The complex reconstruction of the economic and political model of our country is not only a process of overcoming the distortions of the past; it is at the same time a no less difficult process of strengthening the principles of democratic socialism and socialist legality.[11]

During the three days of meetings of the 1954 congress the leadership was not challenged and, in fact, remained unchanged. The 1956 congress was held in entirely different circumstances and in an atmosphere of impunity that emboldened the membership to challenge the leaders, who had remained untouchable until then. This time, the leadership of the ZLP was condemned for having subordinated the organization to the political demands of the regime and for having used its authority and financial resources to force writers to write in a prescriptive way. The ZLP was accused of having stifled creativity and destroyed young talent. It was noted that neither Leon Kruczkowski nor Jerzy Putrament attended those meetings and did not attempt to defend their earlier actions. The debate was refreshingly frank. It covered not merely the way in which authors had been obliged to pander to the political agenda of the ruling clique, but also their readiness to go along with what was being asked of them and their willingness act as hired pens. Two writers, Michał Rusinek (general secretary of the ZLP) and Jan Wyka, both spoke at length about the past. Wyka also outlined the main objectives for the future. And here again was echoed the conviction, previously voiced in Nowa Kultura and Po Prostu, that the renewal was not just a time when writers could once more defend their interests, secure proper remuneration, call for the banning of censorship and demand that restrictions be lifted on the availability of certain library books. This was also a time when intellectuals could speak on behalf of the nation. Wyka captured this mood most eloquently when he called for writers to support the new party secretary, Władysław Gomułka, and his reforms. He declared:

Never have Polish authors been so close to the suburbs, workers’ quarters, peasants in the villages, as they were during the past months. It is possible that there is not one single person in this room who has failed to realize that independence and development are guaranteed not only through the exercise of the sovereignty of the rulers, but to a much larger extent through the sovereignty of the nation, through people’s power… Our promise to the lands between the Bug and the Oder is people’s power. [12]

The congress ended with calls that the government should grant asylum to all the Hungarian writers who had come to Poland. The conclusions also summarized what had been extensively aired earlier in Nowa Kultura, namely calls for closer links with foreign writers, the widening of dialogue with people of different political convictions and the end of censorship and of jamming foreign radio broadcasts.

One resolution that the congress passed was for the ZLP to pledge the delegates’ support for Gomułka in his efforts to reform the political life of Poland.


In the months and years that followed, intellectuals and writers came to view Gomułka’s commitment to the reforms in 1956 as minimal and his desire to empower workers as dubious.

A sense of foreboding was already apparent in a piece published in the 23­–30 December 1956 issue of Po Prostu. Edmund Gonczarski’s article entitled ‘The Strength of the Polish Revolution’ reviewed the role intellectuals had played in post-war Poland.[13] He warned that the Yugoslav example was not a good guide, because Poland was experiencing post-Stalinism, while Yugoslavia had not been affected by Stalinist policies. The search for the Polish road to socialism was going to be distinct. Nevertheless, in analysing the relationship that had developed between intellectuals and workers during the heady months of 1956, the author seemed to be also suggesting that the collaboration in that exhilarating time could turn out to be very brief. Gonczarski went on to point out that the workers’ community had its own interpretation of what had happened and what needed to be done, while intellectuals had their distinct point of view. The two had come together in the writers’ calls for the end of the state’s monopoly on truth, and in the acceptance that all sides of the story should be known. The role of the intelligentsia, which he defined as ‘disseminating awareness [presumably knowledge] to workers’, was what intellectuals had reclaimed in 1956 from state employees, who were manifestly philistine. What the author was alluding to was the poor education of state managers and bureaucrats, whose shortcomings starkly contrasted with the intellectuals’ abilities and sensibilities. Through addressing social, economic and political issues, Po Prostu and Nowa Kultura had confirmed that historic duty to the workers and also the need for an alliance between them and the intelligentsia. As Gonczarski concluded, ‘in its pursuit of political freedoms, the intelligentsia [realized that] if it failed to support workers’ economic demands, they would be defenceless’.

Whether the economic and political objectives of these two social groups had been achieved was doubtful. According to Gonczarski’s prophetic article, the revolutionary movement had failed to achieve its main aims, and instead had merely ended with a compromise consisting of assurances from the newly installed Gomułka regime that a new socialism, and a democratic one at that, would be introduced gradually. But in the absence of a revolutionary transformation that would have given workers control over the means of production, the political apparatus remained far from purged of right-wing elements who would, presumably, try to block economic and, with them, political reforms.

Gonczarski’s reasoning was that separating the intelligentsia from the workers would affect the demands of the two sections of the community in different ways, leading to the defeat of one of them, if not both. Nevertheless, the end of 1956 saw the closure of a brief period when Poland’s writers took the lead in opening and airing debates on key political issues.

[1] Paper given on 8 June 1954 by Kazimierz Brandys at the 6th Congress of the Union of Polish Writers in Warsaw. Unpublished proceedings, vol. 1. Dom Literatów Library, Warsaw.

[2] Paper given by Wiesław Ochab on 8 June 1954 at the 6th Congress of the Union of Polish Writers in Warsaw. Unpublished proceedings, vol. 1. Dom Literatów Library, Warsaw.

[3] Konwicki, T. (1955) ‘Nad książką emigracyjną’. Nowa Kultura, 36 (284), vol. 6. 

[4] Florczak, Z. (1955) ‘Chcemy zobaczyć emigrację’. Nowa Kultura, 37 (285), vol. 6.

[5] Ambroziewicz, J., Namiotkiewicz, W. and Olszewski, J. (1956) ‘Na spotkanie ludziom z AK’. Po Prostu, 11 (373). The Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK) was a wartime resistance movement that was loyal to the government-in-exile but after the war was portrayed by the communists as a hostile organization.

[6] Wilbik-Jagusztynowa, W. (1956) ‘AK a Bataliony Chłopskie’. Nowa Kultura 30 (320), vol. 7.

[7] Editorial (1956) ‘Podyskutujemy. Co Robić?’ Po Prostu, 15 (377).

[8] Hojnicz, J. (1956) ‘Problem: Jugosławia’. Nowa Kultura, 27 (327), vol. 7. 

[9] Kozicki, S. (1956) ‘Samorząd robotniczy i co dalej?’. Nowa Kultura, 41 (341), vol. 7.

[10] Editorial (1956) ‘Program’. Po Prostu, 32 (394).

[11] 7th Congress of the Union of Polish Writers, 29 November – 2 December 1956. Unpublished proceedings, vol. 1. Dom Literatów Library, Warsaw.

[12] Paper given by Kazimierz Brandys at the 7th Congress of the Union of Polish Writers in Warsaw.

Unpublished proceedings, vol. 1. Dom Literatów Library, Warsaw.

[13] Gonczarski, E. (1956) ‘Siły polskiej rewolucji’. Po Prostu, 52–53 (414–15).