On December 13, 1981, the then-President of Poland, Wojciech Jaruzelski, introduced martial law in the country to crush the opposition Solidarity movement. The extreme measure was thought to have staved off the military intervention of the Soviet Union.
Solidarity was an opposition movement that appeared in 1980 out of trade unions headed by the progressive Polish leader Lech Walesa. The victory of the Solidarity movement in the 1989 election became one of the factors which contributed to the elimination of the Soviet regime in Poland without major bloodshed.
Though the active Soviet participation and its final say in the internal affairs of every Warsaw Pact state was predetermined by the pact itself, according to a document declassified by the Polish administration, Jaruzelski himself was the first one to request the introduction of Soviet troops to support his regime.
The document depicted the conversation between Jaruzelski and the Commander-in-Chief of the Warsaw Pact troops, Victor Kulikov, which took place on December 9, 1981 -- that is, four days before the introduction of martial law. In his appeal, Jaruzelski confessed to Kulikov that “if people leave plants and factories and, instead, start breaking down every Communist Party unit in the country, you will have to lend us help – alone we won’t manage.” The Soviet General left the request unanswered, which made disappointed Jaruzelski even try and blackmail him into doing it, as he threatened to withdraw Poland from the Warsaw Pact Union.
Up until now, it was traditionally understood that martial law in Poland was a compulsory measure to avoid the Soviet intervention on the Polish territory. In September 2008, when questioned in court, Jaruzelski once again said, "I am repeating it one more time, that is, the imposition of martial law was called forth by the major necessity and preserved Poland from a disaster of immense proportions. Martial law was evil, but the lesser evil than the one we could have experienced.” At the trial Jaruzelski was charged with a number of crimes, including "organizing armed groupings with criminal intentions” and responsibility for killing over a hundred people in the course of the operation.
The idea that the Kremlin had no intention of sending in troops appeared years earlier, as the Soviet authorities were positive Jaruzelski’s administration would handle the uprising of the opposition on his own, though they considered the Polish leader to be very indecisive. In discussing this matter, the then-KGB leader Yury Andropov felt strongly about the matter as he predicted that intervention would draw in the capitalist world against the Soviet Union, and the imposition of political and economic sanctions would be a tough task for the country to withstand. Jaruzelski himself, on finding out about the document, refused to acknowledge its authenticity.
The martial law introduced on December 13, 1981, brought the army, special police units, and armored vehicles out on the streets, and also including cutting communication lines and imposing a curfew. The activities of all social bodies and trade unions were halted while the courts acted under an emergency regime.
The first night, the Solidarity leaders were interned, as well as the trade union leaders. The total number amounting to 5,000 people, and up to 10,000 a year later, as the Solidarity movement was unprepared to resist the military response to its activities.
Poland was swept by a wave of social unrest, as strikes broke out across the country and were then put down with violence by the police. The police used tear gas, batons and water cannons. The total number of recorded deaths was an estimated 115 people.