Edward Gierek

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The Independent Online

Edward Gierek, politician: born Porabka, Poland 6 January 1913; member of the Politburo, Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) 1959-80, First Secretary, Central Committee 1970-1980; married (two sons); died Cieszyn, Poland 29 July 2001.

Long after his fall from power, Edward Gierek, the Polish Communist leader of the 1970s, used to boast that while he had been in charge, no Polish worker was ever shot. That was a rare distinction in Poland where Communist hegemony was established through considerable violence – with the help of the Soviet Army and the secret police – in the wake of the Second World War, and where one-party rule was punctuated by large-scale workers' protests, only to be suppressed by the use of force.

Gierek's other boast was to have produced unprecedented prosperity by introducing Poland to the pleasures of consumer society. During his 10-year rule, which followed unrest in Poland's Baltic ports in 1970, Gierek did, indeed, embark on an ambitious programme to modernise industry and improve living standards with the help of massive western loans.

However, a failure to invest in Poland's inefficient farming sector and excessive reliance on an energy-hungry and increasingly obsolescent heavy industry at the time of the recurrent international oil price shocks pulled the rug from under Gierek's experiment with consumer socialism. Food shortages and the resulting price rises led to a wave of strikes in 1980 and to the emergence of Solidarity – the first free trade union movement in Communist-ruled eastern Europe. As Solidarity began to gain ground, Gierek was quickly removed from the leadership and was consigned to obscurity.

Gierek was born in 1913 into a working-class family in Upper Silesia, not far from Katowice – the city he later did so much to turn into Poland's industrial capital. At the age of 10, after his coal miner father's death, he moved to France with the rest of his family; began to work in the coal mines while still a teenager; and joined the Communist Party at 18. He spent a quarter of a century in France and Belgium – the country he moved to shortly after he had been deported by the French authorities to Poland in 1934 for engaging in Communist activities.

Gierek returned to Poland in 1948 as the Communists were consolidating their control over the country by annexing the remnants of the Socialist Party and renaming the new ruling organisation the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR). He became an activist in the Katowice branch of the PZPR and, unusually for a Communist who had lived in the West, he escaped the repeated purges that were often directed against those who had been supposedly contaminated by "bourgeois" values.

In 1957 Gierek took over as leader of the PZPR in Katowice voivodship (county), and in the 13 years that followed he established a personal power base in the centre of Poland's industrial heartland. Under his leadership the "Silesian mafia" became identified with the relatively pragmatic, technocratic wing within the PZPR.

When food price rises led to riots in Poland's Baltic ports in 1970, Gierek was in pole position to replace the ageing and increasingly conservative Wladyslaw Gomulka as First Secretary (leader) of the PZPR. He then applied the kind of pragmatic approach that had proved popular in Katowice on a nationwide scale. Poland raised over $20bn in loans from western banks with the intention of boosting industrial output that would pay back the credits in the form of increased exports.

Initially, the scheme appeared to be working. There were many visible results of the Gierek experiment: Polski Fiat cars on the roads, Coca-Cola in the shops and relative freedom to travel to the West. Gierek was greatly helped by the improvement in East-West relations that accompanied the policy of détente and a key part of which was West Germany's "Ostpolitik" – Chancellor Willy Brandt's opening to Bonn's eastern neighbours.

Gierek enjoyed for a while considerable popularity. Tall and rugged in build, having a common touch which appealed to workers and yet being sophisticated enough to speak fluent French, the ex-miner was seen as very different from the grey party apparatchiks who surrounded him.

But the Gierek experiment soon ran off the rails with the quadrupling of oil price rises following the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. The recession in the western world reduced the demand for Polish exports and further credits began to dry out.

The newly built metal and engineering plants became a millstone around Poland's neck. That and the failure to carry out any substantive reforms led to growing discontent particularly when attempts were made to raise food prices. Meanwhile, widespread corruption and the ostentatious lifestyle of the "Silesian mafia" angered many Poles.

Gierek survived a round of strikes in 1976, but when Solidarity emerged on the scene in the summer of 1980, he was unceremoniously removed from his job. Gierek found out he had been sacked in early September when, after suffering a heart attack, he was visited in hospital by one of his colleagues, Stanislaw Kania, who told him bluntly, "I've got your job."

In typical Communist fashion, Gierek was turned into a scapegoat by his successors, who blamed him for all the disasters that had befallen the Polish economy. When General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law to deal with Solidarity's challenge to Communist rule, Gierek was interned, along with thousands of Solidarity activists, in a bid to demonstrate the "even-handedness" of the ruling Military Council for National Salvation.

For a while it seemed Gierek might be put on trial on charges of corruption. But after his year-long internment, Gierek was cleared by a parliamentary committee and his punishment took a different form. He became a "non-person" – so much so that the Communist authorities even "forgot" in 1987 to award him and Stanislawa, his wife, the customary medal that is received by Polish couples on reaching their golden wedding anniversary. They were allowed to live in quiet retirement in a suburb of Katowice.

But Gierek returned to the limelight from 10 years in obscurity when the first volume of his memoirs, Przerwana dekada ("The Interrupted Decade"), became one of the bestsellers of 1990. Its success was due, in part, to its being the first of the Communist-era autobiographies and, in part, to its outspoken style, particularly about fellow members of the old Communist hierarchy.

His memoirs were not just a publishing success; they also provided a form of sweet revenge. Gierek repaid in full what he regarded as his collaborators' treachery when, at the publicity launch, he remarked: "My greatest disaster is my friends who, when I was in power, crawled in front of me, and later were the first to spit on me."

Gabriel Partos