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After the Six-Day War: Political Crisis in Poland

A. Ross Johnson

Anti-Semitic purges in the Polish communist party and army followed Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War

Anti-Semitic purges in the Polish communist party and army followed Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, in which Israel decisively defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Expansion of Israeli territory achieved through its quick victory over the Arab armies fundamentally altered the landscape of the Middle East.

Israel’s demonstrated military superiority over Arab forces equipped by the Soviet Union and employing Soviet tactics had other, far-reaching ramifications. These included challenges to Soviet hegemony and communist party cohesion in Eastern Europe.

Nicolae Ceausescu reasserted Romanian autonomy in international affairs and expanded ties with Western countries. With the war underway, the USSR summoned its allies to Moscow to denounce Israel and pledge support for the Arab states. Romania dissented; it declined to support the Arab states, refused to sign the Moscow Declaration of June 9 denouncing Israel as aggressor, and failed to join all other non-Soviet Warsaw Pact states in breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel at Soviet insistence. After 1967 it maintained good relations with Israel and refused to join pro-Arab Soviet initiatives.

The Six-Day War also resulted in soul searching within other East European countries about deficiencies of their own armed forces, which—like those of the Arab states—relied on Soviet armaments and doctrine, and about the strength of opposing NATO forces that might emulate the Israeli success in a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict.

These concerns were especially strong in the Polish armed forces and were fueled by resentment that Poland lagged behind the USSR’s Arab client states in receiving the latest Soviet military systems. Commanders of the Air Defense Force (Wojska Obrony Powietrznej Kraju) drew negative lessons from the Six-Day War about the capabilities of Poland’s Soviet-designed air defense system in a conflict with NATO and were particularly vocal in their criticism. Minister of Defense Marian Spychalski alluded to such criticism of Soviet equipment and to “nationalism” – meaning anti-Soviet attitudes depicted as “pro-Israeli” – in a series of meetings in June. Addressing the Military Political Academy on July 1, Spychalski warned that “regardless of their nationality, we cannot remain indifferent to those who, against the interest of our state and security, take the side of the aggressor.” He was more explicit addressing the Military Technical Academy on July 19: “A pro-Israeli stand is a pro-imperialist stand masked by nationalism and thus it is an anti-socialist and anti-nationalist stand.” He sacked the three senior commanding officers of the ADF. While those officers were not of Jewish origin, their dismissal was the first wave in what would become a tsunami of purges with strong anti-Semitic overtones throughout the Polish Communist military and Party establishments in 1967 and 1968. 

In the Polish army, some 200 military officers of Jewish descent were required to sign declarations of condemnation of Israel. As one colonel who was dismissed and later emigrated put it, “those who refused were dismissed immediately, while those who signed were dismissed six months later.” Some 14 generals and 200 colonels (most but not all of Jewish descent) were ousted. One victim was Colonel Michael Sadykiewicz, later a Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and RAND Corporation consultant and author of studies of the Warsaw Pact, whose papers are now available at the Hoover Library and Archives.

The Six-Day War also fueled internecine conflict within the Polish Communist Party that extended far beyond the military and led to a wide-ranging purge of Party officials, intellectuals, and other elites and the ouster in 1970 of Party leader Wladyslaw Gomulka.

Israel’s success in the Six Day War and the defeat of the USSR’s Arab allies was widely applauded in Poland. Poles sent congratulatory messages to the Israeli Embassy. Articles praising Israel were written -- and banned by the censors. The magnitude of the pro-Israeli sentiment was indicated by the many anti-Israel agitprop meetings organized throughout Poland in mid-1967. Warsaw Party Committee First Secretary Stanislaw Kociolek criticized Party members for adopting “non-Party positons” on the Six-Day War. Gomulka himself, addressing a trade union congress on June 19, denounced pro-Israeli “victory celebrations” and ascribed pro-Israeli sentiment to the Jewish origins of those expressing it, to a “fifth column” of Polish Zionists.

Though no anti-Semite himself, Gomulka’s stance opened the door for a faction within the Party led by Interior Minister Mieczyslaw Moczar (the so-called Partisans) to seize on anti-Semitism as in instrument of intra-party struggle. The Moczarite faction expanded the purge in the spring of 1968 following the suppression of student protests. In the words of sociologist Zygmund Bauman, himself a prominent early victim of the purge, “the present-day anti-Semitism, which is inspired from above … is an instrument of internecine political struggle which has nothing in common with any Jewish problems.” [1]

Over the next two years, hundreds of Party officials, journalists, and scholars lost their jobs. While many were of Jewish descent, other Poles critical of the Party such as philosopher Leszek Kolokowski were dismissed and emigrated. Purge of the military continued: Spychalski dismissed the commanders of the Warsaw Military District and the 6th Pomeranian Airborne Division (the former of Jewish descent; the latter not) in April 1968 and then himself resigned. Gomulka himself was forced out in 1970, to be succeeded not by Moczar but by technocrat Edward Gierek.

Although the Moczarites failed to seize power, their attempt to do that disrupted the Polish Communist establishment, silenced internal dissent and opposition for a decade, and led to the emigration of over 10,000 Poles of Jewish descent, along with many other Poles, by 1972. All of these repercussions and the resulting damage to the Soviet bloc can be traced back to the Six-Day War.


[1] Zygmunt Bauman, “The End of Polish Jewry – a Sociological Review,” Bulletin on Soviet and East European Jewish Affairs, London, January 1969. 

About the Author

A. Ross Johnson

A. Ross Johnson

History and Public Policy Program Fellow;
Senior Adviser, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; former Director, Radio Free Europe

Before his passing in February 2021, A. Ross Johnson was a Wilson Center History and Public Policy Fellow and Senior Advisor for Archives at RFE/RL. He was a former director of Radio Free Europe. 

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