Through the Back Door

The Black Market in Poland 1944–1989

by Jerzy Kochanowski (Author)
Monographs 436 Pages
Open Access

Table Of Content

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Małgorzata Mazurek, Columbia University

The pursuit of profit, accompanied by acquisitiveness and avarice, has never been the exclusive domain of capitalism, as Max Weber pointed out almost a century ago, arguing that it could be found throughout the world in any epoch, whether among Chinese officials or Roman aristocrats, pirates or modern peasants. Jerzy Kochanowski tells the story of the pursuit of profit under state socialism, something that many would see as a contradiction in terms. And yet – argues the author – organized, profit-oriented black markets were an organic part of the communist era.

In the course of World War One, and later during World War Two, much of what had previously been considered the legitimate pursuit of profit became classified in Poland as spekulacja, or profiteering: a morally condemned, politically risky and illegal mode of enrichment at the cost of others. In many post-1918 European democracies, the specters of profiteering and hyperinflation loomed as large as those of radical right- and left-wing ideologies. Taking this lesson into account, during, and most of all, after the second world war, many European nation states introduced food rationing and price controls which, they hoped, would protect the consumer purchasing power of their citizens. In the occupied territories of East Central Europe, however, where the predatory extraction of human and material resources and the violence of war had led to mass starvation on a much greater scale than in the West, the black market offered salvation from the occupier’s state intervention.

In the Warsaw of 1945, as in many European cities of the time, the female street vendor symbolized the rebirth of life amidst the ruins and rubble, where the “wind carried russet dust from the ruins onto bread, sausages and fruit, and made street vendors wipe the foodstuff with an alarmingly dirty rag.” One should not forget that the postwar reconstruction went hand in hand with ethnic cleansing and anti-Semitism, historical themes which Jerzy Kochanowski explores elsewhere. In 1949, Załma Gerber, a butcher sentenced to a fine of 500 000 zloty – or a two-year work camp imprisonment – for overcharging, wrote in his appeal to the state Special Commission for Combating Fraud and Corruption: “I find it unjustifiable that I have been sentenced on the basis of an accusation by a single client. After all, everyone knows that Jewish shops are not welcome in local society. […] What makes the severity of the penalty so unfair is the fact that ← 9 | 10 → I have already lost my life’s work because of the war and the time I had spent in concentration camps.”

In Poland and other East Central European states, consumer self-welfare and the black market undermined the communist welfare state project well beyond the period of postwar reconstruction. As the food shortages dragged on, despite the repeated attempts of government to buy social peace through pro-consumer policies, profit-oriented activities continued to be part of daily experience. This was due not only to flaws in the planned economy, but also because, striving to hold onto their power, communist officials continually restrained and criminalized market mechanisms related to supply and demand as illegal profiteering. Thus, state socialism fought “speculation” as much as it reproduced it.

Jerzy Kochanowski portrays these profit-oriented, illegal self-welfare activities in defiance of state-imposed social welfare as a game. These shenanigans, he argues, lasted half a century, resulting in a pro- and anti-profiteering “sinusoid” that eventually peaked in 1989, when profit-making was confirmed not only as a social, but also political norm. The author of Through the Back Door: The Black Market in Poland 1944–1989 makes it clear that the institutions designed to deal with black markets were in fact helpless. They did not determine reality; they merely reacted to it. Yet in no way was this game a matter of resistance by a heroic society to a villainous one-party state. Rather, the black market was the result of a complex interplay, in which the boundaries between the public and the private, the state and the individual, the legal and the criminal, were often blurred. As Paulina Bren and Mary Neuburger have noted, elsewhere in socialist Eastern Europe, developments in the sphere of consumption proved that the “confounding binaries of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ were in many respects far more complex than under capitalism, and certainly more overtly political.”

Today’s historiography on state socialism still carries imprints of the Cold War mindset. Many normative assumptions, idealizations and negative stereotypes of communism or the free market remain unarticulated or taken for granted. History, especially in today’s East Central Europe, has been a hotbed of political claim-making. Historical narratives are created with the aim of establishing yet another edifice of the one-and-only truth, a new gateway to a righteous past. In this world of political passions, stories of everyday life that shed light on mundane details in specific contexts and which show a concern for historical precision are much needed. Jerzy Kochanowski’s is a book that delivers just such a complex and ethnographic representation of the ordinary. Its great virtue is its perspective: through the eponymous “backdoor”, we zoom in on the countless individuals who participated in everyday profiteering, smuggling, and ← 10 | 11 → barter. Rather than pinpointing the essence of the black market – a futile undertaking if we accept the idea of history as changing reality – Through the Back Door describes the myriad ways in which the profit-oriented informal economy shaped the lives of ordinary people.

Indeed, the historical geography of profiteering in communist Poland is as complex as it is fascinating. While much has been said about the social inequalities created by the state socialist economy and its shadowy underbelly, the black market, we learn here a great deal about the regional diversity of postwar Polish society and its economy. Kochanowski’s spatial history of communist Poland leads us to that affluent mountain resort, Zakopane, where a dollar-based private tourist sector successfully challenged, if not supplanted, the official one. We visit port cities, those traditional hives of illegal money and commodity exchange. We also become acquainted with provincial socialist-era “speakeasies,” where illegal alcohol was produced and sold on a mass scale. Finally, we get a tour across East Central Europe, following cross-border trade routes including the “cosmetics-cum-clothing” pathway to Romania, the “crystal glass and hard currency” channel between Poland and Yugoslavia, and the “linen trail” to Hungary. In the 1970s and 1980s, these established routes flourished and were further extended. Towards the end of communism, cross-border trafficking, often one way to cover the cost of summer vacation, became a truly global affair with its own complex know-how and logistics, based on shared knowledge, which was passed on by word of mouth. Through the Back Door we uncover this fascinating, arcane world, gripped as if following a detective yarn. The transnational centers of tourist trading – the Polenmarkt on the Mexicoplatz in Vienna or Romanian beaches – turned into commodity exchanges for socialist goods reveal the true scale and wealth of the Soviet Bloc’s black markets.

It is always tricky to attempt a single-cause explanation of why communism fell, or why it lasted as long as it did. Jerzy Kochanowski chooses not to venture into these muddy waters, but he does leave us some clues. If we were to picture the East Central European counterpart of the Western “entrepreneur” (in the parlance of the 1980s neoliberals) – an individual both resourceful and creative, perhaps what would appear before our eyes might well turn out to be a woman laden with bags and swathed in a peasant shawl: the ubiquitous “baba with veal,” the villager that sold meat to urbanites. Although this familiar figure disappeared with the fall of communism, she remained an icon of popular and shrewd profit-making. This book gives the baba more than just an engaging contextualization – it gives her a face and a history, as well as affording the reader an informed and sympathetic view. ← 11 | 12 →

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1.  Terms and Methods

“During the war one could get anything at all”, reminisced the Polish painter Franciszek Starowieyski, “but once the socialist shambles began its reign, even trivial things became unavailable. Very quickly people realized that socialism was a force of “desertification.” “What will happen in the Sahara once the socialists arrive? They will run out of sand,” ran a popular joke that did the rounds in 1945, when it became clear how quickly everything was disappearing and falling apart, once socialism took hold.”1 This book is dedicated to all the efforts undertaken by post-war Polish society to irrigate the “socialist desert” and squeeze from it as much as possible. Bearing in mind that most of the oases and water reserves and oases had been nationalized; Poles were obliged to engage in a complicated, and usually illegal, game playing with the state. This went on for almost half a century.

1.1  What Color was the Black Market?

This book does not aspire to be an economic, sociological or anthropological analysis. It aims at an interdisciplinary (albeit history-focused) reconstruction of various behaviors, mechanisms, phenomena, practices, processes and strategies united under the shared umbrella of the term “black market”. These mechanisms and strategies were unusually multilayered; they varied in time and geography. They reacted instantly to external and internal circumstances. Black market players spoke their own language and had a distinct set of values. They were involved in the black market sometimes purposefully and exclusively for profit, and sometimes under duress and against their will.2 As with any other mass phenomenon, with this one also there are controversial and debatable issues, starting with the terminology and the methodology; these require some clarification.

No state can completely control its citizens and their economic life. No society consists solely of those who put the common good above the individual one. The economy of a state often brings to mind a river that at times dips under the surface, its flow becoming subterranean. Its depth, the strength of the current, the type of river bed, fauna and flora of the underground flows (to stay with the fluvial terminology) depend on many factors and look different in every ← 13 | 14 → country; this does not make it any easier for researchers. This much is clear both from the variety of terms used to describe it (Poland’s black market economy has been variously referred to as the “gray sphere”, or shadow, black, second, parallel, hidden, informal, unofficial, secret, unobservable, unregistered, or unquantifiable economy), and also from the absence of a universally satisfying definition. While trying to create one, some reach for moral yardsticks and others for legal, institutional, statistical (especially if they are able to register the black market activities) or, as a last resort, ideological criteria. Regardless of the perspective adopted, the term “black market” is used to refer to the production and exchange of goods or services conducted for profit (whether monetary or not) outside of formal institutions (also implying that it remains outside of legally binding regulations) and unaccounted for in the gross national product.3

Everywhere in the world the gray sphere faithfully accompanies the official economy. It always has its own, often endemic, characteristics dependent on the economic and social structure, tradition, and legal system. However, one can assume that in countries where the free market system is established and developed, the gray sphere is mostly about avoiding taxes and taking advantage of illegal labor. Criminal activities, such as selling drug and weapons, the trade in fissile material, and human trafficking are a different matter. These tend to hog the headlines and bring enormous profits but at the same time they barely influence the everyday life of an average Frenchman, German or Finn.

The average citizen of any “people’s democracy”, whether a Pole, a Russian or a Romanian, did not care much about the black market in tanks or uranium, but wanted to know how and where they could get shoes, gas, furniture, and pots (and what to put in the latter), since the supply of even the most ordinary goods could never be taken for granted. To have money in one’s purse or wallet was ← 14 | 15 → not enough to succeed in making a successful purchase; it was a common experience to stand in line in front of a store with no guarantee that the item of one dreams, or indeed anything else at all, would be there when one finally arrived at the front of the line hours later. Chronic shortages in the socialist economies are a well-known fact and much has been written about them. János Kornai’s work on this topic has become a classic (which, incidentally, does not mean that his conclusions are immune to debate).4 What matters more for our purposes is, rather than showing how the shortages came about, looking at how they were alleviated. There were two possible approaches: either the state rationed the goods and services, or society took over the (re)distribution. From the point of view of the totalitarian/authoritarian state, such an alternative was unacceptable and the liberal slogan “What is not forbidden is allowed” was generally substituted with the clear guideline: “What is not explicitly allowed is forbidden”.5

Citizens were disinclined to conform to the dictatorial economy and, especially where the shortages were particularly painful, they constantly perfected adjustment strategies. Through the “back door”, they would drain the state sector and develop social networks based on mutual but not exactly gratuitous help in acquiring goods and services that were absent from the market. Poles jokingly defined the worst possible punishment as “sentenced to two years with no cronies”. Similar sentiments had their equivalents in almost all socialist countries; in the Soviet Union they used to say “Blat is stronger than Stalin”; the Polish “cronies” and Soviet “blat” both meaning “good ol’ boy networks”. The whirlpool of the second economy sucked out the supplies from the first one thus creating shortages, which increased various informal economic activities.6 In the socialist countries this vicious circle not only produced the second economy, but also the ← 15 | 16 → “second society”7 guided by its own ethical rules, goals, models, and mentality. Its existence was probably most in evidence when viewing society from the economic angle.

When the entire economy not only depends on the state but also belongs to it, it is hard to call the “underground” economy a parallel one. Parallel equals independent, and independence was certainly not a characteristic of the socialist second economy. In the Soviet Bloc countries, the connections between the two economies were very tight and usually of a parasitic kind. The official economy provided money, natural resources and products for private (legal and illegal) artisans and merchants or smugglers. Private houses were built with state-owned bricks and cement; cars ran on state-owned gas.8 But there was also a certain symbiosis. The state enterprises could not operate, nor meet their production goals, without using the strategies of the grey sphere both in dealings with the state and private co-operants. The managers of state enterprises often knowingly flouted the law, because they knew that without the proverbial “nuts and bolts” supplied by canny artisans the factory would have not been able to function. Not too many questions were asked, such as enquiring too closely into the source of steel used for the production of parts. In this context, the shades used to define the informal economic arrangements of the time – ranging as they do from gray to black – are clearly insufficient. No wonder that researchers into the socialist second economy were obliged to broaden the palette considerably.

Although the model described below was evolved to apply to the Soviet Union, it nevertheless applies to a great degree also to other states of the eastern bloc (and not just in Europe).9 ← 16 | 17 →

1.1.1  Legal Markets

The market called, for more than one reason, red was in fact the inefficient and inflexible system of state distribution. It was aided by the pink market, in which privately, legally owned goods changed hands. The state created a network of komis (second-hand) stores (skupochnyie in Russian) where one could sell clothes, books, furniture and so on, for prices no higher than in regular stores. Komis stores were one of the few places where traces of market behavior occurred – for example, the price was negotiable, and the un-cleared stock was put on sale. However, there were not many skupocznyie and so their influence on the market was negligible.

The white markets were of greater importance. They included the town marketplaces where one could sell used goods (barakholki were often closed down due to their taking liberties with the interpretation of the term “second-hand items”), and also the kolkhoz markets which sold food. The prices in both markets were not regulated by the state (apart from times of exceptional shortage, when maximum prices were introduced but rarely respected).

1.1.2  Semi-legal Markets

The gray market included apartment and holiday cottage (dacha) rental services (and also house renovation, car repair, tailoring and shoe services) carried out after – or sometimes during – working hours by shabashnikovs. Income acquired from tutoring or medical advice was also included in that group. The illegal but commonly accepted barter between enterprises (without which production goals were often impossible to meet) was part of the grey market. The authorities usually turned a blind eye to the grey market, especially in the areas where the supply of goods and services was insufficient.

1.1.3  Illegal Markets

The brown market dealt with goods theoretically available on the red market but in reality subject to chronic shortages. In the case of meat, dairy products, clothes, refrigerators, cars, mechanised equipment, and building materials, the demand was vastly greater than the supply. As a result, numerous means of back ← 17 | 18 → door distribution became available. Producers, employees of trade headquarters and warehouses, transport drivers and salesmen, all took part in these dealings. People engaged in such actions in order to create social capital, hoping for a reciprocated “service” in other shortage areas. A separate segment of the brown market dealt with coveted imported items, considered as luxuries in the Soviet Union – mostly clothes, and in the 1980s, also video cassettes or cars, vast numbers of which were brought into the country, often legally, by sailors, athletes, and artists. Theoretically, these were to be distributed by the small network of komis stores but since the vendors did not want to leave a paper trail (their IDs had to be shown and their details recorded during each transaction), more discreet and less formal channels of distribution were soon created.

Factories and enterprises also took advantage of the brown market. For example, the management of the kolkhozes, the collective farms, were constantly obliged to grapple with lack of parts and being in possession of illegally acquired cash (lewa kasa) obtained the needed items through informal channels by buying items that had been stolen or produced as side jobs.

Although the participants in the brown market were tolerated, both the state and a large part of society viewed those engaged in the black market as criminals. Draining the red market for profit (via shoplifting, theft from warehouses and factories or from transport and generating a fake surplus, usually by lowering the quality of the product) was also considered a black market activity. Alcohol played an extremely important role on the black market. Its retail distribution was under special state control, which on the one hand led to a growth in the production of moonshine, and on the other to the private distribution of state alcohol, of course at higher prices.

Soviet luxury items (jeans, wigs, etc.) legally imported and distributed on the brown market were but a drop in the ocean of need. It is hard to estimate how many were smuggled into the Soviet Union and how many were purchased from tourists (this was the domain of fartsovshchiks, who also sold tourists local souvenirs or hard-to-get-items such as caviar). The higher caste of the black marketers, valutchiks (from Russian valuta – currency), monopolized the illegal trade in hard currency and gold, which, along with precious stones, were used as a store of value and were thus the main items subject to hoarding. This kind of illegal trading carried the most severe punishment, including the death penalty. ← 18 | 19 →

1.2  The Black Market in Communist Poland: Problems with Definition

We can assume that, following World War II, and in particular in the late 1940s and early 1950s after the communist regime had established itself, the structure of the internal market in Poland was not very different from that outlined above. At the same time, thanks to a singular coincidence of historical, political, economic, and social factors, the Polish second economy had its own characteristics and indeed endemic traits, compared to other Soviet bloc countries.10

Among the historical factors, a significant role was played by the instrumental and pragmatic attitude that a large part of society had toward the state and its institutions, which they perceived as something external and unconnected to them, an attitude that was a legacy of the Second World War and, earlier, of the partitions of Poland. This was particularly prevalent in the part of Poland formerly under Russian occupation. The average Polish citizen identified first of all with his family and his close-knit social network, for example in a work place or a neighborhood, next – with the nation (in its 19th century sense), and finally – with the state. “This ambivalent attitude,” wrote the Polish historian Andrzej Friszke, “with its strong undertow of rebelliousness and contrariness weakened the executive abilities of the totalitarian state”.11 As a result, compared with other countries in the bloc, institutional control was much weaker both in the sphere of national symbolism and the economy.

On the other hand, already during the interwar period, the state had exerted a firm grip on the economy, which caused a sizeable part of the population to consider it a force capable of solving economic problems; the perceived degree of its ability to do that colored society’s evaluation of the government and its legitimacy. After the war, this point of view was reinforced, especially in the context of fervent egalitarian propaganda, which inflated the aspirations and expectations of society in regards to consumption. However, when the economy, underachieving on all possible fronts, especially since the 1970s, became increasingly less and less capable of solving the economic problems, with increasing pain for ← 19 | 20 → the population, citizens changed their attitude to the state and its institutions by taking the initiative to battle on their own against the shortages.12

Polish society was already well prepared to undertake independent, if unofficial, economic activities. It was the crisis of the 1930s that had inspired the multitude deprived of jobs and the means of survival to engage in trade. “Higher categories of workers (lower rank state officials, railroad workers, employees of local government and social services) are being absorbed on a massive scale into the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie,” wrote Stanisław Rychliński, “which does not directly ‘enhance’ the cultural and social position of the middle class […]. The petty bourgeoisie has lost its static character of a middle stratum, separating the upper echelons of society from the underprivileged. It has become a makeshift bridge with a dynamic undercurrent.”13 During the German occupation, the range of acceptable social behavior became stretched. The ability to adjust to a new situation and to survive became more important than social status. Trade, smuggling, and cottage industry made survival possible both for those from the social margins and the intelligentsia.14 The ghettoization of the Jews, followed by their annihilation, created a blank space on the economic map, which quickly filled with Poles. “New kinds of enterprises emerged,” wrote Jan Szczepański, “run by people without professional qualifications, from different social classes. It was a particular kind of small manufacturing functioning usually in breach of the then current law, all kinds of ‘shady businesses’ that disregarded the official regulations, bribed the German authorities and focused on quick profit. At that time, new models of operating a business appeared, and remained after the war.”15 After returning from England, the lawyer and economist Stanisław M. Korowicz noted the poignant joke circulating in the late 1940s which encapsulated the new reality with the comment that in post-war Poland “a large number of Catholics are doing business and a large number of Jews wear army uniforms. It’s a crazy world!”16 We cannot overestimate the influence of private property in agriculture (from 1956), ← 20 | 21 → private trade, artisanry and services on the shape and size of communist Poland’s second economy. In 1979, the private economy (including agriculture) employed 23.9% of the labor force. Polish peasants, who already during the German occupation had proved that they were capable of adapting to difficult circumstances, adapted to the new reality and actively participated in all kinds of economic activities, usually at the shadier end of the market. On the one hand, they skillfully and creatively took advantage of food shortages, particularly of meat, in the cities. On the other, as representatives of the private – that is, the disadvantaged sector, they were constantly struggling with shortages in the means of production, often acquiring them in an unofficial way. Private trade and artisanry were strongly tied up with the state in a parasitic/symbiotic way. At the same time, small-time entrepreneurs were some of the most important clients of the gold and hard currency black market.

As an aside, the Polish hard currency black market was sustained and stimulated (an unprecedented situation in the Soviet Bloc) by the state currency policies, for instance on foreign currency bank accounts and internal export. Thus, a dual currency system effectively existed in Poland in the last several years before the fall of communism. Also, beginning with the late 1950s, Polish authorities presented an attitude that differed from that of the authorities of other countries of the Bloc towards emigration, with the exception of political emigration of course. The extent of permitted contacts was relatively wide, which meant a greater flow of hard currency, goods, and technology as well as a wider penetration of models of consumption. Beginning in the 1970s, Polish regulations regarding travel outside the Iron Curtain countries were much more liberal than those in the rest of the Soviet Bloc (except Yugoslavia, with its special status). All this had various consequences: from smuggling and the tourist trade to copycat activities emulated by those who keenly watched the goings-on. This mattered – since as in all poor countries, the ability to access goods and services offered in developed western countries was a synonym for wealth.17 The long-term isolation of the Soviet Bloc states produced in its citizens the so-called “fire-victim syndrome”, of those who had “lost their belongings in a fire and who were now trying to rebuild their life in the mode of developed societies with mass consumption. ← 21 | 22 → Those patterns reach us through films, TV, newspapers and magazines, tourism, family visits, etc.”18 The difference between the reality of the Soviet Bloc and the western ideal could to a large extent (or sometimes only) be eliminated using black market strategies.

It is not easy to paint a picture of the black market in communist Poland. Certainly, this could not be the work of a realist painter but rather a pointillist, with overlapping colors, and the full image only to be appreciated from a distance. Neither do traditional definitions have a perfect fit here. It makes sense to go along with Jerzy Tomaszewski, an acclaimed historian and economist, who describes the black market as a “casual term for illegal or clandestine trade taking place within controlled trade in goods […]; it emerges when the supply of particular items, despite being strictly regulated (official prices, provision cards, trade monopoly etc.) does not meet the demand.”19

Subsequent chapters will show, however, that the black market in communist Poland did not coincide with this definition. For example, the rationing of consumer goods was only periodically in effect in Poland (from 1944 until 1953, and from 1976 until 1989), and then only in respect of selected items, whereas the black market existed during the entire post-war period.20 However, during the forty five-post-war years, the regulations were enforced in big enterprises, which had to follow the rules of distribution in respect of energy, cement, machinery, and money. But even the large factories had to take on board black market strategies when selling such strictly regulated goods as meat, sugar, and alcohol to their employees or when exchanging goods with other producers. These practices were endemic in the 1980s. It’s important to stress that without this inter-factory barter, factories would often not have been able to operate at all.21 In particular, the monographic chapters that follow (dealing for instance with meat, alcohol or gas) will provide numerous examples of such practices.

Can we include phenomena not connected with shortages and rationing under the black market umbrella? The unofficial gas trade functioned in Poland, ← 22 | 23 → and also in the USSR, Romania and other countries, regardless of temporary shortages and regulations; during such periods, it increased and specialized. Similarly, illicit alcohol distilling existed also in times when alcohol stores were well supplied. It is worth mentioning that until the crisis of the 1980s, the black market prices of moonshine and gas coming from state resources were lower than those of the official market. Should the proverbial baba – the peasant woman selling meat, which she brought from the countryside directly to private apartments in Warsaw or Krakow when meat was not being rationed – be treated as a black market phenomenon, or rather as a form of a traditional local distribution system? How should we view the informal taking over of the function of inefficient stores in order to shift even goods not subject to market restrictions? For example, in 1984 two resourceful men got in on the act of the not-very-dynamic, state-owned Fish Market. They bought two tons of herring for 50zl a kilo in the port of Świnoujście and sold it for a much higher price in the city of Zielona Góra, some 300 km away.22 Later the same year, the agent of a store on the Baltic coast, who had “first sunk one million zloty of his own renovating the space and had then later tried in vain to stock it with goods bought on the local market, in the end bought them in Silesia, added his costs to the price and found himself in prison accused of speculation.”23 A year later, newspapers covered the story of a saddler from Przemyśl, who supplied bread at a small surcharge to nearby Stubno, where there was no bakery, and as a result was hit with a fine and suspended sentence.”24 The concept of a “market” implies trading, albeit not necessarily money-based.25 This allows us to no longer consider such phenomena as tax evasion, embezzlement, or corruption, leaving us at the same time with a question: where is the boundary between the black market (or indeed a market of any other hue) and economic crime? How to classify for example the “meat affair” in Warsaw, when a surplus of meat intentionally produced in state enterprises was distributed in official stores at official prices in the early 1960s? How can we classify artisans who produced goods using materials often illegally obtained from state-owned sources but who distributed their product through legal store networks? Such activities – although not part of the black market per se – yielded large, often untaxed or unreported profits, later converted into ← 23 | 24 → black-market hard currency and gold. They also encouraged the development of smuggling techniques, which brought in luxury and hoarding articles unavailable on the official market.

In addition, the Polish authorities had problems with an accurate definition of black market phenomena. They struggled with a lack of precise legal language and at times, obliged to do so by the circumstances, allowed the accused the benefit of the doubt. More than that! In the 1980s, when the illegal trade encompassed practically all goods, not infrequently the sentences that the communist authorities meted out in cases involving the black market were strikingly lenient, often in direct contrast to the expectations of the public opinion that had demanded an intervention. When in 1984, a war veteran asked the authorities to curtail the speculation of goods, such as appliances and clothes, bought in official stores, an apparatchik from the Council of Ministers’ Committee for Obeying the Law, Public Order and Social Discipline ruled that the law had not been broken. One was allowed to resell a product at a higher price if one had bought it earlier solely for private use. Only deliberate re-sale, planned in advance – and this was hard to prove – would be prosecuted. State lawyers agreed that tightening the law would do little to improve the situation.26 From September 1981, anti-speculation law (see chapter 3) dealt only with “products in daily use”. A telling exchange of letters between the District Office of Interior Affairs in Kalisz and the General Prosecutor’s Office took place in 1985. “Kalisz,” wrote the deputy chief of the Kalisz police, “is the location of a well-known manufacturer of pianos; the famous Calisia is located here. When the pianos are delivered to the local music store, the line in front of it is just as long as the one waiting for citrus fruit in front of the deli next door. It means that people are eager to buy pianos. Police investigated the purchase of pianos outside the state-regulated system. It turned out that on January 17 [1985], the District Prosecutor’s Office in Kalisz took the position, expressed in writing, that a piano meets higher-level needs and, as such, is not a product of everyday use.” When the prosecution dismissed the charges against the potential black marketeer, the Kalisz police, afraid that this could make case law (“Tomorrow, we may no longer be able to say that a fur coat is not an article of everyday use…!”) asked Warsaw for an opinion. Ultimately, the General Prosecutor upheld the decision of the Kalisz lawyers.27 The terminology used in post-war Poland did not help. Officially, the term “black market” did not exist. Initially, in the less formal official language the traditional term “profiteering” ← 24 | 25 → (paskarstwo) was used; in the more formal language – wartime, or goods, usury (lichwa wojenna or lichwa towarowa) was quickly substituted by the key term “speculation” (spekulacja),28 which defined only a part of the phenomenon we are talking about: “an economic crime, which consists of a person, who was not authorized to do so, buying goods in order to re-sell them at a profit ” or “a crime, which involves an illegal middleman in the process of distributing goods in order to gain profit.” In post-war Poland, the term “black market” denoted rather the trade in hard currency and gold (the term “black-market exchange rate” was used also in the official correspondence). In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the phrase “black market” appears more often both in the press and in the less official pronouncements of the authorities. The term is not clearly defined and generally depicts the activities of those black marketeers trading in various articles – from hard currency and gold, meat and alcohol to cars and construction materials. Only after 1980, when the illegal trade became a significant problem, was the term “black market” – often in quotation marks, often preceded by the adjectives food, gas, currency etc. – widely employed by journalists and MPs. The official term “speculation” was also used. It seems therefore that the approach of the Indian economists may be more useful in defining the black market in communist Poland. Already at the beginning of the 1980s they had concluded that “in recent decades the black market has become a way of life [for the Indian people].”29 No wonder their definition is much broader than the ones accepted in the West and fits the Eastern European realities much better: “When by (artificial) manipulation of the economic forces of demand and supply, of both currency and produce (or either), trade or industry (or both) create an artificial situation of scarcity or glut, and in the process amass huge returns on their investments […], we have a black market situation.”30 ← 25 | 26 →

1.3  Literature, Sources, Method

Polish literature on the subject has not been very helpful in helping one get a grip on the topic of the Polish black market (or sorting out the definitions). It is economists and lawyers – and not historians or anthropologists – that have long dominated this area of research. In 1957, on the wave of political changes triggered by the momentous events of October 1956, the newly established, as part of the Council of Ministers, Economic Council, led by the Polish economist Oskar Lange (who later lived in the USA and became a professor at the University of Chicago), attempted to evaluate the illegal income of Poles.31 Research on economic crimes continued in the following years within the Supreme Audit Office (Najwyższa Izba Kontroli, NIK) and the Committee for Research on Social Issues of the Polish People’s Republic (Komitet Badań nad Zagadnieniami Społecznymi Polski Ludowej), chaired by the distinguished economist Michał Kalecki (who was later to serve as the deputy director of the United Nations Economic Department). At the beginning of the 1960s, the research was cancelled by Władysław Gomułka’s government in an attempt to avoid the scientific confirmation and popularization of a well-known fact – that the involvement of Polish society in illegal transactions had reached a mass scale. It was more convenient to focus on individual economic scandals. As a result, bookstores and the libraries tended to offer only legal expertise (written by Tadeusz Cyprian, Stanisław Galarski, Oktawia Górniok, Bronisław Koch, and others). In 1974 the Institute for Criminal Problems (Instytut Problematyki Przestępczości) was established at the Prosecutor General’s Office.32 It also dealt with economic crimes, but only a very small group of people had access to the often fascinating conclusions of its research. The uniformed services such as the Central Customs Office (Główny Urząd Ceł, GUC), the police (Milicja Obywatelska, MO; nota bene, in spite of the name “militia”, these were not community vigilantes but a fully professional force), and the Security Service (Służba Bezpieczeństwa, SB) also prepared evaluations but only for internal distribution.

At the turn of the 1970s and the 1980s, a Warsaw sociologist complained: “in Poland [black market] issues are not researched systematically, and then only by the media, where they are treated as marginal or pathological phenomena ← 26 | 27 → (economic crime, speculation).”33 Scientific dissertations written at that time by sociologists or economists who departed from the “pathological” perspective were unlikely to see the light of day in print.34 Outside of Poland very little was written about the Polish second economy, especially in comparison with the USSR, which was the center of attention. This changed in the 1980s, when the second economy became a subject that slowly began to find its way into Poland. In 1984, the first article by Marek Bednarski,35 a pioneer of black market research, and a brochure by Rudolf Jaworek became available.36 By the end of the year, the weekly Polityka had published a series of articles about the parallel economy.37 In the following years the black market became the subject of both presentations at scholarly conferences38 and of books with limited distribution.39

In spite of it being the year in which Poland’s transition from People’s Republic to democracy began, 1989 was by no means a watershed year in research on communist Poland’s second economy. The times of transformation brought other current topics to cover. In the early 1990s the only relevant book to be published was that of Marek Bednarski, a summary of his earlier work.40 That monograph with its focus on the 1980s remains to this day the most exhaustive picture of the economy of that period. In the middle of the 1990s, as the archives continued to open their doors to scholars and research on the institutions of the communist state moved ahead, the second economy caught the attention of Polish historians. One pioneer was Grzegorz Sołtysiak, who in 1991 published several sources on ← 27 | 28 → the activities of the Special Commission for Combating Fraud and Corruption (Komisja Specjalna do Walki z Nadużyciami i Szkodnictwem Gospodarczym) in the period 1945–1954.41 Another was Marcin Kula, a professor at the University of Warsaw and co-founder of the school of the researchers of People’s Poland, who encouraged his students to use the Special Commission’s materials while researching social history;42 other pioneers were Dariusz Jarosz and Tadeusz Wolsza, who in 1995 published, in book format, a selection of documents about the Special Commission. It is undoubtedly the best researched institution of those dealing with the illegal economic activity of Polish society (among the researchers were Piotr Fiedorczyk, Roman P. Smolorz, Bogdan Sekściński, Ludwik S. Szuba, Ryszard Tomkiewicz, and Waldemar Tomczyk). In the late 1990s, information about the Polish black market began to appear in publications on a wider spectrum of problems – Dariusz Jarosz and Maria Pasztor wrote about the context of the “meat affair”, Paweł Sowiński about tourism and recreation, Dariusz Stola – about migration, Małgorzata Mazurek and Mariusz Jastrząb – about shortages, Krzysztof Kosiński – about alcoholism, Krzysztof Madej – about the policies of Gomułka’s regime with regard to criminal economic activities.43

The primary sources also posed significant problems for researching the Polish second economy. The black market is an illegal, informal sphere of social behavior, existing as it does at the margin of the law or in conflict with it. Not surprisingly, black market players are never eager to document their activities. It was the institutions that controlled, investigated and punished those activities that produced the majority of sources. Such materials were mainly generated by the Polish Workers’ Party and the Polish United Workers’ Party, popularly, although incorrectly, referred to in the West as the “Communist Party” (Polska Partia Robotnicza / Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, PPR/PZPR), the Ministry of Public Security / the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerstwo Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego/Ministerstwo Spraw Wewnętrznych, MBP/MSW), the SB and MO, NIK, the General Prosecutor Office, the Ministry of Justice, the GUC and the civic institutions engaged in the fight against speculation, such as, between 1945 and 1954, the Special Commission or, between 1981 and 1987, the Central Commission for Combating Speculation (Centralna Komisja do Walki ze Spekulacją). ← 28 | 29 → Other sources included materials from central and local state archives,44 which at first glance had nothing to do with the black market – such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (Ministerstwo Spraw Zagranicznych, MSZ) or the Central Committee of Physical Culture and Tourism (Główny Komitet Kultury Fizycznej i Turystyki, GKKFiT) or the Central Committee of Tourism (Główny Komitet Turystyki, GKT) but which were ultimately a repository of valuable information. Much information on the behavior of the authorities can be retrieved from official reports but these are always written from the perspective of those authorities. In the absence of any sociological research into the black market45 and the understandable reluctance of the black market protagonists to document their activities, the grass-roots perspective is painfully absent. This gap is only to a certain degree filled by letters and complaints received by the authorities, by the institutions, and newspaper editors (stored in the archives of the Polish United Workers’ Party or Polish Television [TVP] archives) or reports gathered by the employees of Radio Free Europe from visitors out of Poland. The credibility of those sources is, however, questionable. The newspapers and magazines were no more credible, despite the fact that the topic of black market pathology was one always in demand in communist Poland. And yet, it was only the press (and then only for an astute reader) that constituted an invaluable source of grass-roots information.

During the almost decade-long process of researching and writing this book, I talked with close to a hundred people about the black market in communist Poland. I have never met anyone who lived in Poland during that time who had not experienced the black market phenomenon in one way or another (provided they were reasonably observant). There are twenty odd million similar potential witnesses. The sheer numbers make it difficult to use oral history testimonies in a representative way (not to mention other logistical challenges that this method would entail). Theoretically, I could have interviewed a random cross-section of people. The scale of such research would have exceeded, however, the resources of an individual scholar. I used the interview technique cautiously and only after exhausting other sources. The weekly Polityka and the daily Gazeta Wyborcza ran, on several occasions, competitions on black market memoirs; they proved to be useful and interesting for this author. ← 29 | 30 →

The type of primary sources, the great time span, and the sheer diversity of black market phenomena forced the author to limit radically the range of problems and focus on the most representative ones. It is important to stress that strict differentiation between economic crimes and black market activities turned out to be impossible. Often common sense and intuition remained the only valid criteria and then, just in case, the label “black market” was put in quotation marks.46 In defining any market (including the black market), the main criterion is the existence of an act of trading in order to gain a profit. We are also looking for elements of organized action, deliberateness and specialization suggesting some kind of professionalism. A black market strategy should include visible stages of planning, execution, and evaluation of profitability. Black market activities also involve the presence of deliberate bending or breaking of the existing law. The product traded on the black market has to be subject to specific restrictions, such as monopoly, rationing, or a ban on distribution) on the manufacturer and distributor, imposed in this case by the communist state in Poland, which leaves no doubt with regard to its legal status. In order to be successful, economic activity requires favorable conditions and sufficient time to develop and perfect appropriate techniques and strategies. It is best to investigate the black market mechanisms that take place over a great duration with attention to possible changes and mutations. The interest of the authorities in a particular sector of an illegal trade is also one of the determining factors. A further important criterion is the mass scale of the phenomenon. It was certainly not possible to live during the times of “real socialism” without being involved in some way in black market transactions. It is important to pinpoint which sector of economy was most likely to engage in black market trading for the greatest time, preferably between 1944 and 1989. Often it is not easy to pigeon-hole some of the phenomena that at first sight seem quintessentially black market in character. For example, the illegal tobacco trade, which infringed one of the main monopolies of the state, disappeared at the turn of the 1940s and the 1950s. Tobacco trading returned to the black market in the early 1980s but only briefly and accompanied by practically all other goods. Nor do black market sales of books fit in here since they took place mostly in the 1980s and were limited to the narrow circles of book aficionados. The same can be said of the so-called koniki, the touts selling tickets for movies and sports events. Although they survived throughout the entire duration of the ← 30 | 31 → Polish People’s Republic and continued throughout its collapse, their operations were confined to the big cities. For the same reasons I eliminate from my spectrum pornography and drugs.47 Geography seems to be one of the most crucial criteria. The phenomena that existed continuously, reached a mass scale and were ubiquitous in most of Poland (with allowances for regional differences) would be the best to observe and study. The complexity of the subject determined the division of the chapters into two types: general and monographic. The first general chapter provides a short survey of the world history of the black market until the 1940s. It is followed by a chapter, which presents the development of the black market phenomenon in post-WWII Poland, with emphasis on the three institutions established specifically in order to combat speculation in the country. This chapter also presents the broad political, social and economic context of the Polish black market. The last chapter in this cluster offers an analysis and the correlations of the black market and its historical and geographical determinants. After considering the criteria of trade, profit, specialization, mass scale, continuity and geography on the battlefield that was the black market, there were only three armies left: those that traded in meat, those that traded in alcohol, and those that traded in both hard currency and gold. Of course the graph of the fluctuations of their black market trading was never linear. It looked more like a very irregular wave. We can definitely say though that in post-war Poland unofficial trade in those articles was an important element of the game playing between society and the authorities. It thus made sense to dedicate a separate, monographic chapter to each of the above specialized branches of the black market. The inclusion of the automobile sector of illegal trading (including cars, gas and spare parts) posed more questions. On the one hand, the black market in automobiles came into play at the beginning of motorization at the turn of the 1950s and the 1960s and reached a mass scale in the 1980s. On the other, most of the transactions, especially those involving gas, were one-sided. The state was the sole distributor of gas, which could not be produced independently (unlike meat and alcohol) or brought from abroad (unlike currency, gold or even cars). The only way of introducing gas to the black market was to “repossess” it in various ways ← 31 | 32 → from the state. I therefore came to the conclusion that the illegal distribution of gas merited a chapter of its own.48

Black market phenomena were, to some extent, homogenous: despite changing economic, political, and social circumstances, certain specific goods continued to change hands illegally. More difficult to tackle is the topic of smuggling, which constituted a discrete and singular black market category. On the one hand, smuggling broke the state monopoly in international trading,49 as well as tax and currency laws; on the other – it involved a very wide range of goods. Hard currency and gold always stayed on the smugglers’ list; other wares came and went depending on the economic situation, the consumption aspirations of society, the type of shortages etc. Despite those complexities, smuggling meets our criteria: it was significant throughout the post-war era, highly profitable, and specialized. If earlier on, smuggling was regional, took place mostly in areas close to the Polish borders and involved the lower classes, in communist Poland it became a countrywide phenomenon. With the appearance of mass tourism in the late 1950s, millions of Poles began to participate in this activity. The part of the book dedicated to “currency values” presents highly specialized gold and currency smugglers. A separate monograph chapter is focused on “tourist commerce” commonly practiced within the Soviet Bloc countries. The above classification is proposed in the full knowledge that maintaining clear boundaries between each sector of the black market is extremely difficult. As always, what is not clearly defined and of an informal nature is usually full of empty spaces, margins and overlaps. As a result, some repetitions were unavoidable. It was also not possible to avoid highlighting some themes at the cost of others. The over-representation of Warsaw, evident in the book, does not mean that the role of the provinces is intentionally diminished, or that it was simply the Warsaw perspective that was the easiest to research. This approach certainly does not reflect any bias on the part of the author. There is no doubt that Warsaw remained over the years the black ← 32 | 33 → market capital of the country. All the source limitations forced the author to look at the topic through the eyes of a state official or a policeman rather than those of an illegal money changer (cinkciarz) or the “baba” selling veal. Thus themes presenting the strategies undertaken by the black market insiders, their motivations, opinions, ethical considerations, and rituals are certainly debatable and do not exhaust the topic. The same can be said about relations between the black market and the official economy or about estimating the real profit from unofficial operations. Here, a more general question arises: how should we define black market “profit”? I am fully aware that this book can do no more than open the door; behind it there lie paths that can take us in many very different directions.

This book is the result of research financed by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, Grant No 1 H01G074 29.

I would not have been able to write this book without help from countless friends, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers, who supported my project by bringing to my attention the existence and location of the materials, by sharing their knowledge, often very particular and unsurpassed, or by facilitating the logistic of the research. I am most grateful to Włodzimierz Borodziej, Błażej Brzostek, Katarzyna Chimiak, Katarzyna Czajka, Andrzej Garlicki, Tomasz Gleb, Grażyna Godziejewska, Bogdan Górski, Heidi Hein-Kirchner, Maria Hrnova, Iwona Jakimowicz-Ostrowska, Dariusz Jarosz, Włodzimierz Kalicki, Mariusz Kardas, Ondrej Klipa, Jacek Kochanowicz, Maria Koczerska, Jeff Kopstein, Krzysztof Kosiński, Éva Kovács, Andrzej Krajewski, Marcin Kula, Jan Kusber, Andreas Lawaty, Włodzimierz Lengauer, Tomasz Markiewicz, Ewa and Przemysław Matusik, Małgorzata Mazurek, Maria and Mikołaj Morzycki-Markowski, Jana Oldfield, Krzysztof Persak, Błażej Popławski, Joachim von Puttkamer, Jolanta Rudzińska, Maika Sach, Bożena Skarżyńska, Emilia Słomanowska-Kamińska, Grzegorz Sołtysiak, Anna and Jacek Soszyński, Paweł Sowiński, Andrzej Stach, Dariusz Stola, Grażyna Szelągowska, Philip Ther, Janina Tomala-Steinhauer, Romuald Turkowski, Maciej Wojtyński, Marcin Woźniczko, Andrzej Wroński, Anna and Piotr Wróbel, Marcin Zaremba, Jonathan Zatlin and Klaus Ziemer. The present edition is the fruit of the collaboration between Anna Wróbel and Anda and Seamus MacBride. To all others whom my less-than-perfect memory has caused me to omit I sincerely apologize.

Finally, my special thanks to my wife Iwona, who has always listened patiently to my reports on black market discoveries and was my first critical reader. Also thanks to my children Róża and Antek, for whom the shortages of the, for them pre-historic, Polish People’s Republic turned into a very noticeable shortage of a father. ← 33 | 34 →

1 Franciszka Starowieyskiego opowieść o końcu świata czyli reforma rolna, written down by K. Uniechowska, Warszawa 1994, p. 132.

2 See: M. Kosewski, Ludzie w sytuacjach pokusy i upokorzenia, Warszawa 1985, pp. 12–73.

3 The Second Economy in Marxists States, ed. M. Łoś, Houndmills–London 1990, pp. 2–4; E. Klinkmüller, G. Leptin, Terminologische Anmerkungen zum Begriff der Schattenwirtschaft, in: Beiträge zum Problem der Schattenwirtschaft, ed. G. Hedtkamp, Berlin 1983, pp. 11–13; Gospodarka nieformalna. Uwarunkowania lokalne i systemowe, ed. K.Z. Sowa, Rzeszów 1990; M. Bednarski, Drugi obieg gospodarczy. Przesłanki, mechanizmy i skutki w Polsce lat osiemdziesiątych, Warszawa 1992, pp. 15, 34; F. Schneider, D.H. Enste, The Shadow Economy: An International Survey, Cambridge 2002, pp. 6–9. See also: The Unofficial Economy: Consequences and Perspectives in Different Economic Systems, ed. S. Alessandrini, B. Dallago, Aldershot 1987 (especially articles: E. Feige, The Anatomy of the Underground Economy and P. Wiles: The Second Economy: Its Definitional Problems; M. Göke, K.-H. Hartwig, Schwarzmärkte, in: Ökonomische Theorie der Rationierung, ed. M. Tietzel, München 1998, pp. 106–137.

4 J. Kornai, Economics of Shortage, Amsterdam–New York 1980; J. Kornai, The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism, Princeton 1992; Models of Disequilibrium and Shortage in Centrally Planned Economies, ed. Ch. Davis, W. Charemza, London 1989. See: K. Nowakowski, Niedobory w gospodarce a społeczeństwo i jednostka, Katowice 1993; M. Jastrząb, Puste półki. Problem zaopatrywania ludności w artykuły powszechnego użytku w Polsce w latach 1949–1956, Warszawa 2004, p. 130.
2004; M. Mazurek, Społeczeństwo kolejki. O doświadczeniach niedoboru 1945 J. Kornai, The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism 1989, Warszawa 2010; M. Mazurek, Antropologia niedoboru w NRD i PRL 1971–1989, Wrocław 2010.

5 The Second Economy in Marxists States…, p. 4; A.V. Ledeneva, Russia’s economy of favours: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange, Cambridge–New York 1998, p. 87.

6 A.V. Ledeneva, Russia’s Economy of Favours…, p. 87.

7 E. Hankiss, The “Second Society”: Is There an Alternative Social Model Emerging in Contemporary Hungary?, in: “Social Research” p. 55, 1988/1–2 & 13–42. See: M. Marody, Od społeczeństwa drugiego obiegu do społeczeństwa obywatelskiego, in: “Studia Socjologiczne” 1999, p. 4 (155)/35–51. See: J.R. Wedel, The Private Poland: An Anthropologist’s Look at Everyday Life, New York 1986; Herrschaft und Eigen-Sinn in der Diktatur. Studien zur Gesellschaftsgeschichte der DDR, ed. T. Lindenberger, Köln–Weimar–Wien 1999; U. Brunnbauer, “Die sozialistische Lebensweise”. Ideologie, Gesellschaft, Familie und Politik in Bulgarien (1944–1989), Köln–Weimar–Wien 2007.

8 J. Brodacz, Mali ludzie – wielkie interesy. Afera skórzana w Radomiu, “Polityka”, 45/Nov 5 1960; Central Archives of Modern Records in Warsaw (Archiwum Akt Nowych – AAN), The Office of the Council of Ministers (Urząd Rady Ministrów – URM), 32/115, fol. 38.

9 Based on: A. Katsenelinboigen, Coloured Markets in the Soviet Union, in: “Soviet Studies” 29/1977/1, pp. 62–85; F. Haffner, Ist die Schattenwirtschaft ein Reformansatz? Das Verhältnis der Wirtschaftsreformen in Osteuropa zur Schattenwirtschaft, “Vierteljahreshefte zur Wirtschaftsforschung” 1985, pp. 177–187; L.I. Shelley, The Second Economy in the Soviet Union, in: The Second Economy in Marxist states…, pp. 11–26; G. Grossman, The Second Economy of the USSR, in: The Underground Economy in the United States and Abroad, ed. V. Tanzi, Lexington–Massachusetts–Toronto 1982.

10 See: A. Korbonski, “The Second Economy” in Poland, in: “Journal of International Affairs” 35/1981/1, pp. 1–13; M. Łoś, The Dynamics of the Second Economy in Poland, in: The Second Economy in Marxists States…, pp. 27–49; S. Tellenbach, The Logic of Development in Socialist Poland, “Social Forces” 57/1978/2 (special), pp. 436–456.

11 A. Friszke, Kultura polityczna w PRL 1948–1989, in: A. Friszke, Przystosowanie i opór. Studia z dziejów PRL, Warszawa 2007, p. 398.

12 Ibid., 399. See: W. Narojek, Socjalistyczne “welfare state”. Studium z psychologii społecznej Polski Ludowej, Warszawa 1991. The shortages in Poland were worse than those in the GDR, Czechoslovakia or Hungary, and occasionally than those in the Soviet Union, Romania and Bulgaria.

13 Drobnomieszczaństwo w strukturze i świadomości społecznej, ed. Z. Zagórski, Wrocław 1988 (Acta Universitatis Wratislaviensis. Prace Filozoficzne. Socjologia 2), p. 3.

14 See: M. Walczak, Walka ekonomiczna narodu polskiego 1939–1945 Warszawa 1983, pp. 63–99; K. Wyka, Gospodarka wyłączona in Życie na niby, Kraków 2010, pp. 274–311.

15 Drobnomieszczaństwo…, p. 5.

16 S.M. Korowicz, W Polsce pod sowieckim jarzmem, London 1955, p. 31.

17 R.L. Chugh, J.S. Uppal, Black Economy in India, New Dehli 1986, p, 14 See: K. Karcz, Efekt naśladowania zewnętrznych wzorców konsumpcji jako czynnik utrudniający sterowanie spożyciem indywidualnym, in: Narzędzia polityki gospodarczej i społecznej w procesie kształtowania konsumpcji. All-Poland academic and didactic conference of Faculties of Trade in Goods and Services of higher economic schools, September 1987, vol. 1, Katowice 1987, pp. 201–205.

18 J. Szczepański, Zagadnienia konstruowania i realizacji modelu i wzorów konsumpcji socjalistycznej, in: Badania nad wzorami konsumpcji, ed. J. Szczepański, Wrocław–Warszawa–Kraków 1977, p. 33.

19 J. Tomaszewski, Czarny rynek, in: Encyklopedia historii gospodarczej Polski do 1945 roku, ed. A. Mączak, vol. 1, Warszawa 1981, p. 114.

20 During the post-war period there existed various quasi-regulatory measures such as coupons, branch allowances, special stores, sailors’ or miners’ ration books, etc. See: Ökonomische Theorie der Rationierung

21 AAN, URM, 32/119, fol. 67.

22 AAN, URM, 32/121, fol. 83.

23 S. Podemski, Niech nie lecą wióry, Polityka 18/1984.

24 Szczęście w nieszczęściu, Polityka 48/1985, Szlachetny spekulant, Polityka 8/1986.

25 D. O’Hearn, The Consumer Second Economy: Size and Effects, Soviet Studies 32/1980/2, p. 219.

26 AAN, URM, 32/184, fol. 59–62.

27 AAN, URM, 32/116, K 73, p. 166.

28 “Goods usury” usually occurring under disrupted economic conditions (war or natural disaster) meant that the manufacturer or the merchant obtained extraordinary and unsubstantiated economic profits. “Speculation” implied that, additionally, a profit-taking middleman was involved. M. Bednarski, Drugi obieg gospodarczy…, p. 152.

29 S.K. Ray, Economics of the Black Market, Boulder 1981, p. 1. In the 1980s the size of the second economy, mostly consisting of black market practices such as gold smuggling, was estimated at over 50 per cent of the GNP. A. Kumar, The Black Economy in India, New Delhi 202, p. 55.

30 S.K. Ray, Economics…, p. 4.

31 See: Szara strefa Października. “Notatka” o nielegalnych dochodach w Polsce 1956–1957, ed. J. Kochanowski, Przegląd Historyczny (PH), 95 2004/1, pp. 77–96.

32 Monitor Polski 1974/9/68.

33 P. Gliński, Ekonomiczne uwarunkowania stylu życia. Rodziny miejskie w Polsce w latach siedemdziesiątych, 1983, PhD dissertation, IFIS PAN, p. 112.

34 The above-mentioned PhD dissertation by P. Gliński and Paweł Wyczański’s PhD dissertation, the Dept. of Finance and Statistics at the SGiPS (now called the SGH) 1987, Czarny rynek walutowy w Polsce 19701984.

35 M. Bednarski, Drugi obieg, Życie Gospodarcze 1984/35 See also Gospodarka “drugiego obiegu” a kryzys lat osiemdziesiątych in: Rzeczywistość polska i sposoby radzenia sobie z nią, ed. M. Marody, A. Sułek, Warszawa 1987.

36 R. Jaworek Gospodarka nieformalna-czwarty sektor gospodarczy, Warszawa 1984.

37 J. Kleer, W cieniu, L.Będkowski, Jak sąsiad z sąsiadem, K. Krubski, Góra lodowa, M. Przybylik, Słonina i schab spod serca, W. Markiewicz, Poemat pedagogiczny, J. Baczyński, Policzyć sztuki, godziny i do kasy, Polityka 1984/49.

38 J. Rogoziński, Kryzys jako weryfikator w sferze rynku i konsumpcji, in: Narzędzia polityki gospodarczej i społecznej…, vol. 1, pp. 151–161.

39 J. Misala, Nieoficjalna wymiana handlowa obywateli polskich z zagranicą, Warszawa 1989; P. Wyczański, Dwuwalutowość w gospodarce polskiej oraz metody i możliwości jej ograniczenia, Warszawa 1989.

40 M. Bednarski, Drugi obieg gospodarczy…

41 Komisja do walki, ed. G. Sołtysiak, Karta 1991/1, pp. 81–97.

42 T. Grosse, J. Grużewski, M. Kozak, M. Kula, M. Meller, K. Piasecki, P. Piskorski, P. Salak, M. Woźniak, P. Zalewski, Szarzy ludzie zaplątani w codzienności komunizmu, PH 1993/3, pp. 335–350.

43 See the bibliography.

44 See the bibliography – list of archives.

45 With the exception of J. Węgleński, for the research on tourist commerce from the beginning of 1960s, see: chapter 9.

46 in 1987, K. Rogoziński had proposed putting the word “black” in “black market” in quotation marks; K. Rogoziński, Kryzys jako weryfikator…, p. 161.

47 Drugs appear to be a separate issue. While other sectors of the black market enjoyed a certain level of social acceptance, this was not the case with drugs. Drug dealing was widely perceived in the rightly so, as a criminal activity. Pornography was also viewed negatively but not overly rigidly, although it is difficult to define it precisely and impossible to determine the scale of the phenomenon.

48 I did not include, however, the unofficial trade in construction materials despite the fact it was a widespread, long-term practice prevalent throughout Poland. To analyze the problem would not have contributed many new details to flesh out the picture of the black market but it would have required a separate set of research methods and tools. The unofficial methods of acquiring apartments were a separate phenomenon that operated outside of the black market spectrum. See: D. Jarosz, Peerelowskie lamenty mieszkaniowe, in: Od Piłsudskiego do Wałęsy. Studia z dziejów Polski XX wieku, ed K. Persak, Warszawa 2008, 307–320, D. Jarosz, Mieszkanie się należy… Studium z peerelowskich praktyk społecznych, Warszawa 2010.

49 M. Bednarski, Drugi obieg gospodarczy…, p. 40.

← 34 | 35 →

2.  Shortage, Greed, Protest: A Short Course in the History of the Black Market in the First Half of the 20th Century

2.1  The Beginnings

As soon as man began to engage in the exchange of goods with the participation of money, attempts appeared to limit, ration, and control the process. These could be triggered by anything: a war, a natural disaster, an empty treasury, or the fear of rioting. The Code of Hammurabi introduced control over prices and earnings. In the 11th century BC, Chinese clerks supervised the harvest and set the acceptable range of prices. Seven hundred years later, the Athenians were setting maximum prices for grain. Emperor Diocletian went much further in 301 CE by setting the maximum price for 900 products and a maximum wage for 160 types of work. Both merchants and artisans tried to by-pass the constraints, whereas state officials tried to find and punish the offenders.50 Interference in markets took place also in the Middle Ages; for instance, in 13th century England, the size of a loaf of bread was standardized and its price was set according to the price of grain. It was also in England, in 1351, that wage regulation was first introduced.51 Attempts were made to restrict trade, for example by licensing the markets, or by applying the jus stapulae, the obligation on travelling salesmen passing by to offer their goods for sale for a period, which offered a privileged position to local merchants (triggering protests from others who tried to by-pass the restrictions). The restrictions imposed by the guilds were expected not only to impede access to professions but also to maintain adequate quality and price. Those contemptuously called “bunglers” (partacze) manufactured outside of the guild system products that were usually just as good and certainly cheaper and were, in effect, dabbling in the black market.

In the modern era, along with the establishment of centralized, bureaucratized states, which divided up the world into spheres of influence, market regulations began to take on a new, global shape. Colonial empires – Portugal, Spain, France or England – aimed at increasing the profits by introducing monopolies in trade with overseas territories. Pirates were black market buccaneers, undermining the ← 35 | 36 → monopoly of the (foreign) state. In fact, it was not only foreign but also internal trade that was subject to monopoly. It included luxury items, grain, salt, tobacco, or much later, matches. Breaking the state monopoly by smuggling or producing wares illegally was a dangerous undertaking, but at the same time highly profitable, as were most other black market activities. The smugglers, who either transported goods on their own backs or reached English or French shores in their boats, were the most long-standing professional players in the black market.52

The French Revolution – with its continuous critical failures of supply, exorbitant prices, and anti-speculation laws can be seen as the beginning of the “modern” black market. These phenomena affected all social groups, even the most privileged, without exception. You could buy grain, sugar (especially after France had lost San Domingo), soap, and candles only by infringing the centrally imposed laws. The fast-growing inflation enhanced by the compulsory use of paper money put pressure on consumer durables and luxury items. Gold was also sought after, since its trade was controlled by the state. All these goods found themselves on the black market. The introduction of the Continental Blockade caused smuggling to flourish; as a result, new trade routes were developed via the ports of Portugal and Spain and Turkey as well as those on the Baltic.53 The American Civil War, dominated by a black market, was a true dress rehearsal for the arrival of the 20th century. The front line stretched almost across the entire continent, some 3.5 million Americans put on military uniforms and 620 thousand lost their lives (more than American losses in two World Wars and the Korean War put together). For the first time, the railroads, the telegraph, armored ships and even a submarine were used on a large scale. This was the first total war in history that engaged the whole of society, as well as pauperizing it, and mobilized all resources, which then had to be rigidly controlled, including the rationing of oil.

2.2  The First World War and the Interwar Period

What the Americans had experienced in the 1860s was just a taste of European reality half a century later. When dispatching his troops in 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm promised that they would be back home “before the leaves fall from the trees”. Those that survived returned to their families after the leaves had fallen for the fifth time. The winning side had not only had the strongest army but also the greatest material resources. The army’s needs were a priority so they devoured ← 36 | 37 → the majority of industrial and agricultural output. Civilians came second and received articles of lesser quality. Britain was the only country not to introduce rationing during WWI, considering it a violation of economic freedom. Trading, however, was controlled by the state, which supervised about 85% of consumption. But even in Britain, as in the rest of Europe, shortages, food lines, inflation, and high prices were common, everyday occurrences.

Despite all that, the situation was not tragic – that is not until 1916. It was only the abysmal harvest of that year in Europe, Canada and the USA as well as the painfully felt shortage of labor in agriculture and industry that brought about the collapse in supplies. In 1917, in Britain women spent so much time standing in food lines that husbands had to take time off work from their factory jobs and children miss school to take their place. There was no coal. Trucks transporting potatoes to towns were stopped and plundered. The authorities introduced maximum prices but were not able to guarantee the supply – as a result, food drifted on to the black market. Introducing fines for black marketeers made little difference; during the War no more than 290 people were fined in excess of £50, of whom only three had been involved in large scale black market trading. In the final year of the war, thirteen people were sent to prison and seven sentenced to pay high fines (in excess of £500).54

France introduced food rationing in March 1917, asking its citizens to change their eating habits and substitute potatoes for white bread. In Germany, the War Food Office (Kriegsernährungsamt) set up in May 1916 did nothing to alleviate the provision crisis. Not for nothing was the winter of 1916/1917 called the “turnip winter” – there was almost nothing else to eat.55 Food and industrial goods were available virtually only on the black market. In April 1918, the Reichstag declared it the “only effective way of distributing food”.56 To a large extent, the shortages contributed to the radicalization of society and accounted for the support for the revolution in 1918. In Russia, the February Revolution was triggered by women rebelling at standing in lines for the bakeries.57

The First World War was the black market lab where strategies were initiated and later developed not only during times of conflict. Getting round food rationing by making a trip directly to the countryside became common ← 37 | 38 → throughout Europe. In Poland (or at least in the Polish Kingdom), the terms “smuggling” (szmugiel) and “smuggler” (szmugler) in reference to someone who brought butter, meat, or potatoes to the city (often using sophisticated methods) were already in use in 1916 and 1917. Ration stamp fraud and gold and currency speculation became a common practice, gold-backed currency having disappeared as soon as the war broke out). The corruption allowed supplies to reach the military and from there food, textiles, forage, and fuel were siphoned off to the civilian market.

The First World War black market (paskarstwo) quietly percolated into peacetime, without changing its scale or range of products. The destroyed and pauperized Europe was unable to supply its people with enough jobs or desired products. Under the circumstances, the practice of ramping-up prices or breaking rationing (which continued in most European countries) did not disappear; on the contrary – the turnover of the black market increased. For example, in the spring of 1919 an estimated one third of food products in Germany were sold through black market channels.58 Inflation, and indeed hyperinflation), which affected some European countries, did not help to calm the mood. In Britain, the Ministry of Supply continued to exist until 1921 and price controls and rationing of some articles carried on until 1922.59 At that time strict market regulation ceased in other countries.

During the First World War there were attempts to limit the availability of alcohol and to introduce prohibition. Similar attempts undertaken in Russia in 1914 were completely unsuccessful. A ban on alcohol sales, officially in force in Russia until 1925, was from the outset widely ignored, which helped to encourage unofficial production and distribution. “Officially, alcohol vending is prohibited in Moscow,” a Polish officer serving in the Russian army remembered at the turn of 1916/1917, “but, as Russians say, ‘the law is like the shaft of a cart, it points the way you turn it’, so in Russia, in every decent restaurant they’ll serve in a teapot enough alcohol for anyone to have their fill.”60

The Russian lesson had not been learnt in the USA, where prohibition was introduced in 1919. This led to the development of a huge, criminalized black market in alcohol, which embraced illegal production, smuggling and retailing. Drinking alcohol became de rigueur, partly as a protest against the state’s efforts to limit personal freedom. For the first time ever, the black market began to ← 38 | 39 → threaten state structures, leading to the development of organized crime, which penetrated the legal sphere and successfully corrupted the justice system, local government, the police, and the customs service. The last of these was particularly significant, since smuggling became one of the chief sources of alcohol. For example, residents of St. Pierre and Miquelon, islands located close to US shores, although formally part of France (France and Canada did not recognize American prohibition law), abandoned fishing and instead used their boats for smuggling – a much more profitable pursuit. On St. Pierre, a crate of whisky went for $12 but could be sold for as much as $96 in New York City! No wonder that only in the first year of prohibition alone, the islanders shifted over 10 million (old!) dollars’ worth of liquor to the USA. For owners of speedboats in the Bahamas, Cuba and Mexico, this was also a time of prosperity.61

Prohibition also proved how dangerous state manipulation of the market and human needs and habits could be, and how utterly futile the efforts of the state against resistance by large sections of society. All that the expansion of the apparatus of repression seems to achieve is an increase of evermore specialized and effective techniques for evading restrictions.

In independent Poland, the first decree on protection of the consumer and the market was issued as early as December 5, 1918. Based on the act of January 11, 1919, the Office for Combating Usury and Speculation (Urząd do Walki z Lichwą i Spekulacją) was created in the Ministry of Supply. It was authorized to punish “acts of usury and all kinds of illegal trade in essential articles” with penalties of up to three months jail and fines of up to 50 thousand marks.62 Soon, the dire economic situation, made even worse by the war effort, forced the authorities to implement comprehensive measures. A bill on “combating war usury” was passed on July 2, 1920.63 The Office for Combating Usury and Speculation had wide powers, including the ability to issue warrants for searching apartments. Departments of State were empowered to conduct investigations and, on their own authority, punish minor offenders, with fines and detention of six months. For particularly severe crimes, the death penalty was not out of the question. The Office operated until the summer of 1922; subsequently, its powers were transferred to the voivodships. In the years that followed (1923–1924), with the currency stabilized, supply improved, and rationing ended – the black market faded away. Particular branches of it such as smuggling or distilling moonshine ← 39 | 40 → would reappear as a result of the Great Depression (between 1931 and 1936, each year the authorities uncovered a few thousand illegal distilleries).64 The terms “smuggler” and “speculator” returned to the pages of Polish newspapers in the last weeks of peace in 1939, when fear of war caused a panic that resulted in runs on shops. This in turn was used by store-owners as a pretext to raise prices. The authorities tried to put the fear of God into ruthless traders; posters proclaimed that ‘speculators’ would be carted off to the Bereza Kartuska prison camp.

2.3  Second World War

Runs on stores demonstrated that society had not forgotten the dramatic shortages of the First World War (and its aftermath). The authorities were well aware of the problem, especially those in countries that conducted aggressive, conflict-oriented policies, reliant on food imports. Both Japan and Germany were in that group; the latter, despite its attempts at self-sufficiency, had to import half of its meat, fats, and dairy requirements. Both countries froze wages and prices. Just before the war, most foodstuffs and industrial goods were rigidly controlled and rationed. The authorities asked citizens to cut back and use ersatz products. “Luxury is your enemy!” ran a propaganda campaign slogan. Regulatory bodies were established.

In Japan, as early as July 1939 a special economic police force was set up. During the first 15 months of its operation, it arrested more than two million people – 3.5% of all citizens. In spite of that, the Japanese market systematically weakened and the real cost of goods exceeded the prices set by the authorities to such an extent that trading became simply not worthwhile. This forced both vendors and buyers to work towards a strategy that would preserve the appearance of legality and give the authorities a pretext to turn a blind eye to their activities. The traditional Japanese custom of bestowing gifts was revived; any discrepancy between the official and the market price was adjusted soon after the transaction had taken place, and accounted for as its “gift” value. “The wartime strategies formed the basis for the post-war period, when an estimated 17 000 local black markets were identified. They were the basis for the development of yakuza.65

In Germany, the National Socialists prepared for war not only the military but also the supply chain. Shortly before Germany attacked Poland, State Boards (Reichsstellen) were set up; these were responsible for different sectors of the food market such as grain, fat, and meat. At all administrative levels, Food Offices ← 40 | 41 → (Ernährungsämter) were established – as a matter of fact this system survived the fall of the Third Reich.66 The German authorities were well aware of how people behaved in times of crisis. That is why as early as July 1939, they banned the hoarding of goods, and continued to expand the rationing and trade controls. As long as supplies were sufficient and ration stamps covered the main needs, unofficial trade was limited to barter and side trade (Tauschhandel, Schleichhandel), mainly among friends. However, when in 1941 and 1942 it became increasingly difficult to buy the radically diminished rations, unofficial trade showed all characteristics of a black market (Schwarzmarkt). Thanks to Germany’s brutal exploitation of the occupied countries, its rationing system functioned much more effectively than those of other countries.

Until the end of the Second World War, a significant number of Nazi policy-makers believed that by tightening the restrictive measures they would be able to harness the illegal transactions. In January 1942, Goebbels started a propaganda campaign directed against the illegal trade.

Two months later, only trading exclusively between consumers (households) was permitted; trading between manufacturers and consumers was prohibited. Despite the fact that death sentences for black market crimes continued to be carried out as late as April 1945, it was hard to expect that millions of people would accept cold and hunger without any protest. Nothing could stop the Germans from travelling to the countryside looking for food (Hamsterfahrten) or prevent the clandestine slaughter of animals and selling of the meat, or the distribution of forged ration stamps.67 Black market activities were endemic: peasants, industrialists, the SS-men guarding concentration camps (where a separate black market existed), and soldiers (who had looted goods or bought them illegally in the occupied territories – a major source of contraband) all played their part in black market transactions on a big scale. Small fry of the black market felt exonerated when looking at Party elites who, even as they urged “extreme saving measures”, were themselves involved in consumer scandals. At the turn of 1942 and 1943, the German public learned of an affair involving August Nöthling, the owner of a Berlin delicatessen who had supplied products unavailable to most Germans to many prominent figures (including Richard Darré, the Third Reich’s Minister of Food and Agriculture. The scandal was, at Hitler’s personal wish, quickly hushed up (Nöthling committed suicide, probably “assisted” by the SS).68 ← 41 | 42 →

On the other side of the front line, the black market was a common phenomenon connected with never-ending problems with provisions. In 1939 Britain instituted a system of rationing. It was fully implemented by 1942. The British system was clear, egalitarian, and easy to use and control. Some products, for example cigarettes or hard liquor, were not rationed but heavily taxed and supplied in small amounts (alcohol was mostly reserved for export). Those products immediately became black market items (they were stolen, smuggled, or manufactured). It was the same story with textiles, soap, cosmetics, and razors. Due to war priorities, there was a ban on production of toys, jewelry, glass, and leather goods. Naturally, they also appeared on the black market.69

The black market and trade restrictions took a somewhat different form overseas. In particular, Canada, a member of the British Commonwealth, adopted restrictive measures at the very beginning of the war. The Wartime Prices and Trade Board (WPTB), which controlled prices, production and allocation was established70 as early as September 3, 1939. Both in Canada and the USA, the war was a time of prosperity, economic growth, and pay increases. Between 1939 and 1942 wages in Canada increased by 100%. The problem was that there was nothing to buy. Canada, as did Europe, radically limited production for civilian consumers. For example between 1940 and 1943, the production of furniture fell by half, refrigerators from 53 161 to 358, and washing machines – from 117 512 to 13 200 units. The WPTB had to introduce special price lists for used articles. They were usually ignored and the difference was paid “under the table”. This practice applied especially to automobiles. The production of cars for the civilian market fell from 102 664 in 1940 to 11 966 in 1943 (and half of these were reserved for physicians, policemen and firemen). Theoretically, car depreciation was expected to be 25% in the first year and 10% in subsequent years. In reality – as happened in the 1980s in Poland – used cars were sold for twice the official price. Similar practices applied to spare parts and gas (often sold by soldiers), textiles, and coal.

The list of rationed food products also gradually lengthened: in 1942 it included coffee, tea, sugar, and alcohol, in 1943 – also beef and canned food (the rations were often three times as high as in Britain). In Canada, black market means of acquiring meat from farms, warehouses, and factories spread with lightning ← 42 | 43 → speed. The alcohol shortage affected moonshine production and smuggling from the USA (cigarettes were also “imported” from there). In 1944 the restrictions were eased, in 1946 – most of them were abolished altogether.

Rationing (and the black market) was similar in the USA. Already by1942, sales of tires were subject to rationing, as the supply of natural rubber had been cut off; next came gas rationing (beginning in May 1942 in the eastern states only; which were supplied mostly by sea by oil tankers; and from December, throughout the whole country). From November 1943, the rationing included almost all products that were crucial for the war effort or that were using resources needed for the war effort, such as cars, sugar, bicycles, shoes, coffee, cheese, butter, meat, canned food, dried fruit, coal etc. Gas, meat, and sugar became the main items sold on the back market.71

Characteristically, even in Britain, where the supply problems were much more severe than overseas, there was not a single case of the black market monopolizing or in any way controlling a section of the market. Organized crime did not develop. On the one hand, Britain was cut off from its neighbors and smuggling on a large scale was out of the question. On the other – most British, American, and Canadian citizens supported the actions of their authorities. This strong social control was based more on a sense of community and responsibility than on fear. “Supply” propaganda played on patriotism and was more effective in the Allied states than in Germany, Japan or Italy. The British or Americans could easily notice all the tangible effects of restrictive measures. The common-sense approach of the British and American authorities, which treated illegal trade as a necessary safety valve to regulate the market, cannot be underestimated. Convictions in connection with black market activities were few; the majority involved inflating the prices of goods or breaking the rationing rules.72

Europe at war constituted a tightly woven system which included the neutral states. Almost all countries introduced rationing, which quickly generated black market phenomena. This was most noticeable in Sweden, where a large proportion of food products had to be imported. There, food rationing started on March 27, 1940, just before Germany’s attack on Denmark and Norway. Until the end of 1941, the rationing system in Sweden encompassed most basic products. The black market, at first insignificant, began to grow in 1943, and by the end of the war its turnover encompassed between 20 and 30% of all trade. Transactions ← 43 | 44 → took place mostly in official stores, which commonly broke the rationing rules (of the 1 300 surveyed stores, 65% sold meat outside the ration coupons system). Between 1940 and 1952, Swedish courts sentenced 67 thousand people for taking part in unofficial transactions.73

In Britain, the USA, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Japan or Italy participation in the black market had been prompted by need and greed; it was not an activity that functioned as a form of social protest. It was different in occupied countries; participation in black market activities was on the one hand often the only way of surviving on a daily basis and, on the other, a form of resistance. Kazimierz Wyka wrote: “In the winter of 1939/40, the population of the General Government faced a clear dilemma: accept the size of rations and starve to death, or – somehow or other manage. Naturally, the first alternative was never considered seriously; the important thing was: how to survive without accepting the restrictions?”74

This was the dilemma that faced citizens of all the occupied countries. However, in each country a different percentage of the population asked themselves such questions. On the one hand, permanent features of the occupation landscape were shortages, unemployment, low wages, food lines, rationing, hunger, and as their consequence a black market. On the other, the occupation systems differed significantly from one another.75 There were different ideologies but also different practices. While in the economically developed Western countries the occupiers tried to take advantage rationally of opportunities and resources using the existing administrative and economic system, in the backward East and South they effectively adopted colonial experience, subjected the conquered lands to ruthless exploitation and viewed them as a source of food, cheap labor and resources.

While in the west negotiations, often successful, were arranged between the invaders and representatives of the occupied population, in the east and south, coercive measures and terror were the tools of communication. The peoples of Denmark, Holland, and Czechoslovakia were allowed by the occupiers to ← 44 | 45 → consume a much greater part of their industrial and agricultural output than the citizens of conquered Poland, Greece, Serbia or the Soviet Union. This affected directly the size of the ration and in consequence turned permanent shortages into chronic hunger. It is not surprising that in the east and south, the motivation to create new strategies for survival and the drive to abandon old habits was the strongest. Earlier black market experiences also played their part, such as those of Poland during World War I, as did the lower level of acceptance of authority compared to Western Europe. Ignoring bans and restrictions imposed by the occupier became a patriotic duty. Legal sanctions, including the death penalty, were unable to put a stop to this state of affairs.

Even though in different occupied countries the black market came in different shapes and hues;76 it usually consisted of corresponding sectors and used similar ← 45 | 46 → strategies. The inhabitants of big cities, subject to the greatest pauperization, were always among the losers. They were the most affected by frozen wages, unemployment and poverty-level food rations, which covered only a small portion of the human calorie requirement (no more than one third of it in the General Government!). They were forced to rely on the black market, where prices tended to be many times higher than the official ones.77 The effects of the high prices were often dismal: in Athens and Piraeus, some 40 thousand people died of malnutrition between the fall of 1941 and late 1942! For city dwellers, to participate in the black market, whether as customers, vendors or middlemen was a necessity, a basic condition of survival. The rural population, especially from areas close to the city, benefited from this situation. For example, small towns located in the vicinity of Warsaw specialized in selling different black market products: Karczew supplied meat (not for nothing was it called “Prosiaków”, “prosię” meaning “a piglet” in Polish), Jabłonna and Legionowo – moonshine, Rembertów – tobacco, Piaseczno, Góra Kalwaria and Grójec – flour.78

The countryside, increasingly exploited under strict control since 1942, was nevertheless still able to produce a surplus destined for the cities. Villagers in eastern and southern Europe were managing much better than French, Dutch or Danish modern farmers. Thanks to traditional methods of running farms, the peasants of eastern and central European were better at creating defense mechanisms.79 They were better both at avoiding the distribution networks of rationed goods and at deliberately frustrating any surveillance. Often, thanks to corruption, they were able more easily to reach mutually advantageous compromises with lower level occupation authorities. In Europe, a grand redistribution of wealth was taking place: money, gold, hard currency, jewelry, furniture, carpets, clothing, anything and everything. All migrated from the cities to the countryside. ← 46 | 47 →

Trips to the countryside to get food became a commonplace occurrence. City inhabitants, both workers and the intelligentsia, laden with suitcases and bundles, were an everyday sight in Paris, Athens, Amsterdam and Warsaw. Out-of-town trips could supply the family and provide a bit of an income, which allowed the black market sharks to make enormous profits. Sometimes these were full-blown illegal enterprises, with their own supply and distribution networks, and their own transportation, as well as a good relationship with the occupation authorities.

Most of the food smuggled in from the countryside was sold in the cities in official stores or restaurants, where the owners regularly violated the rationing regulations. Let us note that ration stamp trading was an important part of black market activity in Europe. The stamps were stolen from the occupation authorities, forged, and used multiple times. The emergence in Paris or Warsaw of illicit restaurants that served luxury dishes and drinks was a brand-new phenomenon.80 The fact that you could get Russian caviar in Paris restaurants and smoked salmon and French cognac in those in Warsaw was made possible by the widespread participation in the black market of soldiers and occupation officials, who were often the conduits for contraband between the far-flung regions of occupied Europe.

Indeed, participation in the black market by the occupiers was much wider and multi-layered, even in the General Government where the chasm dividing the occupiers and the occupied was at its deepest. In all the occupied countries the attitude of the invaders to the black market was, on the one hand suffused with ideology, on the other, with pragmatism. Usually, the latter prevailed. Everywhere, illicit trade was fought either through dogged persistence or sporadic large-scale-anti-black-market operations (usually followed by price hikes). These “repression spectaculars” were mostly for show, a cover for turning a blind eye to black market transactions, which to a certain extent solved local supply problems and constituted a source of additional and often sold by soldiers), textiles, and coal.

The sometimes considerable profit, both for the gendarme happy to accept a bribe from a street vendor and for the high official dealing in often vast quantities of goods – since the spiriting of goods out of military warehouses or transport was carried out not only by stealing but also by corrupting representatives of the occupying authorities. Food, fuel and textiles often entered the black market in this manner. There were sometimes surprises; for example, in May 1943 Warsaw ← 47 | 48 → was “inundated” with live turtles, several train cars of which had been bought from German convoys.81

The General Government and especially Warsaw, situated as it was on the communication highway between occupied western Europe and the eastern front, became a destination for selling luxury items brought from France. Likewise, it was only thanks to the black market that German soldiers and officials could buy and send to their families products unavailable at home such as fats or alcohol. Factory owners and managers often distributed their products through black market channels, outside of the rationing system and for a much higher price. And it was also on the black market that they had to buy food and industrial articles that they passed on to their workers as a form of payment in kind; this “oiled the wheels”, helping to keep productivity at a relatively high level. The occupation authorities were aware of this practice and in 1943 estimated that the black market covered between 30 and 50% of all demand.82

There is no in-depth comparative analysis of the black markets in different European countries.83 The existing research mainly concentrates on legal trade and overshadows the illicit production. The territory of the General Government seemed to have been in the lead not only in the highly-developed clandestine food industry, which encompassed moonshine distilleries, mills, bakeries, meat and oil processing plants, but also in illegal plants manufacturing cosmetics, shoes, clothes and other everyday items.84 Smuggling food to the Jewish ghettos especially the Warsaw ghetto, was a regional specialty of the General Government black market.85

The vast majority of the goods smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto were paid for with hard currency (gold, jewelry, cash) or with objects of item The art trade constituted a very significant part of the black market in all the occupied countries. ← 48 | 49 → There was also strong demand for stores of value such as hard currency and gold coins, which was fueled by inflation and massive profits made both by the occupation apparatus and the local population, including the black market racketeers. Another factor in seeking a tangible form of investment was the considerable likelihood of suddenly losing one’s entire worldly possessions. Each of the occupied countries had their favorites. While in Poland, gold dollars and roubles were the main objects of hoarding (see chapter 8), in France it was gold twenty-franc coins.86 Everybody, however – including the Germans and the Italians – placed great trust in the American “greenback”.

It is impossible to assess the black market during the Second World War and under German occupation unequivocally. Undoubtedly, the second economy was for many a means of survival, keeping the wolf from the door. After the war, it became a significant element of memory politics, construed into the most common form of political resistance. This was most apparent in those countries where armed resistance was not significant but collaboration with the occupiers was common. In France, for example, as soon as the war ended, research focused on the symbolic and heroic aspects of the black market.87 The Black Market in Paris, a French film released in 1956 had a similar message.

There was, however, a flipside. The black market was far from being a charitable activity. It punished the poor but rewarded the brave, the dynamic and the ruthless. Some it made rich, others it pauperized. It was kind to those who had no qualms in taking advantage of the situation or who chose to collaborate with the occupier. Prevailing public opinion on the black market was ambivalent; for example the Polish underground press was full of warnings about profiteering storeowners and their exorbitant prices. Even in France, where the black market eventually came to be glorified as a form of wartime resistance against the occupier, after the liberation the courts were still convicting people for involvement in illegal trade during the occupation.88

2.4  After the War

The courts had, however, a much greater problem with post-war participants in the black market. The end of the war did not halt black market operations, which continued in peace time without a hitch. The circumstances were already favorable. On the one hand, people were fed up with restrictions and did not perceive ← 49 | 50 → them as reasonable once the war was over. Sacrifices for the sake of “our boys on the front line” were no longer necessary and did not prevent anyone from participating in illegal transactions. The survivors were eager to make up the wartime losses. What they now wanted was to get a life in more sense than one. That is why for example the black market in Britain concentrated on luxury items (usually smuggled) such as the coveted nylon stockings or watches, as well as American cigarettes and gas, which was in such short supply that a monthly allowance would barely suffice for a trip from London to Brighton.89 A vast part of Europe was in ruins and an even larger part was impoverished. Even such a powerful state such as Britain was on the brink of bankruptcy. Keeping consumption at a low level while focusing on exports could help pay off the debts. Other countries, including Poland, were in a similar situation.

There were many other factors that fueled the black market mechanisms. The war had broken down social barriers, shaken moral standards and spread pathological behavior of which the illicit trade was one of the mildest. Poverty has always been one of the most important engines of the black market. Alcohol and cigarettes were considered remedies for stress and gold and hard currencies – insurance against hardship. The displaced masses that spread out over the European continent were a natural reservoir of potential black market participants. Millions of people were traversing the globe, whether voluntarily or forced to do so by circumstances and they were widening the channels of illegal trade by canny arbitrage, facilitating the flow of goods between areas of abundance and those of shortages. The victorious troops, the US army with the greatest resources at its disposal, joined in the mass transfer of goods. The long, cold and snowy winter of 1946/47 and a catastrophic draught in the summer of 1947 posed an additional challenge. All European countries, from Spain to the Soviet Union, had to deal with supply shortages worse than those of the war; this continued to stimulate new black market strategies.

In post-war Britain and France, the black market complemented the official distribution channels. In Italy and especially in Germany, just as it had been in occupied Poland and Greece, making use of the black market was a prerequisite for survival. “If you wanted to eat, you had to trade,” a Romanian DP reminisced.90 The black market had not only a practical but also a psychological impact. In a country that had been destroyed, occupied and divided, and was grappling with ← 50 | 51 → enormous economic and demographic problems (with millions of displaced people and refugees) while coming to terms with the bitterness of defeat, the black market played a therapeutic role. The popular German saying “God helps those who help themselves”91 took on a slightly different meaning. Participation in the black market attested to one’s creativity and self-reliance. If in France it was a mythologized form of resistance, in Germany it was one of the founding myths of the new state. Germany was the only country where the immediate post-war years were commonly called, as indeed they still are now, the “Schwarzmarktzeit”, the time of the black market. There, the black market became a vital component of the collective memory, often portrayed in literature and films and the subject of academic research.92

It is worth dwelling on the German black market since it demonstrates persuasively the universal pervasiveness of black market strategies, regardless of place and time. If a large number of Germans, both civilians and soldiers, were involved in the black market transactions during the war; as soon as the war ended – they all were. During the so called “no man’s time” when the old wages were not paid anymore and the new ones had not yet started to be paid, when the old food stamps had expired and the new ones were not yet available, with cash reserves gone and banks still closed, pantries and store shelves emptied – the black market was all that stood between the people and certain perdition.93

The situation was not desperate as long as the reserves remained. Soon they too were gone, and at the beginning of 1946, the Combined Food Board in Washington ← 51 | 52 → drastically limited allocations for the western occupation zones, which instantly cut food rations down to a quarter of their previous level. In 1946 the situation became critical in many places. For example between April and July of 1946, 160 out of the 700 hundred patients at the psychiatric clinic in Grafenberg near Düsseldorf died, and the rest were on their last legs. By June, fresh meat had disappeared from the market (only cans were issued).94 The situation was not much better in the Russian zone. When it seemed that life could not get any worse, the severe winter of 1946/7 arrived (which triggered a transport collapse; securing coal deliveries became the primary task of the police), followed by the summer drought. As a result, the food supply diminished further, and at the turn of 1947/48 fats became unavailable. All that the promise of currency reform, with its implicit devaluation, at first achieved was to invigorate the black market. Peasants were reluctant to get rid of their products, preferring to wait for the new, “good” money. When, finally, it did arrive in the western occupation zones, it created the basis for the free market. As a mass phenomenon, the black market had to leave the stage.

The German post-war black market consisted in fact of many different phenomena – from the self-organised Hamsterfahrten, foraging expeditions to the countryside, to large-scale trade operations (often run by crime groups), theft, and supply ration scams. Germans had to develop the same strategies as the Poles, Greeks or French had earlier done. The difference was that they no longer faced the threat of being sent to a concentration camp if they were caught. In Germany and in the German speaking territories, members of all social classes, from peasants to the aristocracy, were to be found using the black market.95 Because there was a shortage of adult men, young people and women made up the greater part of the black-market traders; another group consisted of Displaced Persons, the so-called DPs. After the war, the DPs, who lived on United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) supplies, had time and opportunity on their hands as well as little to lose, and much to gain. Both those who were planning to return to their homeland and those who wanted to emigrate tried to gather as many resources as possible to make the beginning of a new life easier in due course. The black market offered a perfect opportunity.96 Trading between the city and the countryside constituted the foundation of the black market. Interestingly, ← 52 | 53 → peasants who to a large extent had carried on with survival strategies well-rehearsed during the First World War did not consider their black market activities as law-breaking but rather a way of combating their own poverty. Not without reason – from mid-1945 to mid-1948, peasants had no way of laying their hands legally on more than between one and two percent of the indispensable means of production. Out of necessity, they turned to the black market.97 They made no pretense of it being a charitable activity. In time, they became quite savvy in the realm of alternative business. As a rule, they refused to accept currency that was depreciating at the speed of light, but instead demanded payment from their trading partners in the cities in the form of clothing, bedding, carpets, jewelry and clocks.98 The longer the provisions crisis lasted, the more specialized became the actions of the peasants who waited for seasonal dips in supply and then sold food at a higher price. In spite of frequent controls and restrictions they always found a way to produce a surplus or to explain the sudden disappearance of products meant for central distribution. It is possible that as much as half of all production was distributed through unofficial channels. For example in the Russian occupation zone at the turn of 1947 and 1948, some 57% of the livestock was found to have ‘disappeared’.99 As a result, peasants (for example, in Bavaria)100 were the only group that could afford to make investments.

In the cities, the black market, or rather the black markets were unofficially institutionalized, usually in streets and squares not far from the railroad stations. The greatest centers of unofficial trading were in Berlin (Alexanderplatz, the Tiergarten, the ruins of the Reichstag, and in the vicinity of the Potsdamer Bahnhof) and also in Hamburg, Munich, Hanover, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt-am-Main.101

Everything could be, and was, sold on the black market; however, some articles played a particularly important role. These were coffee, sugar, alcohol, and above all cigarettes. Beginning in 1943/44 when the anti-inflation measures failed and the German mark was depreciating rapidly, cigarettes emerged as the main substitute for money, a “measure of all things” (Erich Kästner noted in his diary in February 1945 that cigarettes should be counted not in numbers but in copies).102 Cigarettes had some characteristics of good money, since they were countable and convenient to handle, but they were certainly not sustainable legal tender. After ← 53 | 54 → the war they not only maintained but also strengthened their position as a “money substitute”. Since 60% of all adult Germans (and an unknown percentage of youngsters) smoked, they were all potential clients of the black market. The most valuable were American cigarettes, a “gold standard”, which – measured in items, packages, and cartons – formed the baseline for other black market prices.103

While in the spring of 1945 the price of tobacco products was a hundred times higher than before the war, the price of coffee and alcohol skyrocketed three hundredfold.104 It was still possible to produce alcohol at home. Moonshine distilling caught on like wildfire. Bootleg liquor was produced in the city and in the countryside, in basements, kitchens, and scientific labs (including those of the university in Greifswald).105 It was more difficult to acquire (whether by buying or stealing) coffee from the occupiers than to distil spirits at home. As for coffee, it was only available as contraband. Coffee was usually smuggled in, together with hard currency, gold or industrial products from France, Belgium and Holland – countries that had colonies, and thus coffee. “People transported all kinds of things,” Tomasz Domaniewski noted in Antwerp in the spring of 1946, “but mostly cars, which they filled with parts, machinery, chemicals and other items which in Germany they had paid a pittance for but which in Belgium or France could be sold for a lot of money. On the way back they brought mostly coffee, the basic currency of the time without which Germans could not survive and of which they never had enough.106 The porous border was quickly sealed, which forced smugglers to devise sophisticated or ruthless new methods of operation.107

Dealing on the black market was a crime and thus subject to prosecution. Demands to curtail it came from the occupation authorities, the unions, and political parties (on the left, especially from the KPD, the Communist Party of Germany which called for the setting-up of labor camps for those involved in illegal trading108). And there were indeed genuine attempts to combat the underground trade. Special police units were created, in Munich already in 1945. In Hamburg, ← 54 | 55 → in March 1946 alone, more than 1400 checks and 150 round-ups were carried out. However, the best that could be done was to limit the black market and remove it from sight. The dealers moved the larger transactions to private apartments or restaurants, and carried with them nothing more than “samples”. Official countermeasures could certainly diminish the scale of the illegal activities but could not get eradicate their political, economic, and social roots.109 The illegal markets, in a topographical sense, revived immediately after any attempt to eliminate them. The authorities tried instead to fight “organized crime” groups, which often resembled smoothly-run businesses with access to the occupation authorities and German police. In 1946, US Military Police liquidated such a headquarters located in a bakery in Frankfurt-am-Main. It turned out that the bakery’s phone number had been the most frequently dialed long distance telephone number in all Germany.110

War on the black market was doomed to failure; for one thing, the phenomenon was too widespread and, for another, illicit transactions enjoyed public support, since they delivered products unavailable on the legal market and also generated profits. People were forced to lead a double life, just as had been the case in the occupied countries during the war. The historian Kazimierz Wyka, who wrote about everyday life in occupied Poland, called it “pretend life”. The majority of citizens had problems telling apart things that were accepted and permitted from those that were prohibited, since these were all thoroughly mixed-up in the context of both ethics and the law. It was often a schizophrenic situation: a prosecutor would write down the charges against a black market dealer on a piece of paper bought on the black market while drinking black market coffee served by his wife who was wearing a dress acquired on the black market. It is not surprising that a poll conducted by students from Freiburg im Breisgau at the end of 1947 showed that the majority (76%) of respondents were convinced participants in the black market should be protected and only 6% believed they should be persecuted.111 ← 55 | 56 →

The fight against the black market was even more difficult due to the widespread involvement of representatives of the occupation authorities, both uniformed and civilian, who effectively protected their German trading partners. Whereas, during the war, Germans had enjoyed a business bonanza in Warsaw, Amsterdam or Paris, after the war ended the Americans, the Russians and the British coined it hand over fist in Frankfurt-am-Main, Berlin and Hamburg. In July 1945, the United States authorities in Berlin paid their soldiers one million dollars in wages. The soldiers in turn sent back home goods worth three million dollars, having deftly turned a handsome profit through black market operations.112 For a carton of cigarettes, Americans paid a dollar; they could sell it for a thousand marks. With such a staggeringly advantageous conversion rate, cameras, antiques, jewelry, gold watches, and diamonds came almost free. No wonder that the US Mail delivered to West Berlin and the American occupation zone three thousand cartons of cigarettes a day. Likewise, food, alcohol, nylons, and gas kept flooding the market. A sergeant in Frankfurt-am-Main specialized in bringing dentures from the USA and selling them to local dentists. The American authorities estimated that their soldiers were able to transfer goods worth $500 million in this way. What was the value of the items that went back home? That was impossible to determine since all the estimates were unreliable.113 No one has ever attempted to assess the scale of transactions carried out by Soviet soldiers who participated in the black market just as eagerly, selling their own supplies and items confiscated in Germany, including cars. Russian strategies were somewhat different – the buyers were not so much interested in antiques or jewelry as in items in demand in the Soviet Union such as watches or sewing machines.

And there was another difference. If, after the monetary reform, the black market had lost its significance in the western occupation zones, in the East it was only just entering a new phase. It would last for the next forty years.

50 R. Sèdillot, Histoire des marchés noirs, Paris 1985, pp. 13–28; J. Butterworth, The theory of price control and black markets, Hong Kong–Singapore–Sydney 1994, pp. 3–4.

51 J. Butterworth, The theory…, pp. 6–7.

52 R. Sédillot, Histoire…, pp. 38–52.

53 R. Sédillot, op. cit. pp. 57–79, p. 87; J. Debû-Bridel, Histoire du marché noir (1939–1947), Paris 1947, pp. 18–23.

54 E. Smithies, The Black Economy in England since 1914, Dublin 1984, 19–21, pp. 28–30.

55 M. Wildt, Der Traum vom Sattwerden. Hunger und Protest, Schwartzmarkt und Selbsthilfe in Hamburg 19451948, Hamburg 1986, p. 12.

56 E. D. Kohler, Inflation and Black Marketeering in the Rhenish Agricultural Economy 19191922, “German Studies Review” no. 8, 1985/1, p. 48.

57 See: A. Û. Davydov, Mešočniki i diktatura v Rossii: 19171921, St. Petersburg 2007.

58 Ibid.

59 J. Butterworth, The Theory…, 10; E. Smithies, The Black Economy…, pp. 38–40.

60 I.B. Ataman (J. Pietrucin-Pietruszewski), W wichrze rewolucji, ed. J. Kochanowski, Karta 1991/1, p. 4.

61 J. Paxton, J. Wroughton, Smuggling, Basingstoke–London, 1971, pp. 39–41.

62 Journal of Laws, Dziennik Ustaw, Dz. U. 7/109, Jan 18, 1919; A. Mogilnicki, Lichwa, in: Z. Cybichowski, Encyklopedia podręczna prawa publicznego, vol 1, Warszawa, 373.

63 Dz. U. 67/449, August 4, 1920.

64 J. Łukasiewicz, Gorzelnictwo, in: Encyklopedia historii gospodarczej Polski do 1945 roku, ed. A. Mączak, vol. 1, Warszawa 1981, p. 205.

65 O. Griffith, Need, Greed and Protest…, pp. 828–830, pp. 834–835.

66 M. Wildt, Der Traum…, pp. 14–15.

67 W.A. Boelcke, Der Schwarz-Markt 1945–1948. Vom Überleben nach dem Kriege, Braunschweig 1986, pp. 11–13.

68 Ibid., pp. 2021, pp. 26–28.

69 E. Smithies, The Black Economy…, pp. 64–67, E. Smithies, Crime in Wartime: A Social History of Crime in World War II, London 1982, I. Zweiniger-Bargiełowska, Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls, and Consumption, 1939–1955, Oxford-New York 2000, pp. 151–202, M. Roodhouse, Black Market Britain: 19391945, Oxford 2013.

70 See: J. Keshen, One for All or All for One: Government Controls, Black Marketing and the Limits of Patriotism, 19391947, Journal of Canadian Studies 29, 1994/4, pp. 111–143.

71 World War II Rationing, www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1674.html (accessed: March 5, 2014).

72 E. Smithies, The Black Economy…, pp. 68–69, J. Butterworth, The Theory…, p. 16.

73 J. Wijk, Svarta börsen-samhällslojalitet i kris. Livsmedelsransoneringarna och den illegalahandeln i Sverige 19401949, Stockholm 1992.

74 K. Wyka, Życie na niby, Kraków 2010, p. 276.

75 See P. Voglis, Surviving Hunger: Life in the Cities and Countryside during the Occupation, in: Surviving Hitler and Mussolini: Daily Life in Occupied Europe, ed. R. Gildea, O. Wieviorka, A. Warring, Oxford–New York 2006, pp. 16–41. In Polish historiography: C. Madajczyk, Faszyzm i okupacje 19381945, vol 2: Mechanizmy realizowania okupacji, Poznań 1984.

76 In German-occupied Poland, the black market was most developed in the territory of the General Government, where (especially in Warsaw) it became a specialized field practiced officially and professionally. See: W. Jastrzębowski, Gospodarka niemiecka w Polsce 19391944, Warszawa 1946, M. Walczak, Walka ekonomiczna narodu polskiego 19391945, Warszawa 1983, T. Szarota, Okupowanej Warszawy dzień powszedni. Studium historyczne, Warszawa 1988. In the territories incorporated in the Reich, where the center-liberal measures were much stricter and rations larger, the illegal trade was smaller in scope and limited to groups of trusted participants. See: T. Janicki, Czarny rynek w Poznaniu podczas II Wojny Światowej, Kronika Miasta Poznania, 2009–3, pp. 94–116. The black market in the Russian occupation zone was limited due to similar reasons. See: G. Hryciuk, Polacy we Lwowie 19391944. Życie codzienne, Warszawa 2000, S. Lewandowska, Życie codzienne Wilna w latach II wojny światowej, Warszawa 1997. In France, by the end of the German occupation 1030 per cent of all transactions were occurring on the black market. In 1942–43 in Vichy France, it is estimated that 92 billion francs’ worth of basic food products were sold on the black market. At that time, the budget of the French state was 135 billion. See: R. Sédillot, Histoire, p. 143, L. Taylor, The Black Market in Occupied Northern France, 194044, Contemporary European History, 1997/6, pp. 158–167, P. Sanders, Histoire du marché noir 1940–46, Paris, 2001, D. Veillon, Vivre et survive en France 19391947, Paris 1995, F. Grenard, La France du marché noir 194049, Paris 2008, Y. Lecouturier, Le marché noir en Normandie 19391945, Rennes 2010. On Greece, see: V. Hionidou, Black market, Hyperinflation and Hunger: Greece 194144, Food & Foodways, 2004/12, 81–106, M. Mazower, Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation 194144, New Haven–London 1993, S. Thomadakis, Black Market, Inflation and Force in the Economy of Occupied Greece, in: Greece in the 1940s. A Nation of Crisis, ed. J.O. Iatrides, Hanover (USA), London 1981. On Holland see: H.A. van der Zee, The Hunger Winter: Occupied Holland 1944–5, London 1982. On Belgium see: R. Miry, Zwarte Handel in levensmiddelen, Brussels 1946, P. Struye, G. Jacquelyns, La Belgique sous l’occupation allemande 194044, Brussels 1950. On Denmark see: C. Bundgård Christensen, Den sorte børs. Fra besættelsen til efterkrigstid, Copenhagen 2010. On Italy see: R. Mariano, Borsari neri in Roma citta aperta, Rome 1989. On Soviet Union see: V.S. Puzškarēv, “Cernyj” rynek w SSSR v gody velikoj otecestvennoj wojny i ego vlijanie na sostajanie vnutrennego rynka strany, Ekonomiceskij Žurnal, 2006/12, pp. 212–225.

77 P. Voglis, Surviving Hunger…, 2, M. Walczak, Walka ekonomiczna…, 28–29. In General Government, food staples prices rose on the free market 10 times for bread, p. 120 times for pork fat, while wages were mostly frozen at pre-war levels. M. Walczak, Walka ekonomiczna…, pp. 23–27.

78 M. Walczak, Walka ekonomiczna…, pp. 67–8, see also T. Szarota, Okupowanej Warszawy…, pp. 220–39.

79 A. Jezierski, C. Leszczyńska, Historia gospodarcza Polski, Warszawa 1999, pp. 354–5, P. Voglis, Surviving Hunger…, p. 17.

80 J. Debû-Bridel, Histoire…, pp. 124–131, A. Strzeżek, Od konsumpcji do konspiracji czyli warszawskie lokale gastronomiczne 1939–1944, Warszawa 2012.

81 T. Szarota, Okupowanej Warszawy…, pp. 230–1.

82 AAN, Government Delegation for Poland, (AAN, DRnK), 202/IV-1, fol. 82, S. Schwaneberg, The economic policy of the German occupation authorities in the General Government 1939–1945, manuscript shared by the author.

83 See: T. Szarota, Życie codzienne w stolicach okupowanej Europy. Szkice historyczne, kronika wydarzeń, Warszawa 1995.

84 M. Walczak, Walka ekonomiczna…, pp. 73–4.

85 M. Passenstein, Szmugiel w getcie warszawskim, Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego 1958/26, C. Battrick, Smuggling as a Form of Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto, “Journal of Holocaust Education” 4, 1995/2, pp. 199–224, B. Engelking, J. Leociak, Getto warszawskie. Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście, 2013, pp. 481–496, H. Grynberg, J. Kostański, Szmuglerzy, Warszawa 2001.

86 R. Sédillot, Histoire…, pp. 134–135.

87 M. David, Le marché noir, Paris 1945, J. Debû-Bridel, Histoire…

88 L. Taylor, The Black Market, p. 174.

89 E. Smithies, The Black Economy, p. 91, p. 110, p. 130. Roodhouse ibid. Gas rationing ended in May 1950.

90 J. Sandulescu, Hunger’s Rogues: On the Black Market in Europe 1948, New York–London 1974, p. 18.

91 M. Wildt, Der Traum…, p. 103.

92 See: M. Wildt, Der Traum…, W.A. Boelcke, Der Schwarz-Markt…, J. Lenzner, Brennende Kehle. Schwarzer Markt 1945–1948 oder: Der authentische Bericht eines Kenners der dunkelsten Schattenwirtschaft zwischen Stunde Null und Währungsreform von ihm selbst aufgezeichnet, Bremen 1988; P. Erker, Ernährungskrise und Nachkriegsgesellschaft. Bauern und Arbeiterschaft in Bayern 1943–1953, Stuttgart 1990; R. Gries, Die Rationengesellschaft. Versorgungskampf und Vergleichsmentalität. Leipzig, München und Köln nach dem Kriege, Münster 1991; J. Roesler, The Black Market in Post-war Berlin and the Method Used to Counteract It; “German History: The Journal of the German History Society” 7, 1989/1, pp. 92–107; M. Zierenberg, Stadt der Schieber. Der BerlinerSchwarzmarkt 1939–1950, Göttingen 2008; F. Grube, G. Richter, Die Schwarzmarktzeit. Deutschland zwischen 1945 und 1948, Hamburg 1979; P. Steege, Black Market, Cold War. Everyday Life in Berlin, 1946–1949, New York 2007; S. Mörchen, Schwarzer Markt: Kriminalität, Ordnung und Moral in Bremen 1939–1949, Frankfurt/Main 2011. About Austria: E. Holzer, Schleichhändler vor Gericht. Der Schwarzmarkt in der Steiermark nach dem 2. Weltkrieg, Graz 2007.

93 W.A. Boelcke, Der Schwarz-Markt…, p. 76.

94 M. Wildt, Der Traum…, p. 37, p. 43, p. 45.

95 In 1946 the Schwarzmarktring was uncovered. Agathe Prinzessin von Preußen, Elisabeth Prinzessin von Preußen and Luise Henriette Schmalz nee Prinzessin von Preußen were part of it; J. Lenzner, Brennende Kehle…, p. 13.

96 Ibid. 34–35; W.A. Boelcke, Der Schwarz-Markt…, p. 82. See: J. Sandulescu, Hunger’s rogues

97 P. Erker, Ernährungskrise…, p. 75.

98 R. Gries, Die Rationengesellschaft…, p. 107, p. 109.

99 W.A. Boelcke, Der Schwarz-Markt…, p. 141.

100 P. Erker, Ernährungskrise…, p. 177.

101 W.A. Boelcke, Der Schwarz-Markt…, pp. 84–88.

102 P. Erker, Ernährungskrise…, p. 28.

103 J. Sandulescu, Hunger’s Rouges…, p. 19, G. Schmölders, Die Zigarettenwährung, in: Sozial-ökonomische Verhaltenforschung. Ausgewählte Aufsätze von Günter Schmölders, ed. G. Brinkmann, B. Strümpel, H. Zimmermann, Berlin 1973, pp. 166–71.

104 W.A. Boelcke, Der Schwarz-Markt…, p. 109.

105 Ibid., pp. 172–173.

106 T. Domaniewski, Błogosławieni ubodzy duchem, in: Uśmiech z dalekich dróg. Opowiadania, Warszawa 1973, p. 9.

107 Ibid. ; J. Sandulescu, Hunger’s Rogues…, W. Trees, Schmuggler, Zöllner und die Kaffeepanzer. Die wilden Nachkriegsjahren an der deutschen Westgrenze, Aachen 2002.

108 M. Wildt, Der Traum…, p. 39.

109 R. Gries, Die Rationengesellschaft…, 220; M. Wildt, Der Traum…, p. 110.

110 W.A.Boelcke, Der Schwarz-Markt…, p. 198.

111 Ibid., 123–125. In 1947 a book was published as part of the series “Law for Everyone” (Recht für jeden) written by a well-known lawyer Karl Kromer; Schwarzmarkt, Lausch- und Schleichhandel. In Frage und Antwort mit 500 praktischen Beispielen (Schloss Bleckende an der Elbe 1947). It was written not only for lawyers but mostly for black market dealers to let them know what was allowed and how they could defend themselves if caught.

112 K.C. Ruffner, The Black Market in Post-war Berlin: Colonel Miller and an Army Scandal, “Prologue Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration” 34, 2002/3, pp. 170–183.

113 W.A. Boelcke, Der Schwarz-Markt…, 127, pp. 131–132.

← 56 | 57 →

3.  The Polish (anti) Speculation Curve: 1944–1989

Even though the shortages in post-war Poland were not always acute, there never existed a balanced market, crucial for the elimination of the black market. These shortages were curve-shaped – rising briefly in times of prosperity, then quickly falling again, when store shelves emptied and the lines got longer. The Polish authorities and the Polish people faced the necessity of having to invent increasingly sophisticated strategies. The critical turning point came when the authorities decided it was time for an unorthodox approach, reaching new highs in repression. In post-war Poland there had always existed professional, both uniformed and civilian, institutions for dealing with economic crime. They could be effective but at the same time even under an authoritarian regime they had limitations imposed by rules. The status attached to an institution of the state was a stigma and they could not count on social acceptance. Additional institutions were therefore set up, neutrally called “commissions” or “teams” in order to create the illusion that the state was loosening its grip. These commissions combined the structures of the state, labor unions, and social organizations and gave an impression of mass social participation or popular support for their activities. Until 1980, the authorities had a monopoly on information and propaganda, so they found it easy to manipulate public opinion, characterizing certain groups as a threat and enemy of the state and fanning citizens’ wrath against them. This was not hard – since the more difficult everyday living conditions, the easier it was to drum up support, especially from low income citizens, to attack scapegoats.

There were three occasions in post-war Poland on which special institutions in charge of “extraordinary measures” for controlling and regulating the market were appointed: in 1945, 1957, and 1981. On each occasion they had different names and the political, social, and economic context was different. What they had in common was their target: “speculation” – this referred to any sector of the black market – and a shared ideological foundation. With their fighting slogans lifted as if straight from wartime reports, and an almost fanatical conviction of their own efficacy and righteousness, they were populist and egalitarian. At the same time, the commissions were helpless in the face of a reality that they could not fully control and to which they could only react. As a result, the commissions became an arena for a game of two players – the state and the people. The former had more pawns and set the rules, which they changed at will as they went along. ← 57 | 58 → But the latter were quicker, more creative and quick to adjust. In the game of The State versus The People, it was The People that ultimately won.

3.1  Commission I: 1945–1950/54

The Special Commission for Combating Fraud and Economic Corruption, which was active between 1945 and 1954, did not progress in a linear manner. The first year and a half could be called a trial period and it involved looking for a formula, researching the possibilities, and acting on intuition. The unleashing in 1947 of the “battle for trade” marked the beginning of the Commission’s golden era. It lasted until 1950, when the Commission was deprived of most of its powers and left only with decision-making functions. We will focus therefore mainly on the first five years of its operations.

3.1.1  Trial Period: 1944–1947

Once the euphoria of liberation had passed, Poles found themselves once again obliged to try and answer the ubiquitous question: “How can one make a living?” Trading offered the simplest solution, so it is not surprising that the occupation-era black market instantly adjusted to the new, post-war circumstances. The pauperized intelligentsia and famished workers were pushed into the black market by post-war circumstances. Stanisław M. Korowicz wrote, “Even the sporadic black-market trading proved much more advantageous financially than the wages of either blue, or white-collar workers.”114

The very same situation could be observed in all the war-scarred European countries. And everywhere, Poland included, in the muddy post-war waters there swam not just minnows but also sharks. The period of chaos, political destabilization, and mass internal and external migrations created opportunities for big-time, profitable business operations. The Second World War shattered many social, moral, and ethical barriers. New ways of behaving, unacceptable and ← 58 | 59 → indeed unimaginable before 1939, became commonplace. “Everywhere”, an inspector wrote in 1945, “in trade, industry and state or local government offices, fraud goes on, for the sake of making a personal profit.”115

The legal aspect of the economy also posed problems. Small-scale manufacturing and commerce were rapidly coming back to life and geared up for maximum profit in the shortest possible time. In a country destroyed by the war and suffering from acute shortages, where those who had jobs earned hunger wages and many others such as orphans, widows, the elderly and the disabled required aid from the state, this caused conflicts and tension. Introducing full rationing was logistically impossible – it would have required the involvement of a huge apparatus, expropriating all production surpluses from the peasants, which would have resulted only in expanding the black market. In the end, a half-way system was introduced, with the assumption that food rationing would do no more than complement the free market. This partial rationing was expected to protect the weakest and also the “most important” citizens from the state’s point of view – big-city inhabitants, miners, and railroad workers.116 The latter two groups received allocations of basic food articles, enabling bare survival at low, fixed prices, which were expected to keep in check the number of those using the black market.117

The reality, as always, departed from the theory. Merchants looking for profit tried to avoid the regulated prices by selling (legally or not) most of their wares at commercial prices. They were not controlled; this led to absurd situations where food prices in agricultural areas (in which inspections were infrequent) were 50–100% higher than in big cities.118 In large agglomerations such as Łódź, the price differential between different districts reached 100%. In the first half of 1945, rationed bread cost 0.75–1.50 zl, whereas commercial (free-market) bread between 45 and 50 zl; similarly, pork fat respectively 2.75 – 10 zl compared to 350 – 500 zl, meat 2.25 – 4.50 zl against 70–180 zl, and wheat flour 1.10 – 1.15 zl in shops and between 57.50 zl and 95.60 zl on the black market.119 As a result, there was not much to be bought in shops, due to the fact that the official, low prices were hardly an incentive to suppliers. Just as it had under the German occupation, this ← 59 | 60 → encouraged black market strategies and unsurprisingly, enhanced the yearning for “order”120 – since in the summer of 1945, the average wage covered no more than 38% of the cost of living. Against the backdrop of starving workers and intelligentsia, those who enjoyed conspicuous consumption – thanks to hard currency and goods brokerage (maklerstwo towarowe i dewizowe) or wholesale looting (szaber hurtowy) – stuck out like a sore thumb121 and attracted public wrath.

An unbalanced market at all times encourages an egalitarian mood. This was especially the case in post-war Poland, where social equality was the chief premise of the socialist system, with official propaganda based on the slogan that the socialist state would provide for “each according to his need”, and emphasis on the equality of all citizens in terms of their biological, material, and cultural needs.122 Beside loudly expressed discontent, there were frequent grass-roots demands for the implementation of “the appropriate provision of necessary articles for all working people in the spirit of democratic equality, or [for] raising wages to the minimum subsistence level.”123 Citizens expected the state to act decisively and use whatever methods were necessary.124 The authorities were themselves well aware that half-measures would no longer suffice, particularly as they had already proved ineffective. ← 60 | 61 →

The period directly after the war was a golden age not only for the small fry but also for black market sharks: So, the Director has lost 60 bales of cotton, the President has lost 15 wagons of coal, I have only lost two cars and Dr Szaberski won them all… [a pun based on ‘Szaber’ – in Polish, looting]. Karol Baraniecki, Clients of the Special Commission, “Szpilki”, no. 9, 26 February 1946.


The first decree on combating wartime usury and speculation was issued on October 25, 1944. In early 1945, the Central Office for Combating Wartime Usury and Speculation (Główny Urząd do Walki z Lichwą i Spekulacją Wojenną, GUWLS or GU) was established in the Office of the Council of Ministers. It dealt mostly with illegal trade, speculation, and the illicit production of alcohol.125 The institution had only a few dozen employees – not many, considering its wide-ranging objectives. By August 1, 1945 it had been possible to establish regional departments solely in the “old Poland”, that is within its pre-1939 borders – in the Warsaw, Lublin, Łódź, Krakow, and Katowice voivodships; the “recovered”, ← 61 | 62 → post-German territories were still terra incognita. There were problems with the city of Białystok where it proved impossible to recruit locally, which prompted the idea of sending in sporadic inspection brigades a month at a time.126 Nor was it smooth sailing in other cities. The setting up of an anti-usury and speculation department in Łódź, in June 1945 caused such a stir amongst local merchants and black marketeers that they threatened to create a separate Department for the city of Łódź, staffed by their own “ol’ boy networks”.127 The results of the GUWLS’s activities were modest. In July 1945, in Warsaw the Office confiscated a mere 20 kg of tobacco, 1330 headache medications, 3.25 kg saccharine, 20 liters of moonshine, and in Lublin 17.5 liters of moonshine, 3.7 kg counterfeit yeast and 3.6 kg of tobacco.128

The first institutions set up to fight speculation functioned like those depicted in Jerzy Zaruba’s cartoon The Office for Fighting Speculation, “Szpilki”, no. 9, 1 May 1945.


← 62 | 63 →

Prime Minister Edward Osóbka-Morawski’s hopes that the GUWLS would replicate the Soviet cherezvychaika office, which controlled all walks of life where official routes were being by-passed, no matter what position the fraudsters held, did not materialize.129 The GU was a weak and bureaucratized structure dependent on the coalition government (from the end of June 1945), not revolutionary enough and much too politicized. For conservative bureaucrats, the GU became a fifth wheel and on August 18, 1945 the decision was reached to incorporate the GU in the Ministry of Treasury. However, neither the conservatives nor the supporters of the GU’s independence applauded that decision.130 The latter worried that the GU would now be censored and supervised by the Central Inspectorate of Treasury Protection (Główny Inspektorat Ochrony Skarbowej, GIOS). They postulated the “establishment of an Office or Inspectorate for Combating Wartime Usury and Speculation, parallel to the Central Inspectorate of Treasury Protection (at the Treasury), which would be able to introduce initiatives, and with the existing duplication with other Offices, would bring about reciprocal control, desirable in our opinion.”131 Ultimately, the Office would be included in the GIOS as a subordinate unit, but “with the existing powers”.132 This did not end the problems and it turned out that the Treasury Protection team would not be able to tackle usury and speculation, since it lacked the necessary legal authority. According to the Finance Minister, there were plans to amend the decree from August 25, 1944.133 There was no need to do this. The Politburo of the Central Committee of the Polish Workers’ Party (KC PPR), the real center of decision-making, was not interested in bringing to life another bureaucratic institution, which was difficult to control, to boot. So the Politburo took the initiative, while trying to keep up appearances. It is hard to believe that the appeal directed to the government by the Central Commission of the Labor Unions (Komisja Centralna Związków Zawodowych) on August 31, 1945 urging it to create a “special commission to fight corruption, bribery, speculation, and banditry” had not been inspired by the Party. Especially since ideology began clearly to dominate the economy: “through their propaganda and support for thievery, bribery and speculation as well as acts of industrial sabotage and disorganization of the state apparatus, reactionary groups in Poland […] want to exacerbate our difficulties and keep our cities starving in order to spread discontent amongst the working masses so that on the wave of that discontent they, the ← 63 | 64 → reactionaries, may again reach out for power and drive the working masses into enslavement by the capitalist and the landowner.”134 It did not take long for the Party authorities to react. By September 2, 1945, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party established a Special Commission for Combating Fraud (Specjalna Komisja do Walki z Nadużyciami). Administered personally by Władysław Gomułka, the Commission was set up at the State National Council, (Krajowa Rada Narodowa, KRN), headed by Bolesław Bierut, which served at that time as a kind of super-government.135 The Commission faced an enormous task and was also granted enormous powers. It was expected to combat the theft of state property, corruption and fraud in the “state, local government, and economic apparatus”, and it could avail itself of all other state structures.136 Unlike the professional institutions, the Special Commission was to rely on the “participation of the social entities, and especially on supervision by municipal councils, on social invigilation by the labor unions, and on the activities of complaints offices established for the purpose.”137

Bolesław Bierut and Jakub Berman were in charge of developing the appropriate decrees. After more than two months of deliberations, on November 16, 1945 the package of decrees was accepted together with the establishment of the Special Commission for Combating Fraud and Corruption. Published side by side (sections 300–302) in the Journal of Laws, Issue 53, they were an important step on the path to stabilizing not so much the economy but rather the power of the new regime.

Since there is an ample body of literature138 on the historic and legal aspects of the Special Commission (even though there is less coverage of its sociological ← 64 | 65 → or cultural contexts), we need only focus here on the most important issues. During the nine years of existence of the Commission, its chairman was Roman Zambrowski. It seems, however, that Bolesław Bierut and members of the Special Commission Bureau had more sway (among others Kazimierz Jasiński – the director of the Executive Office, Jan Grubecki, Leon Chajn, Eugeniusz Gajewski, Mieczysław Mietkowski, Marek Porowski and Konrad Świetlicki). The institution that they were put in charge of had been equipped with executive means that were at odds with the rule of law. It had the powers to charge, prosecute, and pass and carry out sentences, sending convicts to labor camps that were also run by the same authority. The Commission’s officials – paid better than in other state agencies and allowed to carry weapons – were meant to be the new and trusted personnel of the justice system.139

The Commission’s executive authority and simultaneously its core – the Warsaw-based Executive Office – took care of the more serious cases. In 1945/46, there were many multi-million zloty cases, in which the perpetrators were high-ranking state officials.140 The Commission was also involved with prominent cases such as the illegal trade in pharmaceuticals or thefts of UNRRA gifts, however small-scale. These mattered all the more in view of the fact that the Commission’s success rate in the provinces had not been that impressive.141 One does have to acknowledge, however, that those in power were realists, fully aware that on the one ← 65 | 66 → hand the illegal market posed a threat but on the other did rescue people in need. Alceo Valcini, an Italian diplomat who arrived in Warsaw in late 1945 and stayed for a year, was astounded to find how well supplied Warsaw was in comparison with starving Rome. “This abundance,” he recalled, “was eloquent testimony to the reign of chaos and lack of discipline that prevailed in Poland, and especially in Warsaw, immediately after the war. It tempted the authorities to implement drastic solutions, a temptation to which they did not succumb because these would have been resented by a part of the population, and would have had undesirable political effects in view of the unstable political situation.”142

The Commission’s first year and a half of activity was based more on pragmatism than ideology, all the more so as the cases brought before the Commission covered thirty different kinds of crimes – from hard currency and gold trading, speculation, and smuggling to sabotage, corruption and fraud – which turned out to be too much even for such a specialized and well-trained and equipped institution. The Commission’s focus turned then to easier cases such as illegal alcohol production, slaughter and tanning, and hard currency trading, which were more burdensome for both the state treasury and the average citizen. The particular characteristics of the periphery where the boundaries between the authorities and the society are always less clear (see chapter 4) and difficulties in assembling appropriate personnel made any more sophisticated activity difficult. Six months after the Commission had been established, reports from Poznań stated, “practically no member of the delegation has at their disposal even the most rudimentary information necessary to maintain adequately such an important institution as the Special Commission. They are individuals with no conception of law and order.”143 As a consequence, instead of combating fraud, the Commission often preserved the existing “ol’ boy networks”, thus guaranteeing their stability.

At the same time, it was not unusual for the Commission to engage in excessive repression or for its employees to settle private scores. Walenty Preiss, the chairman of the Szczecin delegation, who had earlier worked in the prison system, treated the Commission like a form of the Bolshevik cherezvychaika: “During an interrogation he makes the accused stand at attention a few meters away, does not allow the smallest movement; there is a handgun on his desk with the safety catch off. The interrogation usually lasts several hours (up to five) and the alternating interrogators ask the accused the very same question a hundred times even when the accused has pleaded guilty […]. At a particular ← 66 | 67 → moment, Preiss approaches the accused from behind and acts as if he is about to shoot him. Preiss uses the same methods even when dealing with witnesses and outsiders […]. Preiss’s excessive temperament has found its release in fighting smugglers. He has been in charge of field operations, often risking his own life. Blowing-off steam at the railroad station where the chairman of the delegation was personally catching women with small-time loot did nothing to lend dignity to the Commission’s image.”144

In the Łódź voivodship there was a shortage of employees authorised to conduct investigations and independently prepare the minutes.145 The Voivodship Office of Public Security (Wojewódzki Urząd Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego, WUBP) in Olsztyn tried to use the local Special Commission’s delegation for its own political ends.146 The delegation in Rzeszów was unable to cope with the smugglers.147 In the Warsaw voivodship, no-one took seriously the meat-free and cake-free (sic) days introduced by the authorities (and theoretically supervised by the Special Commission).148 In mid-May 1946, Wilhelm Garncarczyk the voivod of Warsaw complained that the war on illicit alcohol production had “so far really been a fiction. The bylaws are strict and they should be observed. The Special Commissions must join the war against moonshine and keep track of the police (Milicja Obywatelska, MO) to ensure that they do not take bribes.”149 Such actions were doomed to failure, due as much to the low level of ethics as to the low wages of the officials. For example in May 1946, a policeman from Warsaw could not present himself for duty because he had no shoes.150 Functionaries were therefore more likely to take bribes and engage in their own dealings than prosecute the black marketeers. In June 1947, the civil authorities of the Polish capital urged policemen who owned vending kiosks to “stop selling vodka and abide by the law because they are demoralizing the neighboring kiosk owners.”151 Soon enough there was no one left to be demoralized. ← 67 | 68 →

3.1.2  “We Have Won the Trade War”: 1947–1950

On July 1, 1946 the peasants were released from the compulsory submission of food provisions (świadczenia rzeczowe). It was a canny move from the propaganda point of view, but less so as far as food supplies were concerned. Now it became more difficult to induce peasants to deliver food to collection stations, especially since the cities had nothing attractive to offer – except for a modest and not very appealing choice of industrial articles; former German supplies were exhausted and UNRRA rations limited.152 To make things worse, extreme weather hit most of Europe hard in 1946 and 1947 – first came a severe winter, followed by spring flooding and summer drought. This had serious long-term consequences and led to increased tension in international relations.153 But even before nature struck, the food supply in Poland had worsened. Peasants were now consuming more, thus selling less; especially since their profit margins were improving. Free market prices, and inflation, began to grow while purchasing power was sliding; all this made the already long-suffering wage earners even worse off. The state-imposed prices ceased to have any foundation in reality, since they were set much below the cost of production, and merchants tried all they could to avoid accepting them on a scale not seen before.154 The official market was in disarray, due to profiteering that fed on ever more acute shortages, and periodical panics brought on by rumors about price hikes, a looming currency replacement, or the possibility of a new war.

These circumstances allowed the authorities, which had just “won” the parliamentary election and eliminated the legal opposition, to start dealing with the small private sector, as a pretext evoking the “righteous wrath of society”. In April 1947, during a session of the Polish Workers’ Party Central Committee (KC PPR), the blame for the market situation was put down to the excessive purchasing power of the cities, unwarranted enrichment of the peasants but mostly the “mess, disorganization, anarchy, barbarity and demoralization” of commerce.155 ← 68 | 69 → Unsurprisingly, it was traders who were first in the line of fire; they were often meted out the highest penalty available in the Special Commission’s repertoire – two years labor camp. At its session on May 6, 1947 the Commission announced that it would embark on a “path of strict coercion in order to deter speculators”. The Special Commission sought permission to impose huge fines (up to five million zloty) and to close down the black marketeers’ stores.156 The Special Commission received all those powers (and more157), based on the Act of June 2, 1947 on Combating High Prices and Excessive Profits in Trade. Together with other Acts passed on that day,158 it became a foundation of the “battle for trade”.

Warsaw, 1 May 1947, propaganda banner of the Special Commission for Combating Economic Fraud and Corruption on the route of the parade; photo from the archives of the Polish Press Agency (PAP).


The Special Commission played a major role in this battle. The administrative authorities, which until then had been able to mete out legal penalties, were now expected to do no more than “cooperate in unveiling crimes liable to prosecution ← 69 | 70 → by the special commissions.”159 During the Fourth Convention of the Special Commission that took place on June 16, 1947 it became clear that “combating speculation is now the most important economic issue in the country. Following the war, speculation has become a mass phenomenon in Poland and it threatens the economic balance of the State”.160 All the members of the Commission (925 in 1947 and 1 300 by 1949) were suddenly removed from their on-going tasks and without any special preparation sent out to inspect the mostly private stores, which at that time constituted 90% of all stores.161 By the end of the year, more than 70 thousand public controllers162 had inspected 213 353 retail sales premises and prepared 45 thousand penalty reports. The outcome was that almost 22 thousand people received fines totaling more than 531 million zloty. 1 850 people were sent to labor camps (where the conditions were made drastically harsher).163 The fast pace continued in the following year when 153 thousand people participated in more than 23 700 control actions. They inspected 455 400 stores (some repeatedly) and wrote 77 744 criminal reports.164

The Commission was becoming an increasingly convenient and specialized tool, used to suit the government’s immediate needs. It was involved in all new areas of the battle – against wholesale and retail trade, against the agricultural products (mostly meat) trade, against the skilled trades, against private commerce (or what was left of it) and artisans, who at this point operated illegally. The sheer numbers of those sent to labor camps clearly showed the trend. When the Commission’s focus shifted to small trade, the number of people sent to the camps for black marketing rose from 518 in 1947 to 1 072 in 1949. First in the line of fire was the illegal trade in industrial articles. By the end of 1948, in a propaganda effort intended to demonstrate a semblance of normalization, the Commission proudly announced that “only a very limited range” of industrial articles was now subject to speculation.”165 It was also for this reason that rationing was abolished with effect from January 1, 1949, as was the circular of December ← 70 | 71 → 29, 1948, which recommended the use of fines and advised mass arrests only in the “most glaring cases”.166

At the turn of 1948 and 1949, this provision applied mainly to meat supply. When the worst meat crisis since the war came in September 1948, the authorities began to tackle the meat trade, which remained mostly in private hands. In the fall, they unleashed a press campaign, accompanied by stringent control of butcher stores. The government had been clandestinely working on its “H” (husbandry) legislation, which it launched on January 28, 1949. Again, the Commission rose to the challenge: whilst in 1947 no-one was sent to the camp for illegal slaughter, in 1948 there were already 314 arrests and in 1949 – the number soared to 2 119.167

As long as the targets of the Commission were the black market tycoons, it had reasonable support from the public. As soon, however, as it started to poke around in the pots and pockets (and lives) of ordinary people, who were simply trying to survive, it came to be seen as a typical state institution, an object of hate. The labor camps, supposedly intended to put away and re-educate the “enemies of the people” – black marketeers, now started to fill with ordinary folk. “In the camp [Mielęcin],” stated an anonymous letter sent to the Ministry of Justice in December 1947, “80 to 90% [of the prisoners] belong to the proletariat and land up in the camp because of the difficult economic situation.”168 If the number of anonymous letters is a measure of social trust and faith in the effectiveness of the state, the flurry of denunciations diminished in step with the change of operational mode implemented by the Special Commission: in 1946 – private letters constituted 28.3% of all reports, in 1947 – 8.8%, in 1948 – 6.5%, and in 1949 – only 2.3%.169

The revolution devours its own children. Nor was the Special Commission spared. It had been effective at the time that the communists seizing power but, once the state’s structures had become entrenched, it began to interfere more than help. A state, and especially a totalitarian state, cannot have two prosecuting institutions simultaneously (in this case, the Special Commission and the State Prosecutor’s Office). These two Polish institutions in were in direct competition with each other. This led to the paradoxical situation that other organizations were free to pick which of the two institutions it wanted to deal with crimes committed within their own structures. The Commission was generally the preferred ← 71 | 72 → option for a good reason: the sentences that it passed were lighter than those that would be delivered by the courts.170 The Act of July 20, 1950 redefined the powers of the Polish Republic’s Prosecutor’s Office, stripping the Special Commission of its investigative and prosecution functions as well as of the right to accept reports of crimes directly from citizens. The Commission was left with dealing with cases that had already gone through the prosecutor’s office and with meting out the sentences, be they a fine, confiscation of assets, or a labor camp sentence. All these options were made use of, especially since – beside sentences for dealing on the black market, illegal slaughter and tanning, taking benefits in kind or clandestine distilling – the Commission also passed judgment in political cases. Whereas between 1945 and 1950, the Commission sent to the camps some 25 thousand people, between 1951 and 1954, the number more than doubled to 59.5 thousand.171

`As late as June 1954, the General Prosecutor approvingly described the Commission as a “sharp instrument of the class struggle created to implement harsh and quick penal repression”;172 as such, it had made a lasting impact in the delivery of the coercive state. Once the state became less repressive, however, the Commission had to go. The decree disbanding the Special Commission was issued on December 23, 1954. What was left was the personnel (indeed, many Special Commission functionaries embarked on successful careers also after 1956), the memory (both collective and institutional) and a lesson to learn that an institution like that is useful as long as it does not go “over the top”: it is fine to combine invigilation and prosecution in one body but sentencing should be left to others.173

3.2  Intermedium I: 1950–1956

Both the curtailing of the Commission’s powers in 1950 and the disbanding of it in 1954 were explained on the grounds of the supposedly stabilizing economic situation and diminishing number of prosecutions. This was no more than wishful thinking. The black market is like a flu virus: under favorable conditions, it rapidly develops new mutations, resistant to the most sophisticated vaccines. Even the hard currency and gold trade, heavily persecuted and drastically ← 72 | 73 → penalized, did not disappear but rather went deeper underground, giving rise to new, fancier, and authority-resistant strategies. Smuggling, illegal slaughter and alcohol production followed suit.174

Just as had happened under the German occupation, the oppressiveness of the state and systemic shortages precipitated the emergence of a black market-based society, in which the creation of social capital and multi-branched networks of dependency were geared mostly towards the acquisition of goods unavailable on the market. Again, the market supply worsened to the point that in the middle of 1951, food stamps for basic articles were re-introduced (and remained until the beginning of 1953).175 Industrial goods, coal, and construction materials were unofficially rationed during that time, using special coupons and allocations. The rapacious redenomination of the currency in October 1950, which in one fell swoop wiped out two thirds of Poles’ savings, completely destroyed their trust in the national currency and inspired spending rather than saving.176 And the constant fear of a new war, prevalent in the early 1950s, coupled with periodic runs on shops, encouraged stockpiling.

On the one hand, all these goings-on intensified the war on profiteering, on the other – they fostered the development of illegal commerce. At the same time, the Polish black market diversified. On the one side there were the experienced and highly specialized, wily operators, who had often undergone their baptism of fire during wartime; they kept a low profile and were cautiously adjusting themselves to the new circumstances, with networks of intermediaries at their disposal often outside of Poland, for example in Berlin or in port cities such as Szczecin or Gdynia. On the other side were the non-professionals; they only made occasional sallies into the black market and treated illicit trade as an additional source of income to eke out the hunger-level state wages.177 The nationalized industries created a new re-distribution channel, readily available to a multitude of participants – from those employed in wholesale to transport and retail store workers. As a result, everyone who got a chance to do so was dealing on the black market, regardless of their position or income. At the beginning of 1950, there were three phenomena involved in the “chain trade”: buying goods at state-owned stores, then re-selling them on the free market or to the private ← 73 | 74 → retail stores, and re-customizing or repackaging goods for retail trade.178 The risk taken was cost-effective, considering that at the beginning of the 1950s there was a fourfold differential in price between retail stores and local marketplaces. Exchanging goods for food products in rural areas and distributing them in the cities was also highly advantageous.179

Taking the wind out of the black marketeers’ sails was one of the pretexts for the drastic price hike implemented on January 3, 1953, which almost equalized the retail and black market prices. The price increase, aimed at emptying citizens’ pockets instead of reforming the market, changed little. A mere two months later, the decree on the protection of the interests of buyers enhanced the impact of the resolutions of the Act of June 2, 1947 that had combated high prices by introducing more severe sanctions with obligatory prison sentences, which could not be substituted by a fine. “All acts that interfere with the trade in goods with the motive of profiteering” were subject to prosecution and punishment.180

The decree was tailored to purge small-time retailers. Meanwhile, talented entrepreneurs soon realized that the centralized and nationalized economy was a true Eldorado and a potential source of enormous profits. If one knew where to invest and was also familiar with the law and skilled in filling the pockets of corrupt functionaries, one could operate successfully and safely for a long time. Between 1954 and 1957, a Warsaw resident, one Stefania Husiatyńska, together with eleven partners in crime, successfully managed to run a foreign trade enterprise in Warsaw. They “received nylons from the USA and England, which they exchanged for cash and then gave the money to families in Poland indicated by their bosses in the USA”.181 The group’s turnover was estimated at 36.5 million zloty, the profit – at 14 million zloty.182 This story was not an exception.

Husiatyńska (and those who ran similar operations) avoided as a rule any contacts with official structures, with the exception of the postal and custom services. The Stalinist state allowed its citizens quite a large margin of (economic) ← 74 | 75 → latitude, whether due to omission, neglect, corruption and inability to control everything or deliberately as a result of its dependency on the economic activity of the public players. A case of a certain Mr. Kowarski is a good example here. Mr. Kowarski, who had acquired some capital by trading hard currency in 1953, “organized near Warsaw an illegal production of fruit juices necessary to manufacture wine. The business was set up as a regular enterprise. Kowarski kept accounts and paid his workers and clerks modest wages. However, the business was not registered and did not pay tax.183 Kowarski’s business thrived to such an extent that he was soon able to buy a farm, then add or rent orchards, developing his own production, which practically monopolized the supply. By 1956 he had sold to the state products worth approximately 50 million zloty.184

Often, this “inter-sector cooperation”, which was allowed by the law, would turn into more or less hidden privatization of the state. Managers soon noticed that by using the existing legislation, which afforded considerable flexibility to all kinds of cooperatives (permitting for example purchases outside of the state channels), one could scoop up nice profits as a middleman. It is hardly surprising that such cooperatives “became hotbeds of a variety of private profiteers, in the process losing the character of nationalized enterprises.”185 This was skillful brokerage, and effectively drained the state’s less-than-bottomless coffers. It is worth providing a detailed illustration of how the mechanism of a typical, large-scale speculation from the first half of the 1950s functioned, even if this necessitates quoting at length:

The profiteers, (from all over Poland, and especially from Łódź, the northern region of Kurpie, the mountainous southern region of Podhale, and the southern counties of the Lublin district) bought, on a mass scale, cottage industry products such as homespun cloth, wadding, and others. The basic material for the production of homespun cloth was wool that came from the farms of individual peasants or else had been stolen from state textile plants. The profiteers delivered the textiles, wadding and other materials to tailors working from home who made coats and other ready-to-wear clothing. The profiteers also bought from the state-owned retail stores haberdashery and various household items, to which they “added value” with the help of their cottage industry workers and then (often without bothering to “add” any value at all) sold for wholesale prices to the state-owned stores or coop stores at a huge profit. ← 75 | 76 →

A certain hierarchy was born within this procedure – from small, local black marketeers who hoarded or purchased supply straight from the cottagers to the profiteers acquiring large amount of goods […]. The latter put them on the market and were paid in cash.

Disregarding the bans and limitations, the profiteers usually disposed of the goods through the stores of the Consumers’ Cooperative (Powszechna Spółdzielnia Spożywców, PSS), and other multi-branch coops, and also to a smaller degree in the Community Cooperative (GS) stores. They could take advantage of the regulations, which between 1953 and 1955 allowed PSS outlets to buy goods from private individuals in certain circumstances (such as shortages in the state-owned wholesalers or in coops). The rules of the workers’ cooperatives (auxiliary, handicapped and others) permitted the buying of resources and “other products” necessary for their own production from decentralized sources.

Since the cooperatives had limited opportunities for using the purchased products or resources in production, and had difficulties disposing of them in their retail stores (in the case of the GS and the PSS), they embarked on re-selling them to other trade enterprises. The profiteers delivered the goods – and paid the bribes – directly to these enterprises (usually the MHD, the CPLiA, the Centrogal, and similar chains), received the receipts and accepted new orders for the board of the cooperative designated by the profiteer. After recording in the books the fictitious purchase and re-sale transaction, the management of the coop made payments to the profiteer in cash either via their own cashier or via the National Bank of Poland (NBP). Subsequently, the payment due was levied from the state trade enterprise by a bank transfer. Beside the state trade enterprises, the Polish State Railroad (PKP), coal mines, construction material suppliers, mills and meat processing plants were among the recipients of goods sold via the profiteers’ re-invoicing.”186

In a similar way, hundreds of tons of cement, steel products, and means of transportation were turned over. The profits from such operations, after deducting the costs (which included huge bribes), were estimated at millions of zlotys.

As ever, the only cases that we are aware of are those exposed by prosecutions. Between the second half of 1954 and February 1956, six hundred people were under investigation (no doubt, the tip of the iceberg – it is quite impossible to assess the size of the entire iceberg); half of them were arrested – and 40% were members of the Communist Party. At the beginning of 1956, Polish trade was corrupted to such a degree that “one could only buy the more attractive products from black marketeers or acquaintances that worked in state trade or by paying a ← 76 | 77 → bribe, typically 10% of the price of the product.”187 No exception was Toruń, where in 1956 there was allegedly “not a single trade or service enterprise, where the management had not been arrested or prosecuted for profiteering.”188 According to cautious estimates (excluding smuggling, illegal tanning, slaughter, distilling etc.), in 1956, the illegal income of Poles constituted more than 8% of the national income (21.4 billion out of 256.7 billion zloty).189 This was only a prelude to the next year’s events.

3.3  Team I (and II): 1957 (and Later)

The political, economic and social problems, which crawled out of the Polish Pandora’s box in 1956, gave sleepless nights to those in power, especially in the first months of 1957. The brutally suppressed Poznań riots of June 1956 were what prised open this particular Pandora’s box. The weakened authorities tried to stifle the subsequent conflagration. They did it against the urgent pressure of unfolding events; their method of choice was to throw money at the emerging problems, which was disastrous for the unstable economy and the leaky market. In 1956, the purchasing power of wages began to climb (for the next such boom, Poles would have to wait until 1971, when it went on until 1975). In 1956 alone, the payroll budget rose by as much as 17.7% and peasants’ income by 20.4%.190 And that without including illicit earnings!

Increased cash flow stimulated market demand but despite the government flooding the official market with goods before they were informally rationed, such as radio sets, motorcycles and citrus fruit, Polish wallets continued to bulge with an excess of “hot” money.191 The reason was that consumers had become choosier; they were unwilling to buy the usual shoddy goods that had littered the stores for weeks. By 1956, it had been noted that the needs of the Polish customer had gotten more sophisticated, both in respect of food products and material goods. In mid-1956 it was noted that the “consumer now demands prettier, more aesthetically appealing products of higher quality, as well as modern and fashionable, which industry does not deliver in satisfying quantities either because of technical difficulties or due ← 77 | 78 → to its total disregard of customer demand.”192 Not much changed in 1957; consumers continued to buy some products only “out of necessity or because they could not afford anything better.”193 Not only were the goods available in nationalized stores usually shoddily made but they were also very expensive. Anyone fashion-conscious and anyone who gave a fig about quality and design went shopping in the incredibly popular “ciuchy” flea-market, or visited the network of “komis” sale-or-return stores (which were rapidly expanding, especially since March 1957 when the anonymous purchasing of supplies was introduced), turning to the state distributors only as a last resort.194

The unfulfilled demand was only one of the factors that drove the rapid growth of the black market in 1956 and 1957. The decriminalization of the operations of private craftsmen and private trade had many different consequences. Private entrepreneurs needed resources, goods, semi-finished products, machinery, and tools. They found it difficult to acquire them legally so would turn to a gamut of illicit solutions.195 Sometimes the method of choice was simply theft from the state sector. At other times entrepreneurs had to run complex trade operations requiring much capital, including hard currency, and excellent knowledge of the market, including the non-Polish market. For foreign products they paid with foreign currency, most often acquired on the black market. Selling the manufactured product was not much easier. Usually the best solution was to find a state or coop trading partner. It often required corrupting a state official or store manager.

Those on both sides of the transaction rarely showed any moral qualms. No reader can doubt that by now that the authorities had no such considerations; as for the entrepreneurs, who could now operate legally, they had not rid themselves of the underhand ways and clandestine habits practiced in the recent past. In mid-1957, even the conservative Krakovians bemoaned the absence in the reviving private sector of honest businesses based on pre-war tradition and complained about the “post-war, newcomer speculators, determined to siphon off a significant part of the national income.”196 The press wrote: “many people ← 78 | 79 → without any serious capital, experience, or qualifications have rushed into commerce. They evaluated the economic situation as uncertain, new economic policy as short-term and counted on quick profits, not planning any long-term operations. In their favor was legislation passed by the Ministry of Interior Trade on the re-instatement of travelling salesmen. Such are the people who constitute the core of the profiteers: discharged administration personnel and former door-to-door salesmen. They deal in goods purchased from nationalized stores or in foreign goods, the easiest to come by.”197

The private, mostly illegal, foreign trade erupted and spread like wildfire. Whereas previously it had been next to impossible to travel beyond the borders of Poland, now the gates to freedom opened a little wider and relaxed passport regulations encouraged Poles to travel in their masses. Emigration, mostly of Jews and Germans, increased as did the repatriation of Poles from the countries to the east of Poland; contacts with the Polish diaspora abroad (the “Polonia”) intensified – this all added to the cross-border traffic. In 1957, as many as 59 thousand people travelled to the West as tourists, compared with only 14 thousand a year earlier! Trips to the capitalist and Soviet Bloc countries were “tourist” only in name – usually they were connected with trade activities (see chapter 9).198 Professional smugglers now also had better “work opportunities” and could operate on a truly large scale. Hard currency, Polish currency, silver and objects of art were leaving Poland; the imports were gold coins, watches, nylons, and clothing. Just a single speculator, one Mieczysław Dudek, between October 1956 and March 1957 sent to Vienna 40 thousand dollars, 400 kg of silver, and 2 400 000 zloty, receiving in return 11 thousand Swiss watches.199

It was not difficult to sell even luxury goods smuggled into Poland. The demand was enormous. The small but fast growing fortunes of the black marketeers had to be invested quickly – the memory of the savage currency redenomination ← 79 | 80 → in 1950 was still fresh. There was high demand for objects that were stores of value, such as jewelry, watches, and gold coins (which from 1956 could once again be owned legally). Construction of single-family homes was on the rise, fueling demand for construction materials. The sales of automobiles increased and were quickly followed by the illegal sale of gas (the appearance of speculation in cars was noted in 1957).

At first, the black market operations were relatively safe and, to a large extent, helped by society’s open-minded attitude. “People are used to the black market and it doesn’t bother them in everyday life, even if some complain,” a diarist noted in 1957. “We are used to backstreet shopping. People have also got used to the fact that those with modest earnings lead luxurious life styles, buy cars or even build villas. The atmosphere of tolerance is accompanied by a sense of impunity. The profiteers […] feel quite safe among us. Snitching happens rarely”.200 Even when it did, especially after October 1956, there was a good chance that the authorities would ignore incriminating information. The police, earlier accused of brutality or lawlessness, played it safe by restraining their more radical actions, often to the point of idleness. “The incorrect approach to tackling [the abuses of] the previous period,” the Warsaw District Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party complained in 1957, “and the relatively great influx of cases in relation to the number of employees […] further formalized the prosecution proceedings.”201 The police were accused of trying not to “harm” the suspect, of being skeptical about the evidence and often uncritical towards the suspect and their defense.202 Ultimately, the “condemnation of severe sentences issued in the past had led in some cases to much too lenient punishments”203 and until the second half of 1957 “many actions considered criminal before were no longer prosecuted, such as […] obligatory deliveries, general profiteering, etc.”204 The courts and the prosecutor’s office trod lightly. Reality made it clear that the existing legislation was unable to categorize some of the black market activities as criminal; as a result, prosecutions were often dropped.205

Neither did the regulatory institutions have much sway. The National Trade Inspectorate (Państwowa Inspekcja Handlowa PIH) had no powers to inspect ← 80 | 81 → production, especially that of the cooperatives and crafts. Often, it was the hostility of people openly siding with the profiteers that was more of a problem for the Inspectorate’s employees than the actual fraud. The Commissions for Combating Corruption and Fraud in Trade (Komisje do Walki ze Spekulacją i Nadużyciami w Handlu KWS) operating at the National Councils based their operations on the activists and, in the revolutionized atmosphere of late 1956 and early 1957 stood practically no chance of functioning effectively. Paradoxical as it may seem, the National Trade Inspectorate (PIH) itself contributed to the demise of the said Commissions, even though it was its official brief to direct them. The professional inspectors would no longer hide their negative attitude toward their “amateur” colleagues whom they considered a hindrance rather than a help.206

It is not surprising that the black market, built up for many years, now rapidly provided a foundation for a solid structure. In 1957, the number of economic crimes detected in Warsaw rose by 26% in comparison with the previous year. There were numerous cases involving large amounts of capital and profit. For the authorities, the black market operations had both economic, especially with regard to the “distribution of the national product”,207 and political repercussions. They shook the foundations of the system and brought about an economic diversification of society. Krzysztof Madej noted that, in its own way, the Gomułka government had tried to acknowledge the rule of law.208

By early 1957, the new administration had entrenched itself sufficiently to begin to quench the hopes awakened during the thaw and trim the existing margins of freedom. What it needed, however, was a proxy enemy that could distract society. The “kulaks and reactionaries” were now bogeymen of the past but the profiteers fit perfectly the role of Public Enemy No. 1, particularly since cases of conspicuous wealth stuck out like a sore thumb against the widespread poverty and grayness. In the spring of 1957, the anti-black market rhetoric in the press and elsewhere began to resemble the “battle for trade” campaign of the past. JacekWołowski wrote in Nowe Drogi: “The battle against fraud, bribery and profiteering is the battle that the government and society need to fight. Appropriate decrees are necessary. Public opinion demands fair sentences but we also need a wide and active social inspection (national councils, workers councils, and the unions).”209 Debates on the topic swamped the media. Some called for restraint ← 81 | 82 → and argued that, with the improving economy and supply, the black market would disappear – but they were outnumbered by those who were in favor of the traditional approaches such as control, prosecution and severe punishment. More importantly, the authorities themselves also had faith in the saving grace of institutionalized repression.

In mid-March 1957, the press reported that the government was working on establishing a team at the Prime Minister’s office to co-ordinate a wide front (of professional and social institutions) for the war on the black market.210 One can assume that the debate conducted on May 3, 1957 by Warsaw economic activists was representative of the whole country. The consensus of the meeting was to maintain private trade (although not necessarily in city centers) but was adamantly against “all attempts by speculators to conduct black market operations under the label of crafts (rzemiosło), and against the diversion of goods produced in state or coop factories in order to line the profiteers’ pockets, thereby depriving the state of part of the national income.”211 Some speakers opted for bringing back the public “commissions for combating corruption and fraud in trade”, which were still active in some areas, albeit on their last legs, and spoke in favor of energizing the labor unions but most of all for obligatory participation in the battle by Party members, for whom fighting the profiteers should be an “important part of the class struggle on the economic front”.212 The pragmatists were less than impressed; they reckoned that the public activists might be able to encourage housewives to get involved in inspecting markets and stores, but would be helpless when faced with seasoned profiteers. “Comrade Directors,” they argued, “keep sending out as inspectors not the best but the worst employees. Often, instead of carrying out the inspection, they go somewhere else. They quickly jot down some negative conclusions, take a stroll around the city, then come back, and return their report convinced that they have fulfilled their party duty.”213 The participants agreed that the most important issue was not ineffective inspection but the lack of updated legislation, which would serve both as a deterrent and a tool facilitating the punishment of “economic criminals”.214

This two-pronged approach was indeed implemented. In May 1957, the Politburo established regional commissions to combat profiteering. On May 23, 1957, the Council of Ministers issued a decree to set them up in a traditional manner, ← 82 | 83 → attached to the county, municipal, and city district presidiums.215 Simultaneously, the Polish parliament (Sejm) was working on an anti-profiteering decree and passed it on July 13.216 Taking advantage of the relative freedom of speech still existed, the debate on the decree spread outside the corridors of parliament, government and Party offices. Not all newspapers were prepared to echo the positive tone of the Party newspapers Trybuna Ludu and Nowe Drogi. Some did not hide their skepticism. They criticized the decree for its lack of consistency,217 and pointed out the senselessness of fighting the black market with punishments and court sentences rather than aiming for economic normality.218 The journalist Józef Kuśmierek went even farther by pointing out the absurdity of the “battle with the black market”, which “slowly saturates our whole political life and which has already become a new political theory, an almost conservative dogma.”219

There was no unanimity on whose job it should be to combat economic crime. Some, analyzing the events of the previous year, doubted if the police and the Prosecutor’s Office would be able to rise to the challenges of “organized crime”, against which, wrote Władysław Kopaliński, “one should act in an organized way. There should be an institution, which would systematically combine experience and facts […]. I don’t have in mind, however, those extraordinary or special commissions but a permanent institution, whose job it would be to supply the investigative authorities with indispensable information about the object of the crime.”220 There were others who were, though, of the opinion that the state already had at its disposal sufficient apparatus to deal with the profiteers. “I would like to point out quietly,” wrote Jerzy Milewski in Kierunki, “that there already exists in Poland an institution with a Latin-sounding name, charged with ← 83 | 84 → prosecuting crime. It is the Prosecutor’s Office of the Polish People’s Republic. Auxiliary organs such as the National Trade Inspectorate and […] the Citizens’ Police [the state police] cooperate with the Prosecutor’s Office.”221

A large section of society took with a large pinch of salt yet another ‘anti-fraud commission’ set up in 1957. In the cartoon by Zbigniew Ziomecki, The Economic Underground, an apparatchik from such a commission asks the workers, “If you happen upon any trace of the economic underground, do please let us know.” “Szpilki”, nos. 51–52 of 22–29 December 1957 (courtesy of the author)


← 84 | 85 →

The pragmatic approach and common sense pointed to the latter solution. This required time, however, and the authorities were after a quick and spectacular success. On August 39, 1957, by an edict of Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz, the Teams for Combating Corruption and Economic Fraud (Zespoły do Spraw Zwalczania Spekulacji i Nadużyć Gospodarczych) were created. The Central Team was at the Prime Minister office; the chairmen of the Voivodship National Councils (WRN) nominally governed the regional sections. The main goal of the headquarters was to co-ordinate the methods and direction of the ministries and institutions “established to prosecute profiteering and fraud” (since October 3, 1957, this had included all economic crimes). The headquarters mapped out the projects and drafted the motions requiring government decisions, and supervised the regional teams. Konstanty Dąbrowski, the Minister of State Inspection (Ministerstwo Kontroli Państwowej) and, following its dismantling, the president of the Supreme Audit Office NIK, became the chairman of the Prime Minister’s team. Its members were the deputy minister of interior trade, the Chief of the Police (Komendant Główny MO), representatives of the Ministry of Justice and Finance, the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General, the Central Committee of the PUWP/PZRP, the Main Council of the Trade Unions (CRZZ), Społem, Farmers Self-Help, Samopomoc Chłopska, the youth organizations, and the Women’s League.222 The structure of the regional teams reflected that of the Central Team: it was headed by the WRN chairman, with the president of the District Court, the prosecutor, the chairman of the NIK delegation and the Voivodship Chief of Police as team members.

The structure of the teams was expected to facilitate the execution of the basic tasks of the teams: the intensification of legal penalties, the strengthening of the enforcement apparatus (including the re-animated Commissions for Combating Corruption), and in the most newsworthy cases the expediting of court decisions. The teams focused on the most visible and easiest to prove crimes – “goods profiteering”. Naturally, this focus resulted in increased scrutiny of private enterprise. However, the teams needed “big operations”, which would demonstrate the effectiveness both of the new decree and the newly established teams. On September 26, 1957, some 700 policemen and employees of the regulation enforcement bodies participated in the roundup at the Bazar Różyckiego marketplace in Warsaw. On September 29 and 30, the “largest-scale enforcement operation since its inception” was conducted in the CDT Main Department Store in Warsaw. The sting revealed major “speculation leaks”, especially in the high-end fur ← 85 | 86 → department, whose target clientele were certainly not ordinary people. Despite press articles hailing the confiscation of hundreds of sacks of illegal goods at marketplaces, actual results on the ground were much more modest. And no amount of obfuscation could hide the fact that the first anniversary of October 56 followed a year that had been less than successful both economically and politically (bearing in mind the riots that had followed the shutting-down of Po Prostu magazine).223

In second-hand goods street markets, people tussled excitedly over coveted Western fashion items and any clothes that looked markedly “foreign” – which was the highest accolade for a piece of clothing, and was in fact a euphemism for “Western”. The inspectors’ own “clothes battles” usually ended in Pyrrhic victories, the illegal trade resuming the moment the inspectors left. Moreover, the dealers could easily reach a mutually beneficial consensus with the inspectors. “The war on profiteering and the profiteering live side happily by side”, wrote Józef Kuśmierek. “One can buy anything and everything on the black market, for almost none of the attractive goods is available legally. As for the profiteering-enforcement squads, they will buy lemons for their rickety children in plain sight and legally on the illegal market as soon as they have finished their public inspection round.”224 Whilst voivodship-level achievements were easier to demonstrate – for instance, the questioning of light sentences passed by the county courts, checking the licenses of private stores and restaurants and imposing on them the appropriate taxes (in Warszawa, Szczecin, Wrocław, Kielce), or combating the “marketplace black market”,225 attempts to activate the teams at county level were not successful. County teams were usually left to their own devices; not only were their employees poorly paid but at all times subject to local scrutiny, which at times resulted in physical assaults on the inspectors. And without any means of transport at their disposal, unsurprisingly, they “did not develop effective methods”.226

More and more frequently it had to be admitted that the battles coordinated by the teams were a fiction. Only small fry were arrested, whereas “most of the black marketeers keep selling meat on the side, deal in goods purchased at nationalized stores, and sell clothes door-to-door”.227 The workplaces – under a formal obligation to delegate public inspectors – as a rule sent out their ← 86 | 87 → “unsophisticated, lowest-qualified employees, just so that the onerous formalities and ‘feudal’ duties were fulfilled.”228 People were reluctant to join the commission, since it required time-consuming post-enforcement procedures involving the prosecution, court, testimonies, etc. – all the more so if the case was found to have merit. And, after all, refusal to participate did not entail any serious consequences.229 In 1959 in Praga Północ, a large, and not very safe, district of Warsaw, from 31 plants only 148 public inspectors volunteered, despite interventions by Party organizations.230 Unsurprisingly, many of the cases uncovered and documented by the inspectors were not followed up “due to irregularities in the filing of charges, securing of evidence and other infringements”.231 When the head of the team took his tasks seriously (as was the case in Wrocław), those interested in maintaining the status quo tried to get rid of him by accusing him of corruption.232 Even after his acquittal, an air of ambiguity remained, effectively pre-empting any future anti-black market initiatives on his part.

In mid-1959, exactly two years after the start of the anti-black market offensive, it became clear that economic crime activities were not showing any downward trend. Crimes were being committed “within groups with a mutual understanding involving people who should have been keeping an eye on each other.”233 Faced with robust local social networks, both the anti-profiteering Act of July 1957 and the actions of various commissions and teams proved ineffectual; in fact, it was the police (MO) and the apparatus of state control that detected the majority of offences.234 The era of professionalism had arrived. The police and the Trade Inspectorate (the latter often rejected any attempts to be part of the public control teams) as well as the highest offices of the government understood this very well. The resolution of the Third Congress of the Polish United Workers’ Party in March 1959 declared that the “protection of public property requires the implementation of harsher measures” and that, for the Party, a “constant battle ← 87 | 88 → against the plague of fraud is of utmost importance as is instilling in the public a sense of the indefatigable hammering of corruption and thievery.”235 What the resolution did not mention, however, was that this goal should be achieved by using “social” tools, that is – community input. Even the former apologists of the anti-black market legislation from 1957, two years later were much more restrained in their pronouncements and pointed to legal infringements, incompatibilities with the criminal code, ambiguities and doubts.236 They stressed that the cutting edge of a decree forged in haste “is quickly blunted”.237 Nevertheless, the legislation remained in use until a new criminal code was introduced in 1969 (the decree was repealed in 1972).238 The teams and commissions were finally disbanded by the end of the 1950s.

3.3.1  Excursus: Team II

As pointed out earlier, in the investigations of economic crime conducted from mid-1954 until February 1956, members of the PUWP made up some 40% of all those arrested. These were not some rank-and-file activists from the local, regional committees but usually leading Party apparatchiks, who held “positions of power”239 – managers, directors, and chairmen. Whether in the metropolises or small, provincial towns, a Party membership card was a ticket to a higher position and provided a greater scope of action for the holder, while also providing him with a protective umbrella. While an average black marketeer was a small-time trader, party members were typically involved in large-scale theft, corruption, and embezzlement,240 activities that fall outside of the proposed field of research of the present work. Nevertheless, we ought to refer briefly to the discrete team set up between 1957 and 1958 to combat crime among Party members. It is difficult to make a firm distinction between the different types of profiteering, especially since it often involved both the public and the private sector. It was, however, unique in the history of communist Poland that a formal body was set up to deal exclusively with the wrong-doings of Party members. ← 88 | 89 →

Until at least the 1960s, black-marketeers were depicted as a cross between hoodlum and petit-bourgeois, with workers shown fighting them. Jan Sochacki, Speculator, 1959. Photo: Warsaw Museum of Caricature, sign. 4302.


On October 31, 1957 the Central Committee of the PUWP appointed the Team for Combating Fraud and Corruption, (Zespół do Walki z Nadużyciami i Korupcją), with Jerzy Albrecht at the helm; the team had voivodship, municipal, county, and city district branches. Its goal was to “cleanse sections of state and economy administration of corrupted and criminal elements.”241 With no sources available on the actual process, we can only speculate about how the teams were set up. The economic context was bound to have played a part, since we know how much the ← 89 | 90 → economy and what he considered its pathologies mattered to Gomułka. All the more so, since the numbers of corruption cases, inflicting tangible, and increasing, losses on the state sector systematically increased. Only radical action could put an end to the growing anarchy in the ranks of the PUWP, tighten discipline and abate the mood of “liberalism and helplessness in the executive bodies set up to prosecute economic crimes.”242 Their aim was two-pronged: to calm the mood of the lower echelons of the Party – which, emboldened by the events of October 56 – had ever since, more and more openly, criticized the abuses and irregularities. But it was also important to prove, especially now that the end of the “thaw” was in sight, how uncompromising the leading ideology of the state was capable of being, also towards its own members. Far be it from me to indulge in a conspiracy version of history but one cannot exclude the possibility that the spur to action came from the Party’s desire to get rid of its negative image by washing its own dirty linen, or at least selecting the items for the laundry, away from public scrutiny.

The teams consisted of members of various rungs of the Party administration, in particular, those employed in the Prosecutor’s Office, the judiciary system, state security services, the Police, the Trade Inspectorate and Treasury security as well as Party activists from major factories, Party members within the Union of Socialist Youth (ZMS), the Union of Rural Youth (ZMW), and the trade unions. The teams were to focus on “Party organizations active in trade, restaurants and catering establishments, in construction, on State Agricultural Farms (PGR), and in institutions and enterprises in close contact with ‘private initiative’”243 – as all private enterprise was referred to. It was not an easy task. Even when the Party auditors tried to carry out their duties thoroughly, they usually hit a brick wall built by the local cliques. Insiders were fully aware that only through solidarity would they be able to wait out the actions of the Party’s cherezvychaika. For example, members of the “economic activist group” in City Meat Trade (Miejski Handel Mięsem) in Chorzów “organized a clandestine meeting […] and swore an oath that in case of an investigation, [they would] not wreck the situation […] and all put up their hands to swear they would not snitch on one another.”244 The teams at the regional committees were so passive that by mid-1958, the Secretariat of the Central Committee remarked on it in a special circular.245 This is not to ← 90 | 91 → say that there was no resistance in the big cities. For example in Warsaw, where “absolutely no one is in charge of the fraud-fighting team”, by the end of 1957 only eight cases out of a hundred had been investigated. In the Old Town district of Warsaw and in the city center not a single case had been pursued; the situation was similar in Łódź.246

In spite of the lack of prosecution, by April 15, 1 958 charges had been laid against approximately 14 thousand party members. Of those, 9 112 were sentenced, 5 809 excluded from the party and 3 280 – reprimanded. In 3 255 cases, there was an attempt to remove the targeted members from their position (it is unknown how many were indeed removed); 4 020 cases ended up at the Prosecutor’s Office.247 Some were of the opinion that the teams had uncovered too much, while others thought it was not enough. What is certain, however, is that the fraud-fighting teams became dangerous – a double edged weapon. With effect from the spring of 1958, the representatives of prosecuting bodies (the police, the Prosecutor’s Office) could no longer be part of the teams (and let us not forget that it was the police who uncovered and reported most of the cases).248 By mid-1958, the teams had been transformed into advisory bodies operating within the voivodship and regional Party committees, and from that moment on did not have any real impact.

While much has been written on the anti-profiteering commissions from the 1945–1954 and 1981–1987, very scant source material remains concerning the post-October 1956 commissions. This was not so much due to the efforts of overactive archivists to remove the relevant files but rather the absence of documentation reflected the lack of any real significance of the teams and commissions operating after 1957. There were several reasons. The modus operandi used during the times of chaos and brutal compulsory nationalization of the economy, which accompanied the formation of the totalitarian structures of the state, did not work in times heralded as a return to the rule of law. The fact that the ‘rule of law’ was no longer an empty phrase had given society a real chance to defend itself.

A certain reversal of roles had taken place. After 1956, Polish society found itself on the revolutionary, and the authorities on the “reactionary” side of the barricade. As a result, the authorities could no longer use methods from the revolutionary repertory without appearing anachronistic. Such methods were ← 91 | 92 → tolerated when store shelves were empty and people desperate. The shortages of the late 1950s were limited to more attractive articles, which were at the time considered luxury items. The average citizen was now more likely to be improving his strategies for laying his hands on desirable goods rather than engaging in anti-profiteering activities. The prevailing perception was that, since the state was unable to minimize the shortages, the least it should do was to exhibit benevolent neutrality.

The acclaimed poet Tadeusz Różewicz called the 1960s the times of “minor stabilization” but it seemed that it was Marcin Zaremba who had got it right when he called them the era of “minor de-stabilization”.249 There were crises, tensions, and conflicts, at times solved with radical methods (such as the death penalty in the notorious “meat affair”). Resisting temptation, the central authorities did not utilize the social mood to recreate anti-profiteering institutions. The idea, however, had not been forgotten. If need be, it was the trade unions that were given the task of implementation, then held responsible for the results. More than two decades were to pass before the authorities would again be involved in anti-black market operations.

3.4  Intermedium II: The 1960s and 1970s

This chapter does not aspire to present the economic history of the period or to analyze the steps taken by the authorities on the road to combating economic crime. The latter was researched thoroughly (especially in regards to the crucial period of the 1960s) by Krzysztof Madej, Maria Pasztor, and Dariusz Jarosz.250 Instead, I would like to focus on the factors that supported and strengthened the black market in Poland. Some had been inherited from the earlier period and adapted themselves gradually to the new era. The changing political, social, and economic circumstances encouraged not only the assimilation of the old strategies but also the creation of new ones such as the tourist trade, which became an element of everyday life and paved the way for the black market boom of the 1980s. ← 92 | 93 →

The title of this chapter emphasizes the division into two different eras, with not only different first secretaries of the PUWP but also distinct economic, social, and black market landscapes. Each period had its own turning point when the growing economic crisis decreased the supply of goods, leading to a deterioration of the general mood; on both occasions, this resulted in citizens engaging more vigorously in unofficial trade strategies, and the authorities responding with increased vigor with counter strategies.

3.4.1  The 1960s

The Teams for Combating Corruption and Economic Fraud were officially disbanded in 1961, but had already disappeared from the headlines and official communiqués a year earlier. Just as had been the case with the Special Commission, the change was accompanied neither by economic stabilization nor by a slowdown in unofficial trading. On the contrary, the numbers of “speculation cases” prosecuted rose, especially in the meat industry. Problems with a strategic product such as meat, smuggling and trading of hard currency and gold quickly became the main characteristic of the decade.

The Polish black market was fueled both by shortages – of meat and luxury items – and panic breaking-out periodically on the market. The panics were triggered by internal tensions or by a growing fear of war during international crises, such as the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961,251 the Cuban crisis in 1962, the Middle East war in 1967, the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and skirmishes at the Soviet-Chinese border. While in the 1950s people had focused on buying large amounts of “crisis” goods (pasta, kasha, salt, canned food, candles, and soap), in the 1960s the waves of war panic increased the demand for store-of-value articles, that is to say gold coins and bars, and hard currency. Although trade in those was still prohibited, ownership was not a crime. Recurring rumors of an impending currency revaluation (in September 1961, September and October 1963, January 1968, October and November 1969) served their purpose – not only did Poles deposit their savings in bank accounts but they were also buying gold and dollars hand over fist, which caused their price to rise rapidly, and they were storming luxury item stores, buying jewelry, ← 93 | 94 → furs, furniture and technical and mechanical appliances.252 In accordance with the laws of supply and demand, a large volume of such articles entered illegal circulation. The waves of market panic accompanied by continuous shortages boosted and fanned further the speculation fever and brought about a phenomenon that could be called “(anti)-speculation allergy”.

In the 1960s there were many additional factors that unexpectedly stimulated the black market. For example, advantage was taken of the rights of those returning from abroad, in the 1960s – mostly from the West, to import personal effects without paying any customs duty. Often, literally tons of pepper, polyethylene, imitation leather, cosmetics, and fake furs were brought into the country under such a guise. Once in Poland, the goods were distributed on the black market and sold to state warehouses.253

The millennial festivities in 1966 were a headache for the Polish authorities, and not just because of their religious and political implications. The numerous celebrations boosted the illegal production and distribution of devotional articles, toys, and probably alcohol.254 Their production often relied on resources, which had been earlier smuggled into Poland. Private craftsmen would not have been able to continue their production without zippers and haberdashery brought illegally from Czechoslovakia.255 Every time goods were confiscated at the border, prices in the Nowy Targ and Zakopane markets went up.256 In the 1960s, tourism became a mass pursuit and was unapologetically used as a means of cross-border trade (more in chapter 9). ← 94 | 95 →

In 1957, the private sector in Poland consisted of almost 190 thousand enterprises.257 With such solid foundation, it could effectively defend itself from the recurrent government tightening of the screw (in 1957 for the first time and then in 1961-1965 and 1969-1971). The registered decrease in the numbers of private enterprises did not reflect reality. Some artisans or merchants turned to the grey zone, which was probably as wide-spread as the legal one.258 Or they would accept a job in the state sector during economic declines only to return to their illicit business when the economic environment again turned more permissive. The number of private operators grew significantly in the 1960s with the appearance of franchising (ajencja). The authorities were more likely to accept stores, restaurants, and service businesses run as franchises than as strictly private businesses.

A large group (over a thousand in 1966) of private manufacturers took advantage of the export opportunities, which emerged in 1957. What was much more common, however, since more profitable and demanding less effort, was cooperation with the state sector, which had at its disposal unlimited resources. Despite the periodic hounding of private entrepreneurs, who were allegedly “draining” state resources, factories and offices could no longer operate without them. Not without significance was the fact that such cooperation was financially beneficial to state officials. The inflated budgets or dubious origin of resources and machineries were regarded leniently. “No-one officially knows and no-one wants to know what the source of craftsmen’s supply is,” wrote in Życie Gospodarcze, in 1968, Jerzy Urban – who in the 1950s and 1960s was a journalist so unpopular with the government that he was eventually banned from any journalistic activity, yet in the 1980s was to become a government spokesman, wildly detested by society – “because in the current atmosphere of spontaneity finding this out would mean closing down private artisan industry.”259 In the late 1960s the trend reversed – in 1965 the non-agricultural private sector employed around 350 thousand but in 1969 the number rose to 512 thousand. That translated into 43% growth in comparison to the 11% increase in the nationalized economy.260 ← 95 | 96 → Being a private operator (or employed by one) was probably more demanding but also more profitable. Even if the stories about the fantastically wealthy private artisans or merchants were not always true, their average income allowed them a relatively high standard of living, enabling them also to put some money in such stores of value as hard currency and gold, and they were also the most important clients of the hard currency and gold black markets. “We have just seized from ‘private initiative’,” reported the chief of the Warsaw Police Antoni Fryden, “62 kg of gold intended for the market and $30 000, to the total value of over 20 million zloty.”261 In 1970, the police (MO) seized 36.5 kg in gold bars, seven thousand 10-rouble gold coins, and 3.5 kg gold jewelry. They were sold “mostly to the owners of private artisan shops, usually for hard currency.”262 The private entrepreneurs had competition from sailors, athletes, scientists and state officials, that is, groups with high if not always declared or legally obtained income, who invested their profits from dubious sources, embezzlement or other fraudulent operations in a similar way.

With the hoarding of gold and hard currency, the internal black market thrived; contraband operations became more efficient and professionalized. Since the early 1960s, the numbers of “hard currency smuggling crimes” had steadily risen. For example in 1963, a 47% increase was reported in comparison to the previous year.263 In 1962, ten big “affairs” (including three cases involving hard currency) were investigated, with convictions in some of the cases; a year later there were already 18 prosecutions (with four involving hard currency). The authorities attributed the growth to increased criminal activity and an “improved detection rate”.264

1964 was a watershed year. The “meat affair” made the authorities more vigilant, which resulted in an avalanche of fraud exposure, greater and lesser. Small-time black market dealers were again targeted en masse by the authorities, along with black market sharks; this was due both to the worsening provisions and Gomułka’s regime trying to hide the fact that it was tightening the screws. Diverting attention on to the traditional populist enemy – the swindler and the profiteer – seemed to do the trick, especially since parts of society were openly demanding harsher penalties for economic crimes. “There is public demand”, the Warsaw Committee of the PUWP reported in July 1964, “for bringing in social inspectors, overcoming the existing chaos, and changing the methods of fighting ← 96 | 97 → criminals. Many point to the effectiveness of the system used in Bulgaria. A relatively large number of people note that despite the fact that the swindlers are being locked up, there has been no improvement in the meat supply.”265

The idea of public anti-speculation commissions was being revisited, now, however, introduced by and accountable only to the trade unions. Warsaw, commonly perceived as the seedbed of the black market evil, was also at the forefront of anti-speculation activity. In January and February 1965, more than 600 activists participated in inspections of stores and marketplaces. By mid-March, workplaces volunteered 1 200 “public”, that is community, inspectors.266 They were apparently not very competent, since the following year not only was it recommended that the “number of activists delegated for public controls” be increased but also that there be “careful selection”; nevertheless, the drive was towards a simplification of recruitment in order to achieve a “mass character of public inspection.”267 Periodically, for instance before holidays, mass-scale inspections were to be conducted. These operations were to be decentralized with the help of special city district teams. There was a call to set up community courts at the manager’s offices of state plants to deal with petty crime, hitherto dealt with by police courts (kolegia).268 Varsovians were urged to lend a hand in the enhancement of community invigilation by snitching on any known culprits.269

If one did no more than glance at the statistics published in official reports, the overall impression was of a spectacular success – while in 1965 in Warsaw, only 220 inspections took place, by November 30,1966 the number had risen to 8 829, and for 1967, a staggering 20 thousand were planned! Among the participants were the members of the unions, police functionaries, employees of the PIH and the Prosecutor’s Office, and Socialist Youth Organization (ZMS) activists. However, on closer scrutiny of the comments that accompanied the figures, a less ideal picture emerged: attendance at the inspection raids was extremely low and the public courts, which had been launched with such aplomb, barely functioned.270 All this was mostly just a lot of hot air: at the turn of 1966 and 1967 in Warsaw, ← 97 | 98 → the estimated number of all kinds of speculation cases was 1 500 annually.271 This was not an impressive number, considering that in 1966 and 1967 Poles had more and more “hot” money burning their pockets, and store shelves were emptying at a dramatic rate.272 The international situation (including the war in the Middle East) had also had an impact on internal Polish politics and had further complicated the situation. In early 1968, the black market exchange rate with the US dollar reached its highest level since 1957. The fear of war and the anxiety around the possibility of a currency reform not only pushed people (especially those who were about to emigrate) toward exchanging zloty into dollars but also brought about increasing bank account deposits (in April 1968, these increased by 23% compared with a year earlier). Stores were brimming with customers searching high and low for “consumer durables with investment potential such as refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, TV sets, furs, jewelry etc.”273

It is difficult to state unequivocally whether this was the reason for the unprecedented emphasis on speculation in the new criminal code implemented in 1969. Distinctions were made between crimes linked to the nationalized and non-nationalized sectors and those related to manufacturing and retail trade. Harsher penalties were meted out to perpetrators who turned an illegal trade into a regular source of income. Black market operations connected with internal export were dealt with separately. The legislation retained quaint wartime wording, referring to penalties for “unauthorized persons” who stockpiled goods in “incommensurable quantities”.274 It seemed that the anti-speculation articles in the criminal code would be implemented swiftly. Meanwhile, throughout 1970, the Ministry of Internal Trade was flooded with complaints about shortages of: butter, margarine, cottage cheese, milk (condensed and powdered), coffee, chocolate, chocolate sweets, cocoa, citrus fruits, pork, cured meats, lard, pork fat, fish, some types of bread, and, among industrial products, textile articles, underwear, wool, cotton, clothing, paper and paper products, lavatory paper, crystal, ceramics, household glass items, coal, coke, construction materials, shoes, furniture, collapsible bikes, silver-plated cutlery, some cosmetics, and spare parts.”275 Salvation for the market was sought in a price hike. We all know how that plan worked out: bringing a bloody end to the decade – and to the Gomułka regime. ← 98 | 99 →

3.4.2  The 1970s

At the beginning of the Gierek decade it looked like small-scale, traditional ‘speculation’ was about to vanish from the everyday vocabulary. Even though the number of detected “speculation crimes” did not decrease,276 they disappeared from the front-page headlines. The prosecuting bodies were focusing rather on the rapidly growing problem of hard currency contraband, a more spectacular pursuit than chasing petty black traders. The battle against hard currency offences waned with the arrival of an unofficial dual currency system. In 1974 the government launched the chain of Pewex stores, which soon drew Poles like a magnet with an assortment of goods that were irresistible, whether because they were foreign and thus much coveted, such as electronics, Levi’s jeans or Western brand name spirits, or because they were simply indispensable – humble toilet paper, for one – and not available elsewhere much of the time. The name “Pewex” was short for “Przedsiębiorstwo Eksportu Wewnętrznego” – “Internal Export Company”, a contradiction in terms. This was, however, a euphemism: in fact, what it meant was that the stores only accepted payment in hard currencies – not something that most citizens, with obvious exceptions such as seafarers, had readily available. To shop in Pewex they were obliged to buy German marks or most often US dollars on the black market, which came conveniently courtesy of the illegal currency dealer (cinkciarz), loitering conspicuously near the entrance. The government turned a blind eye to this ubiquitous illegal currency dealing, since the chain had been introduced to ease the country’s foreign currency deficit and the authorities were only too happy to harvest the dollars and other currency circulating in society, however they might have been come by. This meant that the illegal street money dealers, the chief source of hard currency for an average Pole, were now – paradoxically – involved in a pro-state activity. The illegal foreign trade practiced by the Poles now focused on obtaining hard currency. Its scope widened due to the rapidly growing number of participants, now in the millions, as well as the fact that it spanned a widening geographical area. Besides the hard-currency stores, another policy designed to drain the private hard currency supply was the significant relaxation of the rules governing hard currency bank accounts (1976).

Opening Poland to the world was one of the modernizing goals of the new government’s policies. In the early 1970s, the growth rates of real wages and ← 99 | 100 → personal income household expenditure were among the highest in the world, and the highest among the Soviet Bloc countries (51.5% in 1971–1975).277 Between 1971 and 1975, the average wage in the nationalized economy grew 7.3% annually, compared to only 1.8% in the decade 1961–1970. Wages were spent mainly on consumption: industrial articles, services (including tourism), and food, including higher quality products. While between 1970 and 1975 the consumption of grains decreased by 13 kg and potatoes by 20 kg per capita, the consumption of butter rose by over one kilogram, sugar – more than four,and milk and milk products by nine liters, reflecting an improved standard of living for the average Pole, measured by the size of the archetypal national dish on his plate: the pork chop. Between 1960 and 1970, the consumption of meat per person grew in Poland by 10.5 kg but in the first part of 1970 alone, it soared by 17.5 kg. “Such an acceleration of the growth rate of meat consumption had never before been recorded in Poland or probably in any other country.”278 Had it occurred to Gierek, he could have truthfully told Poles, in the words that Harold Macmillan had addressed to the British in 1957, that they “have never had it so good”.

By 1971, there were fewer complaints about inadequate supplies, in particular of cars.279 People expressed cautious optimism when luxury articles such as TV (including color) sets, radios, and domestic appliances became commonplace in Polish apartments, which were now bigger and of a higher standard than the cramped cubicles of the Gomułka era. In 1975, Poles purchased one million TV sets – almost twice as many as in 1970; sales of refrigerators also doubled. The number of washing machines sold rose by 50%. There was great progress in the automobile sector. In 1970, Poles owned some 453 400 cars; this grew to 1 041 600 by 1975, and to 2 069 4 000 by 1979. The cars were relatively cheaper now. In 1971, one had to spend 70 monthly paychecks in order to buy a Fiat 125p; by 1974 this had gone down to “only” 55 – still an alarming ratio by Western standards.280

Polish society was becoming accustomed to growing and more sophisticated consumption and to constant prices, which to a large extend ceased to mark the ← 100 | 101 → limits of demand.281 The good times were all too brief. The more the appetite for consumption grew, the more painful every successive market wobble became. By 1974, the writing was on the wall. The growth of individual income recorded in September exceeded earlier projections, a stark harbinger of growing inflation. Store deliveries could not keep pace with the thicker and thicker wads of cash bulging in people’s wallets.282 In 1974, at the turn of August and September, even in usually well-stocked Warsaw there were shortages of quality cuts of meat, washing machines, refrigerators, furniture, radio and TV equipment. To be eligible to buy a sought-after consumer industrial article, you now had to put your name on a pre-registration list, and well in advance.283 The statistics still looked encouraging, especially in the five-year range. However, an average consumer does not think in terms of macro-economics but rather in the context of his kitchen table, refrigerator or garage. “The political team treated the period of 1971–1975 as a whole,” wrote Piotr Bożyk, Edward Gierek’s economic advisor between 1971 and 1975, “taking the total numbers of goods delivered to the market as a whole, and dividing them per year and per capita. The consumer was not interested in such an approach. When he had the money in his wallet, he looked to buy a specific item – when this was not available, his disillusionment with politics grew. The buyers who came between 1974 and 1975 were not the same people who had been the lucky ones buying goods between 1971 and 1973. Thus the new buyers were not interested in the government’s argument that, taking the 5-year period as a whole, things were just fine: since the first three years had been very good, and the last two not so good, on average, the five-year period was not too bad.”284

The situation was, however, getting worse. An expert’s report (written in the early 1980s) on the economy of the years 1974–1977 pointed out that the “growing difficulties in purchasing goods and services, the diminishing variety and quality of supply, the rapidly growing prices, the rising black-market dollar exchange rate, the widening of the range of goods only available to those holding hard currency, the limiting of the availability of goods through the introduction of coupon and allocation schemes, and the pessimistic view of the future caused by the overall worsening market and general social and economic situation prompted increased spending of current earned income on ‘jam today’ (the general perception ← 101 | 102 → was that ‘tomorrow it’s all bound to be more expensive and there will be less of everything’). This whittled away savings, put aside with the goal of buying a specific product, directing instead life savings accumulated to safeguard the future towards investing in goods, hard currency, luxury items, and gold.”285

In 1974, the rising cost of living drove many people, especially those for whom the raison d’être had become “to have” rather than merely “to be”, to develop various sophisticated extramural income generating operations among which black market strategies played an increasingly important role.286 Between 1975 and 1980, employment in the more lucrative private sector (excluding agriculture) grew significantly. Between 1970 and 1975, the number of private operators rose from 442 300 to 469 200 and in 1980 the official number was 602 000 (the greatest growth was recorded among enterprise owners and co-owners). During the 1970s, the previously negative collective image of the private entrepreneur, derogatively referred to as a “prywaciarz”, changed noticeably: the “cult of successful business, energy, initiative was coming to the fore. The entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to get things done, involvement in “business” were valued by families. Children were raised with those values in mind and their parents contrasted them with the apathy and passivity in workplaces throughout the nationalized sector.”287 These different perceptions were, however, accompanied by a slackening of moral norms and increasing condoning of actions incompatible with the letter of the law.288

In the mid-1970s, terms such as the “black market” and “speculation” gradually made a reappearance; first, in Party or police confidential reports, then – in the press. They were in continual use from the summer of 1976 onwards when due to the quickly called off price hike, panic on the market, and the introduction of sugar rationing, unofficial distribution channels immediately sprang into life (based on illicit “leaking” of goods from the nationalized trade system, illegal produce trading etc.). The authorities reacted swiftly, setting up teams authorized to combat illegal food trading (mostly of meat) and to inspect trade and transportation.289 The teams were to be created at all levels, from the municipality to voivodship, and include representatives of the PIH, financial offices, and the labor unions. In June 1977, the Politburo of the Polish United Workers’ Party adopted a resolution to continue actions to protect “public order and social ← 102 | 103 → discipline in the country.”290 That they did so is hardly surprising – in 1977, the crime rate rose by 6% with economic crime up by 8%. The food sector, trade, construction, transportation (the huge amount of 3.6 billion zloty worth of gas had been stolen!) were considered the most threatened branches of the economy.291

In the early 1977, sociologists from Poznań researched the extent of the shortages and found that they had been experienced by 83% of households. In the cities around 85% of households had searched unsuccessfully for a product, 41% had been looking for three products (71% and 33% respectively in rural areas).292 In the third quarter of 1977, there were shortages of 130 products to a total value of 15.6 billion zloty, which was one third more than the “highest shortages recorded during the most difficult periods for the markets.”293 In the following quarter, the shortages rose to some 25 billion zloty! Not only were there shortages of meat but also of textiles, clothing, shoes, household appliances, TV and radio equipment, cars, furniture, coal, and even soap and toothpaste.294

In a poll conducted in 1975, five thousand people were asked to identify negative phenomena in Poland. Fifty nine percent of the respondents named alcoholism, 51% arrogance and rudeness of bureaucrats, 48% mismanagement and wastefulness, 47% hooliganism, 38% nepotism and 31% bribery. At that time, no-one mentioned speculation.295 Two years later, alcoholism had become even more prominent (62.7%) but in second place came “selling under the counter” – as many as 59.1% of the respondents had encountered the practice very often or often (16.1% had encountered it rarely, 17% – never).296 As was to be expected, there were calls for increased vigilance. Almost 40% of respondents stressed the importance of public supervision. “There is a need for frequent and unexpected inspections, especially in stores and local community offices. People should get used to having their every step watched and know that they cannot get away with ← 103 | 104 → anything.” There were also voices that “trade inspections will not help much if they are not accompanied by additional supplies of goods.”297

The increased trade supervision executed by professional institutions such as the state Police (MO), the National Trade Inspectorate (PIH), the National Price Commission (PKC) and the public commissions still affiliated with the Main Council of Labor Unions (CRZZ) was clearly noticeable (with 182 762 inspections in 1976 and 228 637 in 1977).298 The press also took up more frequently the issue of public involvement in inspections. “Informal, public supervision”, wrote Jacek Maziarski in the Polityka weekly, “has a good chance of becoming the best tool for combating fraud.”299 Only under certain conditions, however: “In order to arouse public opinion the enclaves of ambiguity need to be consistently reduced. Where the public interest is at stake, we must ensure decisively that there is no question of holy cows, taboos or shameful dissembling.”300 The journalist got to the root of the problem here – faced with the critical market situation, Poles were getting used to unorthodox methods of finding ways round problems. For the hundreds of thousands inspections and countrywide actions, hailed as a huge success (for example the operation Rynek, conducted in December 1979 by the police, the PIH and public inspectors301), brought meagre results, disproportionate to the effort. While in 1975, 3 140 cases of speculation had been prosecuted in Poland and 2 805 people had been sentenced (of which 11.2% had been sent to jail), in 1977 there were 4351 cases (3 090 sentences including 18.6% of unsuspended prison sentences). In 1979, 4 727 speculation cases had been reported, in 1980 – 5 229; respectively 4 102 and 4 700 people had been put before a judge. A smaller percentage ended in prison (7.5% in 1979 and 5.6% in 1989).302 Was this a sign of the weakness of the authorities – or the power of society? The summer of 1980 brought answers to this question. ← 104 | 105 →

3.5  Commission II: 1981–1987

3.5.1  The Road to “Speculation Hell”

Following the fiasco of the so-called price reform of June 1976, the authorities tried to fight the growing crisis by limiting (not very successfully) wage increases and by raising prices, often by introducing “commercial prices”, as they were known. Both the shortages and the methods of dealing with them aggravated the public mood. “There is a negative perception of commercial stores and the Pewex chain”, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MSW) noted in the early August of 1978, which “gives rise to a well-founded suspicion that society has been divided into ‘sectors’ or ‘castes’ of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and that the stores service private entrepreneurs, thieves, and black marketeers. This situation is perceived as a contradiction of socialist principles…”303 It is not surprising that the poor were the first to rebel. The decision of the Government Price Commission (PKC) on June 24, 1980 to raise the prices of meat products with effect from July 1 was the last straw. Poles could have probably got over “commercializing”, that is to say raising, the prices of the already expensive, and thus out of reach, meat cuts such as beef tenderloin, goose, and duck. But the sudden increases in price of run-of-the-mill basic subsistence foods in workplace cafeterias were a different story altogether. The price hike was introduced in the same arrogant way as the previous one: abruptly, without consultation, often without informing the workplace management or the local Party cells. For example in Wrocław, the “Party secretaries were generally shocked by the new prices they saw in the cafeterias and buffets. In most places, the managers only learnt about the new prices from their cafeteria workers.”304 Strikes erupted at several factories, the largest – in Lublin, in mid-July.305 The authorities assumed that the strikes could be extinguished with money. It turned out, however, that this method was only tinkering with the flames. The real blaze exploded on the Baltic coast on August 14, 1980.

The lists of demands put forward in August 1980 included economic items (often prioritized before political): wage increases, full market provision, and doing away with the [high] “commercial” prices, internal export, and meat ← 105 | 106 → rationing.306 The historic 21 Demands that the Strike Committee presented to the government delegation at the Gdańsk Shipyard on August 17, 1980 were no exception. The easiest for the authorities to accept were the wage demands; as far as the demands concerning provisions were concerned (no. 10, no. 11, and no. 13), all they could do was show good will and make promises. Little could the strikers and the authorities know that the then-existing level of market supplies, perceived as critically inadequate at the time, would soon – with hindsight – be remembered fondly.

The rationing, already promised in the August agreements, was a lesser evil and had been accepted by most of the population.307 After long and stormy consultations, on April 1, 1981 the authorities introduced meat ration stamps, and in the following months also ration stamps for grain, rice, fats, soap, washing detergent, chocolate, alcohol, and cigarettes. These ration stamps are not to be confused with the federal aid system that has functioned in the USA as a form of food-purchasing assistance for no-income and low-income people, where a stamp entitles the bearer to swap it for food without payment. The Polish ration stamps were no free-meal ticket. All that the Polish food stamps and other stamps in Poland entitled the bearer to – and that only after having spent many hours in the interminably long lines that came to be synonymous with the era – was being eligible to buy the item for which the stamp had been issued. Without a ration stamp, no purchase was possible at all. Moreover, the allocations of food and daily utility items were far from quantities that we now think adequate for average needs and the allocation was based on the government’s assessment of an individual’s needs. For example, an office worker was entitled to buy 2.5 kg of meat a month, a manual worker – 4.5 kg whereas a miner – a more acceptable eight kg.

Food ration stamps further upset the market and created an even bigger mess. Paradoxically, what the rationing, which applied to half of the total value of food sales (more, if one includes alcohol) did was to limit radically buying opportunities. Poles had money (the August wage increases had provided them with additional cash) and they were anxious to spend it on any kind of durable. In mid-1981, the stampede for industrial products began – they immediately disappeared from the market. In 1979, market shortages amounted to 22 billion zloty; in 1980 they reached 81 billion zloty. In 1981, they were estimated at 278 ← 106 | 107 → billion zloty, while the disposable financial resources at the time were estimated (including pre-payments etc.) at 496 billion (129 billion zloty in 1979 and 173 billion zloty in 1980).308

The huge, unquenchable demand for food, alcohol, cigarettes and industrial articles triggered new, unofficial ways of accessing goods and improved the existing methods. This had also happened during provision crises in the past but this time the huge scale of the phenomenon was in a league of its own. “Every shortage of output,” an official report noted in August 1981, “is immediately taken advantage of by speculators, […] who intercept the goods in question and put them on the market using channels that enable them, whether semi-legally or entirely illegally, to gain high profits at the expense of consumers. As a result, the black marketeers hold the whole of society in a dictatorial economic grip.”309 The economic exchange between cities and rural areas became, to a large degree, privatized (see chapter 5). Barter exchange developed between retail stores and factories. Goods travelled between producers and wholesale or retail (they were stolen or re-distributed through other channels at higher prices, while all that the retail stores received was the payment due at the official prices, and invoices). Barter also took place between individuals. For example, even tee-totalers made sure that they had bought their allocation of vodka in the knowledge that it would be useful to swap for some other item in short supply. Some goods delivered to the stores stayed at the back of the store and were distributed through the back door, in more senses than one. From there they often ended up in street booths or marketplaces. The leaky rationing system created numerous opportunities – the coupons could be altogether ignored by the store personnel, or illegally obtained, which allowed those who knew the store personnel, to shop at state prices. Indeed, “contacts” in shops was the byword of the era. This led to new modes of social behavior. The shop assistant in the local butcher’s, baker’s or grocer’s was a person to cultivate and shower with small gifts, if one wanted to ensure that the family was not to run short of food.

The strategies described above developed both on a large scale resulting in effective black market enterprises as well as on an individual scale, helping the most underprivileged groups such as pensioners, and people with disabilities to survive on day-to-day basis. A “professional” black marketeer complained to a reporter: “Thousands of riffraff are hanging around, thousands of rookies who ← 107 | 108 → are trying to work an angle; grandmas, pensioners, salesgirls, drivers, assorted petty floaters and bunglers, they have all made a mess of a decent business.”310

From the end of 1980, the terms “speculation” and “black market” (especially in relation to food) permanently entered both the media and colloquial Polish. The police (MO), and the operations of the PIH and those undertaken by the Teams for Market Control (Zespoły ds Kontroli Rynku) set up in September 1980 were not very effective. A journalist commented that “fighting speculation is reminiscent of fighting the proverbial dragon: when you cut off the head, another one immediately grows in its place.”311

Let’s not forget that it was the higher, “commercial” prices – set a year earlier and only on a small part of goods, at that, and which were far from stable – that had triggered the public protests. Now, even though the prices asked, and obtained, on the black market were much higher, it became an important and sometimes only way of filling the gaps in supply. However, only groups in economically and politically privileged positions could satisfy their needs by taking advantage of the black market. The weak and the poor were left behind. The social stratification was becoming increasingly delineated by the individual’s ability to access goods. As had happened the year before, by mid-1981, the threat of social revolt became real. Only, this time, the protesters enjoyed the support of the 10-million strong Independent Self-governing Trade Union Solidarity. The authorities were forced into taking a stand.

3.5.2  Provisorium: The Extraordinary Commission: August 10 – October 12, 1981

The government’s reaction was surprisingly slow in coming, considering that already by February 1981, Wojciech Jaruzelski had described the combating of speculation as “one of the main tasks for the state and economic administration apparatus”,312 when presenting a program for economic and social stabilization before the Sejm. In Częstochowa, an anti-speculation commission was set up in February 1981, and by mid-March – in Gdańsk. In early June, the District Coordination Team for Combating Fraud (Wojewódzki Zespół Koordynacyjny ds Zwalczania Spekulacji) was established in Łódź. It included a “rapid response ← 108 | 109 → team to deal with all irregularities in trade”.313 The authorities had considered an anti-speculation law already in April when they introduced the rationing, however, the Rubicon was not yet being crossed. We can only assume that although the authorities hoped that the existing institutions and legislation314 would prove effective, they were also aware that society’s willingness to accept radical steps would increase in proportion to the length of the lines in front of the almost empty stores. If so, they were right. In spring 1981, a significant media campaign started – and not necessarily instigated by the authorities –urging them to undertake an anti-speculation drive. “The newspapers,” Anna Matałowska wrote in Polityka, “following in the footsteps of the government, are pushing for an onslaught against speculation. The factory workers and other state employees are echoing the demands, putting the policy forward as the number one priority for trade in the near future.”315 At the same time, there was no shortage of others, who pointed out the senselessness and futility of the institutionalization of anti-speculation activities.316 In front of the TV cameras on August 3 1981, Deputy Prime Minister Mieczysław Rakowski did not hide his concern. He pointed out the lessons of Poland under the Nazi occupation: even the prospect of death or the concentration camp had not held back the illegal trade.

In the spring and summer of 1981, very few heeded such voices. Radical and decisive actions were gaining popular support.317 In June 1981, the market collapsed. Even those who had until recently praised the introduction of rationing because it put had ham back on their tables, now started complaining. The rationing spread to include more and more products. People waited in long lines even to buy bread. It was not unusual to see on the shelves of a general grocery store nothing but an artful stretch of bottles of vinegar the store manager making a vain attempt to detract from the absence of any other products in stock. But finally, sometimes even the vinegar vanished from the shelves. “Generally speaking, the market has collapsed,” noted Mieczysław Rakowski on July 27, 1981. “There are nightmarish lines, people buying out anything that shows up. Workers ← 109 | 110 → from big plants are protesting against the lower rations. The government is being accused of deliberately starving the nation, of its biological annihilation and similar nonsense.”318

Indeed, already in June 1981, the Independent Trade Union Solidarity began to blame the authorities for their helplessness in the face of the crisis and repeatedly organized protests against insufficient supplies.319 A serious conflict erupted when on July 23, the government announced it would simultaneously decrease meat rations and raise prices. In its meeting the following day, Solidarity’s National Cooordinating Commission (Krajowa Komisja Porozumiewawcza) hammered the economic policy of the government. “The daily life of Polish families,” the Commission communiqué read, “is a torment.” The union’s main goal was to guarantee “basic living conditions for the nation”. This time, Solidarity did more than merely call on the authorities to carry out reforms – it promised to take the initiative into its own hands. A call went out to local government and Solidarity branches to organize effective distribution of goods. There was a plan to organize commissions throughout all the regions “to control the continuing production, supply, and distribution of food and day-to-day industrial articles.”320 On July 30, “hunger marches” filled the streets of Łódź and other Polish cities. At the talks between the government and the Solidarity on August 3 and 6, with food supplies prominent on the agenda, both sides entrenched their positions further.

The authorities had no intention of allowing Solidarity to take the initiative. During the parliamentary session on July 30 and 31, due to a reshuffle of the government, General Jaruzelski’s confidant Czesław Kiszczak became Minister of Interior Affairs. From August 3 onward, 1 700 policemen were directed daily to fight speculation. They were reinforced by soldiers, professional inspectors, and community, or the so-called “public” inspectors.321 On August 10, 1981, the Council of Ministers passed resolution No. 156, which created, at central, voivodship, and local levels, the Extraordinary Commissions for Combating Fraud (Nadzwyczajne Komisje do Walki ze Spekulacją). Simultaneously a legislative draft was submitted to parliament, proposing to “provide increased consumer protection within commercial activities concerning articles of daily necessity and ← 110 | 111 → the introduction of more effective means of combating the speculation.”322 Both decisions were justified on the grounds that lower-income citizens had been cut off “from basic goods outside the rationing system”, whereas “all kinds of crooks and embezzlers” continued to make huge profits. It was pointed out that both phenomena “offended the public sense of justice”.323 It is not surprising that a large part of the Second Session of the Party’s Central Committee (KC PZPR) on August 11 was dedicated to discussing ways of combating the speculation.

The authorities had to show determination. Immediately they began to build the structures of the Extraordinary Commission (Nadzwyczajna Komisja): the headquarters (Krajowa NK with Deputy Prime Minister Stanisław Mach at the helm) and the voivodship commissions with Deputy Voivods at the top. The commissions tried to give the impression of creating a wide “anti-speculation front” by involving both the institutions specifically designated to deal with the black market and public organizations. From the very beginning the new construct took on a quasi-military shape and employed, in the headquarters and voivodship sections, fifty four carefully selected retired police officers. The Commissions’ reports were to land directly on General Jaruzelski’s desk.324

Undoubtedly, many of the decision makers, including the Prime Minister, believed in the effectiveness and the validity of such undertakings. PR considerations (as we would put it today) also played a role. Actions aimed at sustaining so-called social justice could boost confidence in the government, its popularity massively undermined in favor of Solidarity, which also proclaimed concern about the standard of living. “Public support and acceptance for anti-speculation undertakings is noticeable […]” wrote Trybuna Ludu, “People clearly demand that the war on speculation must be won.”325 For the large groups marginalized by the Solidarity revolution such as members of the old unions, youth activists, members of ORMO (the Police Volunteer Reserve), veterans, military, police retirees, and so on, the Commission provided an opportunity to return to public ← 111 | 112 → life. During the first all-Poland conference of the representatives of voivodship and local commissions on September 15, 1981, the delegates demanded not only more repressions against the black marketeers but also an immediate expansion of the public inspectorate participation. “They fondly remember,” wrote Teresa Kuczyńska ironically, “the era of CRZZ when we had 60 000 public inspectors. We need, as they put it, a whole army of people if we want to see any effects of the battle against speculation. It is not enough to hound the black marketeers in the marketplaces. There must also be more invigilation in the factories where the scarce goods are produced. Since all goods are today in very short supply, this means invigilation of all factories.”326

The delegates were in a triumphalist mood, no doubt boosted by the vigorous efforts of the Extraordinary Commission which, only a few weeks into its existence, even before its structures had settled down, took ostentatious action – supervised personally by General Stanislaw Zaczkowski, the Chief of Police. Between August 10 and 23, almost 24 000 policemen, over 6 000 soldiers (including some from the Internal Military Security!), nearly 5 000 professional inspectors, and 7 500 “public” activists conducted inspections of warehouses, stores, marketplaces, transportation, and purchasing stations (punkty skupu).327 The courts were told to increase sentences and submit transcripts to headquarters. The Commission planned a session – to be attended by the chairmen of the regional courts – on the implementation of accelerated procedures and harsher penalties for economic crimes.328 Over seven hundred preliminary prosecutions were triggered during the first two weeks of the Commission’s life. Magistrate courts (kolegia) received 4 030 cases. Hidden goods valued at 27.5 million zloty were uncovered in stores.329 Later, this level of activity diminished somewhat but the success rate was nevertheless high: by October, almost eight thousand case proceedings had been initiated in magistrates’ courts, and goods valued at 41 million zloty had been found hidden in the stores.330

It was not by chance that state propaganda focused on the stores as the culprits for shortages: was that not, after all, where the goods were hidden? Were the stores not the main source of supply for the black market? It was an easy explanation, and easily swallowed by much of society; it stood to reason – otherwise, why were the shelves empty and the lines in front of the stores so long? ← 112 | 113 → The systemic problems were all blamed on this last, and most visible, link of the distribution chain. “The sales staff caught red-handed offer all kinds of different excuses: they had saved the goods for themselves, they had forgotten, it had been an accident. They lie through their teeth […]. Priority sales for families, friends, as a token of gratitude, and for many other reasons, have become common practice.”331 The goods found at the back of the store and ostentatiously put back on the store counter significantly improved the image of the authorities, at the time represented by the policeman, the PIH employee, and the “public inspector”.

It has to be said that entirely blameless store employees were far and few between but the goods found at the back of stores constituted only a small percentage of the whole trade. More important was the need to create a clearly defined enemy. The saleswoman, the store manager, the stock manager were more suitable for that role than an enigmatic black marketeer that citizens were unable to put a name or a face to. A new anti-speculation law that penalized hiding or “intercepting” goods pointed at potential profiteers. Store managers, until then not known for voicing their opinions, in the new political and economic situation loudly declared that the goal of the new law was to divide society and focus attention on the tail-end of the distribution process instead of finding the real source of the problem. The Federation of Consumers was against the new law, the store staff’s unions threatened to strike. Solidarity agreed that the concealment of goods was a crime; however, it was against accelerated court proceedings.332 Store employees were fighting a losing battle. Even the reassuring words of the Minister of Interior Trade Zygmunt Łakomiec that the “practice of goods concealment by sales people in the nationalized sector was a marginal phenomenon” did not fall on sympathetic ears.333 The frustrated customers had to be right. But when police arrived at the scene in response to a phone call from a customer, the store manager was often able to convince the functionaries they had more urgent business elsewhere.334

There were also critical voices directed at the anti-speculation operations and the new law. The ostentatious pursuit of black marketeers, always presented on TV in the same way – functionaries meet, discussion of action plan, marching orders issued, trucks with police and civilian inspectors leave, followed by the crackdown on some marketplace and a parade of the arrested profiteers, complete ← 113 | 114 → with a pile of the goods found beside them – was perceived as a flashy substitute for the nose-to-the-grindstone, effective daily toil on the part of the authorities. “One would have thought,” wrote Życie Literackie, “that once the authorities have chosen to chase those loudly and clearly labeled ‘PROFITEERS’ and Public Enemy Number One and decided to wipe them out at all cost, then any day now we should be noticing a dramatic improvement in supply, and that there would be no-one on the street offering a can of coffee for [the exorbitant price of] three hundred zloty. This is nonsense! The black marketeers will survive – because the repressions directed against them are carried out for their propaganda effect; the penalties are, so far, negligible”.335 At times, earnest pronouncements were also made about the positive features of the black market – such as that it was delivering articles at balanced prices that were not available elsewhere and, in doing so, was plugging the inflation gap more effectively than the state – such pronouncements were, however, quite sporadic. People commonly noticed that the anti-speculation operations led only to the development of more sophisticated strategies. The black market transactions had now gone underground and moved to private apartments or workplaces. The once common crowds of dealers disappeared from the marketplaces; instead there were individuals to be seen hanging around and taking orders for home deliveries (at new, higher prices!).336

The new anti-speculation law, drafted hastily by the government, proved highly controversial. It had been prepared without consulting society, the unions, or lawyers. The law called for increasing the repressive measures; it also identified and penalized new kinds of crimes such as trading rationing stamps – which criminalized a wide range of underprivileged social groups – and delivering to stores money and invoices only, unaccompanied by goods. For black marketeers caught red-handed, the law introduced accelerated legal proceedings with immediate confiscation of the object of crime and any money found on the culprit. Little wonder that the braver souls among the journalists specializing in legal issues savaged the new law. The validity of fighting the effects rather than the causes was questioned. There were fears that the accelerated proceedings would violate human rights by increasing the likelihood of legal errors. “It does not seem necessary,” wrote Jacek Ambroziak and Krzysztof Kauba in Tygodnik Solidarność, “to create new crimes when the existing criminal code already covers fully all eventualities. All that is lacking is that the bodies appointed to fight the ← 114 | 115 → speculation, in particular the police and the National Trade Inspectorate PIH, act quick and effectively.”337

The anti-speculation endeavors of the authorities were viewed critically not only in the media debates but also in discussions in the Sejm. Tadeusz Skóra, the Deputy Minister of Justice, who was engaged in the activities of the Extraordinary Commission, pointed out that even in the usually compliant parliament, “the law faced enormous obstacles”.338 Even if not enormous, the obstacles were certainly symptomatic. Not surprisingly, the MPs questioned the very name of the “Extraordinary Commission”, which evoked associations with Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Polish revolutionary, who during 1917–1926 was in charge of the un-coincidentally similarly named, an All-Russia Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage, or the Cheka, an organization which became notorious for its ruthlessness and mass terror.

Ultimately, the name “Central Commission for Combating Fraud” (Centralna Komisja do Walki ze Spekulacja) was accepted. The Commission’s mandate was to organize and co-ordinate operations aimed at combating speculation in the country (voivodship and local commissions were responsible for specific administrative units or towns). The full-time employment offered to inspectors with police experience gave rise to many doubts. The government representatives rejected the suggestion of entrusting the inspection tasks to the PIH.339 During the second reading, five MPs questioned the need for new legislation, arguing that achieving market balance could eliminate the black market altogether. However the majority of the Commission members not only accepted the validity of the bill but also agreed to move away from mitigating the criminal code and instead move towards tightening sanctions for speculation crimes and introducing the simplified proceedings.340 Felicjanna Lesińska, a parliamentary commentator and MP summed it up: “We hope that anti-speculation action will make essentials more easily available for every Polish family, every citizen, and also that people who are physically weak, the elderly and those who don’t have time to stand in line will be able to buy them. It is of paramount importance that Polish women, exhausted by everyday labor experience improvements in supply.”341 ← 115 | 116 →

On September 25, 1981, Halina Minkisiewicz-Latecka made a last-ditch stand, when the bill was already before the Sejm, to stop the implementation of accelerated proceedings. “As a lawyer,” she declared, “I cannot agree with the expediency of introducing the anti-speculation law or with many of its provisions. Speculation is an evil and stifles the feeble organism of our economic and social life. However, repressive measures should be last on the list of means to diminish this damaging phenomenon. Only deep economic reform, with due regard for the laws of supply and demand, correctly set prices and improved supply can eliminate or marginalize the phenomenon of speculation […]. The bill as presented […] proposes increased repression, the abolition of supervision of prosecution, limited defense rights, and, most importantly, it proposes the country-wide introduction of accelerated proceedings. There is to be no inquiry, and no investigation. During the proceedings, the accused would not be officially charged and the immediate hearing of the case would deprive the accused of the possibility of preparing a defense and choosing defense counsel.

The accelerated procedure is not conducive to uncovering the truth and undermines the constitutional right to a defense. It also contravenes the international human rights convention ratified by Poland in 1977.”342

The motion to abandon the provisions for an accelerated procedure was defeated. Moments later, voting took place on the whole bill and it was of course passed, although, it must be noted, with a significant number of votes against (11) and abstentions (12). Even in the revolutionary conditions of 1981, the fact that there were not only any votes against the motion, but indeed as many as eleven, was unprecedented.343

The law on combating speculation344 was expected to remain in force until the end of 1982. It detailed and penalized all manifestations of the black market. New crimes such as selling rationed articles, ration-coupon fraud, the hiding or interception of goods in transit between a manufacturer or warehouse and a retail outlet joined the existing list of specific, punishable offences (Items 221–225 of the criminal code and items 132, 133, 135 of the code of misdemeanors). Felonies were punishable with up to five-year imprisonment and/or a fine (even in excess of 100 thousand zloty). The black marketeer could expect confiscation of the object of the crime and of money (if the authorities had a reasonable basis for linking it with black market operations). The police and the National ← 116 | 117 → Trade Inspectorate (PIH) conducted most investigations and were authorized to “support the charges” before the Court of the First Instance. The accelerated procedure could be applied to both felonies and misdemeanors.

In comparison to the previous anti-speculation legislation, the creation of an institution that was to deal with speculation in an integrated way was a novelty. Although the new law was quite general, it was fleshed out by the decree of the Council of Ministers of October 12, 1981 “concerning particular tasks, the composition, and mode of operation of the commission for combating fraud” (Dz. U. 1981, No. 25, Item 133), which was much more detailed. There was now a chance that the war on speculation would enter a new phase.

3.5.3  The Front Line of the War on Speculation: The Central Commission

At the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, the Central Commission had enormous powers; it could prosecute, pass judgments and administer sentences. Its 1980s successor had similar powers but adopted more of a softly-softly approach. Although its main statutory tasks included the combating of speculation and prevention of its growth, identification of the black marketeers’ modus operandi, and the initiation and improvement of methods of control, in practice, the powers of the new governing bodies, especially those the Central Commission, were much wider. The Commission did not have labour camps at its disposal; nevertheless, due to its special position in the state structure, it could exert considerable influence on both the executive organs (ministries, regional administration, etc.) and legislation or modify the scale of the repressive measures taken.

Unlike its predecessors, the Central Commission for Combating Fraud (Centralna Komisja do Walki ze Spekulacją, CKWS), was not subordinate to the national councils or the State Council but answered directly to the government, its headquarters located conveniently in the building of the Office of the Council of Ministers (URM). It was the Prime Minister who nominated the Central Commission’s members. From February 1981 to November 1985, the Polish Prime Minister was General Wojciech Jaruzelski, and the fact that he was a military man had implications for the composition of the Commission, its way of functioning and even the terms used in the official correspondence. Statutorily, one of the deputy Prime Ministers was at the helm of the Commission345 but the real power throughout its existence was in the hands of its deputy chairman, Colonel ← 117 | 118 → Władysław Trzaska. As a deputy director of the Office for Combating Economic Crimes at Militia Headquarters (Biuro do Walki z Przestępstwami Gospodarczymi KG MO), he knew this business well. Other deputy chairmen: General Józef Beim (Chief of the State Police, Komendant Główny MO), General Marian Ryba (Main Inspector of Control at URM), and, from November 1985, Tadeusz Skóra, first deputy minister of justice contributed significantly to the Commission’s work. According to the ordinance of October 12, 1981 the deputy secretaries of state in the Ministry of Administration, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Internal Trade and Services, Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Chief Inspector of the PIH, all became members of the CKWS. The chairman could also invite representatives of other bodies to participate in the Commission’s work (especially in its meetings) – these included the Supreme Audit Office (NIK), the State Council Chancellery (Kancelaria Rady Państwa), the Office of the Prosecutor General, national economic associations (Samopomoc Chłopska and Społem), trade unions (since 1982, the only one remaining was the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions, Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ) and social organizations.346 With the changing political reality, the invitation to participate in the Commission’s work was gradually extended to representatives of the Patriotic Movement of National Revival (Patriotyczny Ruch Odrodzenia Narodowego, PRON), the Executive Board of the League of Polish Women, and the Consumers’ Federation.

The representatives of these organizations gained de facto status as CKWS permanent members and participated regularly in the meetings organized at the Office of Council of Ministers. Beside an annual “national anti-speculation conference”, with the participation of all voivodship and regional commissions, smaller meetings were often organized (five in 1981, 25 in 1982, 23 in 1983, and 16 in 1984). The meetings were a platform not only for fiery discussions and ← 118 | 119 → the swapping of experiences but also for gathering information and issuing instructions to the individual ministries and institutions and for exercising control over their execution. During every meeting the Commission officially accepted the reports from a number of voivodships. The headquarters often voiced legitimate objections about the effectiveness of their local counterparts.

Following the protests in August and September 1981, the first months of the Commission’s activity were a period of building structures and perfecting rules. The scrutiny of the media and the presence of Solidarity members at regional meetings prevented the Commission from spreading its wings. Headquarters urged the executive organs to concentrate on “organized speculation” with a special focus on particular articles (cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, sweets) by following their route from manufacturer and warehouse to consumer. Social, youth, and coop organizations were encouraged to participate actively in the operations.347

Martial Law invigorated the commissions. The Solidarity Trade Union ceased to be a threat. The rigorous legal measures implemented on December 13, 1981 (such as the introduction of summary legal proceedings) simplified all procedures and the “social activists”, marginalized earlier, could again exercise their strong influence. The anti-speculation operations fit perfectly with propaganda slogans promising “stabilization” and emphasizing the need to “bring back order”. The deputy ministers who were also members of the Central Commission (CKWS) now had a brief to organize active anti-speculation teams throughout their departments and to raise the topic of combating speculation in all their dealings with the “region”. The emphasis was on invigorating departmental inspections, which had hitherto been ineffective. The goal was to alleviate the burden on the police, who “during the days and weeks busied themselves with activities connected with the implementation of Martial Law.”348

It soon became clear that neither the summary procedures nor the curfew, the limiting of freedom of movement, road blocks, suspended phone communication or the “militarization of supply”349 were able to curb the black market. After several turbulent days, the second economy players resumed their previous ways of operating in often new, clandestine ways. The black marketeers continued ← 119 | 120 → to hone their strategies. The vicious circle began to turn even faster. The ever more sophisticated black market strategies forced the authorities to engage ever greater forces “on the frontline of the war on speculation” and to prosecute and punish ostentatiously people who had “made millions on speculation”.350 A steep price hike in February 1982 weakened the demand for goods only for a short time, particularly as halfway through the year, individual income rose significantly. Higher prices did not automatically translate into well-supplied stores. The incidence of shortages began to grow rapidly, reaching a level of 739 billion zloty. In the previous year, 278 billion zloty had seemed an inconceivably large amount, but the drastic price hike of February 1982 changed radically the price relations.351

The authorities soon realized how misguided the intention to continue the application of the anti-speculation law (and the activities of the Commission) only until the end of 1982. They instantly set about mending the error of their ways. On April 20, 1982, the topic of extending the period of application of the law was on the agenda of the Second National Anti-Speculation Conference (II Krajowa Narada Antyspekulacyjna). Tadeusz Skóra, the Deputy Minister of Justice (and at the same time a member of the CKWS) instructed his legal department in his sector to initiate the appropriate steps.352 The voivodship commissions were required to send in comments and proposals.

In line with the zeitgeist, most of the resolutions presented by the voivodship commissions proposed the implementation of increased repressive measures and fines, and the introduction of a lower threshold for “qualifying speculation”, and opted for an unlimited period for the application of the law. Selling meat from private slaughter (ubój gospodarczy) and exchanging goods between nationalized enterprises were also subject to provisions of the anti-speculation law. It also became clear that the demands of headquarters surpassed the capabilities of the regional commissions, which were often lost in the jungle of regulations (Katowice suggested compiling a glossary of the phrases used in the decree).353 We cannot be certain whether the radical proposals coming from regional Poland genuinely reflected the prevalent point of view or were merely paying lip service in order to satisfy officials in Warsaw, whereas actions on the ground in the provinces suggested the existence of a more liberal approach (see next chapter). Only Białystok – a peripheral, rural region, with a high percentage of ← 120 | 121 → Russian Orthodox population – was courageous enough to express any doubts. “We must consider the question of whether the voivodship and regional commissions for combating speculation created by this decree should continue with their operations. In the current setup, there are too many public inspection organs operating at the regional level and their activities overlap (commissions of public inspection, Federation of Consumers, housing development committees, anti-speculation commissions in workplaces). This extensive system of public inspection makes the voivodship and regional commissions redundant. We propose that the tasks of the voivodship commissions be handed over to the police and the National Trade Inspectorate (PIH), which both have the greatest responsibility for the war on speculation. Only specialized organs with wide legal powers should be focusing on this matter.’354

Very few members of the official media had the courage to express similar opinions (one that did was Stanisław Podemski in Polityka).355 Most of the national and regional newspapers published triumphalist stories about winning the war on speculation. The evaluation and assessment of the work of the commissions was based, among others, on the number of references to their activities in the press (there was even a separate section on press coverage in the commission reports). This was only one of the elements of the propaganda campaign aimed at highlighting public support for the anti-speculation activities of the authorities. Another was the meetings with “representatives of teams of workers”, during which the “workers demanded harsher penalties for black marketeers, parasites, and people guilty of wasting public property. According to the workers, the courts treated the accused too leniently and the mass media did not reveal their full names. Workers who had participated directly in the militia raids on marketplaces expressed similar opinions.”356

The law on combating speculation was amended on October 9, 1982.357 The amendment took care of minor defects in the 1981 law. It took account of the changes in the rationing system implemented in 1982, and set the level of “qualifying speculation” at 200 thousand zloty, as well as defined in more detail what constituted the “interception” of goods on their way to retail stores, which was the most damaging offence of all. But the most important was item 10 ← 121 | 122 → of the amendment. It effectively removed the proviso that the law would apply “until December 31, 1982”. The Party commentator remarked that the amendment made “this legal act into an instrument that now permitted an effective, long-term fight against speculation abuses.”358 Indeed, the decree was ultimately not repealed until July 5, 1990.

No piece of legislation, and especially one that aims to increase repression, can bring back a balanced market. Although store shelves slowly filled with kasha and sugar throughout the 1980s, meat, chocolate, and gas continued nevertheless to be rationed. The 1982 decree on sobriety education made it significantly more difficult to buy alcohol. Income growth outpacing growth in supply during most of the 1980s overheated the market with “hot” money, especially where consumer durables were concerned. As a result finding a refrigerator or TV set to buy bordered on the miraculous. Contrary to the declarations of the official propaganda, which applauded the normalized political and economic situation, the number of “speculation crimes” grew consistently. There were 14 934 such crimes (17.4% of all economic crimes) in 1982, and 24 171 (18.5%) in 1985.359 The differences were not only quantitative but also qualitative. At the start of their existence, the anti-speculation commissions dealt mostly with the retail trading of meat, vodka, jam, or socks but soon it became clear that anything could be the object of black market trade – cars, gas, refrigerators, books, pianos, and even credit facilities for the newly married and special store coupons for veterans.360 By the end of its term, the Commission had to face truly advanced technology – unofficial importers mostly from the Far East flooded the Polish market with electronic equipment, including computers.The most important objects of the black market trade are presented in the monograph chapters; here we would like to focus on the bureaucratic aspect of the black market operations. The primary strategy continued to be the diversion of goods from the official distribution channels. Traditionally, the most common was “speculation of goods bought in nationalized trade outlets” (Item 221 of the Criminal Code; in 1981 – 56.9% of all black market cases, in 1985 – 47.2%). During most of the 1980s, alcohol sales constituted some 60% of all black market cases under prosecution. Most of the offenders were small-scale dealers who could not count on big returns and who treated black market transactions as a way of supplementing their hunger wages ← 122 | 123 → or pensions. This began to change in the middle of the decade when industrial articles started to play a more important role in the black market.361

The analysis of the rationing system conducted at the beginning of 1983 predicted that coupons, or stamps, for some products (meat, chocolate) would be abolished by 1985.362 Reality did not meet expectation, however: coupons for sugar were abolished on November 1, 1985, but for chocolate – only in March 1988, for gas – not until January 1989, and for meat – only on August 1, 1989. This delay left enough time for often sophisticated techniques for breaking and bypassing the rules of the rationing system to be developed. The availability of the product and its price, usually much lower within the rationing system than on the free market, played a very important role. The number of detected rationing system violations (punishable according to the decree of September 25, 1981) grew continuously. In 1981, they constituted 1.3% of all speculation crimes, and in 1985 – 29.1%; the number kept growing. In 1986, when the experiment with free market sales of meat from private slaughter began, the majority of scams applied to gas rationing. At the same time, the improved supply of basic food products resulted in smaller numbers of cases that involved concealing goods from buyers in stores (from 24.8% in 1982 down to 6.9% in 1985).

The percentage of crimes involving the interception of goods on their way from manufacturer or warehouse to retail store (the store would receive only the invoice and the money) stayed at a similar level (6.7% in 1981 and 11.3% in 1985). Such undertakings were the most risky and usually required cooperation between the employees of manufacturers, warehouses, transportation companies, and retail outlets. They were risky but brought in big profits; for example, the value of the intercepted goods (furniture, rugs, and household items) in half of the cases detected in 1984 exceeded 200 thousand zloty.363

Since 1986 this section of the black market had also been in downturn mode, which probably was related not only to the increased repression but also to the growing hard currency sales of consumer durables in the system of internal export and the growing trade of articles brought privately (legally or not) from abroad. The wider opening of the border was also responsible for the increase, from the middle of the decade, in “speculative accumulation of goods” – by 15% ← 123 | 124 → in 1986 alone. People stored not only food products but also industrial articles destined for unofficial export, such as silver, tools, sporting equipment, etc., or those coming from abroad: clothing and electronics.364

If anti-speculation operations were to meet the expectations raised by government propaganda, they had to have an audience. Big, spectacular operations involving thousands of people provided just that. Even if in individual places the results were paltry, when added together on a national scale they looked quite impressive. In 1984 alone, in addition to local actions there took place a number of nationwide operations – twelve code-named Rynek(Market), seven Benzyna (Gas) and one operation against book dealers (as well as Operation Sector, directed against private enterprise) took place nationwide. Special attention was paid to acknowledging the participation of social forces, for example in 1984; 29 thousand civilian activists and over 24 thousand members of the Police Volunteer Reserve (ORMO) took part in anti-speculation operations.365

In the end, the community teams had little impact, even less than the often criticized internal inspections within particular trade branches,366 but they (especially the workers’ brigades) were always the government’s pets. On the one hand, from the ideological and class-oriented point of view, the workers were recognized as the healthy core of the nation. On the other, for decades the authorities had been paying special attention to supplying workers adequately with necessary goods and now considered them especially vulnerable to the operations of the black market. Already in the fall of 1981, the commissions were ordered to “identify (based on the existing situation) sites in the voivodship with the largest concentration of workers and low income population where the black market is especially strong. […] In those places, extensive controls with the use of necessary auxiliary means have to be planned. The concentration of such ← 124 | 125 → operations will allow the streamlining of the existing resources, which are now at the disposal of various institutions.”367

A militia inspection at the Różycki Bazaar in Warsaw, a traditional haunt on the black-market map of Warsaw, 28 January 1982; photo from the archives of the Polish Press Agency (PAP).


← 125 | 126 →

The true “concentration of operations” started after the imposition of Martial Law when Solidarity members no longer posed a threat to the decisions of the commissions. “The program for stabilizing social discipline and public safety in 1982”, approved by Wojciech Jaruzelski on February 21, 1982, envisaged the further development of wide social control.368 “It is not enough to create an institution,” Jerzy Ozdowski, deputy prime minister argued during the Anti-Speculation Meeting in April 1982, “no matter how effective an official or how efficient an inspector, they are not enough. We need to create a social atmosphere hostile towards black market and able to eradicate all symptoms of this social malady.”369 Characteristically, the politicians were the ones who wanted to include the activists in control operations while the representatives of social organizations held a more pragmatic view. At the same meeting Andrzej Nałęcz-Jawecki (later editor-in-chief of the consumers’ weekly Veto) proposed setting up “tiger brigades” (after a popular French TV series), efficient and mobile units consisting of professionals (police and National Trade Inspectorate). “But maybe let’s call them ‘lynx’ or something.” he reflected, “since there are no tigers in Poland.” Catching the perpetrator red-handed was the most important because it allowed the application of summary measures.370

The views of the Military Council on National Salvation (Wojskowa Rada Ocalenia Narodowego, WRON) prevailed. Its members argued that the fight against social pathologies, including the black market, had “to be conducted in a consistent and coordinated way and should involve the social element [ordinary citizens], particularly the working class”.371 On September 11, 1982, the WRON approved the document “On the broad inclusion of the working class in the direct fight against speculation.” The following day, the document landed on the desks of the directors of voivodship commissions with the order to mobilize “workers’ brigades”. Since the procedures were left unspecified, the simplest solutions were embraced. For example in Piotrków Trybunalski, the voivod set up brigades consisting of men that he selected personally, mainly the tried and tested activists of the former Main Council of Trade Unions (CRZZ). In Poznań and Wałbrzych, specific factories were singled out to provide recruits.372 The decisions of the factory management tended to be guided by the consideration of maintaining ← 126 | 127 → efficient production; thus, contrary to the guidelines, the selected recruits were often white-collar rather than the ideologically correct working class.

By the end of 1982, more than 16 thousands workers had joined 1 750 brigades. It is not possible to assess how many of them thought of this job as meaningful. It seems that, as often happens in volunteer-based actions, the enthusiasm was short-lived and was quickly followed by weariness and mere going through the motions and by various forms of evasion. Moreover, even the most dedicated activists were not immune to feeling the pinch. Inspections, followed by having to appear in court as witnesses were time-consuming and hardly lucrative, especially as the activists were employed on a piecework basis.373 Additionally, the specifics of a given location made all the difference. In small towns there were “various informal connections, within social groups and families” that limited, or even made it entirely impossible to carry out “appropriate inspections and suppression operations.”374 The geography of activist involvement in anti-speculation operations depended on the degree of urbanization and industrialization. By the end of 1982, almost seven thousand people had participated in inspections in the Gdańsk voivodship, and some three thousand each in the Katowice and Warsaw voivodships. No wonder that, in the predominantly rural Biała Podlaska and Lublin voivodships, with their closely-knit communities, there had been but 35 and 75 participants respectively. A voice from the conservative Bydgoszcz voivodship (with 175 activists fielded) expressed the general sentiment plainly: “Let workers stick to producing consumer goods and let the organizations set up to fight the black marketeers do their job.”375

Organs of inspection tend to be susceptible to corruption; the workers’ brigades were no exception. Frequently, the “workers’ inspection” turned out to be a sham or cases of bribery would come to light.376 Halfway through the decade, such problems were significant enough to force the commission to conduct large-scale operations (for example Operation Rynek) without involving social forces but rely instead only on the professionals and the police (MO).377

It is difficult to assess the degree of antipathy of members of workers brigades and other community inspection units towards private enterprise and the intelligentsia. The bias against the latter was clearly visible during bookstore checks when the booksellers had to face the same accusations as salespersons ← 127 | 128 → at butcher’s stores. An example from the Silesian town of Ozimek followed a familiar pattern: “an inspection by two workers and a policeman found that in the warehouse at the back of the store there were dictionaries and multi-volume works set aside for schools and subscribers. The manager was sent home and a search conducted; several books by Tolstoy were seized (a multi-volume set). In the evening, the manager was arrested. The following day she was in court facing a fast-track trial. The judge decided that the case should be dismissed and sent it back to be investigated under the normal procedure.”378

The above quote shows some of the characteristics of the justice system in the 1980s in general and in particular in the context of speculation cases. The judges found themselves between Scylla and Charybdis: orders from above demanding increased repression, and the common sense of everyday practice, which demonstrated plainly that many of the accused had broken the law not because they wanted to get rich but because they were under economic duress. The reality was more complicated than the rules and laws provided for. “A judge often comes across,” Ryszard Bolecki, a Supreme Court judge, said in April 1985, “instances of petty offences, coming face to face with poverty. Because in the times that we live in, we don’t hide that we have poor people in this country. There is the law, which must be adhered to […] but the truth of the matter is that judges do have some conscience too.”379 Only rarely, however, were they able to take advantage of the (theoretical) independence of their judicial power and dismiss smaller cases without further ado, for example by finding a compromise or settling for a lesser evil. But there were also those judges who were only too happy to follow religiously the orders from above.

Speculation, which the authorities considered one of the greatest threats to the existence of the state, had to be dealt with severely. By December 1980, the Prosecutor General had ordered that all speculation proceedings be concluded within one month and not three, as had previously been the case. However, until the fall of 1981, the penal emphasis was on economic repression. In comparison with the years 1978 to 1980, the immediate custodial sentences were softened (93.2% of cases were conditionally suspended). By the fall of 1981, the era of liberalization had slowly come to an end. In September, the Ministry of Justice appealed to judges asking for “more consistency”, reminding them of Article 426 of the criminal code, which allowed confiscation of property and also Article ← 128 | 129 → 412, which allowed confiscation of the proceeds of crime.380 The fines were now increased or combined with prison sentences. The real change, however, came with Martial Law.381

After December 13, 1981, law enforcement naturally focused on cases of “breaking the social order in a manner leading to anarchy”. Next in line was speculation. The authorities declared: “Today, the situation requires tough penalties for crimes of speculation and the frequent imposition of immediate custodial sentences”.382 In January 1982 alone, 830 people were convicted under articles 221– 225 of the criminal code and the anti-speculation law (in 1981, on average 389 people had been convicted monthly! – 622 of them under the accelerated procedures.383 Magistrates’ courts, which until then had treated the black marketeers leniently, were now put under the microscope. At the end of February 1982, the magistrates’ courts received instructions to give priority to cases of speculation (second only to misconduct under the Martial Law decree), to pass tougher sentences and to maintain “full readiness to examine cases under the accelerated procedures, as well as to conduct effective investigations under the normal procedures.”384 The problem of the magistrates’ courts remained unsolved; in 1983 they were still persisting in their reluctance to pass custodial sentences. In the first half of the year there were 106 arrests, of which 80 took place in Warsaw!385

All these efforts were only partially effective, particularly in smaller towns, where “society failed to condemn unequivocally the perpetrators”.386 Although in 1982 and 1983, the number of people accused of speculation and the number of convictions were higher than in 1981, the percentage of immediate custodial sentences, which were supposed to demonstrate the authorities’ determination and consistence, remained at a similar level (table 1). According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, in 1982 the “repressions used by the courts often do not meet social expectations. This applies to custodial sentences, the majority of which have been suspended and to the fines which are being set at a level disproportionate to the wealth and profits of the accused.”387 ← 129 | 130 →

Table 1. Convictions for speculation in years 1981–1986


Source: AAN, URM, 32/2, fol. 13

The war on speculation offered a practical proof of the Stalinist theory that class war intensifies in step with the progress of the building of socialism. Martial Law was abolished in July 1983, restrictive measures loosened, and border controls relaxed but penalties for crimes of speculation remained strict. Tightening the repressive measures and perfecting the tools for their implementation became for the Ministry of Justice its main concern in 1983 and 1984.388 In mid-1983, the Ministry embarked on briefing the judges of all the voivodship courts – in individual and group meetings – on the importance of arriving at “appropriate findings”.389 The Ministry seemed to have much faith in the effectiveness of this approach – soon it began to insist that the chief voivodship judges submit detailed monthly reports on the number of convictions, type of proceedings and details of charges and sentencing.390

In the following year, the Ministry of Justice and the Central Commission continued to criticize the leniency of the courts, complaining about the low number of immediate custodial sentences, and the excessive number, over 60 percent, of suspended sentences. Both institutions were dissatisfied with the liberal treatment of qualifying speculation. Of the 270 cases processed in the first half of 1984, no more than every fifth black marketeer was sentenced without suspension. The Ministry also took a dim view of the judicial reluctance to confiscate property – in ← 130 | 131 → 279 cases, confiscation was ordered in only two cases. In 1984 there were fifteen confiscation orders, half of them passed by the court in Konin.391

The regional differences in the approach to crimes of speculation crimes were another tender spot for the justice system and a quick remedy was nowhere to be found. The highest percentage of immediate custodial sentences was noted in 1984 (up to September) in the Legnica (13%), Zamość (10.2%), and Kraków (10.1%) voivodships. In the Opole voivodship it was only 1.2%, in the Siedlce voivodship – 1.3%, in the Sieradz voivodship – 1.4%, and in Konin, Łomża and Rzeszów voivodships, immediate custodial sentences were not used at all. In Katowice, Leszno, Olsztyn or Opole not a single “qualifying black marketeer” had been identified.392 Fines in excess of 50 000 zloty were imposed only in 21 (out of 49) voivodships, most of them in Koszalin voivodship (26.3% of all fines), Wałbrzych (20%) and Suwałki (18.2%), and were applied the least in the voivodships of Lublin (2.4%), Bielsko-Biała (3.4%), and Szczecin (3.8%). “In the Warsaw district where there is the greatest threat of black market crimes occurring, no fine in the aforementioned range was imposed.”393

In these circumstances, the Ministry of Justice came to view the homogenous distribution of penalties as its main task for 1985,394 naturally, by achieving equilibrium at the level of uniformly higher rather than lower sentences. It began by reviewing the more lenient sentences. In the first quarter of 1985 alone, the Ministry conducted 86 extraordinary reviews of black market cases – half the number of annual reviews in previous years – increasing the penalties imposed in almost all of them.395 The decree of May 10, 1985 on special criminal liability396 further narrowed the judges’ room for maneuver in speculation cases. The new law significantly limited the option of suspended imprisonment, removing it completely in cases of qualifying speculation. The fine could not now be less than twice the value of the object of speculation; the application of the accelerated procedures was widened, and an administrative summary procedure was ← 131 | 132 → introduced – without any trial at all. Additional sanctions became obligatory such as advertising the sentence in the press.

The new blueprint changed the game. While in the first half of 1985, there had been 442 accelerated sentences, in the third quarter of 1985 the number went up to 663 (and with another 710 implemented by means of the administrative summary procedure).397 In mid-November 1985, Prime Minister Zbigniew Messner received reports that since the implementation of the decree of May 10 “almost 26.0% of the profiteers are tried under the accelerated procedures and almost 30.0% under the summary administrative procedure, that is, without a trial”.398 This reflected the authorities’ point of view on the “necessity for tough sentences for the most dangerous perpetrators of speculation crimes, including immediate custodial sentences and fines as well as wide range of additional penalties to help profiteers realize that the crimes were not worthwhile.”399 This trend continued in 1986. Almost 60% of all cases were tried in under either the accelerated or summary administrative procedures.400

While repression escalated, the social structure of the black market remained unchanged, with the majority of participants driven to involvement by poverty. Although in September 1981 Stanisław Zaczkowski, the Chief of Police, had referred to the black marketeers as the “margin of society” and “the unemployed”,401 a review of three hundred cases from the first half of 1981 showed a different picture. 61% of all those convicted for speculation were women, and 46% – people older than 50. In 59% of cases the scene of the crime – particularly where sales of alcohol were concerned – was a private apartment.402 In September 1984, Deputy Minister of Justice Tadeusz Skóra admitted that while half of convicted black marketeers were involved in trading, the other half included “small fry, pensioners, elder women caught at the market places”.403 In 1986, this breakdown stayed the same – 40% of the people convicted on speculation charges were employed in nationalized workplaces, with 15% of them in management. At 30%, pensioners constituted the second largest group, and the unemployed – 18.5%, the majority dependent on their spouses. Women constituted 39% of all convicted, and the ← 132 | 133 → over-40s – 64%. What made this group of criminals exceptional was the fact that 87% had no prior convictions.404

Even if not blind, Justice was certainly ruthless; this proved to be the last straw for those opposed to the repressive policies and the war on speculation and brought forth a barrage of criticism. The futility of the anti-speculation operations was frequently pointed out. “It is easy to see,” Józef Popkiewicz wrote in Polityka in the spring of 1984, “that it is the unbalanced market that breeds speculation and not the other way around […]. Is it then possible to defeat or at least diminish the size of the black market without obliterating its permanent source? The answer is a resounding ‘No!’”405 The message between the lines was that the government should focus on balancing the market rather than on hounding small traders.

A strong reaction first to the passing and then implementation of the law of May 10, 1985 marked the beginning of the process of the gradual reclaiming of pluralistic public space. “They say,” wrote Stanisław Podemski, “that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs and that the war on speculation comes at high cost. This is not acceptable. Human beings are not to be broken like eggs.”406 The last straw was the aforementioned case, in June 1985, of a saddler from Przemyśl who for a small mark-up organized deliveries of bread to the nearby Stubno where there was no bakery. Despite the fact that the man had a written permission from the authorities and enjoyed the enthusiastic approval of Stubno’s residents, he was arrested, charged with speculation, and in October 1985, sentenced to two years in jail, albeit suspended. His punishment also included confiscation of all his savings and a huge fine: 250 thousand zloty. What particularly incited response from the media was the comment that, had he been caught after May 10 – when the new law was passed – he would have had to serve his prison term and pay a much higher fine (double the value of the object of his crime).407 This realization triggered a stormy discussion in the media. “University professors and cleaning ladies, farmers and workers […] wrote letters to the editors defending ← 133 | 134 → the saddler. In the end the Minister of Justice reluctantly allowed an extraordinary appeal in favor of the accused.”408

Mandatory press announcements of the sentences passed – intended as an additional punishment and a deterrent to others – backfired, bringing ridicule to the anti-speculation campaign: announcements about convictions for selling toys or herring made them appear absurd and futile. “Speculation is the lowest form of entrepreneurship, which has been known for thousands of years,” wrote Daniel Passent in early 1986. “No-one has ever been able to eradicate it if the circumstances for it were favorable.” The authorities should be happy that “despite educating people for two generations that hard work is the only source of wealth, the idea of buying cheap and selling high has not been completely eradicated. The obnoxious appetite for profit and for growing rich continues to lift its head despite years of scrubbing our morals with a tough brush, sometimes a prison one.”409

Something also began to stir on the other side of the barricade. “One can observe a certain fatigue, weariness or demobilization in the area of fighting speculation,” commented Deputy Chief of Lublin Police (MO), Colonel Andrzej Koczwarski, in early 1986. “There are some people, including police officers, who would like to take a back seat and get some rest.”410 A year later, even representatives of the Prosecutor General called for prudence in cases such as food ration coupon fraud committed by “farmers employed outside agriculture (chłoporobotnicy)”.411

The discrepancy between theory and practice in the “war on speculation” and the economic, political, and social realities in Poland became increasingly clear in the second half of the 1980s. On the one hand state propaganda kept talking about economic reform, the US dollar was becoming the de facto main currency, and state travel agencies were organizing trips that were “tourist” in name only but in reality had a purely business character. On the other hand, the repressive measures employed against the black marketeers were quasi-Stalinist. Thanks to the amnesty bill of July 17, 1986, most political prisoners were let out of jail but the prison doors remained shut for even the most insignificant, small-scale profiteers – the amnesty did not cover economic crimes. ← 134 | 135 →

It is difficult to say if the anti-speculations legacy troubled the new administration. It certainly did nothing to enhance the image of the government. The situation of 1954, when the Special Commission had been simultaneously praised and pushed out of the game now repeated itself. Now, on the one hand, the CKWS received high accolades (for example during the cabinet meeting on May 12, 1986 or on many occasions in parliament in May and June of 1986); but on the other hand, beginning in 1987, its activity visibly slowed down and the frequency of the meetings of the Central Commission and the regional branches decreased.412

On October 23, 1987, the Polish parliament passed a bill on the scope of the activities of chief and central administrative bodies and the CKWS was no longer among them. Since the anti-speculation decree was still in force, there was a need to create a substitute organization. The tasks of the CKWS were allocated to the Committee of the Council of Ministers for Compliance with the Law, Public Order and Discipline (Komitet RM ds Przestrzegania Prawa, Porządku Publicznego i Dyscypliny Społecznej). On the basis of the CKWS and the “Sektor” Central Coordinating Team (Centralny Zespół Koordynacyjny), the Central Team Coordinating the Internal Market Protection (Centralny Zespół Koordynujący Ochronę Rynku Wewnętrznego) was created. The plan was to set up Voivodship Teams Coordinating Internal Market Protection (with 29 positions for secretaries of the voivodship commissions). The Central Team, just as the CKWS had, was to synchronize anti-speculation operations, as well as analyze and evaluate the phenomenon of the black market. Colonel Zbigniew Nowicki (Deputy Chief of Police) was designated as its new chairman; his deputies were Piotr Ostaszewski, director of the PIH and Colonel Wacław Skoczylas, Director of the Office for Combating Economic Crime at Police Headquarters (Biuro do Walki z Przestępstwami Gospodarczymi KG MO).413

The dismantling of the CKWS proceeded much more smoothly than its operations ever had. On October 27, the voivods and mayors of Warsaw, Kraków and Łódź received a telex informing them of the liquidation of the voivodship and local commissions. A thank-you note on behalf of the Prime Minister to the activists participating in anti-speculation operations rounded off the message. Any authorization issued in the past to inspectors by the commissions was to be withdrawn “in a controlled manner”.414 The solemn farewell Party organized ← 135 | 136 → on November 4, 1987 at the Office of the Council of Ministers was brief. After the handing out of the medals, the reading of the laudatory letters and the final speech delivered by Józef Kozioł, the ex-chairman of CKWS, guests – a fact duly recorded!415 – were offered fruit juice.

This was a symbolic end of an era. The pace of the Central Coordinating Team (Centralny Zepół Koordynujący) slowed down significantly. We can only wonder whether the authorities came to deliberately allow a certain leeway for unofficial dealings, which inevitably accompanied market shortages, or whether, perhaps, the weakening government ran out of strength or will to act. While in 1987 as many as 5 607 people had been sentenced for speculation crimes (including 1 801 under the accelerated procedure and 1 565 under the administrative summary procedure), convictions slowed down to 3 682 in 1988 and even lower, to 2 120, in 1989 – fewer than at the end of the 1970s!416

The disappearance of black market issues from the headlines marked the true end of the war on speculation. Even Trybuna Ludu, the official daily newspaper of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) and one of its main propaganda outlets, hitherto passionately committed to the anti-speculation battle, had breathed its last in this war. On December 1, 1988 the newspaper published what sounded like a symbolic farewell: “We should have no illusions that repression is capable of eradicating speculation. The black market thrives on an unbalanced market. It can be destroyed only by increasing supply to equal demand.”417 A month later, with the new economic laws passed in December 1988, a new era began – also for the black market.

114 S.M. Korowicz, W Polsce pod sowieckim jarzmem, London 1955, p. 31. There was much truth in a joke that did the rounds in post-war Krakow: “Two men are chatting. ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘Well, I work at the post office, my wife’s a teacher, one daughter works for the county council, the other is a clerk at the tobacco factory, and my son is unemployed. But we all live quite well.’ Appalled, the first man exclaims: ‘How come your son has no job? How can you let him remain unemployed?’ The father replies: ‘My friend, but he cannot afford to work – someone has to make the money to keep us all, or we’d all soon kick the bucket on those four miserly paychecks!” Ibid.

115 AAN, URM, 5/31, fol. 15. See: M. Zaremba, Wielka trwoga. Polska 1945–1947. Ludowa reakcja na kryzys, Kraków 2012.

116 Z. Grodek, Zaopatrzenie kartkowe w okresie Rządu Tymczasowego (31 December 1944 – June 1945), PH, 60, 1969/4, p. 691.

117 L. Beskid, Ekonomiczne uwarunkowania rozwoju konsumpcji, in: Badania nad wzorami konsumpcji, ed. J. Szczepański, Wrocław–Kraków 1977, p. 100.

118 AAN, URM, 5/31, fol. 3.

119 Z. Grodek, Zaopatrzenie…, p. 697.

120 See: M. Zaremba, Trzej jeźdźcy: strach przed głodem, drożyzną, chorobami zakaźnymi w Polsce 1944–1947, in: Gospodarka i społeczeństwo w czasach PRL-u (1944–1989), ed. E. Kościk, T. Głowiński, Wrocław 2007, pp. 182–206; M. Zaremba, Wielka trwoga…, pp. 509–552.

121 “We don’t have it as good as we should,” a woman living in Przedecz near Włocławek wrote on June 6 1945. “We do have a church, two priests, beautiful services and sermons but we don’t enjoy it because of the very high prices. We have one store here, the co-op. Everything is expensive there, there is one butcher but there is no meat for us there, they have sausage [kiełbasa], leberka [Leberwurst] but they don’t sell it to food-stamp holders. Well, they did, two or three times, because they sell everything under the table and it’s very expensive and not everybody can afford it. Those who have a lot of money and smuggle can pig out and booze but those who don’t have money for all that, have to look at it through the crack in the door, they can only complain and say it was better when the Germans were here because they gave equal rations to all and we could get everything…” AAN, Biuro Kontroli przy Prezydium KRN, 225, fol. 2.

122 J. Szczepański, Zagadnienia konstruowania i realizacji modelu i wzorów konsumpcji socjalistycznej, in: Badania nad wzorami konsumpcji…, p. 33; L. Beskid, Przemiany spożycia w gospodarstwach domowych w Polsce w latach siedemdziesiątych, in: Diagnozy społeczne w okresie narastającego kryzysu. Ekspertyzy Instytutu Podstawowych Problemów Marksizmu-Leninizmu, ed. Z. Sufin, 1981, p. 40.

123 AAN, URM, 5/640, k. 148–149.

124 AAN, URM, 5/252, k. 24.

125 AAN, URM, 5/31, fol. 3.

126 AAN, URM, 5/252, fol. 21.

127 AAN, URM, 5/31, fol. 15.

128 Ibid., fol. 21–22.

129 AAN, URM, 5/252, fol. 1.

130 Ibid.

131 Ibid., fol. 5.

132 Ibid.

133 AAN, URM, 5/253, fol. 2.

134 Komisja Specjalna do Walki z Nadużyciami i Szkodnictwem Gospodarczym 1945–1954, selection of documents, introduction and ed. D. Jarosz, T. Wolsza, 1995 (later: Jarosz, Wolsza, Komisja), p. 15.

135 About Prezydium see: Protokoły posiedzeń Prezydium Krajowej Rady Narodowej 1944–1947, selection, introduction and ed. J. Kochanowski, Warszawa 1995.

136 P. Fiedorczyk, Komisja…, p. 36; Protokoły Posiedzeń Biura Politycznego KC PPR 1944–1945, ed. A. Kochański, Warszawa 1992, pp. 100–101.

137 A. Kochański, Polska 1944–1991. Informator historyczny, vol 1: Podział administracyjny, ważniejsze akty prawne, decyzje i enuncjacje państwowe (1944–1956), Warszawa 1996, p. 100.

138 Books on the topic: Jarosz, Wolsza, Komisja; R. Tomkiewicz, Olsztyńska Delegatura Komisji Specjalnej do Walki z Nadużyciami i Szkodnictwem Gospodarczym 1945–1954, Olsztyn 1995; Działalność Delegatury Komisji Specjalnej do Walki z Nadużyciami i Szkodnictwem Gospodarczym w Szczecinie w latach 1945–1954. Materials from the Scientific Conference March 20 1998, ed. Z. Chmielewski, Szczecin 1998; P. Fiedorczyk, Komisja…; R. P. Smolorz, Verwaltung mit Rechtsbefugnissen im stalinistischen Polen. Die Spezialkommission zur Bekämpfung von Wirtschaftsschädigung und Wirtschaftsmissbrauch, Regensburg 2004; L.S. Szuba, Komisja Specjalna do Walki z Nadużyciami i Szkodnictwem Gospodarczym i jej delegatura bydgoska (1945–1954), Toruń 2009; B. Sekściński, Ogniwo terroru. Delegatura Komisji do Walki z Naudużyciami i Szkodnictwem Gospodarczym w Lublinie, Warszawa 2012; W. Tomczyk, Delegatura Komisji Specjalnej do Walki z Nadużyciami i Szkodnictwem Gospodarczym w Rzeszowie 1946–1954, Rzeszów 2007, PhD dissertation written under the supervision of Prof. W. Bonusiak. http://www.pbc.rzeszow.pl/dlibra/docmetadata?id=959&from=publication (access: March 7 2014). In the above publications – detailed bibliography (especially: W. Tomczyk, Delegatura…, pp. 3–4; L.S. Szuba, Komisja…, pp. 334–344.

139 P. Fiedorczyk, Komisja…, p. 27, p. 42, 83, p. 97.

140 AAN, Krajowa Rada Narodowa (KRN), 214, fol. 180–181.

141 The work on establishing delegations ended in February, (Poznań, Szczecin, Wrocław). The Executive Office acted as the Warsaw delegation (delegatura warszawska). In 1947, there were 294, and in 1949 – 420 county inspectorates; P. Fiedorczyk, Komisja…, p. 72, p. 73, p. 77.

142 A. Valcini, Bal w hotelu “Polonia”, transl. A. Dutka, Warszawa 1983, p. 56.

143 Jarosz, Wolsza, Komisja, p. 69.

144 Ibid., p. 73. See: Komisja do Walki, ed. G. Sołtysiak, Karta 1991/1, pp. 81–97.

145 AAN, URM, 5/754, fol. 26.

146 Ibid.

147 Ibid., fol. 32.

148 AAN, KRN, 487, fol. 34.

149 AAN, KRN, 508, fol. 5.

150 State Archive of the City of Warsaw (Archiwum Państwowe m. st. Warszawy, APW), Starostwo Grodzkie Śródmiejsko-Warszawskie, 14, fol. 36.

151 Ibid., fol. 65.

152 J. Kaliński, Wpływ sytuacji rynkowej na warunki bytowe ludności. Lipiec 1946 – grudzień 1948 r., Kwartalnik Historyczny 76, 1969/2, pp. 319–320.

153 See: R.G. Kaiser, Cold Winter, Cold War, New York 1974; A.J. Robertson, The Bleak Midwinter: Britain and the Fuel Crisis 1947, Manchester 1987; A. Häusser, G. Maugg, Hungerwinter. Deutschlands humanitäre Katastrophe 1946/47, Berlin 2009.

154 J. Kaliński, Bitwa o handel 1947–1948, 1970, pp. 61–69; C. Bobrowski, Wspomnienia ze stulecia, Lublin 1985, p. 183.

155 Quote from: J. Kaliński, Wpływ sytuacji…, p. 326; AAN, The Ministry of Recovered Territories (Ministerstwo Ziem Odzyskanych, MZO), 340, circular 34, 10 May 1947, fol. 1.

156 AAN, KS, 8, fol. 34.

157 Jarosz, Wolsza, Komisja, pp. 5–6.

158 The Act on Combating High Prices was published in the Journal of Laws/43/218. No. 219: Act on Citizens Tax Commissions and Public Inspectors; No. 220: Act on Permits for Operating Trade Enterprises and Trading in a Professional Capacity.

159 AAN, MZO, 340, no. 51, fol. 11.

160 AAN, KS, 10, fol. 92.

161 AAN, KS, 8, fol. 59.

162 The introduction of “people’s” control was a new phenomenon. According to the Act of June 2, 1947 public commissions for price control, citizens’ tax commissions, and public inspectors in treasury offices were to be created immediately; AAN, 190, fol. 28.

163 Jarosz, Wolsza, Komisja, p. 81.

164 Ibid., p. 104.

165 AAN, KS, 8, k. 103.

166 Jarosz, Wolsza, Komisja, p. 85.

167 Ibid, p. 105.

168 Ibid., p. 159.

169 Ibid., 98; P. Fiedorczyk, Komisja…, pp. 178–179.

170 P. Fiedorczyk, Komisja…, p. 50.

171 Jarosz, Wolsza, Komisja, 8. See: A. Zaćmiński, Przestępstwa polityczne w orzecznictwie Komisji Specjalnej do Walki z Nadużyciami i Szkodnictwem Gospodarczym 1950–1954, “Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość” 2008/1, pp. 321–343.

172 A. Kochański, Polska 1944–1991. Informator…, vol. 1, p. 533.

173 P. Fiedorczyk, Komisja…, pp. 325–326.

174 See the monographic chapters.

175 M. Jastrząb, Puste półki. Problem zaopatrywania ludności w artykuły powszechnego użytku w Polsce w latach 1949–1956, 2004, pp. 43–87.

176 J. Kochanowski, Dziesięć dni, które wstrząsnęły portfelem, Polityka, 30 Oct 2010.

177 Herder-Institut Marburg (HIM), Pressearchiv, P 6221, Item 3608/1954, The Black Market in Poland.


ISBN (Book)
Open Access
Publication date
2017 (February)
Poland Black market Illegal economy Meat Moonshine Hard currencies
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 436 pp., 30 b/w ill., 6 b/w tables

Biographical notes

Jerzy Kochanowski (Author)

Jerzy Kochanowski is Full Professor at the Institute of History of the University of Warsaw. He was Visiting Professor at the Johannes Gutenberg-University in Mainz as well as Senior Fellow at the Imre-Kertész-Kolleg in Jena. His main areas of interest are the social history of Poland and Eastern Europe in the 20th Century, Polish-German relations, and forced migrations.


Title: Through the Back Door