Stanislaw Kania, who as Poland’s Communist leader for 13 tumultuous months in the early 1980s steered a delicate course for his country, avoiding both open confrontation with Solidarity, the rising independent labor movement, and military intervention by the Soviet Union, died on Tuesday in Warsaw. He was 92.
The state-run Polish Press Agency said he died of heart failure and pneumonia at a hospital.
As first secretary of Poland’s Communist Party, Mr. Kania, a colorless career party functionary, led the government in Warsaw from September 1980 through October 1981. After surviving several attempts to oust him, he was finally deposed by party hard-liners under pressure from the Soviet leader at the time, Leonid I. Brezhnev. A Soviet invasion was averted, but within two months martial law was imposed by Mr. Kania’s successor, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.
The struggle faced by Mr. Kania, a stocky man with close-cropped receding hair, was reflected in a speech he made to party members at the Lenin Steel Mill in the southern city of Cracow, Poland’s second-largest city, in June 1981. Speaking of militant members of Solidarity, he said: “They say that the socialist system does not yield to reform. They even do not exclude the vision of civil war in Poland. Such statements and actions cannot be treated as anything but stalking counterrevolution.”
Yet Mr. Kania (pronounced KAHN-ya) balanced that hard line against Solidarity with assurances that the government sought “constructive relations” with the union and would treat it “kindly.”
Mr. Kania never captured the hearts of the Polish people, but many were grateful to him that he had never ordered security forces to put down protests.
He had been national security chief for 10 years when the party chose him to replace Edward Gierek as first secretary on Sept. 6, 1980. Mr. Gierek was ousted in the aftermath of huge demonstrations, including strikes at the Gdansk shipyard, that had paralyzed the nation in August and prompted the government to agree to allow Solidarity to become an independent union.
The protests were fueled by more than a decade of economic distress: food shortages, long lines at gasoline stations, inflation, declining production of coal, Poland’s chief export, and more than $25 billion in government debt. And those conditions continued under Mr. Kania, causing more turmoil, with Solidarity pressing for greater freedoms and the Soviet Union calling for a crackdown.
“He wasn’t in favor of using a heavy hand, which is what the Kremlin wanted,” John Micgiel, a now-retired professor of international studies at Columbia University and an expert on Poland, said in an interview for this obituary in 2012. “Kania, in a way, was like a person on a cart with a lot of horses in front of him, trying to manage the journey. And these were a bunch of obstreperous horses.”
At least four times, Mr. Kania was summoned to Moscow and told to suppress Solidarity, whose 9½ million members were led by Lech Walesa. The most perilous moment came in December 1980, when, as Mr. Kania recalled 17 years later, he was ushered into Brezhnev’s office and shown a map of the route that “masses of troops” would take into Poland. He implored the Soviets to stay out.
“I said that if there was such an intervention, then there would have been a national uprising,” Mr. Kania said. “Even if angels entered Poland, they would be treated as bloodthirsty vampires, and the Socialist ideas would be swimming in blood.”
Mr. Brezhnev replied, according to Mr. Kania: “All right, we will not go in. Without you we won’t go in.”
That account was confirmed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser.
“President Carter sent a message that the U.S. would not interfere if the Soviets did not invade Poland, but that the U.S. would not be passive if the Soviets did,” Mr. Brzezinski, who died in 2017, said in an interview for this obituary in 2012. “That helped Kania, and Kania’s attitude helped us. The invasion was evaded, and this was Kania’s significant contribution.”
Stanislaw Kania, a son of a peasant farmer, was born on March 8, 1927, in Wrocanka, a village in southeastern Poland. He was an apprentice blacksmith when World War II broke out and joined the Polish Resistance. After the war he enrolled in what was then the Polish Workers Party.
Mr. Kania rose through the party’s ranks and became a member of the ruling Central Committee in 1968. Two years later, after bloody riots in northern Poland, he was chosen to replace the notorious security chief Mieczyslaw Moczar. The riots also led to the ouster of Wladyslaw Gomulka as party chief and the installing of Mr. Gierek as his replacement. Ten years later, it was Mr. Gierek who fell from power, giving way to Mr. Kania as first secretary.
Backed by Moscow, party hard-liners in Poland made several attempts to push Mr. Kania out. In June 1981, a letter from the Kremlin accused him of succumbing to “counterrevolutionary activities” by the “extremist wing” of Solidarity. He deftly staved off that attempt by calling for an open vote of confidence by the Central Committee, which he won.
But four months later, with the economy still reeling, leading to food shortages and protests in the streets, Mr. Kania was replaced by General Jaruzelski, who declared martial law on Dec. 13, 1981. Thousands were arrested without charge, and more than 100 were killed.
Efforts to revive the economy faltered throughout the decade, and in the late 1980s, realizing that he needed the cooperation of Solidarity, a new prime minister, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, presided over negotiations that led to the legalization of the union. In elections held on June 4, 1989 — the same day that the Chinese Communist authorities crushed protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing — Solidarity won 35 percent of the seats in the Polish parliament. By December 1990, the Communist Party had been dissolved, and Mr. Walesa was elected president of Poland.
Before he was ousted, Mr. Kania was instrumental in the creation of a 30,000-member military unit that General Jaruzelski later used in imposing martial law. More than 30 years later, his building that force came back to haunt him, when he and other former Communist officials were tried for their roles in the martial law violence. Again, however, in January 2012, Mr. Kania dodged a bitter result. He was acquitted.
Dennis Hevesi, a former obituary writer for The Times, died in 2017. Joanna Berendt contributed reporting from Warsaw.