Edward Ochab (Polish: [ˈɛdvart ˈɔxap]; 1906–89) was a Polish communist social activist and politician. As a member of the Communist Party of Poland from 1929, he was repeatedly imprisoned for his activities under the Polish regime of the time. In 1939 Ochab participated in the Defence of Warsaw but afterwards moved to the Soviet Union, where he became an early organizer and manager in the Union of Polish Patriots. In 1943 he joined General Berling's Polish Army on the Eastern Front as a political officer and quickly advanced in its ranks. From 1944 he was a member of the Central Committee of the Polish Workers' Party (PPR) and a deputy in the State National Council. In 1945 he became minister of public administration and held the successive positions of propaganda chief in the PPR (1945–46), chief of cooperative associations (1947–48), and chief of the central trade unions (CRZZ) (1948–49). From December 1948 he was a deputy member of the (communist) Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) Politburo, and a full member from 1954. During 1949–50, General Ochab was deputy minister of defense and led the political branch of the Armed Forces. In Stalinist Poland Ochab was well-connected and highly placed within the regime of Bolesław Bierut. After Bierut's death he became first secretary of the Party and served in that capacity between 20 March and 21 October 1956.
First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Party attended Bierut's funeral and stayed in Warsaw to participate in the deliberations of the PZPR Central Committee 6th Plenum, charged with electing a new first secretary. Aleksander Zawadzki was the other major candidate, but in the end Edward Ochab was chosen unanimously on 20 March. Ochab was seen as a compromise candidate by the rival Puławy and Natolin factions of the Party. Soon he was perceived as connected with the more liberal Puławy group.
In June 1956 Ochab attended a Comecon gathering of leaders in Moscow. He displayed there his confrontational style when responding to accusations of the supposedly inadequate supplies of coal from Poland. But the encounter also made him doubt his long term suitability as a first secretary.
After the Party's 6th Plenum and Ochab's election the processes of de-Stalinization in Poland entered their accelerated phase. The press critically discussed the previously prohibited subjects. The Party was split and preoccupied with its internal affairs. The Sejm (national legislature), until then unable to exercise any real influence, used the opportunity and declared wide amnesty, which included in the first place the trespasses of political nature. By 20 May, a half of the 70,000 prisoners nationwide found themselves free. Numerous officials deemed responsible for the Stalinist abuses were removed from their positions, including Berman, who resigned as a Politburo member in early May. Segments of Polish society, including intellectuals, youth (especially academic), and even heavy industry workers were in a state of agitation and reclaiming their inherent and sovereign rights, known in Polish as podmiotowość.
What was happening under Ochab's watch turned out not to be a semi-controlled evolution of the system, because on 28 June workers in Poznań's Cegielski industrial enterprise, frustrated with their inability to redress grievances through official channels, went on strike and rioted. Other workers and Poznań residents joined and violence ensued. Ochab gave Minister of Defense Rokossovsky permission to bring military units to the city and use the force necessary to bring the "counterrevolutionary" revolt under control. Several dozens of mostly civilians were killed and massive damage sustained during the two days of fighting.
Central Committee's 7th Plenum deliberated in the second half of July. It placed partial blame for the Poznań protests on bureaucratic and economic errors. Liberalization and democratization were discussed and the decision was made to readmit to the Party the previously expelled Władysław Gomułka, Spychalski and Kliszko. Gomułka's "right-wing nationalist deviation" charge was upheld, but both the Puławy and Natolin factions were promoting the idea of his return to power. Ochab, who in 1948 strongly attacked Gomułka, was now overcoming his personal objections and evolving toward entrusting the former PPR chief a high office. On 31 July, delegated by the Politburo, Ochab and Zawadzki had their initial meeting with Gomułka that lasted several hours. Subsequently the Polish Radio broadcast the information of Gomułka's return to the Party.
In September Ochab told Józef Cyrankiewicz to offer Gomułka a position that Cyrankiewicz would be competent to offer. Cyrankiewicz offered Gomułka his own job, that of prime minister. Gomułka thought the move was premature and rejected the proposition. It became apparent to the PZPR establishment that Gomułka was aiming at replacing Ochab as first secretary. Gomulka was invited to participate in Politburo conferences that took place on 12, 15 and 17 October.
The 8th Plenum was summoned for 19 October. The public was informed of the date and of Gomułka's participation in the Politburo meetings by the Polish Press Agency. A statute Ochab submitted to be presented to the Plenum was criticized by Zambrowski and Zawadzki. The majority of the Politburo members voted to reduce the body to nine members and the proposed list did not include Minister Rokossovsky.
The Soviets were increasingly worried by the plans of the leadership of the Polish Party and the Soviet ambassador presented on 17 October Nikita Khrushchev's "invitation" for the Polish leaders to immediately visit Moscow. Ochab objected to the timing and refused to make the trip. The Soviets reacted with the announcement (18 October) of Khrushchev's and the Soviet delegation's arrival in Warsaw on 19 October, the day the 8th Plenum was set to begin its deliberations. On 18 October the Polish Politburo, unhappy with the perspective of Soviet meddling (or the appearance of such meddling) with the Plenum debate, designated Ochab, Cyrankiewicz, Zawadzki and Gomułka to greet the Soviets at the airport.
Their arrival was preceded by ominous military moves. Soviet formations present in Poland were moving toward Warsaw and were stopped less than one hundred kilometers from the capital. Units in East Germany were put in a state of readiness and a number of Soviet warships approached the Bay of Gdańsk. Under the direction of Ochab, who "stood firmly in defense of Poland's sovereignty", the Polish Army and internal security forces were placed in defensive positions on the approaches to Warsaw, and the buildings where the Party Plenum and the meetings with the Soviet delegation were to take place were secured. It is not clear what the intentions of the formations controlled by Minister of Defense Rokossovsky and commanders loyal to him were. An even greater crisis was not far-off, because the Soviets did not inform the Polish air defenses of their coming and Polish fighter jets scrambled to confront the plane entering the Polish air space. At the military airfield Khrushchev first greeted a separate group of Soviet generals, then approached the Polish comrades, shaking his fist and shouting derogatory comments.
The 8th Plenum conducted some introductory business and suspended deliberations to allow the leadership to attend the separate talks with the Soviet leaders. The negotiations with the Soviets were very difficult and lasted until 1 AM. Khrushchev objected to the planned Politburo changes and the lack of fraternal consultations, including the removal of Marshal Rokossovsky, noticed the increased activity of anti-Soviet elements in Poland and threatened an active military intervention. Ochab replied that the Soviet leaders themselves would not consult changes in their leadership with the Poles. He, Gomułka, Cyrankiewicz and Zambrowski tried to reassure the Soviets that their interests were not under threat. During a break the Soviet delegation went to its embassy for internal talks and took Minister Rokossovsky with them.
After their return the Soviets displayed a more friendly approach, but Khrushchev was worried that Gomułka, the presumed next Polish leader, might be a social democrat. Gomułka, replied Cyrankiewicz, combined Polish patriotism with loyalty to the Soviet Union. Ochab told Khrushchev that under the circumstances Gomułka was the best choice to lead the country, denying the Soviets the hope of taking advantage of a split within the Polish Party. The conciliatory but unyielding attitude displayed by the Polish negotiators and the widespread popular support they were obviously enjoying convinced the Soviet Presidium to cancel the military moves in progress and defer further negotiations to Gomułka's agreed visit in Moscow in November. Early on 20 October the Soviet delegation departed, letting the 8th Plenum continue its business undisturbed.
Ochab decided not to oppose Gomułka's rise to power, because he realized that a divided party would give the Soviets a perfect excuse to intervene. He could have easily allied himself with Marshal Rokossovsky and other discarded Politburo members, but he placed Poland's interests over his own career. In his own mind, Ochab rightfully submitted to the will of the Politburo and the Central Committee. He was no fan of Gomułka and felt that promoting Gomułka as the savior of Poland, unavoidably in the making, would be demeaning to the entire Polish Party. But Edward Ochab did all he could to save Poland from tragic events on a mass scale, like the ones that were soon experienced by Hungary.