THE EVOLUTION OF THE POLISH SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT – BY KIERAN INGLETON.
The Solidarity movement in Poland is arguably one of the most unique and inspiring movements in modern European history. Between 1980-1989, Solidarity led what has often been described as a “10 year revolution”, which ultimately resulted in the collapse of communism in Poland, a key turning point which triggered wider reform and revolution across the Eastern bloc. During this turbulent decade, Solidarity evolved from a legal trade union into an underground social network and protest movement, ultimately emerging as a revolutionary force, capable of toppling and replacing the communist system in Poland. (Bloom, 2013, pp374-375). Mark Kramer has argued that while Solidarity may have started out as a free trade union, it “quickly became far more: a social movement, a symbol of hope and an embodiment of the struggle against communism and Soviet domination” (Kramer, 2011).
THE BIRTH OF SOLIDARITY
The Solidarity movement emerged out of a much longer history of worker discontent, strikes and protest that had characterised tensions between the state and society in communist Poland since the end of WWII. Touraine has argued that “Solidarity first emerged because it was a response to Poland’s decline economically and socially. Nowhere else in Communist Central Europe was the failure of the governments industrial and agricultural policies so obvious” (Touraine, 1983, p32). From the mid-1970s, the Polish economy had slipped more deeply into an irreversible economic decline, as production levels plummeted, real wages stagnated, shortages increased and foreign debt mounted, reaching $18 billion by 1980 (Paczkowski & Byrne, 2007. p. xxix). In 1980, a Polish Communist Party (PUWP) announcement about increasing food prices triggered a fresh wave of strikes across Poland. At the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, workers were further incited by the dismissal of crane driver and trade union activist Anna Walentynowicz, and in response, around 17,000 workers occupied the shipyard on 14 August. On 17 August, the Gdansk strike committee, led by Lech Walesa, drew up a list of ‘21 demands’, which were famously displayed on the gates of the shipyard. While several of the demands were pragmatic (such as improved economic conditions and the right of workers to strike) others were more politicised (including demands for reduced censorship and freedom for political prisoners). Notably, at the top of the list, the strikers demanded the establishment of free trade unions, independent from Communist Party control, to better represent workers’ rights.
When the Polish leader, Edward Gierek, turned to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev for advice, Brezhnev encouraged him to seek a ‘political solution’ rather than forcibly subduing the strikes (having recently sent Soviet troops into Afghanistan, Brezhnev was keen to avoid the possibility of Gierek requesting ‘fraternal support’ from the Soviet military). As a result, the Polish leadership opened negotiations with the striking workers, and on 21 August a Governmental Commission arrived in Gdansk to begin talks, which resulted in the ‘Gdansk Agreement’ of 31 August 1980.
The Gdansk Agreement included authorisation for independent trade union representation of workers’ interests, and on 17 September 1980 the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (NSZZ – Solidarnosc) was officially formed. For the first time since the Communists had come to power the Polish people could join a trade union that was wholly independent from state control. However, Solidarity’s remit was clearly proscribed. The PUWP always intended their role to be limited to non-political representation, as the Gdansk Agreement stated that “these new unions are intended to defend the social and material interest of the workers and not to play the role of a political party”.
THE RISE (AND FALL) OF SOLIDARITY
As Jeffrey Bloom comments ‘‘The strikes of 1980 were the beginning of a social revolution. The nation emerged transformed, they were all aware of what was achieved, strike victory and solidarity helped create a sense of hope and self-confidence for future conflicts” (Bloom, 2013, p115). From its formation in September 1980, Solidarity grew rapidly, peaking with almost 10 million members by June 1981 (a figure which is estimated to have comprised around 70% of all workers in the state economy in Poland and around a third of the total population). Biezenski argues that in the twelve months following their formation, “Solidarity’s dramatic increase in activism was a logical response to a deepening economic crisis within Poland” (Biezenski, 1996, p262). The continued failure of the Communist Party to adequately address deteriorating conditions meant that “the social and material interests of the workers” that Solidarity had been founded to represent remained under threat, and as the months passed, it became increasingly clear that significant improvements to socio-economic conditions in Poland would not be possible without some kind of accompanying political restructuring. Emboldened by their rising support, Solidarity adopted an increasingly politicised stance and began agitating for a general strike. As Barker has argued: “Solidarity changed its members. The very act of participating in a founding meeting, often in defiance of local bosses, involved a breach with old habits of deference and submission. New bonds of solidarity and a new sense of strength were forged … [which] opened the door to a swelling flood of popular demands” (Barker, 2005).
This shift was clearly reflected by October 1981, when Solidarity published their official programme, which encompassed a combination of socio-economic and political aims, couched in increasingly revolutionary rhetoric. The programme attacked the failures and shortcomings of the Communist Party, referred to Solidarity as “a movement for the moral rebirth of the people” and stated that “”History has taught us that there is no bread without freedom … what we had in mind was not only bread, butter and sausage but also justice, democracy and truth”.
“Solidarity unites many social trends and associated people, adhering to various ideologies, with various political and religious convictions, irrespective of their nationality. We have united in protest against injustice, the abuse of power and against the monopolised right to determine and to express the aspirations of the entire nation. The formation of Solidarity, a mass social movement, has radically changed the situation in the country”.
– Solidarity’s Programme, 16th October 1981
As Pittaway points out, ‘The PUWP was thrown into disarray by the advance of Solidarity and its hold over public opinion’ (Pittaway, 2004, p175). Solidarity challenged the status quo, so that the normal mechanisms of communist control over the mass of the population began to break down (Barker, 2005). The Communists initially responded by launching a negative propaganda campaign, designed to damage Solidarity and discredit their leadership, including Walesa. The growing popularity and influence enjoyed by Solidarity also elicited concern from Moscow. On 18 October 1981, General Wojcech Jaruzelski was appointed as new leader of the PUWP. A known hardliner, Jaruzelski was given a clear mandate to suppress Solidarity. Until his death in 2014, Jaruzelski always maintained that he feared Soviet invasion if he had not moved swiftly to contain Solidarity, although the likelyhood of Soviet military intervention in Poland has been disputed. On 13th December 1981, Jaruzelski declared Martial Law and as tanks rolled onto the streets he addressed the people of Poland in a live TV broadcast:
“Our Country stands on the edge of an abyss … Distressing lines of division run through every workplace and through many homes. The atmosphere of interminable conflict, controversy and hatred is sowing mental devastation and mutilating the tradition of tolerance. Strikes, strike alerts and protest actions have become the rule … A national catastrophe is no longer hours away but only hours. In this situation inactivity would be a crime. We have to say: That is enough … The road to confrontation which has been openly forecast by Solidarity leaders, must be avoided and obstructed”.
– From Jaruzelski’s Declaration of Martial Law, 13 December 1981.
DEATH – AND REBIRTH
Following Jaruzelski’s declaration of Martial Law, and the creation of a ruling ‘Military Council of National Salvation’ (Wojskowa Rada Ocalenia Narodowego, or WRON), Solidarity was outlawed, its leaders arrested and its supporters repressed. An estimated 5000 Solidarity members were arrested; over 1700 leading figures were imprisoned (including Walesa) and 800,000 others lost their jobs. (Bloom, 2013, p297). Martial Law remained in force in Poland until July 1983.
However, although Solidarity were embattled, the movement survived. During the 1980s, Solidarity networks continued to function underground, focusing their efforts on illegally printing and distributing anti-communist literature, including books, journals, newspapers, leaflets, and posters. On April 12, 1982, ‘Radio Solidarity’ even began broadcasting. Throughout the mid-1980s, Solidarity persevered as an exclusively underground organization, promoting civil resistance, continuing their fight for workers’ rights and pushing for social and political change. Former Solidarity member Eva Kulik described how: “”We needed to break the monopoly of the Communist propaganda. And what people really needed was information”. As Feffer points out, the Solidarity trade union actually spent more of its existence in the shadows than as an official movement (Feffer, 2015). However, these underground years were formative in explaining the evolution of the movement. As Touraine has argued, after Jaruzelski forced the movement underground, Solidarity ‘now sought to liberate society – under the cover of a new rhetoric replacing the tired trade union vocabulary with that of a revolutionary movement” (Touraine, 1983, p183).
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev’s appointment as Soviet leader finally bought more of a reformist agenda to the table in Eastern Europe, and by 1988, the Communists were ready to negotiate with Solidarity. Chenoweth believes that by that point the PUWP had little choice: continued economic deterioration in Poland (where rationing had been in place for most of the 1980s) meant that reforms were urgently needed and “the reality by 1988 was that Solidarity was too big and too broad to repress” (Chenoweth, 2014, pp61-62). While they had been driven underground in Poland, Solidarity enjoyed considerable support internationally, with Lech Walesa even being awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. During the famous ‘Round Table talks’ in the spring of 1989, the PUWP agreed to reinstate Solidarity’s original remit as an independent trade union. When Solidarity was re-legalized on 17 April 1989, its membership quickly increased to 1.5 million. However, by now many members of the Solidarity leadership had their eyes firmly on the main political prize. In June 1989, in the first semi-free elections in Poland since 1945, Solidarity represented the main opposition to the PUWP: campaigning as a legal political party, fielding Solidarity candidates against established Party members and sweeping to victory, winning all 161 contested seats in the Sejm [parliament], and 99/100 seats in the Polish Senate. By the end of August 1989, a Solidarity-led coalition government had been formed, and in December 1990, Lech Wałęsa was elected President. Solidarity had come a long way from their roots in 1980, and now faced a new challenge: dismantling communism and overseeing Poland’s transformation into a modern, democratic European state.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KIERAN INGLETON recently completed his BA (Hons) at Leeds Beckett University, graduating with Upper-Second Class honours in July 2015. During the final year of his degree Kieran specialised in the study of communist Eastern Europe, researching the evolution of Solidarity for one of his assessed essays. Kieran is particularly interested in the interaction between politics and society in totalitarian regimes, and his history dissertation explored the application of Totalitarian theory to Stalinism between 1928 and 1939. Kieran now plans to take a gap year, before studying for an MA in Social History.
Colin Barker,(2005) “The Rise of Solidarnosc”, International Socialism, 17 October 2005, http://isj.org.uk/the-rise-of-solidarnosc/
Robert Biezenski (1996), “The Struggle for Solidarity 1980-1981: Two Waves in Conflict”, Europe Asia Studies, 48/2
Jack Bloom (2013), Seeing Through the Eyes of the Polish Revolution: Solidarity and the Struggle against Communism in Poland. Haymarket Books.
Eric Chenoweth (2014) “Dancing with Dictators – General Jaruzelski’s Revisionists”, World Affairs, 10/3, http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/dancing-dictators-general-jaruzelski%E2%80%99s-revisionists
John Feffer (2015) “Solidarity Underground”, The World Post (2015) http://www.johnfeffer.com/solidarity-underground/
Mark Kramer (2011) “The Rise and Fall of Solidarity”, The New York Times, Op Ed http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/opinion/the-rise-and-fall-of-solidarity.html?_r=0
Andrzej Paczkowski and Malcolm Byrne. Eds. (2007) From Solidarity to Martial Law: The Polish Crisis of 1980-1981 : A Documentary History. Central European University Press, Budapest.
Mark Pittaway (2004) Eastern Europe 1939-2000. Cambridge University Press.
A Touraine (1983) Solidarity: Poland 1980-1981. Cambridge University Press.
I spent the first week of September in Budapest, on the first leg of a research trip funded by the Centre for Culture and the Arts at Leeds Metropolitan University. While I was in Budapest, I spent most of my time researching at the Open Society Archivum. I really can’t recommend the OSA highly enough. They have some fantastic Cold War-related collections, the archivists were friendly and helpful, and the open access ethos means they are generally happy for researchers to take digital copies for research purposes. This was really helpful for me, as working in a second language (in this case, translating documents from Czech to English) slows down the research process considerably, which can be frustrating when you have large amounts of information to get through in a limited time frame. So it was great for me to be able to quickly scan reports to ascertain their relevance and then take copies of the most relevant information that I could keep, to read through properly and develop for my research project at a later date.
Despite a very productive week which turned up some fantastic information for my current research project relating to terror and repression in communist Czechoslovakia, I left already thinking about future visits, having identified several additional collections that I plan to return to OSA to view!
In addition to focusing on my own research, I attended two interesting events during my week at the OSA. Firstly, I was able to attend the opening of a new art installation, ‘QR Code’ by Gergely Barcza. This 3 sq metre display consists of 2.916 slides, capturing the life of a family over a 20 year period in communist Hungary (1970s-80s). The montage is deliberately arranged into a giant QR code, which can be read by a smartphone, and links to the project’s facebook page, containing the individually digitised images:
If, like me, you’ve ever looked through old photographs at flea markets or second hand stores, and wondered about the people in the photographs and what became of them, then Barcza’s project will strike a chord with you. The photomontage not only showcases private family memories, but also encapsulates Hungarian society in the 1970s and 80s, and poses some interesting questions about methods of visually documenting human life, in both the past and the present:
I was also excited to discover that the team from the Europeana 1989 project were visting the OSA while I was there. Their team travel around former East bloc countries collecting personal memories, stories, objects and memorabilia relating to the revolutions of 1989, to add to their online collection. I think Europeana 1989 is a wonderful initiative, and have been following their Twitter account for a while now, so it was really great to have the chance to meet some of the team and find out a bit more about the project. You can check out their main website here.
As the OSA was closed over the weekend, I had some free time to see a bit more of Budapest before travelling on to Prague. Today Budapest is a thriving, cosmopolitan city. But twenty-five years after the collapse of communism, reminders of the communist legacy can still be found throughout the city:
I also took the opportunity to visit Memento Park, an open air museum on the outskirts of Budapest, dedicated to the display of some of the most striking communist-era monuments which were removed from the City after 1989. Ákos Eleőd, the Hungarian architect who designed the park is said to have remarked that “This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”
The moving poem ‘One Sentence About Tyranny’ by Hungarian poet Gyula Ilyes is also displayed at the entrance to Memento Park. You can read an English translation of the poem here:
One inside the park, you are free to wander around and view the 42 communist-era statues on display. Guided tours are also available. Here are just a few photos of some of the many striking exhibits:
Other exhibits at Memento Park included an old Trabant and film footage from ‘Life of an Agent’, depicting secret police training methods in communist Hungary:
I also visited Terror Haza (House of Terror), a rather sobering museum that documents the experiences of both fascism and communism in Hungary. Located at 60 Andrassy Ucta, the former police headquarters of both regimes, Terror Haza has been criticised for focusing on the imposition of external terror, and ignoring the question of Hungarian collaboration. However, the displays were interesting and visually striking – I found the footage recounting the experiences of some of the victims of both regimes that plays on screens at various points around the museum (in Hungarian, but with English subtitles) particularly effective:
Whilst in Budapest, I also gave an interview to The Budapest Times, discussing the legacy of communism, post-communism, contemporary developments in Hungary and Ukraine and the impact of EU expansion, which has now been published on their website here.
Finally, you can see more of my photos from Budapest, and from my visit to Memento Park over at my personal blog Kelly and Kamera.
Plans for the construction of a new monument to celebrate German reunification have caused some controversy.
The winning design, unveiled earlier this week, was the culmination of a controversial 12 year process involving two public bids for design submissions for a memorial to celebrate the peaceful revolution of 1989 and the subsequent reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990. Chosen by Culture Minister Bernd Neumann and approved by a parliamentary committee, the new monument will cost €10m (£8.76m, $14 million USD) and is expected to be built over the next two to three years. The new memorial will occupy a central site in Berlin, near the soon to be rebuilt Berlin Palace, which was destroyed by the SED to make way for a new communist-era German parliament. The square outside the building was also the site of peaceful mass demonstrations in the lead up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
The winning design, entitled ‘Citizens Movement’, was designed by Stuttgart designers Milla & Partner in conjunction with Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz, as a 55 metre long, 330 tonne tilting steel dish. The dish will be inscribed with the slogans ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (we are the people) and “Wir sind ein Volk” (we are one people) and adorned with engravings depicting scenes from the 1989 revolution.
Rather than a passive monument, the dish is deliberately designed to encourage active engagement and popular participation, with people encouraged to physically climb onto the structure. The construction is designed to tip from side to side and will be set in motion by visitors’ movement. It can hold up to 1400 people but requires 20 people to start moving, representative of ‘people coming together’ as was the case in the 1989 revolution and 1991 re-unification.
German culture minister, Bernd Neumann, said that the new memorial “will not be a dead monument but one … that allows citizens to participate”, while Johannes Miller, one of the architects behind ‘Citizens Movement’, also issued a statement emphasizing the populist sentiment behind the design:
“The rest of the world’s monuments are built to be looked at. “This monument isn’t just an object to look at. It should be entered and set in motion. That movement is only possible when a large group of visitors cooperate. With this concept, it’s the people who’ll make it into something. Maybe they’ll use it for theatre, or like Speaker’s Corner, or skaters will use it. The people will make it their own.”
However the monument has attracted criticism. Viewed as something of a gimmick in certain quarters, it has been described in derogatory terms by much of the German and international media; quickly dubbed ‘a giant fruit bowl’, ‘a baby rocker’ and a ‘playground for grown ups’. Critics have also claimed that the monument is a safety hazard and, in a city already filled with memorials, superfluous. However, the announcement made earlier this week also led to calls from Roland Jahn (former dissident and current head of the Stasi Archive) for construction of a further memorial, this time dedicated to victims of repression in the former GDR.
Journalist Christian Bangel goes further, claiming that the memorial represents an ‘imbalanced unity’, symbolic of German failure to adequately come to terms with re-unification in the last twenty years. While acknowledging that, on the surface the memorial represents a ‘fun idea’, in an article published in Zeit Online, he claims that:
“The memorial leaves out any sense of the process of reunification – the problems, the friction, and yes, the sense of marginalization that many East Germans still feel. It’s very possible that this memorial will one day be seen as a symbol of the failure to confront the ghosts of East Germany … and why bother to build a memorial anyway? We already have a monument that symbolizes division, change and unity the world over: the Brandenburg Gate”.
Finally: “Citizens Movement” was not the only monument to be unveiled in Germany this week – a memorial in memory of Paul the Octopus, who became an unlikely star of the 2010 World Cup after successfully predicting the outcome of eight matches by choosing mussels from boxes labelled with the flags of rival teams, was also unveiled at the aquarium in Germany where he lived until his death in October 2010. The tribute to Paul, part of a new exhibition in Octopus Garden, shows a very large Paul with his tentacles hanging over a football which is patterned with different national flags!
27 June 2011: A recent article, ‘Rocking Remembrance‘ by Dr. Karl Schlogel, written for ‘Slow Travel Berlin’ in reference to the planned memorial to unfication, contains some interesting perspectives.
I’m not generally a fan of the Daily Mail, but a couple of days ago I stumbled across a rather interesting article by Peter Hitchens entitled ‘What if the Berlin Wall Didn’t Fall?’ where Hitchens imagined what might have happened if the revolutions of 1989 had failed and communism had survived in Eastern Europe and the USSR. You can read his article in full here:
Playing the ‘what if?’ game in History can be problematic and obviously requires a lot of artistic license – ‘If Hitler had never been born, would the Holocaust still have happened?’ was a favourite question back when I was studying for my History A-Level, and of course it’s impossible to know and in some ways perhaps rather pointless to ask – though such an exercise can be very useful in getting history students to think about the complicated nature of cause and effect. But, twenty years on, it is worth remembering that although the eyes of the world were turned on Eastern Europe in 1989, at the time no one was entirely sure how the dramatic events unfolding would pan out. In the lead up to 1989, few had predicted that communism was in imminent danger and the success of the revolutions that swept across the Soviet bloc was by no means a foregone conclusion. While the world was watching with interest, the world was also waiting, with some apprehension, to find out what the East European communists would be prepared to do to stay in power, and how Moscow would react to the events unfolding across their European sphere of influence…
Hitchens envisages what might have happened if the communists had enforced repression on a larger scale in 1989, imagining ‘a massacre on the scale of Tiananman Square’ taking place in East Germany to defend the Berlin Wall as the communists clung onto power, turning the tide in Eastern Europe while a coup organised by communist hardliners in the CPSU forces Gorbachev and other leading reformists from power in Moscow, leading to the authorisation of Russian military action to reverse the liberal reforms that had already taken place in Poland and Hungary, and bring all of the Eastern European states firmly back under Soviet control. Meanwhile the Western world looked on, denouncing the events unfolding in Eastern Europe, yet not prepared to take any firm action to oppose them.
Could this have been the outcome in 1989? It was certainly possible, if not probable.
Although we know that Gorbachev had effectively revoked the Brezhnev Doctrine by 1989 (this was the Soviet policy that legitimated military interference in the internal affairs of its East European allies in cases where the communist monopoly of power was threatened, as had previously happened in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968), we also know that the East European communist parties still had considerable forces of coercion at their disposal, and initially, the communists did attempt to use force to attempt to quell demonstrations and demands for reform in many cases (such as the GDR, Czechoslovakia and – later of course – Romania, where both the police and armed forces were unleashed against initial demonstrations). Due to the release of previously classified documentation after 1989, we also now know that many communist leaders seriously considered the use of force on a larger scale in an attempt to cling onto power, although without the security of ‘back-up’ from Moscow, most quickly decided against this option. For example, records from meetings in the GDR show that Erich Honecker continued to champion a forceful crackdown on protests in the weeks leading up to his removal from power on 18th October, despite being bluntly told by his security chief that ‘we can’t beat up hundreds of thousands of people’, while Czech Premier Ladislav Adamec also seriously considered using force to retain power at an emergency meeting of the Czech Central Committee held in late November, before deciding that, given the circumstances unfolding both in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere across the communist block, a ‘political compromise’ was his preferred solution.
However, I disagree with Hitchens’ view that pure force would have been sufficient to completely quell domestic unrest across Eastern Europe in 1989 – while enhanced repression may have been an effective short-term measure to restore the communist monopoly of power and may have convinced the majority of East Europeans that further anti-communist action was futile at that time, in the longer term the communists would probably have sought to ‘buy off’ their populations with some limited degree of reforms, particularly in the economic sphere, as had been the case under the Brezhnevian ‘Little Deal’ of the 1970s – which had become increasingly unworkable during the 1980s due to the mounting economic problems evident in the communist block. And even if communism had survived the upheavals of 1989, obviously one cannot assume that it would have survived another twenty years to the present day – serious problems were evident and had been exposed to both the people and to the outside world under Glasnost, so while a reversal of liberalism and the launch of a concerted large-scale crackdown in 1989 may have bought the communists a temporary ‘stay of execution’, without some kind of serious reform programme it is unlikely communism could have survived in the longer term, at least in its previous form.
Perhaps proceeding with caution to develop the more ‘limited’ reforms initially envisaged by Gorbachev (if such a programme was carefully controlled and constrained by the threat of force), would have made enough of a difference for communism to survive. But, we also know that many communist hardliners were opposed to Gorbachev’s reformist programme seeing even this as ‘too radical’, and that there were attempts to force him from power such as Hitchens imagines (most famously in the failed coup of August 1991). Had the Soviets chosen to rely on large-scale repression to retain power in their European ‘sphere of influence’ then the West would – almost certainly – have pursued a policy of ‘words but not action’ : spoken condemnation but without active engagement, as had previously been the case in 1956 and 1968, not willing to risk World War III over the fate of Eastern Europe, which up until 1989 was still generally accepted as being firmly ‘in the Soviet sphere’.
In Hitchens’ alternate version of 1989, the imaginary repercussions of events in Eastern Europe are wide-ranging. Margaret Thatcher remains in power in the UK as we never see the emergence of ‘New Labour’ in the 1990s (although Barack Obama has still been elected as US President in 2009, and is even ‘pictured’ at the Brandenburg gate in the article, in an ‘How Obama MIGHT have looked confronting communism in 2009’ style mock-up photo!). The European Union fails to materialise as a significant political and economic organisation. NATO is strengthened but does not expand and the map of Europe remains firmly divided into ‘West’ and ‘East’ with the Baltic States, Ukraine and Georgia still confined within the borders of the USSR. Other organisations such as the Provisional IRA and the ANC are also affected. Certainly, a scenario similar to that outlined by Hitchens would have led to a dramatic cooling in East-West relations and the birth of a ‘new Cold War’ in 1989, which would have had far-reaching implications for international relations on a global scale as we entered the twenty-first century. Twenty years on, I think this makes one realise and reflect on just how pivotal the events of 1989 really were.
Twenty years on, will present-day tensions overshadow past glories in Poland?
Tomorrow (4th June) marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark Polish elections of 1989, the first ‘semi-free’ elections in communist Eastern Europe, and the day when representatives of trade union-come underground dissidents-come political opponents Solidarity dealt the final fatal blow to communism in Poland, sweeping to victory by winning 99% of all seats in the upper senate and all contested seats in the Sejm. As Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first post-communist democratic prime minister in Poland recalled earlier this week: “Twenty years ago, what seemed impossible became possible”.
Today, the majority of Poles remain rightly proud of their role in the revolutions of 1989, seeing themselves as the standard bearers of anti-communist resistance in Eastern Europe. Many claim that it was the success of Solidarity in the June elections that finally opened the floodgates for meaningful reform across Eastern Europe, inspiring their communist neighbours to follow their lead and take decisive action to cast off Soviet rule. As a result, over 120 events are being organised throughout Poland to celebrate and commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the June 1989 elections, including re-enactments of communist-era protests and numerous exhibitions, conferences and concerts, with the anniversary celebrations receiving widespread media coverage both within Poland and internationally. CNN, for example, are showing a series of programmes about the Polish role in the events of 1989 entitled ‘Autumn of Change: The New Poland’, and I found this short video on YouTube:
Some however, have been left disenchanted, feeling that Poland’s part in the events of 1989 was too quickly over-shadowed by the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year, an event which, for many people today, remains the defining symbol of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I recently wrote about Polish complaints about their perceived under-representation in the EC video ‘Twenty Years of Freedom’ (see ‘Video Commemorating 1989 Revolutions Creates Controversy’ (18th May) @ https://thevieweast.wordpress.com/2009/05/18/ec-video-commemorating-1989-causes-controversy/ ), and earlier this week, former Solidarity leader and former Polish President Lech Walesa also expressed some resentment at the lack of recognition generally given to Poland’s role in the events of 1989 in comparison with events in Germany, in an interview with the Financial Times where he complained that: “They shouldn’t be ridiculous with that wall, and made into heroes because they [East Germans] were running away [to the west] while Poland fought”.
Polish anniversary celebrations have also been marred by domestic quibblings, with the recent economic downturn taking its toll. The central festivities commemorating the 4th June elections were originally planned to take place in Gdansk, whose shipyards were famous for the anti-communist strikes of the 1980s and the birth of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. However, the threat of violent protests by the modern-day Solidarity trade union led Prime Minister Donald Tusk to recently announce that, in the name of national unity, the official celebrations would be moved to Krakow, stating that ‘Solidarity … wants to carry the symbolism of history, but Solidarity today is a medium sized trade union, and June 4th is a national day. It cannot be highjacked by any political movement’.
While Krakow may be a safer, less controversial and – arguably – a far more picturesque location for official dignitaries to quietly celebrate Poland’s ‘twenty years of freedom’, it lacks the same kind of resonant symbolism as Gdansk, which is still remembered as the raw cradle of anti-communist dissent in Poland. Today however, the prevailing mood in Gdansk is one of anger at the current economic failings rather than nostalgia for the past. Mismanaged and heavily subsidised under communism, Polish shipyards have found it increasingly hard to restructure and adjust to function in a competitive global economy during the last twenty years. An EU investigation launched in 2005, recently ruled that the Polish government had breached EU rules by providing state aid to keep their domestic shipyards in business. As a result, two such yards, at Gdynia and Szczecin have already been sold to foreign investors leading to the loss of thousands of jobs. EU officials announced yesterday that they were committed to saving the historic Gdansk shipyard, which was awarded a European heritage label in January 2009. While the past significance of Gdansk will doubtless be remembered across Poland tomorrow however, its future currently remains uncertain.
University College London (UCL) have an interesting podcast available on their website. Entitled ‘Looking Back on the Berlin Wall’ the podcast contains a short (fifteen minute) interview with Mary Fulbrook, Professor of German History at UCL, who has previously published several works on the GDR and is currently working on a Leverhulme funded project focusing on Germany from the First World War to the reunification of East and West in 1990, entitled ‘Living Through Dictatorships’.
In the interview, Professor Fulbrook discusses her own insights into events leading up to and surrounding the East German revolution, explores the shifting symbolism of the fall of the Berlin Wall over the past twenty years and highlights some of the lasting legacies of the events of 1989.
You can listen to the interview as an MP3 or download and listen via itunes by clicking on the relevant links here:
The BBC are inviting readers to email in to share their memories of the revolutions of 1989, and their reflections on the impact of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe twenty years on. There have already been some interesting responses and I imagine the volume of comments will increase. You can read the initial responses here:
6th February 1989 – Twenty years ago today in Warsaw, fifty-seven representatives drawn from the Polish Communist Party (an official delegation led by then Minister of the Interior Czeslaw Kiszczak) and the banned trade union ‘Solidarity’ (led by Lech Walesa) quietly sat down around a large table to discuss the best way to quell the growing tensions evident in Polish society. The rest, as they say, is history.
Known as the ’round table talks’ these negotiations ran from 6 Feb – 4 April and the resulting agreement, signed on 5th April 1989 paved the way for freedom of speech, democratisation and reform in Poland, which ultimately led to the collapse of the communist regime. The willingness of the Polish Communist Party to enter into a meaningful dialogue with their opponents symbolised a radical break in party policy (just seven years earlier Polish leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski had sent tanks out onto the streets of Warsaw in a declaration of Martial Law to quell protests against his regime), and the events that unfolded in Poland as a result of these talks sent a strong signal to their ‘comrades’ across the East European region that change was now possible, igniting the spark that led to the revolutions of 1989.
Twenty years on from the opening of the round table talks, while it is events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 that have stuck in the popular consciousness as symbolising the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Poles remain justifiably proud of their part in the events of 1989 and a series of commemorative events are planned to mark the occasion. On 29th January a ceremony was held at the Gdansk shipyards (site of the 1980 strike movement and the ‘birthplace of Solidarity’) and a plaque unveiled to celebrate the recent granting of a European Heritage Label to the site for its historic significance. The old Polish embassy in Berlin yesterday (5th February) unveiled a banner bearing a large photograph of the round table talks and the slogan ‘It started with the Round Table’, with a conference also organised for 9th February to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the talks. The European Solidarity Centre are planning a series of events in coming months, including a musical about the 1980 Gdansk Shipyard strikes and the birth of Solidarity, while a film honouring Father Jerzy Popieluszko (the priest, a leading Solidarity activist, was arrested, interrogated and murdered by the secret police in October 1984) is to be released in March.
The Polish Newspaper Rzeczpospolita today published the results of a public opinion poll indicating that a growing number of Poles now say they feel ‘disatisfied’ with the outcome of the round table negotiations however, with many feeling that the Polish people were cheated or ‘sold out’ by arrangements which enabled former communist leaders to retain wealth and influence in the post-Communist period. Lech Walesa, former leader of Solidarity and Polish President 1990-1995 agreed on Monday that the round table talks were ‘a rotton compromise’ and admitted that some of the consequences of the talks ‘proved contradictory to expectations of the participants’. However he defended the actions of those involved and the need for a peaceful compromise, stating that he himself ‘had to behave dishonestly in that situation, but would do the same again’. Walesa went on to explain that:
(It was) a very rotten compromise, base, but without it we wouldn’t have been able to move on. Without the round table communism could have stuck around for 50 years and a day. Certainly, one day communism would have toppled, logically thinking in 30 or 50 years, and it would have ended then in a bloodbath
Current Polish President Lech Kaczynski also agreed, in a statement published in today’s Rzeczpospolita, that while ‘from today’s perspective I believe there was a possibility to negotiate more, that kind of thing is only obvious months or even years later’.
When covering the subject of the collapse of communism in East Europe with my students (most of whom were now not born until after communism had fallen across Eastern Europe), one of the biggest problems I often face is convincing them that the events of 1989, and the course these events took were by no means inevitable. With hindsight it is all too easy to look back twenty years ago and view the fall of communism across East Europe as the only natural outcome of the changes taking place, but at the time that was far from the case. The round table talks are a good case in point. Even today, twenty years on, those who were involved in the process look back and marvel at the way events unfolded in Poland. Tadeusz Mazowiecki (leading Solidarity activist and Poland’s first non-communist Prime Minister 1989-1991) stated earlier today that:
“No one on either side thought events would move so quickly and that six months later my government would see the light of day. All we hoped for from those negotiations at the most was the legalisation of Solidarity, seven years after it was banned by the communists … Nothing was set in stone. Hard-line communists were still very strong.“
And negotiators from the Polish Communist Party have also been marking today’s anniversary by recalling their shock at the course events took in 1989. Leszek Miller, a communist negotiator in 1989 (and later Polish Prime Minister 2001-2004) argues that:
“I thought it would be a step towards democracy and that Solidarity would take on the role of the opposition, certainly not the role of government straight away … Solidarity got much, much more than it had demanded”
Former Communist media advisor Jerzy Urban also disputes the ‘inevitability’ of the outcome of the round table talks. Referring to the elections held on 4th June 1989 where Solidarity triumphed, winning 99 out of 100 seats in the Polish senate, Urban reminds people today that the Communists were still in charge and that ‘we could have easily falsified the election results, but we chose to recognise them’.
Most other East European countries are organsing events to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the revolutions of 1989, so I will be writing more on this topic as the year progresses.