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.
This weekend I went to see Wałęsa: Man of Hope, the new film by acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda, which offers a rich biopic of Lech Wałęsa: shipyard electrician, family man, leader of the Solidarity Trade Union, communist-era dissident, Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of post-communist Poland. The film focuses on the period from the Gdansk strikes of 1970 to the collapse of communism in 1989. This was the time when Wałęsa rose to international prominence as leader of the Solidarity movement, and original documentary footage of various events was interspersed throughout the movie. I’ve really been looking forward to seeing this, particularly as I visited Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity, for the first time last November (and am looking forward to returning in a couple of weeks!), so I was delighted when I discovered that Cineworld are currently offering showings throughout the UK.
The film’s narrative is developed around Wałęsa’s interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, which took place in March 1981. Near the beginning of the film, Fallaci asks her advisor ‘What is he [Wałęsa] really like?’. His answer is: ‘Full of contradictions and surprises’ – something which is more than evident as the film progresses.
Robert Więckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska are both wonderful in their respective lead roles. Więckiewicz excels as Wałęsa, allowing his uncompromising charisma to really shine through, while Grochowska provides a great portrayal of Danuta, both as Wałęsa’s loyal, long-suffering wife and mother to their eight children, but also allowing her to emerge as a strong character in her own right. We see her abusing the secret service agents sent to periodically search their apartment (while concurrently destroying incriminating pamphlets by boiling them in a pot on her stove!) and ordering dozens of journalists out into the street when she decides their privacy has been eroded enough. One particularly poignant scene shows Danuta traveling to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace prize on her husband’s behalf (Wałęsa was awarded the prize in 1983, but refused to travel to Norway to collect it in person, as he feared that he would be prevented from re-entering Poland). Danuta returns proudly bearing the prize, fresh from the prestige of the acceptance ceremony, but is met with a cold welcome back in Poland where she is forced to endure a humiliating strip search and ‘personal interrogation’ as a punishment.
As the story unfolds, we get a real sense of the precarious position Wałęsa was in as he tried to grope his way through uncharted territory to victory against the communist party – often caught between the younger, radical members of the strike committee who urge him to push too fast, too soon and those who accused him of ‘selling out’ for his willingness to consider compromise with the communist authorities. We see Wałęsa himself become hardened and more radicalised in his demands for workers’ rights as the Solidarity movement gathered momentum. This is particularly evident from depictions of his experiences with the SB (the communist-era Secret Police in Poland). The fear manifest during his initial arrest for involvement in the 1970 riots is palpable, as he nervously watches other protestors, most of whom are bloodied and battered, being pulled in around him and listens to the StB make threats against Danuta and their new born son. But later arrests and interrogations are characterised by tolerance and resignation. ‘I’ve been expecting this’ he drily remarks when he opens his door to two nervous SB men sent to arrest him on a cold December night in 1983, as Polish Premier General Jaruzelski prepares to declare Martial Law.
Throughout the film we frequently witness Wałęsa’s ‘human’ side as he is forced to push harder and risk more in his fight against the authorities. The slogan ‘Nie chcem, ale muszem’ (‘I don’t want to, but I have to’) – as Wałęsa himself declared during his Presidential campaign in 1990 – appears increasingly apt. ‘What if I get scared?’ Danuta asks Lech before the SB men take him away on the eve of Martial Law. ‘Then that would mean the end’ he responds, before admitting, in a rare moment of vulnerability, ‘I get scared sometimes too’. This fear is perhaps most evident when he spots a Soviet aircraft hovering menacingly overhead as he is hurriedly transferred from his helicopter to the jeep that will take him to his confinement, while the SB officers accompanying him express concerns that the Soviets could decide to ‘take Wałęsa out’, placing them in danger too ‘so there aren’t any witnesses’. And although Wałęsa acknowledged how easily the people could turn against him during his 1981 interview with Fallaci, he still appears genuinely shocked when some passing Poles hurl abuse at him while he is being transported in an SB car the day after the declaration of Martial Law.
The film’s emphasis is firmly focused on Wałęsa’s ‘golden years’, although even the famous round table talks and the election victory of June 1989 are skipped over very quickly at the end. There is nothing about Wałęsa’s chequered Polish Presidency (1990-95) or the controversy provoked by his increasingly extremist views in recent years. While Wajda does not shy away from allegations that have emerged suggesting that Wałęsa acted as a police informant prior to his involvement in Solidarity (and even hints that there may be some truth in this), overall the film adopts a deliberately ambiguous approach in its portrayal of the nature of any collaboration between Wałęsa and the SB. No clear answers are provided, although more generally, Wajda hints at some of the reasons why people may have collaborated with the communist authorities – for example, the case of Wałęsa’s workmate, who agrees to make an unpopular speech calling for the acceptance of ‘voluntary penalties’ by shipyard workers who fail to make their quotas, because his family live in abject poverty and he was given ‘wood for the fire and a promise of electricity’ in exchange for his complicity.
Today, Lech Wałęsa remains a controversial figure. Reports that he recently walked out of an interview mid-way through, suggest that the confrontational, bullish, uncompromising attitude we witness during the film’s depiction of his interview with Fallaci has not mellowed. Wajda himself described producing the biopic as ‘a very difficult undertaking’, stating that his aim was to present a nuanced picture of Wałęsa – an aim in which he certainly succeeds. Man of Hope portrays Wałęsa very much as a flawed hero – someone who did the best he could under the circumstances in which he was operating, and achieved much against almost insurmountable odds. However Wajda also illustrates how Walesa’s ‘difficult’ and at times authoritarian leadership style frequently translated into arrogance, intolerance and rudeness. The overall sense I left with was one of Wałęsa as human, rather than saint-like, although I thought this strengthened, rather than detracted from, the film’s message. Wałęsa himself has recently given his seal of approval to the biopic, stating that overall he thinks Wajda has ‘done a good job’.
The film trailer is below. Catch it if you can!
From 7 – 10 November I visited Gdansk, at the kind invitation of the European Solidarity Centre. I was participating in a conference, ‘Europe with a View to the Future‘, which was organised by the ESC in collaboration with the journals New Eastern Europe and Nowa Europa Wschodnia (both of which I’ve previously contributed articles to), the Jan Nowak-Jezioranski College of Eastern Europe and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Unfortunately I arrived too late to attend the welcome reception on 7 November, which included the launch of Professor Jeffrey Goldfarb’s new book ‘Reinventing Political Culture‘, however I was up bright and early the following morning to join my fellow conference delegates! The second day of the conference opened with a short talk and a film showing about the European Solidarity Centre, which was founded in 2007 with a focus on preserving the heritage of the Solidarity movement and promoting its relevance for future generations. Rather fittingly, this session took place in the historic BHP Hall at the Gdansk shipyards – in the same room where, following the strike action of August 1980, the Gdansk Agreements (which led to the establishment of the independent trade union Solidarity) were signed, and since August 2010 the site of an exhibition about the Solidarity movement. From 2014 however, the ESC will be based at a new site nearby and so conference delegates were treated to a tour of the new building, which is still very much under construction – this was the first conference I’ve attended where I’ve been asked to don a hard hat and tour a construction site!
The new Centre sounds like a fantastic project – designed to function as a cultural and educational hub (the conference organisers spoke of their desire for the new ESC to act as a ‘Gdansk agora’), the new building will house an interactive museum about the history of the Solidarity movement and the collapse of communism in Poland and across Eastern Europe, a multimedia archive and library and will organise and promote cultural and educational initiatives including exhibitions, concerts, conferences, workshops and seminars. I’d certainly like to visit again when it opens in 2014! You can read more about it HERE.
We then moved to the Old Town Hall for the main conference discussion which consisted of two panels, the first on the theme of ‘Solidarity in a Contemporary Europe’, the second debating ‘Europe as Seen from the East’. The panels were delivered in a ’round table’ setting, which was a nice touch, providing another nod to the legacy of Solidarity and the famous round table talks that led to the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989. I participated in the first session, ‘Solidarity in a Contemporary Europe’, which related to the likely future of the European Union, in light of the current Eurozone crisis, the ongoing ‘bailout’ negotiations and mounting questions about European integration. I spoke about the historical evolution of the European project and also discussed British attitudes towards the EU – a hot topic coming at a time when all three of the major UK political parties are publicly seeking to ‘reposition‘ their policies regarding Britain’s place in the EU, Foreign Secretary William Hague recently claimed that the British publics’ disillusionment with the EU is ‘the deepest its ever been’ and Prime Minister David Cameron has emphasised the need for reform, renegotiation and the increasing likelihood of some kind of referendum on Britain’s future in Europe. Other panel participants also provided interesting insights from German, Polish and US perspectives on European integration and our panel was followed by a lively question and answer session!
The afternoon panel, ‘Europe as Viewed from the East’ was equally interesting, with panelists discussing contemporary Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian perceptions of ‘Europe’ and debating the extent to which EU membership is still viewed as an attractive prospects by its eastern neighbours today. We ended the day with a well earned drinks reception hosted by a local art gallery, perusing a photographic exhibition documenting last years Moscow protests and listening to Tatiana Kosinova discussing her new book ‘Polish Myth’, which explores links between communist-era dissident movements in Poland and the USSR, drawing on information taken from interviews conducted with several former dissidents, before enjoying dinner in a waterfront restaurant in the old town. This was an interesting and stimulating conference, and I’d like to take the opportunity here to thank the European Solidarity Centre for their hospitality.
After the conference, I had a day free to see some of Gdansk before flying home. I began by heading back to the shipyard, the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, where I visited the Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers. Also built as part of the 1980 Gdansk Agreement, to serve as a memorial to the 42 shipyard workers killed during the protests that took place in December 1970, this was the first monument to the victims of oppression to be erected in a communist country. I passed through the famous shipyard Gate no. 2 (still displaying a replica copy of the ’21 demands’ hung on the gate by the striking workers in 1980 – the original boards are UNESCO protected – combined with the addition of a Solidarity-themed souvenir kiosk!) and revisted the BHP Hall to take a more leisurely look at the Solidarity exhibition there. I also visited the Roads to Freedom Exhibition (dedicated to the history of the Solidarity movement and the collapse of communism), housed in an underground bunker! After lunch I visited the Amber museum which is housed in a beautiful fourteenth century gothic building on Ul. Dluga, wandered through the centre of the Old Town (past Lech Walesa’s office in Zielona Brama), strolled along the waterfront and enjoyed browsing the amber stalls set up on the charming Ul. Mariacka as dusk fell, stopping only to refuel with some pierogi ruskie and a beer!
Gdansk old town is utterly charming, a peaceful and picturesque space which belies the cities’ turbulent recent history. Virtually destroyed during WWII, the medieval buildings were painstakingly restored and rebuilt during the 1950s and 1960s (with similar post-war urban restoration projects undertaken in other Polish cities, including the capital Warsaw). Even today, just a few steps out of Zielona Brama, the remaining ruins of the old Granaries visible just across the river on Spichlerze illustrate the level of destruction wrought here less than seventy years ago.
A few photos follow, for those who are interested.
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.
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.