Forty years ago, in August 1980, growing unrest at the vast Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk coast gave birth to the most extraordinary development in a Communist country in the world up to that point. What started out as a localized movement on Poland’s Baltic coast, later spilt over to the whole of the Soviet-led Eastern bloc.
I was a witness to seeing that movement, Solidarity, first be crushed, but later re-emerge and see its imprisoned hero eventually become the first freely and democratically-elected president of Poland a mere nine years later.
Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa, had been an electrician and union leader several years before the events of 1980-81 occurred. After being fired from his job, Walesa emerged as a popular strike leader and owed much of his growing public support to the 1979 visit of the first Polish-born pope, John Paul II, who told his imprisoned compatriots to “Let the Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth”.
John Paul II’s message touched a raw nerve in Walesa and many Poles, who interpreted the Pope’s words to mean, “Don’t be afraid“.
Known affectionately as ‘Leszek’, as everyone called him, during a strike on August 15, 1981, Walesa secured a pay rise for the shipyard workers and a monument to those killed in an anti-Communist uprising that had taken place in 1970. Having won those concessions, Walesa then announced the end of the strike, but what happened next had, above all, to do with a number of determined women who were delegates from strike committees at other companies.
The driving force behind those groups was a crane-operator named Anna Walentynowicz, a woman who later would painfully and publicly turn against Walesa. Walentynowicz was sacked on August 7, just five months before she was due to retire, for “anti-government activities”. Despite Walesa’s announcement that the strike was over, she refused to let him give up and the walk-out resumed.
That event was the beginning of Solidarity – an independent and grassroots-led trade union, a novelty anywhere in the Communist bloc. It was also the moment when the powerful intellectuals of the Klub Inteligencji Katolickiej (the Club of Catholic Intellectuals) could put their imprint on a movement which had been, until then, solely the domain of workers.
One of the most striking figures in that group was Tadeusz Mazowiecki who, in 1989, would become the first non-Communist prime minister in Poland since 1948. Another significant organisation that emerged was KOR (the Committee for the Defense of Workers), with its charismatic leader Jacek Kuron.
With all of these key players in place, it suddenly became clear that the workers would no longer to be bought off with modest wage increases or better food allocations. Instead, they made 21 demands that were hesitatingly accepted by the government. They included: the right to strike, freedom of speech, print and publishing rights, the reinstatement of workers and students sacked or expelled during earlier protests, the release of political prisoners, the strike-committees had the right to spread information, all which cut deeply into the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
The workers were openly backed by Pope John Paul II, and in by Poland’s clergy, especially in conservative Krakow, which was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was the home of a small Catholic weekly newspaper that was deeply hated by the Communist regime. At only four pages long, Tygodnik Powszechny (General Weekly) was hardly an intimidating looking periodical, but it had a huge influence despite the fact that it often printed the paragraphs that had to be censored, leaving only the blank spaces to show what had been cut out.
From the end of 1980 to 1981, I spent most of my time as a young reporter in Poland for profil-magazine, my boss, Peter-Michael Lingens, was afraid that the new movement in the country would soon be crushed by a Soviet invasion, as had happened in Hungary 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
He ordered that a profil-reporter needed to remain in Poland at all times. After my colleague Erhard Stackl, who covered the birth of Solidarity, was no longer admitted into the country by the Communist authorities, it was my turn.
I had arrived in Poland on Christmas, in 1980. It was a grim country with long queues of people who waited to enter shops with near-empty shelves that were stocked with only canned vegetables and potatoes, that was about it, which became the subject of my first major report.
Poland’s private farmers, who admittedly had very little arable land at their disposal, founded their own trade union, Land Solidarity, and I later reported on the strikes that broke out repeatedly throughout the country. It was a constant game of cat-and-mouse with the movement as no sooner had the students ended their nationwide strike that coal or steelworkers in southern Poland would start theirs.
In September 1981, I attended the first Solidarity congress in Gdansk. By that time, it already had almost 10 million members. There were heated debates about ending the leading role of the Communist Party in the country. In a Message to the Working People of Eastern Europe Solidarity called for free trade-unions for everyone in the Eastern Bloc.
Walesa told me then that he knew that people in the West had no idea what was going on in Poland. Western politicians, especially those on the Left, were deeply sceptical about a workers’ uprising that was backed by the Catholic Church.
Austria’s Social Democratic chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, helped the Communist regime score a public relations success when he made a flippant remark that the Poles should “strike less, but work more”. He was afraid that Austria’s state-owned steelworks would be deprived of the coal-imports that it received from Poland.
In the UK, the leading aristocratic leftist of that era, Tony Benn, even proposed that Walesa should be arrested by the Polish Communist Party’s secret police. Benn thought Solidarity would lead to a wave of Thatcherism throughout Eastern Europe.
While visiting the coal mines near Katowice, in southern Poland, I learned of the terrible working conditions that the miners had to endure. “Do you agree with your chancellor that we’re not working hard enough here?”, they would shout at me through the dust and heat of the pits. I promised them to write about their hardships. I did so the next day, just before the Polish army intervened.
Poland’s Prime Minister and the leader of the Communist Party, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who looked like a typical South American military junta dictator with his dark glasses and slicked-back hair, declared martial law on December 13 and arrested the entire leadership of Solidarity, including Walesa.
What followed were years of political standstill, rapidly declining living standards, and economic decline. Jaruzelski justified all of this by saying the crackdown had involved very few deaths and had averted a Soviet invasion. Declassified Kremlin files that were published years after the events took place showed that Moscow had, in fact, wanted to avoid a Soviet military intervention at all cost.
I smuggled photos out to the West that showed the true what Jaruzelski’s martial law, one of which made it on the covers of Time Magazine, Paris Match, and Espresso. It showed an angry crowd in front of a police car that blocked the Solidarity headquarters in Warsaw.
Poland’s Communists tried to hold on for as long as it could, helped partly with Western loans. But by late 1988, it was clear that the game was up with the economy. The regime agreed, rather desperately, to round table talks with Solidarity’s leadership in February 1989. The result was a peaceful power-sharing agreement and free elections that saw which Solidarity emerge as the strongest political force in the country, but had to temporarily accept working within a coalition that included the Communist Party.
In today’s Poland, Civic Platform is the political party that are the direct heirs to the Solidarity movement. In the years since the re-establishment of democracy in the country, Civic Platform steadily lost ground to the far-right and increasingly authoritarian Law and Justice, or PiS, party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his late twin brother, Lech. The PiS has since followed the anti-democratic example set by Viktor Orban in Hungary where the media is brought to heel and the independence of the judiciary is gradually curtailed.
Although the EU has initiated some proceedings to counter Kaczynski’s creeping authoritarianism, it has made little difference. Moreover, the PiS has remained broadly popular at home, especially in rural areas. What’s most troubling, however, is that the enemies of the PiS, and its supporters, include the Civic Platform politicians who continue to control Poland’s largest cities; the EU, which is despised as a new outside force that gives Poles orders; as well as homosexuals, whom the church leadership despises.
At demonstrations against the PiS, the same battle songs that I heard in 1981 are being played again. The country, which benefited greatly from its EU accession and had one of the highest growth rates in Europe in recent years, remains deeply divided.
Solidarity, nowadays, is regarded by many as just another episode in Poland’s long history of defeats. And Walesa, its iconic hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is no longer seen as relevant by the younger generation of Poles. Now 76, you can often meet him in the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk, where he often shows up and greets people as a kind of living exhibit.
Walesa deplores the hatred and division he sees in today’s Poland, saying, “The world needs a common idea for the whole of mankind“.
For him, that idea could still be solidarity.