A memoir of Polish Solidarity thirty years ago

Thirty years ago, I had the great good luck to witness the signing of the Gdansk Agreement that tolled the first death knells for Communism in Europe. Here it is authoritatively recalled by the doyen of commentators on the subject, Neal Ascherson.

 Standing in front of the gates of the Lenin shipyard in  the port of Gdansk  a few weeks previously, I was rash enough to make that very prediction on camera. The editors back home cut it out – understandably at the time perhaps, but they apologised years later.

Although I had the benefit of the wisdom of the BBC Warsaw correspondent Tim Sebastian, he was usually tied to the capital to file endlessly for Radio, mainly the BBC World and Polish services. On the strength of Tim and  the BBC’s reputation, we had been cheered by the dockworkers as we tried to sneak unobtrusively past the police ranks into the shipyard.  And there we were, based for a memorable six weeks  to deliver some exclusive reporting.

As a firefighting TV reporter flown in from London, I had little enough to go on beyond a vague grasp of C19 and early C20 European history and field craft from the Troubles. One element I hadn’t expected.  The shipyard in Gdansk itself looked familiar. Here were cranes, gantries and smaller local versions of Goliath. For the sheds, there was the same design and construction in red brick. Then I remembered.  Belfast and Gdansk (the former Danzig) shared the same tradition of leading edge German engineering of the Victorian era.

But little comfort came from these homely associations.  The atmosphere was tense and scary. I had recorded that piece to camera in front of a memorial to dozens shot dead after a similar lock- in in 1970. At the spot, the echoes of the Jim Larkin era and 1916 combined seemed compelling.

I still  ask myself what made me make that rash prediction of Communism’s eventual fall. I think it was that weeks after the workers locked themselves in, the surrounding ranks of police had still made no move. It began to dawn on us that this was a regime in disarray. Persistent hesitation can be fatal for any regime, more so an authoritarian one. The initiative was passing to the workers.

Although censored in Poland we were allowed to continue reporting (though with many technical difficulties put in our path), as part of the Helsinki agreements which were part of East-West détente.

The regime thought it could handle dissent, but it was wrong. With  memories still vivid of invasion in 1956, fear of Soviet intervention was endemic. But in 1970 the Gomulka regime had fallen after suppressing the  demos of that year. As it turned out, times were changing even further.

I respectfully disagree with the late Tony Judt’s verdict quoted here. Noone would claim  that Solidarity was more important than perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union five years later. But as Gorbachev himself concedes, the Polish experience showed that peaceful change was possible behind the Iron Curtain. 

Polish nationalism, for so long and so deeply associated with the freedom struggle  was asserting itself. Two party leaders came and went before military rule and Solidarity’s temporary suppression, followed by its eventual victory a decade later.

Polish communism had always had to reach an accommodation with Polish nationalism, championed by default by the Catholic Church – now led by a charismatic young Polish Pope of whom it was rumoured (wrongly as we now know) that he was prepared to throw himself in the path of the first Soviet tank to cross the frontier.

After the great shock of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, Brezhnev and the Soviet politburo had lost the element of surprise and did not wish to risk a bloodbath. They still had cards to play but discreetly, or so they thought. But very few – nobody really – outside had an inkling that the Soviet regime itself was as rotten as Poland’s.

The Solidarity lock-in had fatally undermined the image of Communist implacability and invincibility and compromised the “leading role” of the party everywhere.

“Bliss it was to be alive?” Not quite, but it certainly kept the adrenaline rushing.  And undoubtedly, history had unfolded before our eyes.

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  • Alan Maskey

    Onew of Catholicism’s greatest triumphs. The Pope saying Mass in Warsaw really stuck it up the Reds.
    But waht about Thatcher having tea and buns with (Polish) trade unionists/dissidents?
    You gotta hand it to the Poles. Tough cookies.

  • Brian,

    Great days indeed, It was a master stroke of solidarity to broadcast the negotiations to the whole workforce. via the tannoy system The stalinist bureaucrats were knocked off their feet by this, as it denied them the type of wriggle room only those with power have. Any hint of a compromise on the part of solidarity leadership, which would be to the detriment of its members became impossible for the Stalinists to make.

    It also showed the solidarity leadership had absolute confidence in their membership and vice versa. I am glad you have published this piece, perhaps it will remind people it was not zoot suited businessmen, western politicians, or NATO arms who knocked the first bricks out of the cold war wall, but boiler suited working class men and women with dirt under their fingernails, their brothers and sisters throughout Poland; and a small number of leftwing intellectuals who worked alongside them; with the trade unions providing the glue.

    There is a real lesson for all left parties here, If SF had chosen a version of this open road, they might not have got into the terminal mess they now find themselves in.

  • Alan Maskey

    MIck: Had the Pope any hand in it? Of course, not all Polish parties are left wing and nor were all Solidarity members. Some actually went to mass – and some priests got lead messages – bullets through the head. A lot to adsmire eith the Poles.

  • Alan

    The church played a role, in a very similar way as it has in Ireland, as is their way the tops were happy to deal with the government of the day, whilst lower down priests worked with solidarity. Although to be fair, some senior clergy were placed under restrictions, etc.

    Of course many solidarity members, if not a majority were Catholic and this included many socialists. I think the influence of the Catholic church could be compared somewhat with the influence of islam in places like Gaza, or even that of the USSR for communists who were oppressed in their own countries. It acted as a beacon of hope.

    Workers in Poland felt they had been neglected and sidelined by a State which traded under their name; and they were bitter about this and the church provided an international force which gave them confidence to act. It was not so much it struggled alongside them, as a body it did not, but, as I said above its very existence became a beacon, this was especially true after the Pole became pope.

  • Alan Maskey

    The Polish Pope had heuvos, like many Poles.
    People criticise the Russian Orthodox Church for COLLUDING with the Soviets. After I read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, I never dreamed of criticising them again. Talk about being through the mill.
    Polish Roamn Catholicism is very much part of their national identity. POland is now changing, not always for the best. We can see how Walesa and others have been jettisoned and Poland plays its part in NATO, a body many would like Ireland to join.

    Still, the thing about freedom fighters is they cannot know who they are opening up the door for. I wonder, on he Day of Judgement, what PH Pearse, James Connolly and others will have to say to today’s crew and whether Michael Mallin, who left a wife and several small kids to be Connolly’s sidekick in 1916, will think it was all worthwhile.

    Poland is certainly better for being Red Free. But not all Poles or Russians are better off. I’m not doing too well myself, hoping some Unionist in Co Down will get me an all Ireland ticket or two he does not want/need.
    Hope springs eternal and fair play to the Poles (always), the Hungarians, the East Germans, the Czechs and the dissidents for standing up to the USSR. (and the Afghans – but they are Muslims and we are not allowed like them – unless they can get us all Ireland tickets).

  • Alan

    I think Neal Ascherson sums up the was it worth it tag well in the segment below.

    “What remains from that August spirit, in a Poland committed to neoliberal free markets and individualism, in which enormous wealth gaps separate rich and poor?

    Solidarity went through several shape-changes after 1980. It became a resistance movement devoted more to national independence than to workers’ rights. Then, after 1989, it became one unsuccessful right-wing political movement among several others. Today it is once more a trade union, with a mighty name but limited influence.

    Under the surface, Polish hopes changed too. In the bleak years under martial law, young people lost interest in the workers’ control vision. In western Europe, they thought they saw a better system which worked: capitalism under a liberal democracy.

    The “Solidarity generation” looks back with mixed feelings. But regret is not among them. If Solidarity had not given millions of people the confidence that by sticking together they could change everything, Poland in 2010 would look more like Ukraine – a dismal mess of failed hopes and dirty power-politics. Instead, it is a stable European democracy whose citizens are often fed up and furious but never passive.

    The children of those who fought and suffered 30 years ago have been brought up with the Solidarity “myth”. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the world they live in. And yet they have inherited a protesting, contradicting instinct which goes back to that 1980 revelation of what people can do together.”

    The journalist Jacek Zakowski writes: “That myth, for many of us, is the proof that it was worth being born. We contributed something to this world. Thanks to Solidarity, several million people in Poland can reflect that they did something tremendous, and not just for themselves. In all history, there are not many generations like that.”

  • Alan Maskey

    Lovely last paragraph and very true. Haval in Czechoslovakia was the same.

  • White Horse

    It is hard to mention this era in Poland without mentioning that the influence of the appointment of a Polish Pope went far beyond Poland. Indeed I would suggest that the fact that the domino effect led by Poland effectively collapsed the whole of communism meant that it was the Catholic Church which brought down the Eastern Bloc in the final analysis.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    Just to add a little local angle – according to the Irish Times a few days ago, Walesa’s office was at one stage in the former residence of Carrickfergus native Sean Lester, the prewar League of Nations High Commisioner in Danzig.