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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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