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Poland's revolution

October 30, 2009

Much of the world now associates the end of communism in Europe with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But in fact, the dismantling of the system started in Poland some 10 years before with the founding of Solidarity.

Lech Walesa adresses striking workers
The founding of the Solidarity movement marked the beginning of the end for Poland's communist regimeImage: AP

In 1979, the first visit home by Polish-born Pope John Paul II gave ordinary Poles the courage to face up to their rulers. A year later, Eastern Europe's first free trade union Solidarity was born. The communists soon clamped down by imposing martial law, but the spirit of Solidarity lived on. In June 1989, Poles overwhelmingly voted for democracy in the first partly free elections.

As the victory of the democratic opposition was being announced on June 4, 1989, it was like a dream come true for the 10 million Solidarity members who had started the long march to freedom a decade before. Unlike in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where anti-communist struggle was limited to narrow groups of dissidents, a mass grassroots movement had developed in Poland.

Workers at the Gdansk shipyards
Workers at the Gdansk shipyards formed the Eastern bloc's first independent trade unionImage: dpa

"It was a movement which came from below," said Solidarity sociologist Marek Garztecki. "Obviously, there were intellectuals who were helping to formulate programs, especially in later stages. But I believe that Solidarity was the first true embodiment of the concept of civil society."

The speed of change took everyone by surprise, including Ryszard Bugaj, one of the key opposition figures.

"In mid-1988, I was still convinced that I would forever remain a dissident," said Bugaj, now an advisor to the Polish President. "To me, it was amazing that the elections were allowed to take place. It was plain and simple: there was no turning back."

The policy of a "thick line"

But as the country blazed the trail for others in the region, Solidarity had to tread carefully. The communists were still in power in the Kremlin, with 50,000 Soviet troops stationed in Poland.

At a historic round table meeting in Warsaw in the spring of 1989, Solidarity and the communists struck a power-sharing deal that paved the way for the elections. A third of the seats in the lower house of Parliament were freely contested, plus all the seats in the senate. The communists and their allies were to automatically fill the rest of the seats. One of the Solidarity leaders Bronislaw Geremek made it clear that the movement was prepared to honor the deal in the election results.

Bronislaw Geremek
Bronislaw Geremek went on to become Polish Foreign Minister before his death in 2008.Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

"Solidarity is ready to support policies geared toward reform and changes of the political system," Geremek said at the time. "This marks the beginning of a political process, which we have long been working for."

But to some Poles, the deal seemed controversial. In a recently released documentary, Solidarity leaders including Geremek can be heard pledging not to prosecute former communists, no matter what evidence of their past wrongdoings came up. This later came to be known as the policy of a "thick line" to make a clean break with the past. Those who negotiated the deal said this was to allow everyone a fresh start in a new Poland.

However, critics like nationalist Christian Democratic politician Wieslaw Chrzanowski maintain that it was a sell-out.

"To all intents and purposes Solidarity allowed the communists to keep much of their influence," Chrzanowski said. "To me, the deal was unhealthy. Either you have completely free elections or you don't. Solidarity agreed to take all the responsibility, while the former communist bosses were free to pursue their business interests."

Was Polish democracy distorted?

As Poland's first non-communist Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki was being sworn in on September 10, 1989, he told Parliament his cabinet would represent all Poles - irrespective of their political views. Mazowiecki's government was enthusiastically received. Even though it had to quickly introduce a set of painful market reforms to stop the economy from collapsing, it still enjoyed strong popular support.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki with then German Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher
Tadeusz Mazowiecki's government helped open Poland to the West.Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

"Tadeusz Mazowiecki did a very difficult job very well and one has to give his government credit for a great deal," historian Adam Zamojski said. "The economic reforms were extraordinary. The amazing energy kept the country cohesive and prevented anarchy from breaking out, or what could turn into a nasty lot of arguments."

On the 20th anniversary of Solidarity's victory, there were those who said that Mazowiecki should have done more to bring the former communists to account. Critics said that the power-sharing deal with the communists distorted Polish democracy. But most commentators agree that the critics largely ignore the European realities of the day. After all, when the first democratic Polish government was being inaugurated, the Berlin Wall was still standing.

Author: Rafal Kiepuszewski (sac)
Editor: Rob Turner