The wary reserve in Lech Walesa's response to the resurrection of Solidarity last week reflected his long and sobering experience. The 45-year-old electrician is not the same optimist who scrambled over a 12-foot-high fence nine years ago to join striking workers inside the Lenin shipyard at Gdansk—and set in motion the tumultuous events that would lead to the creation of the first independent trade union in the Communist Bloc. In the intervening years, he has acquired not only age and bulk but a profound sense of mistrust as well, engendered clearly by the Polish government’s long record of broken promises and brutal treatment. “I no longer want to believe words,” he reminded delegates at the opening session of the round table that last week lifted the ban on Solidarity. “We cannot forget about the people who died, about the years of suffering and pain, about the years when we were humiliated and deprived of hope.”
Despite that background of bitterness and suspicion, Walesa was able to hail last week’s agreement as “the beginning of the road for democracy and a free Poland.”
Still, it will be no easy task to erase the memories dating back to that cold December morning in 1981 when Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, under pressure from Moscow, snuffed out the dreams of millions of Poles by crushing Solidarity. For more than seven years, the union has been consigned to a political wilderness, outlawed by the country’s rubber-stamp parliament. Its leaders have been killed, jailed, harassed and driven underground. Its members, once numbering 10 million, have been denounced as the tools of foreign powers and perpetrators of antistate terrorism. And to the state-controlled media, the short, stocky man with the drooping moustache has become a nonperson. Despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize and being the subject of dozens of books and films, he was almost never quoted in the Polish press—and not even mentioned by name. If referred to at all, Walesa was merely the “former head of a former union.”
Dangerous: The contrast between the years of state crackdown and the dangerous days that spawned Solidarity could not have been more stark. For 16 months during 1980 and 1981, the union was at the centre of a reform movement that threatened the very survival of Poland’s Communist regime. It began when Walesa climbed the fence at Gdansk to breathe fire into a faltering strike of 17,000 workers at the vast Lenin Shipyard.“A bubbling of unrest” was the way Edward Gierek, the Polish Communist party boss at the time, airily dismissed the disturbance in a conversation with thenSoviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. But Walesa, clad in blue coveralls and an outsized jacket, clambered onto the roof of a bulldozer on a sultry August afternoon in 1980 to prove just how fatally wrong was Gierek’s assessment.
Deftly combining homespun rhetoric and honest outrage, Walesa inspired the strikers. Within three days, the Lenin Shipyard workers declared a “solidarity strike” with other workers who had left their jobs in factories along the Baltic shore. Within a week, half a million employees of 700 state enterprises scattered across Poland had joined the protest.
By the end of the month, Walesa was on nationwide television with Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Jagielski. As millions of astounded Poles watched at 5 o’clock on the evening of Sunday, Aug. 31, 1980, they put their signatures on the Gdansk Agreement. For the first time in the history of the Soviet Bloc, workers had won the right to form their own independent trade unions.
The agreement captured the imagination of the Polish people— and the world. Euphoria swept the land, drawing sustenance from a host of sources: working-class anger at poor return for hard effort; middle-class resentment of the entrenched privileges of an inefficient and corrupt party elite; nationalistic outrage over Soviet domination; even a heightening of religious fervor. Three weeks after the Gdansk Agreement was signed, the fledgling union had a flag, a symbol and a name—Solidarnosc. By the time Solidarity convened its first national conference in late September, 1980, the union had organized three million workers. Over the course of the next 16 months, 10 million would join, more than 75 per cent of the industrial workforce.
Unrest: But even as those events were unfolding, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. Although Gierek was removed as party leader, his replacement, Stefan Kania, made no real attempt to live up to either the spirit or the letter of the Gdansk Agreement. Efforts by farmers to form a Rural Solidarity were resisted, as was a parallel movement to organize students. The economy continued to unravel, with rising food prices and escalating shortages of material goods. The country entered a period of spiralling unrest marked by strikes, hunger marches, public protests and increasingly brutal police repression. The appointment of Jaruzelski as prime minister early in 1981 brought a respite, but it proved to be short-lived. The first ominous warning of what was to come occurred when Solidarity prepared to inaugurate the organization’s first national congress in September, 1981. As the 900 delegates gathered at an ice rink in suburban Gdansk, 100,000 Warsaw Pact troops, backed by an 80ship fleet, opened highly publicized manoeuvres on the Polish frontier.
The heady days of freedom came to an end two months later. Early in the morning of Dec. 13,1981, Jaruzelski declared “a state of war” and imposed martial law. More than 5,000 Solidarity militants, including Walesa, were roused from their beds and taken into custody just as the first snows of the year blanketed the landscape. Police units and Polish army tanks, using live ammunition, quickly crushed what little resistance union supporters and others managed to mount. For the first time, a military junta was in place as the governing authority of a Communist country.
For Solidarity, the next seven years would be—as Walesa put it—“lost years.” Ten months after martial law was imposed, Solidarity was formally outlawed by Poland’s parliament, the Sejm, and the right to strike by anyone in the country was curbed. Even after martial law was lifted in 1983, there was no real change in the situation. The Sejm introduced more than 100 laws that had the effect of incorporating many of the harshest martial-law regulations into the legal system. “The law of Poland has become openly repressive,” a group of Polish academics wrote at the time in an article in the U.S. journal Foreign Affairs. “It is widely used to justify the use of compulsory force by the state against its citizens.”
Solidarity’s response, however, was not what the authorities expected. Rather than disappearing, the movement simply went underground. A widespread clandestine network of cultural, educational, publishing, labor-organizing and other activities sprang to life. What happened was remarkable. Solidarity simply turned its back on the state, confronting the authorities with what Polish historian Adam Michnik termed “the silence of the sea.” According to Michnik, who is one of Solidarity’s theorists, “ a society which remains silent seems easy to control whereas, in fact, it is very difficult to rule precisely because it is insensitive to the impulses of the state.”
Crushed: Viewed from outside the country, Poland’s spirit may well have appeared crushed during the long years of Solidarity’s underground existence. To some extent, that was probably true, as the Polish people grew disillusioned with a struggle that seemed to lead nowhere. Solidarity’s membership dwindled during the period—according to some sources to as low as a quarter million. But there were also occasional signs that resistance continued to seethe beneath the surface. When Walesa won the Nobel Prize in 1983, there were widespread demonstrations of support. Poles were aroused to anger in 1984 with the murder by the secret police of popular, pro-Solidarity priest Jerzy Popieluszko. In the same year, roughly 25 per cent of the electorate—6.5 million people—heeded Solidarity’s call for a boycott of local elections scheduled by the Jaruzelski regime. The following year, an estimated 34 per cent of Polish voters similarly boycotted elections for the Sejm.
Eventually, even the authorities came to realize that there was no solution to Poland’s problems without the participation of Solidarity. In 1988, eight years after the signing of the Gdansk Agreement, Polish interior minister Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak asked for Walesa’s help in ending three weeks of strikes that had paralysed the country. Walesa agreed, obtaining in return a commitment to the round table discussions that led last week to the official rebirth of Solidarity.
Traitor: It was not a decision that was universally welcomed within the Solidarity movement. There were some, particularly among the younger members with no memory of the turbulence of 1980 and 1981, who grumbled aloud. Some even came close to branding Walesa a traitor. Within Solidarity, there are dissident factions that oppose any form of negotiations with the government. “Solidarity has been divided into those who trust Lech Walesa and those who have remained faithful,” claims the platform of one of those factions, an offshoot calling itself “Working Group.” Walesa himself rejects the radicals as amounting to no more than “one-half of one per cent” of the movement. But, at the same time, he doubtless recognizes the dangers: it is not so long since the grey men running the government in Poland were similarly dismissing him.
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