9 Years of Protests: How Solidarity Defeated Communism in Poland
22 November, 2019

30 years ago communist regimes fell in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. However, the path to this was a long one. Poland needed nine years of peaceful protests under the banner of the first independent Solidarity trade union. Over the years, more than 100 members of the movement and their loved ones were tortured and killed.

Lech Wałęsa, an electrician by profession, took on leadership of the protest movement and led Solidarity to a smashing victory in the first partially free elections in June 1989. The story of Solidarity began nine years earlier in Gdansk, at a local shipyard named after Vladimir Lenin. Hromadske journalist went there to meet with Wałęsa and others who took part in the strikes and to recall the events that ultimately led to the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe.

The First Independent Trade Union

"All the locals quickly learned about the 1980 strike," Anna Maria Mydlarska, former translator of Lech Wałęsa, tells me. She currently works in the documentary department of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk.

“My husband's father worked as a doctor at the shipyard. He told us about the strikes and said that we should definitely see them. I was a student, and at first, I couldn't understand why it was so important. But my husband, who was already there, said, 'I can’t explain this, you have to see it for yourself,'" says Mydlarska and laughs.

Lech Wałęsa (center) in Gdansk, August 31, 1980. Photo: National Memory Institute (Poland)

She leads me to a historic site — the gate of shipyard No. 2. It was behind this gate that on August 31, 1980, Lech Walesa stood on the platform in front of a crowd of strikers and announced that Solidarity became the first legally independent trade union. The announcement followed weeks of wide-scale strikes.

The citizens who supported the protesters brought different things to the shipyard to help. Sometimes strikers also had very specific orders. At one point, they asked for print paper.

"In PRL (the People's Republic of Poland, the name of communist Poland — ed.), It was impossible to buy paper unless you had special documents to prove that you were either a writer, a journalist or a scientist. Since my mom was a scientist, we had paper at home. So it was the first thing I brought to the shipyard,” says Mydlarska.

Crowds of people near the gates of shipyard # 2 in Gdansk, August 1980. Photo: National Memory Institute (Poland)

PRL government representatives eventually agreed to sit down to talk with the strikers. For eight straight days, delegates sat in the workplace safety hall and item-by-item discussed 21 requirements of the workers, also known as the "21 postulates of MKS". These included: recognition of independent trade unions, adherence to freedom of expression and press, reinstatement of those fired for partaking in strikes of 1970 and 1976, reinstatement of the students who were expelled from universities for their views, and release of political prisoners.

The government, led by Mieczysław Jagielski, agreed to the strikers’ demands. The agreement, signed on August 31, 1980, was labeled Porozumienia Sierpniowe ("August Agreement") or the Gdansk Agreement. Thus officially began Solidarity’s story.

Signing of the "Gdansk Agreement", Gdansk, August 31, 1980. Prime Minister Mieczysław Jagielski and Solidarity Co-Founder Lech Wałęsa (center). Photo: National Memory Institute (Poland)

“Solidarity had a simple philosophy: if you can't handle the burden, it’s okay, ask someone to help. And the burden was heavy —  the Soviet Union and communism,” says the movement leader Walesa. We interview him in his office at the European Solidarity Centre. Wałęsa still regularly speaks to journalists and eagerly shares his memories.

In his office, I notice a collage based on Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper." But on this collage, you can see the cranes of the Lenin shipyard through the window, and instead of Jesus -- it’s Wałęsa’s smile and mustache.

When we met, Wałęsa sported a sweater with "Konstytucja" written on it. This is a branded inscription used by the opposition Civic Platform party, which has Wałęsa's son as a member. "I used to fight through protests, but now [I do] this," he explains.

Solidarity movement leader Lech Wałęsa, Gdansk, October 9, 2019. Photo: Oleksiy Nukulin / hromadske

Years of Turmoil

In the first weeks of the movement’s existence, more than 10 million Poles joined it. However, in December 1981, the Prime Minister of the Polish People's Republic, Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared martial law in the country. Officially, because of the danger of invasion of Soviet troops. Solidarity goes underground, and its members are persecuted.

"Some of the Solidarity members were held in jail for one, two, three or even four years without a single accusation. They were just kept under lock and key,” Mydlarska recalls.

The Catholic Church played a significant role in Solidarity’s struggle. Even Pope John Paul II expressed his support for the strikers. His portrait still hangs on the second gate of the shipyard in Gdansk.

Every month, special masses “for fatherland” were held. Jerzy Popeluszko was one of the priests who conducted such services in Warsaw. In 1984, he was killed by secret police after hours of torture. "At his funeral, Walesa said: ‘Solidarity is alive because you gave your life for it,’" recalls Mydlarska.

Staff member of the Documentary Department of the European Solidarity Centre, former translator of Lech Wałęsa, Anna Maria Mydlarska, Gdansk, October 9, 2019. Photo: Oleksiy Nukulin / hromadske


Despite the repressions, Solidarity remained a non-violent movement until the overthrow of the communist system. Protests were the only instrument of struggle. The most wide-scale ones took place in May and August of 1988.

“We had been protesting the whole time. But for how long can you go on with the protests? We kept protesting for nearly ten years. We were exhausted, but the authorities were tired too. And after a wave of strikes in 1988, they decided to sit down to talk,” says Mydlarska.

In the end, the Communist government agreed to the first partially free elections in June 1989. As a result, Solidarity won 99 out of 100 seats in the newly created Senat (upper house of the parliament -- ed.) and 160 seats out of 161 in the Sejm (lower house -- ed.).

“A new era began -- the era of globalization. People demanded that the system change [...] But politicians were unable to offer good solutions at the time,” thus Wałęsa explains the devastating defeat for the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party.

He adds: "At that time, even the Communists -- and most of our leaders studied in the U.S. and in the West -- believed that the system was inferior to the capitalist [model]. They were well educated -- and therefore weren’t overly enthusiastic in defending the communist system. This facilitated our struggle."

The first partially free elections were held in Poland on June 4, 1989. Photo shows Solidarity’s agitation poster in Gdynia. Photo: EPA / JANUSZ UKLEJEWSKI / POLAND ARCHIVE

“Solidarity Gave Us Freedom”

The events from 30 years ago are proudly remembered in Poland today. For Gdansk, Solidarity’s struggle is crucial for its identification. This can be seen immediately: as soon as you arrive at the main train station, you notice the Gdansk logos, stylized to resemble Solidarity’s logo. They can be seen on buildings, on transport and most of all on the European Solidarity Centre, located on the territory of the shipyard.

It was opened in 2007 and moved to a new building in 2014. Its frame is made of sheet steel, used in shipbuilding, it is unpainted and rusty. 

Inside, there is a library, an archive, a research center, and a museum of the history of Solidarity. On the top floor, there is a wall covered with visitors’ comments.

“People mostly write what Solidarity gave everyone in Poland and also in other countries -- [it gave them] freedom,” Katarzyna Skrzypiec, who works in the center’s PR department, tells us. We see a couple of groups of schoolchildren aged 14-15. Their teachers say that it is not their first visit, but they have a new program today.

Anna has been to the center five times and admits that she loves to come back: "We are very proud to have these famous people in Poland, we are happy to have this past." Her classmate Marta adds, "It's just wow that this started in Poland and not in some other country."

European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk. Photo: Mike Peel

Lessons of the Past

30 years ago, the Poles demonstrated unprecedented unity in the struggle against the communist dictatorship. But many believe that democracy is now in jeopardy in Poland: because of the government policy which the opposition and the E.U. view as authoritarian.

"These demagogues, like Trump, like the ones we have, like those in France, make the right diagnosis, they say, we need to fix everything, change everything. Instead, they do not offer the right recipes, they offer unsuccessful solutions for the sake of a change, ” Wałęsa responds when asked why society in Poland is so polarized now.

Unlike the current nationalist and conservative authorities in Poland, Solidarity was a very open movement, argues Mydlarska.

"I miss that spirit of August 1980. It was a very beautiful moment in history. Then we felt we could be better than we really were. And I consider it a great success for Lech Wałęsa as a leader. He brought up the best the people had," she says.

Solidarity was the movement of the streets that rebelled against the political class. The history of its struggle can also act as an inspiration for Poland's modern civil society. After all, its story clearly demonstrates that it is possible to achieve change through non-violent means.