Solidarity: The Struggle for Freedom, and Overthrow of Communism

1980 - 1989

‘Will they or won’t they invade?’. Throughout its brief first existence ‘Solidarity’, and indeed Polish society, was constantly concerned as to the reaction of the Soviet Union to this quite unprecedented event.

On 31 August 1980 – with his outsize pen and Madonna on his lapel jacket – Lech Wałęsa, signed the Gdańsk Accord and with it the 21 points, posted on the shipyard gates, limiting communist power. The Independent Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarność’ (Eng. Solidarity) was founded on the 17th of September 1980 at a meeting of 30 inter-factory strike commissions from the whole of Poland, representing over 3 million workers at the time. Thus began the general mobilisation of a society which now faced a moral as well as socio-political renewal. Nevertheless, the dangerous balancing act of confronting the Soviet-backed communist state had only just begun. The very existence of Solidarity undermined the leading role of the communist party and its control of all aspects of life.

During the next 15 months or so frustration grew as Solidarity sought to roll back this Soviet power, and encountered obstacles and provocations at every turn. This, in turn, led to warning strikes, falling production, a declining standard of living, long queues and gradual rationing of basic goods. Therefore, the radicalisation of Solidarity demands – reaching beyond the free trade union formula – was inevitable in a spiral of confrontation. At the same time comparative freedom of speech and association (setting up organisations outside the party ambit), travel abroad, the overt support of the church, and attempts to deal with the many lies and distortions in Polish history were seen as real benefits. Some Poles took the opportunity to emigrate; they were driven out by the preceding years of decline and decay, and perhaps a sense that an endgame was to be expected.

But when martial law was declared on the night of 13 December 1981 in an attempt to counter political opposition. Solidarity – and society at large – were caught by surprise by the sheer secrecy, effectiveness and brutality of the manoeuvre. The legal validity of this act was questioned from the outset since – according to the Communist constitution – only the Council of State could enact martial law. Seen as a last resort it effectively rode roughshod even over the vague rule of law as it existed. It lasted until 1983, and involved the internment of 10,000 activists (including the former party leader Edward Gierek), and the draconian militarisation and shutting down of all aspects of social and political life. However, on release, the authority and influence of the Solidarity leadership remained intact and their differences were at least temporarily stowed away. Two visits by Pope John Paul II attracted huge enthusiastic audiences, showing that the Church still carried weight; the murder of the Catholic priest and advocate of Solidarity – Father Jerzy Popiełuszko by secret policemen in 1984 indicated the limits to that authority. Despite efforts to bring a rebellious society back under control and co-opt various figures and organisations to regime support, it was changes in Moscow with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev which determined the permissible limits to post-martial law Party rule. It allowed for one last attempt at reconciliation on the terms of the communist party namely the Round Table of January 1989.

Text by Professor Jerzy Kolankiewicz


Artist Basia Kaczmarowska-Hamilton

(born in Sopot)