With major uprisings in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976 and the presence of a socially conscious Roman Catholic Church, Poland was the most restive of the Soviet satellites during the cold war. Faced with a drastically declining standard of living and the continued repression of civil liberties in the late 1970s, the country once again tipped toward unrest, even as the nation seemed united in pride over the election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II on 16 October 1978. A year after the Pope's June 1979 visit to Poland, a strike wave erupted to protest the government's announcement of new price hikes. By the end of July 1980, 150 factories had shut down; the following month, the major shipyards along the Baltic Coast in Gdansk and Gdynia were occupied by strikers as well. In addition to improved wages and benefits, the strikers' demands included an end to censorship in the press and government interference in trade unions. A new, industry-wide union, Solidarity, emerged as the national coordinator of the strike, and its leader, Lech Walesa, as the primary voice of the opposition. By the end of the year Solidarity claimed a membership of 10 million Poles from all walks of life. By the end of the decade, when it finally confirmed its power by winning the country's first free elections of the postwar era, Solidarity signaled an end to the Soviet Bloc and, eventually, the cold war itself.
- 1955: Signing of the Warsaw Pact by the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe.
- 1956: Workers revolt against communist rule in Poland, inspiring Hungarians to rise up against the Soviets. Soviet tanks and troops crush these revolts.
- 1968: After Czechoslovakia adopts a more democratic, popular regime, Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces invade to crush the uprising.
- 1978: Pope Paul VI dies and is succeeded by Pope John Paul I, who dies after just 34 days in office. He is in turn succeeded by Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Poland, the first non-Italian pontiff in centuries, who becomes Pope John Paul II.
- 1980: In protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter keeps U.S. athletes out of the Moscow Olympics. Earlier, at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, the U.S. hockey team scored a historic—and, in the view of many, a symbolic—victory over the Soviets.
- 1985: A new era begins in the U.S.S.R. as Konstantin Chernenko dies and is replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev, who at 54 years old is the youngest Soviet leader in decades.
- 1986: An accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine kills 31 workers and ultimately leads to the deaths of some 10,000 people. The Soviet government attempts to cover up the problem rather than evacuate the area.
- 1989: Tens of thousands of Chinese students rally for democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Protests go on for nearly two months, until government troops and tanks crush the uprising. Thousands are killed.
- 1989: The Iron Curtain begins to crumble, most dramatically in Berlin, where massive protests erupt at the hated Wall on 9 November. Two days later, for the first time in 28 years, the Wall is opened between East and West. The following month, on Christmas Day, the people of Romania execute the dictator Ceausescu and his wife.
- 1990: Communists in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia relinquish their monopoly on power. Communist rule also ends in Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas surrender control after Violetta Chamorro wins election as president. East and West Germany reunite, and in Poland, former dissident leader Lech Walesa becomes president.
- 1993: European nations sign the Maastricht Treaty, which creates the European Union.
- 1999: In March, NATO begins air strikes against Yugoslavia to stop Serb-led attacks on ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo region.
Event and Its Context
The 1970s were turbulent times in Poland. Like other European countries, it experienced major student-led protests in 1968; in Poland, the demands focused on democracy, cultural freedom, and an end to Soviet interference in Polish affairs. The demonstrations were brutally suppressed and the state engaged in a period of hysterical anti-Semitism to deflect criticism from the regime. The tension never completely diminished. In December 1970 another round of protests against price hikes broke out, this time led by workers at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk. After the Gdansk workers marched on the headquarters of the ruling Polish United Workers Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, PZPR), rioting erupted and management forces drove the workers out of the shipyard by force. In nearby Gdynia, police acted on rumors of sabotage and opened fire on workers who were on their way to the shipyard on the morning of 17 December 1970, killing 13 of them. More died in an uprising in Szczecin that same day.
As smaller strikes broke out around Poland in December 1970, party leader Wladyslaw Gomulka was finally forced out of power after 14 years. Gomulka had come to power during the Polish October of 1956, when he represented destalinization for the PZPR and for Poland. Then seen as hopelessly autocratic and out-of-touch, he was unceremoniously dumped in favor of Edward Gierek. Gierek, who prided himself as a former miner with the common touch, quickly promised a new round of reforms, beginning with a price freeze and wage raises. Over the next few years, Gierek redirected the economy to produce more consumer goods and import more western technology. Between 1970 and 1975, per capita wages rose by 40 percent and many Poles indulged in foreign vacations, bought automobiles, and built private houses with the proceeds. The shortage of goods even sent seven million Poles on shopping trips to neighboring East Germany to buy basic supplies in 1974.
With the worldwide energy crisis, however, the Polish economy went into an abrupt tailspin after 1975. With few options available to ease the crisis, Gierek's administration announced drastic price increases on 24 June 1976. Strikes immediately broke out around the country, with thousands of people in Radom converging on the PZPR's headquarters in protest. After the party's offices were ransacked, the police put an end to the demonstration; four lives were lost. The day after the announcement of price increases, Gierek's prime minister withdrew them.
The Workers' Defense Committee (KOR) and the Church
The June 1976 fiasco over price increases proved to be a decisive humiliation for the regime. In response, a group of intellectuals including Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik formed the Workers' Defense Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotnikow, or KOR). Kuron and Michnik realized that the fragmented responses of the intellectuals in 1968 and workers in 1970 had proved counterproductive. They hoped that KOR would build unity among the two groups. Founded to agitate for the release of imprisoned workers and to publicize cases of police brutality, KOR began to publish Robotnik (The Worker) in September 1977. The newsletter soon expanded to 12 pages and runs of 20,000 copies nationwide. Many of KOR's members also began giving informal talks and lectures around the country as part of a Flying University program. KOR did not maintain a guiding ideology, which gave it a flexibility that allowed it to adapt to the rapidly changing political scene and incorporate members from across the political spectrum.
The Roman Catholic Church also served as a focal point for opposition to the government. Poland's primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, had fought to keep the church independent from the regime; under his leadership, the church spoke with unrivaled moral authority in the country. The elevation of Poland's Karol Wojtyla to Pope on 16 October 1978 conferred upon the church an even greater presence in the country. Pope John Paul's first visit to his homeland in June 1979 was a transforming moment for the nation, and his words in support of human rights and dignity empowered the opposition movements.
The Growth of Solidarity
On 1 July 1980, the government announced price hikes on meat; as in 1976, the news was met with a series of strikes across the country. Through July 1980 at least 150 factories struck for higher wages to compensate for inflation; by the end of the month, the economic demands were accompanied by demands for an end to censorship and interference by the government in trade union governance. With KOR as the coordinating body, the strike wave slowly coalesced into a national protest against the government. The defining moment of the strikes occurred on 14 August 1980, when workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk occupied the site to protest the firing of crane driver Anna Walentinowicz, who had been dismissed for her constant criticism of the shipyard's management. Lech Walesa, an unemployed electrician who had been fired repeatedly for staging commemorations of the 1970 shipyard protests, emerged as the spokesman for the strikers. By the next day, the rest of Gdansk's shipyards were also shut down; workers in Gdynia joined the protesters. By mid-August 1980 the shipyard strikers announced that they had formed an independent trade union, Solidarity (Solidarnosc), and demanded to negotiate with the government over wages, working conditions, censorship, and free trade unionism.
Possibly fearing widespread violence that could lead to a Soviet invasion, Gierek decided to negotiate with Solidarity. The resulting 31 August 1980 Gdansk Agreement—one of three accords that ended the strikes—recognized the right of workers to form independent trade unions and to declare strikes. It also agreed to limit censorship only to protect state secrets; the regime further agreed to broadcast Sunday Mass on state radio each week. Among the economic gains for workers under the new system were increases in the minimum wage and improvements in health services, maternity leaves, and pensions.
As the first recognition of an independent trade union, the Gdansk Agreement was a breakthrough for opposition movements in the Soviet Bloc. Yet Solidarity and the government continued to clash over the implementation of the agreement during 1980 and 1981 at a time when the Polish national economy continued its downward slide. The constant threat of Soviet intervention also played upon tensions between Solidarity and Stanislaw Kania, who took over as the leader of PZPR when Gierek suffered a heart attack in September 1980. Within Solidarity—which grew to include ten million members, or one out of every four adult Poles by the end of 1980—disagreements cropped up over the future of the movement. Many of its members were dismayed by Walesa's call for moderation and patience and urged immediate confrontation with the regime in 1981.
General Wojciech Jaruzelski, commander-in-chief of Poland's armed forces, took over as PZPR leader in October 1981. On 13 December he put the country under martial law as security forces arrested most of Solidarity's leadership. The sudden coup, taken with the suspension of civil liberties in Poland, outraged the international community. By the time martial law was lifted in July 1983, however, Walesa had received the Nobel Peace Prize, Pope John Paul II had made a second visit to Poland, and Solidarity had regrouped its momentum against the government. In October 1984, when leading opposition figure Father Jerzy Popieluszko was murdered by secret police from the interior ministry, hundreds of thousands of Poles turned out for the funeral. After the murder of Father Popieluszko, Jaruzelski's government had little, if any, remaining popular support.
Although Jaruzelski later insisted that his declaration of martial law was undertaken only to prevent a Soviet invasion, the power of the Soviet Union had eroded enough by the late 1980s that the threat was no longer so grave. By 1988, with its economic crisis unabated, the Polish government finally felt compelled to negotiate directly with Solidarity in the face of a renewed strike wave. Secret talks between interior minister Czeslaw Kiszczak and Walesa began in late August 1988 and continued in earnest in February 1989. The resulting Round Table Agreement of April 1989 announced that the offices of President and Senate would be reestablished under free elections. The agreement specified that the parliament (Sejm) would hold 35 freely elected seats and 65 seats would be reserved for PZPR representatives. When the elections took place on 4 June 1989, an overwhelming number of voters chose to cross off the names of PZPR's nominees, and only five of them received enough votes to gain office; in effect, Polish citizens elected almost all Solidarity's candidates in the first round of voting, and clearly rejected the PZPR nominees. A second round of voting on 18 June filled the PZPR's quota of seats, but the damage had been done. On 3 July 1989 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev issued a statement through an envoy that Poland was free to decide its own political future. In August 1989 a coalition government named Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister, the first noncommunist to lead a Soviet Bloc nation. Confirming the end of the country's domination by one party, in January 1990 the PZPR held its final congress. Poland's Communist Party, which had ruled since 1945, was no more.
The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 symbolized for many the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, but its downfall had been initiated and sustained after 1980 by Solidarity's leading role as an opposition movement. By the end of 1989 Communist Party leaders had ceded power in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Hungary, and the various governments had promised democratic reforms in Bulgaria, Romania, and Yugoslavia. The Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania stated their demands for independence from the Soviet Union. In December 1991 the Soviet Union itself officially ceased to exist. For all of the tumult in its political history, then, Poland had served as the leader of the transition into democracy for the entire region.
The country also led efforts to transform the economy along free-market lines. After taking office in 1989, Mazowiecki immediately announced economic reforms that the press labeled "shock treatment." These reforms were intended to jump start a free-market economy in Poland. Although the immediate effects were indeed painful for many Poles, for the majority of Polish citizens, the presence of Jacek Kuron as minister of labor lent credibility to the government's efforts. In the first presidential elections in 1990, Walesa swept into office for a five-year term. The first free elections in the Sejm in 1991 produced a left-wing coalition of the Left Democratic Alliance (the successor party to the PZRP) and the Polish Peasant Party. Although the coalition butted heads with Walesa during his term in office from 1990-1995, the country made a successful transition into the free market, with the gross national product and per capita income in Poland both growing after 1994.
Jaruzelski, Wojciech (1923-): Jaruzelski suffered deportation during the Soviet Union's occupation of Poland in World War II but joined the Polish Communist Army in 1943. He became a general at age 33 and Defense Minister in 1968. Jaruzelski was named prime minister in February 1981 and later became chief of the Communist Party. He served as president of Poland in July 1989 and was defeated in the first free elections for president in November 1990. Since leaving office, Jaruzelski has maintained that he fought to keep the Soviets from invading Poland even as he ruled the country's Communist Party.
John Paul II, Pope, nee Karol Wojtyla (1920-): Karol Wojtyla survived World War II working as a laborer and resumed his studies in theology after the war. He completed his doctorate in 1948. After his ordination, he worked as a parish priest in Krakow and later taught at the Catholic University in Lublin. He was named a Bishop in 1958 and was elevated to Cardinal in 1966. His election as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in October 1978 came as a surprise, as pontiffs of the previous 455 years had all been Italian. As Pope John Paul II, his visits to Poland in 1979, 1983, and 1987 lent symbolic strength to political reform movements against the Communist regime.
Kuron, Jacek (1934-): Kuron led student protests at Warsaw University in the 1950s and was subsequently sentenced to a three-and-a-half year term in prison for writing an "open letter" with Karol Modzelewski in 1965 that attacked the Communist Party. Kuron was jailed again for participating in the demonstrations of 1968. He helped to form the Workers' Defense Committee (KOR) in 1976 to help bridge the gap between intellectuals and workers. In early 1979 Kuron was a leader of the "Flying University" program of informal lectures to build support for the opposition and remained a leading critic of the government through its transition away from communism.
Michnik, Adam (1946-): The son of communist intellectuals, Michnik was expelled from Warsaw University for taking part in the 1968 protests. He later finished his degree in history at Adam Mickiewicz University and helped found the Workers' Defense Committee (KOR) in 1976. Jailed from 1981 to 1984, and again from 1985 to 1986, Michnik continued to serve as an advisor of Solidarity, most notably during its Round Table discussions with the government in 1989. Elected to the lower house of the Sejm in 1989, Michnik was a cofounder of Gazeta Wyborcza as an independent, national daily newspaper.
Walesa, Lech (1943-): Trained as an electrician, Walesa had taken part in the 1970 protests that ended in bloodshed and compiled a lengthy police file for organizing his fellow workers in job protests in the 1970s. In 1979 he helped to found the Solidarity trade union movement and emerged as a leader in the Gdansk shipyard strikes in August 1980. Walesa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. A round-table agreement in April 1989 between Solidarity and the Polish government signaled a transition away from the one-party system that had ruled the country under the communists. In the first free elections in postwar Poland, Walesa was elected President and took office in December 1990. He served as President until 1995.
Wyszynski, Cardinal Stefan (1901-1981): Ordained as a Catholic priest in 1924, Wyszynski served in the underground resistance during World War II. In 1946 he was appointed Bishop of Lublin and in 1949 became the primate of Poland and archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw. Named a Cardinal in 1953, Wyszynski was jailed by Poland's communist rulers for speaking out against government interference in church affairs and the spiritual life of the nation. Wyszynski was jailed for three years and was released after Wladyslaw Gomulka came to power in 1956. Wyszynski remained a voice of the opposition until his death in 1981.
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—Timothy G. Borden