Date: September 9, 1981
Source: Warsaw Radio, September 9, 1981
About the Author: Solidarity had its origins as a labor and protest organization among the shipworkers of Gdansk, Poland, in 1980. It quickly came to play a central role in opposition to the communist government of Poland, which outlawed it in 1981. Solidarity continued its efforts, however, eventually leading to the establishment of a democratic government in Poland.
The Solidarity movement is generally recognized as one of the most significant and successful of the various movements that opposed communism in Eastern Europe. As a result of its successes in Poland, Solidarity has been credited with playing a major role in initiating the wave of reforms which led to the fall of communism throughout Europe in the late 1980s and 1990s.
While fighting Nazi Germany during World War II (1939–1945), the Soviet Union occupied most of Eastern Europe, including Poland. After the war, the Soviet Union established communist governments to rule the countries under its control in a manner consistent with Soviet goals. Poland was no exception. Not all Poles were happy with this situation. Many claimed that while communist rule caused industrial production to increase, the domestic economy and the population suffered as a result. Protests against the government took place in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976, but none were successful in bringing about major changes.
In 1980, economic conditions in Poland were poor. After meat prices in Poland reached an all-time high, a collection of shipyard workers in Gdansk came together under the umbrella of an independent trade union that would soon come to be known as Solidarity. Led by labor activist Lech Walesa, Solidarity demanded reforms in the Polish economy and civil society. It was met with widespread popular support, and Poland's government felt it had no choice but to concede many of its demands. Solidarity continued to grow in size and strength, and came to be seen as a threat to the communist government itself. In response, the government cracked down. In December, 1981, martial law was imposed and many of Solidarity's leaders, including Walesa, were imprisoned. The Solidarity movement was outlawed.
This proved to be only a temporary setback for Solidarity. Martial law was lifted in 1983, and Walesa and other Solidarity members were freed from prison. Also in 1983, Walesa received the Nobel Peace Prize, a sign of international support for Solidarity's aims. While Solidarity itself remained outlawed, the spirit of reform that it embodied remained a powerful force in Poland. Combined with a continued poor economy, it led to unrest throughout the 1980s.
By 1989, times were changing throughout Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Led by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union was undergoing reforms of its own. Inspired in part by Solidarity's example, pressures for reform were mounting in other communist countries as well. Gorbachev made it clear to Polish leaders that Soviet troops would not intervene to maintain the status quo; the Poles would have to deal with the continued unrest in their country on their own.
The communist Polish government decided that the only way to restore order was to re-legalize Solidarity, and try to reach some form of compromise with it. Accordingly, Solidarity was legalized again in April, 1989. Negotiations on reforms began immediately. At first, the government and Solidarity agreed to a new parliament where non-communists could have significant representation, although communists would still control key aspects. The resulting election was a resounding success for Solidarity; the party won all but one of the seats not reserved for the Communist Party and its allies. Faced with these results, the remaining support for the communists quickly collapsed. By August of 1989, Solidarity was in control of the government. In 1990, Walesa was elected president, and in 1991 Poland had its first completely free parliamentary elections since the 1930s. Gorbachev, a reformer, was now president of the Soviet Union, and had made it clear that the Soviet Union would not intervene militarily in Poland.
In 1989, the government agreed to talks with Solidarity leading to elections, which resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Solidarity candidates and the fall of the communist government. After Solidarity was able to bring down communism in Poland, reform movements began to be seen in other European countries, including Hungary as well as East Germany, which ultimately resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Lech Walesa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and went on to become the president of Poland.
MESSAGE TO THE WORKING PEOPLE OF EASTERN EUROPE
Delegates assembled in Gdansk at the first … Solidarity congress send workers of Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, GDR, Romania, Hungary and all nations of the Soviet Union greetings and expressions of support. As the first independent trade union in our postwar history, we are profoundly aware of the fact that we share the same fate. We assure you that despite lies disseminated in your countries, we are an authentic representative organ of workers with 10 million members, an organ that was created as a result of workers' strikes.
Our goal is to struggle to improve the lives of all working people. We support those of you who have decided to embark on the difficult path of struggle for a free union movement. We believe that it will not be long now before our representatives will be able to meet your representatives in order to exchange their experiences as unionists.
Solidarity's success was the beginning of a wave of reform and revolution that resulted in the end of communist rule in Europe. Within months of Solidarity coming to power in Poland, communist governments in East Germany and Hungary were topled. Others followed soon after. All were inspired by Solidarity's example. In 1991, communism collapsed in the Soviet Union itself, and the USSR split into fifteen independant nations.
Solidarity, while it did eventually rise to power in the national government, was not built as a political party, and was established with the principle goal of finding a way to better the lives of average Poles. The achievements of Solidarity have often been pointed to as an example of how with the proper organization and commitment, ordinary citizen groups are able to impact national politics and even bring down reigning governments. The major uniqueness of Solidarity was their accomplishments largely through democratic means without resorting to expressions of violence that is often associated with labor unrest.
For Poland, as a country that throughout much of modern history has been occupied by foreign powers, the rise of Solidarity to bring independence from the Soviets has been viewed as a very important step in the national development. Just months prior to the creation of Solidarity, Pope John Paul II, a Polish priest, assumed the highest position in the Catholic Church. Many Polish citizens rallied behind this event to exhibit feelings of nationalism, a feeling they could embrace by supporting Solidarity, which allowed Poland to emerge from communism. Pope John Paul II has long been credited with supporting efforts to bring independence from communism to Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe.
Today, Poland is a developing democracy with a capitalist economy. The country is closely allied with Western superpowers and bears little institutional or economic resemblance to the communist period. Solidarity has been largely credited with allowing the formation of the new Polish government and economy, and is recognized as being among the most significant social movements of the latter half of the twentieth century.
National Commission of Independent Self-Governing Trade Union. "Solidarity Web Site." <http://www.solidarnosc. org.pl/eng1.htm> (accessed May 24, 2006).