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A Short History of Modern Political Poland: Solidarność

Poland is often cited as a prime example of a communist-come-capitalist state. A country that successfully threw off the yoke the Soviet Union and entered into the world stage of the post 1990 revolutions as a paragon of Europe's new democracies. But anyone who's read anything about Eastern European politics will know that bringing an end to communism was no easy matter, while in Poland there remains a real pride in the role their anti-communist movements had in not only implementing, but as so many Poles are quick to rebuke the ignorant, their role in starting the revolutions that would usher in the new era.

Solidarnosc Poland

Years of post-war, single-party state rule had meant that governments across the region were free to control the opposition in their respective countries. In Poland, communism had dominated since 1945, when on April 12 a Soviet-backed group of Leninist-Marxists had proclaimed the birth of the Polish People's Republic, in opposition to the pre-war government-in-exile that had been exfiltrated from the country just after the outbreak of the war. Historically speaking, Communist philosophy had never taken hold in Poland at all; famously Catholic even today, Stalin is reported to have even remarked derogatorily that 'imposing communism on Poland is like putting a saddle on a cow'.

It's a remark Stalin would likely have come to regret. Flick back to the Eastern European political climate of 1989 and out of all the bloc communist countries, Poland is with a doubt, the one fermenting with anti-communist action the most. At the forefront of the socialist cause is the, trade-union movement of Solidarność, led by the now Nobel peace prize laureate Lech Wałęsa. Founded in 1980, Solidarność maintained a campaign of non-violent, social action over the next decade, that included factory strikes and rallies, pressurising the communist party dominated government in Warsaw to concede political reform talks.

After the initial successes of the Solidarność movement in the north of Poland, where strikes had secured the so-called 'Gdańsk Agreement', establishing the right to form trade unions outside of government control, strong political manoeuvres were made on part of the communists to stifle the now independent union movements. These culminated in 1981, when the government instituted martial law and arrested the union's leadership, including Wałęsa, scattering them in prisons across the country.

But spurred on by what was virtually universal global support from behind the iron curtain, Solidarność continued to thrive, albeit now underground. After a year of growing tension between the 70,000 or so strong movement (some of which were now radicalised, like the splinter group Solidarność Walcząca [Fighting Solidarność]) and the paranoid communist government, martial law was finally lifted and an amnesty given to the arrested leaders.

It was hoped this would quell social unrest, but when the priest Jerzy Popiełuszko - a prominent and popular Solidarność figure - was murdered by members of the governments ministry's in 1984, the movement erupted once more. This, coupled with the accession of the relative soft-liner Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and, a unprecedented deterioration of the Polish economy over the next four years, culminated in 1989 in the struggling communist government’s decision to compromise.

What followed are now known as the Polish Round Talks. These were the first instance of a communist power in Europe, negotiating under social pressures. Lech Wałęsa and the other Solidarność leaders succeeded in securing rights for trade unions across Poland, and most importantly, guarantees that semi-free elections (allowing non-communist candidates to compete for 35% of lower-house seats and 99% of senate seats) would take place in Poland.

When elections took place in 1989 under the new political auspices, the results were predictably shocking. Solidarność took all of the seats the new system allowed them.

In November 1989, just months after assuming leadership in Poland, Lech Wałęsa is reported to have told East German ministers, 'The Berlin Wall will fall soon. Are you ready for it?' Just days later, East Germany rose and The Wall came down; the successes of Polish Solidarność had set the stage for the extrication from communism in Europe.