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August 80′ forever

Today Poland celebrates the accords of the 31st of August 1980. The Solidarity movement had a profound impact on the countries of the Eastern Bloc under Soviet control. In Poland, the events that led to its creation still continue to influence national politics.

August 31, 2018 - Daniel Gleichgewicht - Articles and Commentary

Citizens of Gdańsk gathered in front of the historic Lenin Shipyard Gate 2, eagerly awaiting the announcement of the signing of the agreement. 31.8.1980 Photo: Krzysztof Korczyński wikimedia.org (cc)

During the second half of the 1970s the communist Polish People’s Republic was engulfed in a worsening crisis. The economy had contracted by two per cent, the first time since the Second World War. The burden of repaying foreign loans and a string of other bad policies had led to a tense atmosphere within society. There were shortages of medicine, food and electricity was often irregular. The “winter of a century” in 1979, further exposed the country’s inability to provide basic services for its citizens. The regime in Warsaw and their overlords in Moscow had seen the warning signs after the events of March 1968, the deadly protests in the north of the country in December 1970 and the June 1976 protests. It was in this climate the Solidarity movement would be born into. 


The events in Gdańsk of August 1980 would turn out to have a profound impact on the country, region and continent. What started out as a workers strike in solidarity with Anna Walentynowicz, an employee of the Lenin Shipyards who had been sacked on political grounds a few months ahead of her retirement, quickly turned into a protest against the grim reality. As other labour groups joined in on the strike from all over the country, the regime was forced to confront the workers of the shipyard before the country was paralysed even further. The communist regime signed an agreement with the striking workers represented by the later President Lech Wałęsa on the 31st of August 1980. It would lead to the creation of the first independent self-governing trade union in the Warsaw Pact – Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy „Solidarność”. Towards the end of 1980, this movement would gather almost 10 million members. It had strong support in the West and had an important ally in the newly elected Pope John Paul II. What followed was a year of relative freedom, an explosion of culture, arts and civic engagement on a scale not seen before in communist Poland. This period later described as a carnival came to an end however, with the imposition of martial law on December 13th 1981 by General Wojciech Jaruzelski. 

The whiff of freedom was not forgotten. The spirit of August 1980 would later reemerge in 1989 with the round table talks, free elections and eventual collapse of communism in the entire Eastern Bloc. As we know today, the dramatic and historical events at the shipyards would have an impact not only on the reality of the last decade of the Polish People’s Republic, but also on the Polish III Republic’s formative years. Solidarity being an unique inclusive project, provided a common platform for workers and intellectuals of very different opinions. It was bound to dissolve as a political movement with the fall of communism. The emergence of different political parties in the 1990s and the competitiveness of the new reality led to an erosion of solidarity among the people of Solidarity. Friendships and camaraderie were soon traded for political gains and positions. Many of the hardliners would never accept the return of now former communists into the political debate. 

Memory and the electorate

Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice), the governing party since the 2015 parliamentary elections, has set out on a mission to change the narrative of the last 38 years. This years anniversary will be another show of force in the sphere of memory. Bitterness over those fairly recent times has and will not leave Polish politics it seems. The argument between Wałęsa and the Kaczyński twins has been successfully etched into the future political landscape of the country. Both the ruling party and the opposition are products of August 1980. This is why perhaps, it is so crucial they create their own separate version of the events, with their own heroes, myths and victories. PiS’s close association with the Solidarity labour union of today might seem as an advantage in influencing the narrative around the events. On the other side, most of society is aware of the difference between the Solidarity of the 1980s and the politicised union of today. Giving the members of today’s Solidarity discounts at state owned petrol stations or unveiling a plaque commemorating the “presence” of the late President Lech Kaczyński and his twin brother, chairman of PiS Jarosław at the shipyards during the August events, does not in any way relate to the independence the historical Solidarity aspired to. This is why many in the opposition and more neutral observers have called for the present Solidarity to drop its connection with the Solidarity associated with bringing down communism. 

As politicians of the opposition parties rally around Lech Wałęsa and the 38 year old narrative of the August 1980 strike, their struggle is not only about the past. Commemoration of historical events is important in many countries in Europe, but one could argue it is something special in Poland. Where other societies argue over a common version of an entire historical period, it seems as if the Polish one argues over specific events – many of them quite recent with thousands of eye witnesses. The sheer amount of commemorations in the country (mainly due to its frequently tragic history) give politicians several opportunities to clash each year. With an upcoming season of three elections starting with the local one on October 21st, each such commemorative event will be used to consolidate the political parties respective electorates. 

All of this affects the overall message of the events of August 1980. What was supposed to be remembered as a celebration of freedom – a moment in time where Poles spoke to Poles without constraints and the beginning of the end of the communist bloc – is slowly being remembered as a time when the stage was being set for the pitched battles of today. This is in thanks to both the legends of 1980, and the politicians of today. It shows the importance of a healthier debate in Poland. One where reforms of the judiciary are not done overnight, the EU is not treated as a foreign body and the constitution is respected.

“The older remember, the younger I am informing. When we were finishing the struggle, I said we would meet in this place to discuss the state of the republic. At the same time we will propose what to do onwards in order not to destroy that great victory. This generation has received this victory, but it has also been demanded from it, that it finds new solutions for after the victory. This is going very badly for us. These problems should be suggesting that you have to find a solution (…)”

Former President Lech Wałęsa speaking in front of the shipyard in Gdańsk to the media and invited politicians of the opposition. 31st of August 2018.

“For my generation and all Poles, those days 38 years ago and especially this day, was one great unique victory of unity and the fighting spirit. First of all it was a fight for freedom in an enslaved country (…) The memory of Solidarity, those days, is still alive, even if we have different views on the transformation. (…) Today we can declare Urbi et Orbi, to the city and the world, that the Gdańsk shipyard is entering a new phase of developement. The birthplace of Solidarity was an unwanted child of the III Republic (…)

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaking inside the shipyard in Gdańsk to workers and unionists. 31st of August 2018

Daniel Gleichgewicht is an Assistant Editor with New Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in International Relations with a specialisation in intercultural relations from Collegium Civitas in Warsaw.

For more information on the topic visit the European Solidarity Center.

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