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Modern Europe – forged in the Gdańsk Shipyard

In recent years Polish collective memory has become too focused on the military traditions of freedom and independence fighters. This approach overlooks the thinking and achievements of the 1970s and 1980s, which were the result of peaceful social movements. By opting for non-violence, the ten-million-strong Solidarity movement, Solidarność, chose a difficult, but in the end effective, path.

The historic Gdańsk Shipyard is one of the most important memory sites in Europe today. It is a complex that includes Solidarity Square, alongside the Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970, the historic Gate Number 2, the former BHP Hall (a place where in 1980 the famous August Accords between the communist authorities and the democratic opposition were negotiated) and the European Solidarity Centre (ECS). Upon the ECS’s initiative the shipyard was placed on the European Heritage Label list.

September 29, 2022 - Basil Kerski - History and MemoryIssue 5 2022Magazine

The historical gate to the “Gdańsk Shipyard”, where in August 1980 the Gdańsk Accords were signed and Solidarity was born. In the background is the European Solidarity Centre which opened in August 2014 and has linked together all the historical monuments that are located in Solidarity Square and its vicinity. Photo: iwciagr / Shutterstock

Through this programme the EU aims to promote historical sites which have proven important in the process of the continent’s democratisation.

Indeed, the Solidarity movement, Solidarność, which was born in the Gdańsk Shipyard in the second half of the 20th century, turned out to be the most important democratic mobilisation effort in this part of Europe. Its members organised a revolution which brought a fundamental political change to Europe as a whole. It led to the reunification of a continent that had been divided since the Second World War. Recognising the importance of this place and the developments which took place on its premises, the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage together with the City of Gdańsk began in 2020 the official application process for the historical shipyard to be placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This initiative is a good opportunity to reflect on the role that the shipyard, as well as the Solidarity movement, have played in the history of mankind.

The shipyard as a political agora

In August 1980 Gdańsk was the site of one of the largest anti-communist protests in Europe’s history. This workers’ strike, which may have looked like a spontaneous event organised to show solidarity with fired trade unionists, was in fact a thoroughly prepared action. It was the work of the members and supporters of independent unions who had drawn conclusions from a decade of opposition activism, including the brutal crushing of the anti-communist riots which took place in Gdańsk in 1970. By 1980, the oppositionists already knew that for change to succeed it had to take place in all countries of the socialist bloc, while the ideals of freedom and human rights had to become an integral part of international relations.

At the same time, most western politicians and media, despite their wide support for freedom movements, wanted to maintain the post-war order which was seen as a guarantor of stability. Only very few supported the idea of revolutionary changes, while the majority feared that uncontrollable actions could lead to a new international conflict. At that moment in history Eastern European freedom fighters were still not well known to foreign audiences nor did they participate in international public debates. However, as isolated as they were by tightly controlled borders and imposed repressions, they managed to establish an international network of supporters, both within the bloc and outside it.

Therefore, when in 1980 a workers’ strike started at the shipyard and was followed by negotiations between representatives of the opposition and the communist authorities, the eyes of all Europe turned towards Gdańsk. From their homes, via TV screens and press reports, people saw that a new European political agora or assembly was starting to form there. In less than a decade, the consequences of this event were to bring a great change both to Poland and Europe at large.

Thus, in 1988 Solidarity activists again organised strikes and a new stage of the democratic revolution began. It was completed through a negotiated agreement, which took the form of a roundtable. The communists agreed to this format of negotiations as they were convinced that it would guarantee them power. Yet, the outcomes of the talks resulted in the exact opposite: the communist system started to topple in the region and the democratic transition began. In Poland full-scale system change started after the semi-free elections that were held in June 1989. This vote brought victory to the Solidarity camp but also once again showed the Gdańsk Shipyard as a place central to Polish democracy. Not accidentally, all Solidarity candidates would arrive here from all over Poland to be photographed with Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the opposition. Posters with these photographs are now recognised as iconic illustrations of the country’s democratic revival.

Factory of solidarity

The main value and driving force of the anti-communist revolution that started at the Gdańsk Shipyard was solidarity. This is not surprising. The complicated process of ship construction requires teamwork and cooperation. It also confirms the thesis of Zygmunt Bauman that the concept of solidarity was grounded in the industrial culture of the 19th and 20th centuries, while contemporary societies of individualised consumers still look for their “body”.

Also, as the production of ships was limited to one place, which in today’s world of global chains of production is a rarity, it required well-developed infrastructure and qualified workers. In addition to employment, the shipyard had to offer other benefits to maintain its workforce, including educational programmes and social and medical services. Thereby, it was not only an enterprise, but “a city within a city”. Most importantly, the shipyard became a place that united people of different backgrounds and qualifications, as well as those with different dreams and personal ambitions. The teamwork and cooperation that were required of them also helped the workers to develop a sense of respect and bonds that would go far beyond their group and spread throughout the movement.

This large factory of solidarity, as the shipyard came to be, also offered employees opportunities for personal development, including vocational training. Thus, employment at the shipyard was particularly attractive to young people who would come to Gdańsk from all over Poland. Such was the story of Lech Wałęsa, who later became the Solidarity union’s leader. He arrived in Gdańsk at the age of 24, hoping to leave behind his small-town life. At first, he did not know anybody in the city but like many others he headed to the shipyard, where he not only found employment but also obtained his civic and political education.

Solidarity emerged in the Gdańsk Shipyard also because of the poor working conditions, which the employees experienced on a daily basis and which showed large disparity between official communist propaganda and reality. Everyday life was increasingly more difficult to endure as shipyard equipment was becoming outdated and the quality of safety measures remained poor. Accidents and occupational injuries were thus frequent occurrences.

The top-down chain of command that was applied in state-owned enterprises in socialist states was the main cause of permanent shortages and improvisation. Therefore, the tensions that started to grow between the shipyard workers and the management reflected in fact greater problems within the socialist system. Thoughts about their consequences were clearly giving the state authorities sleepless nights.

Despite a wide network of surveillance on the ground, the communists clearly could not have control over the whole shipyard. When it comes to an enterprise of this size the greatest challenges are of course posed by the workers, whose aforementioned sense of pride and dignity had only grown and strengthened. This grew to the point that we can talk about a feeling of community belonging, which was autonomous and independent of the communist authorities, emerging at the shipyard. Thus in the 1980s, when an economic crisis unfolded throughout Poland, it only increased the workers’ determination to change the political and economic system.

Witness to global conflicts

The shipyard made Gdańsk a city where industry and global politics meet and intermingle. This started in the mid-19th century when the Kingdom of Prussia established a royal shipyard here at the Baltic Sea. At that time, the Prussian state had started to grow in force, heavily focusing on industrialisation. The monarchy saw infrastructure investments and innovation as instrumental to modern political power.

Nonetheless, it is unclear why the imperial authorities opted for Gdańsk as the location for the shipyard. Gdańsk was a rather peripheral harbour and its role in Europe was marginal. It lacked influential academic or research institutions. Impressive research was to be found in nearby Königsberg, which also has a large harbour. Physical location could also not explain the decision to establish a shipyard in Gdańsk. After all, Szczecin (Stettin), another Prussian city with a harbour, was much closer to the era’s political centre in Berlin. The Prussian authorities yet chose Gdańsk, Danzig. Maybe because they wanted to strengthen ties between this former Hanseatic city and the Prussian Kingdom.

Once established here, the shipyard entirely changed the city’s culture and life. It served as the cornerstone of Gdańsk’s further industrialisation. It also turned the city into a vibrant trade centre with a strong cosmopolitan identity. This diversity, however, was lost once Poland lost its statehood as a result of the three partitions and became divided between three large powers: Russia, the Austrian Empire and Prussia.

In the new political reality, Gdańsk and the shipyard became strongly dependent on the Prussian state, the presence of its military and servicemen, and industrial investments. From that moment on, they were an important element in Prussia’s imperial and modernisation policies. Prussia became a leading force within the German state in the second half of the 19th century. France’s loss in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 turned Germany into an empire under Prussian leadership. The war had a lasting impact on Europe. By hastening the process of German unification, it significantly altered the balance of power on the continent, with the new German nation state supplanting France as the dominant European land power. It also had an ambition to gain a strong position at sea. Vast amounts of money and effort were subsequently put into the development of the navy.

This growth in naval power was particularly pursued by Wilhelm II, who started his reign in 1888. The ambition of the young emperor, who was also the grandson of Queen Victoria, was first and foremost to challenge the weakening British Empire by ridding it of its domination of the sea. This vision later became known as the “German imperial illness”. To put it directly, instead of focusing on increasing the state’s wealth through peaceful measures and personal connections, the emperor opted for conflict, treating other European states, especially Great Britain and France, as enemies. He engaged in a competitive weapons race heavily centred on the fleet. History showed that Wilhelm II’s assessment of Germany’s potential was an overestimate. That is why in the end Germany lost in its challenge, while Wilhelm’s reign remained perceived through the prism of political irrationalism.

In the early 20th century Gdańsk again became an important player in the European weapons race. The royal shipyard was already a large-scale enterprise, while the newly established technical university turned Gdańsk into an important centre of science and innovation. However, once these modernisation projects became part of authoritarian and imperial politics, they brought Europe no good. Instead of peace, they contributed to war. During the First World War the imperial shipyard in Gdańsk was indeed an important producer of weapons.

Once the war was over and the German Empire collapsed, the shipyard’s premises became an issue of international dispute regarding the post-war order. The victorious states decided that its ownership should be split between four states: Poland, Germany, Great Britain and France. By turning the shipyard into an international enterprise, they wanted to deprive it of the role it played in the German industry.

Although the First World War had come to an end and new states, Poland included, had gained independence, peace did not reign on the European continent for too long. Growing nationalisms, border disputes and economic crises halted democratic developments, giving birth to fascist and communist totalitarianisms. The Polish-German conflict over Gdańsk served as an easy trigger for a new military conflict on the European continent. It also did not take long before the Gdańsk Shipyard was, once again, turned into a weapons factory. It operated in this manner during the Second World War, brutally exploiting the prisoners of the Stutthof concentration camp and forced labourers. Therefore, during this period the operations of the shipyard showed a certain paradox: the enterprise was both a centre for the development of new technologies, including modern submarines, and a place where the Third Reich committed hideous crimes.

The more contemporary history of the shipyard thus shows a surprising turn. Namely, from a place which was used for war and authoritarian purposes, first by the emperor, then by the Nazis and the communists, it eventually turned into the birth site of Solidarity, which was one of the largest non-violent movements of our time. Thus, when in the summer of 1980 the shipyard workers put forward their demands, they were not only asking for better working and living conditions, but also showed that they had the courage to start building a new political culture in that place. This would be based on cooperation and respect for human dignity. As a result, the workers would break away from a century of exploitation that took place at the shipyard, an enterprise which only served those in power. All told, by starting the democratic revolution in Gdańsk, the shipyard workers said “no” to the communist authorities and all other systems which do not respect human rights.


In recent years, Polish collective memory has become too focused on the military traditions of freedom and independence fighters. This approach overlooks the thinking and achievements of the 1970s and 1980s, which were the result of peaceful movements focused on long-term positive change. Such beliefs were yet a shared philosophy of at least two generations: the first Polish post-war-generation who experienced the bloody crushing of the 1970 riots and the older generation who had gone through the hell of the Second World War.

By opting for non-violence, the ten-million-strong Solidarity movement chose a difficult, but in the end effective, path. The British historian Timothy Garton Ash called it a “refolution”. By this term he meant a political and economic system transformation that combines step by step reforms with aspects of a revolution. Ash was right in his observations; in the beginning the democratic opposition did not question the state monopoly of the communist authorities. It questioned the monopoly of labour force representation and thus created its own independent trade union.

Non-violent means can also prove effective in the process of challenging the moral legitimacy of authoritarian systems. When confronted with the non-violent opposition, the communists found it difficult to justify the use of force. Thus in December 1981 they brutally crushed social resistance by introducing martial law. This decision, however, led to the victory of the democratic forces in the long term. By putting thousands of Solidarity activists in prison and depriving tens of thousands of people of their income and employment, the communists only strengthened the Solidarity myth and gave it a new moral authority.

Most importantly, unlike military uprisings and guerrilla warfare, non-violent movements generate greater support and solidarity among the international public. Even if military actions are freedom and independence oriented, they often only attract attention for a little bit. With time, people start fearing further escalation of the conflict and become reluctant to provide direct assistance. That is why the world became so fascinated with the Polish Solidarity movement and continued to organise support actions for those who were opposing communism. This allowed the Polish activists to openly articulate the need for system change and demand respect for human rights. Their strategy of gradual reforms appeared to be well matched with the need for stability in the world.

This method, but also the great amount of diversity within the movement, explains why Solidarność was admired by many different groups worldwide. They included politicians, trade unionists, journalists and intellectuals of different political views. We can thus say that the movement not only organised and emboldened millions of Poles but also lessened the ideological and emotional distance between citizens of the democratic world.

Recognising these features, Aleksander Smolar, a well-known Polish intellectual and former dissident, described the change that took place in Poland in the 1980s as an “anti-revolution”. By this term he meant an anti-system protest with no ambition to turn utopia into reality. Smolar coined his term by modifying the phrase “anti-politics”, which was first discussed in the 1980s. Its creator was the Hungarian former oppositionist and writer György Konrád. He pointed out that the democratic opposition to the communist authorities did not truly aspire to take over because it had already been legitimised thanks to its moral and cultural authority.

The shipyard in the centre

Looking at Gdańsk from the roof terrace of the European Solidarity Centre, I often ask myself to what extent the city’s topography influenced the course of its history. The area of the historical Gdańsk Shipyard is located in the city centre. It takes only a few minutes on foot to get to Solidarity Square from the central railway station. Such an arrangement is, however, quite unusual for a historical Central European city with a medieval structure. Namely, while in most cities industrial areas are located on the outskirts, in Gdańsk it is the opposite. As a result, the centre and the shipyard spatially overlap and influence one another.

The unique location of the shipyard surely contributed to the emergence of the political agora in Gdańsk. For the city, this has proven to be both an asset and an opportunity. However, it can also be a challenge, especially when it comes to the issue of the preservation of the shipyard’s heritage. For over two decades now the historical area of the shipyard has not been used for industrial purposes. This does not mean that the industry completely disappeared from Gdańsk; it is just now located further away from the centre. The Remontowa Shipyard Holding, for instance, which opened 70 years ago, is located on Ostrów Island. With eight thousand people employed it is one of the largest shipyards in Europe today.

Today, the historical buildings and the area that once belonged to the shipyard near the European Solidarity Centre are in the possession of private Polish or European firms, which are now planning to build on it offices, residential and service buildings. This area, however, is also very attractive to many artists and young people who see it as an unconventional and inspiring location.

The history of the Solidarity movement and the historical Gdańsk Shipyard is documented at the permanent exhibition of the European Solidarity Centre (ECS). In addition, on July 15th 2022, a new temporary exhibition presenting over 170 years of history of the shipyard industry was opened at ECS. Titled “Shipyard. Man. Industry. City.”, it is the first comprehensive presentation of the history of the modern ship industry in Gdańsk, its impact on the social and political history of Europe and the role that politics played with regards to this industry and vice versa.

By renovating the historical BHP Hall of the former Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard, where in August 1980 the Gdańsk Accords were signed and Solidarity was born, the trade union NSZZ Solidarność has conserved one of the most important sites of Poland’s history. The opening of the European Solidarity Centre, in turn, in August 2014 has linked together all the historical monuments that are located in Solidarity Square and its vicinity for the future. In addition to being a museum of Solidarność and other freedom movements in the region, ECS is an educational institution and a contemporary public agora. In its building numerous conferences and events are held. During these gatherings important discussions are organised to reflect on the current and future state of democracy. Through these and other activities aimed at implementing its mission, the European Solidarity Centre remains faithful to the ideal of human rights as the foundation of political development, in Poland and Europe.

 Basil Kerski is the director of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk and the editor in chief of DIALOG, a Polish-German bilingual magazine.

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