Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poles Celebrate The 25th Anniversary Of Solidarity

Twenty-five years ago, on August 31, 1980, Poland's communist government legalized the independent trade union "Solidarity."

It was an event without precedent in the communist world. Some historians see it as the beginning of the end of the communist system in Central and Eastern Europe. VOA's Jaroslaw Anders looks at the sources and consequences of the "Solidarity" revolution. Ernest Leong narrates.

The signing of the historic agreements between the striking shipyard workers of Gdansk and delegates of the communist government in Warsaw came after two weeks of a tense confrontation led by Lech Walesa, a 37-year-old electrician from the Gdansk shipyard.

The protests were sparked by shipyard workers' unhappiness about living and working conditions. But Solidarity soon brought together intellectuals; artists, Catholic activists, and the fledgling Polish democratic opposition.

Assistant Secretary of State and former US ambassador to Poland, Dan Fried, says at first he watched Polish protests with caution and skepticism. "In those days, we did not yet have a notion, not an inkling that history can change. In those days many Americans, unfortunately myself included, believed that history had had a verdict in 1945, that the world I grew up in, the world of the Cold War, will be the world of the future."

But the apprehension soon turned to amazement and hope, when the Polish government agreed to grant the Polish workers most of their demands, including the right to organize freely. It also promised to ease censorship of the media, to guarantee freedom of religion, and to stop persecuting democratic activists.

Mr. Fried says that was when he realized that communism might not be eternal.

"When I heard about the Gdansk Accords, that was a stunning moment. That was a stunning moment. And when we look back, the significance of Solidarity and what it stood for, and what it achieved, grows with time rather than diminishes. It was a movement which simultaneously brought together patriotism, workers' rights, a moral objection to communism, and a democratic movement. All together, it brought together workers, intellectuals, and it brought together the Polish nation."

The communist regime did not give up without a fight. In December 1981, Poland's leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law, suspended Solidarity, and arrested most of its leaders. The Polish regime never fully recovered its control, and an underground Solidarity worked against it, undermining its authority through civil disobedience. In 1989, the regime finally agreed to relinquish its exclusive power.

A year later, Lech Walesa became the first democratically elected president in the post World War II history of Poland. Soon communist regimes were falling everywhere.

A generation later, the Solidarity example is evoked in places distant from Gdansk, such as Ukraine and Iran.

Jaroslaw Martyniuk, a media expert specializing in Eastern Europe was in Ukraine during its Orange Revolution of December 2004. He says, "In some ways, I think, Solidarity has set a precedent for the democratic movements of the 21st century, of which we had the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, to a lesser extent the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgystan, as well. Yes, there is a whole generation separating these events, but Solidarity has demonstrated that you can overthrow a criminal, corrupt, totalitarian regime if you are unified and determined to do it."

Mr. Martyniuk says Poles who visited Ukraine during the time of the upheaval were often greeted as comrades-in-arms. He recalls his own meeting with a group of Poles at the Kyiv airport. "They were mostly young people. Some of them probably lived through the Solidarity years. Some of them were possibly descendants of the Solidarity people. I approached them and in my unpolished Polish I said: "I want to thank you that you came to help Ukraine attain free elections. And as we were talking, I could see there was a very emotional reaction."

Today, the Solidarity example is studied, among other places, by the democratic activists of Iran.

Dr. Shariar Ahy, an analyst specializing in the Persian Gulf region, says it is an inspiration for all people who want to win their freedom through non-violent means. "If you have three grand ideologies that posed a threat to international order, but more importantly and security, a threat to freedom in the last 100 years - Nazism, Communism, and now Islamism - the one [movement] that freed Poland of one of those ideologies is a great lesson to those who want to free themselves from excesses of Islamism."

Mr. Ahy says the inspiration was quite visible during Iranian anti-Islamist protests.

“If you look at pictures of [the Iranian democratic leader] Ahmad Batebi, for example, in that grand student movement in 1999, the graphics, the symbolism brings back Solidarity. The graphics designer, the banners, the way they carried themselves, the way they talked, all shows that this big revolution of non-violent movements against totalitarian regimes started with Solidarity and still continues."

As Poles celebrate the 25th anniversary of Solidarity, many of the heroes of 1980 have retired or have been voted out of politics. The country is a member of NATO and the European Union. Yet it struggles with 18 percent unemployment. But the legend of Solidarity, of ordinary folks who challenged a dictatorship and won, lives on both in Poland and far beyond its borders.