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Revolutions of 1989 – Poland Sets the Stage

Twenty years ago, the fall of Communist governments throughout Central and Eastern Europe transformed the political landscape. And the events Poland would lead the way.

The Polish Example

The emergence of Solidarity - the first non-Communist trade union in 1980 under the leadership of Lech Walesa - sparked the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe that would come later in the decade. “Within a couple of months (of its creation), Solidarity had 10 million members,” said Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a spokesman for the Solidarity opposition movement during the 1980s. “The fact that Solidarity could be crushed only by implementing martial law deprived the Communist system of any traces of legitimacy,” he said.

The government’s repression drove Solidarity underground, but did not destroy it. “It became absolutely clear that even tanks on the streets could not stop the process,” said Onyszkiewicz.

“For many years everybody in our part of the world lived under the impression, which was quite clearly confirmed by Soviet declarations, that the defense of the socialist system was not a matter of every individual country,” said Onyszkiewicz. “It was actually a matter for the whole socialist bloc.” That, he noted, had been the justification for intervention in Hungary in 1956 and for intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and it could have justified intervention in Poland in the 1980s. But, said Onyszkiewicz, “We proved it doesn’t work.”

Without a military solution at hand, he said the government’s only means of resolving the crisis had to be political in nature. “Finally, we showed that Solidarity could run for elections and win,” he said. The result became the first, and (for some time) the only non-Communist government in the Soviet sphere of influence.

The Soviet Reaction

“Poland would demonstrate that Communist regimes were held together only by force,” said Russian journalist Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. And as soon as that force eased, those governments began to collapse – one after another. “To the great credit of Mikhail Gorbachev, he made it clear that he would not use force,” Lipman said. And that is principally how he is remembered in Central and Eastern Europe today.

However, the true nature of President Gorbachev’s reluctance to use force has been largely misunderstood, according to Eurasian expert Paul Goble. “Had Gorbachev or any other Soviet leader tried to use force, it would have come to a bloody end rather than a relatively peaceful one,” said Goble. “While one certainly is pleased that Moscow did not behave in the thuggish fashion it had often used before, I think we should recognize that Moscow did not use force not out of some moral judgment but more likely out of a practical calculation that it simply did not have enough force available to crack down everywhere.”

Other Critical Components

Charismatic leadership was also a critical factor in Poland. Onyszkiewicz describes Solidarity leader Lech Walesa as a “beacon in the darkness.” He also cites the election in 1978 of Polish Pope John Paul II as being an inspiration to his countrymen. “The huge crowds that turned out for the papal visit in June 1979 showed Poles they were not alone,” he said.

Onyszkiewicz also credits self-published underground literature and periodicals, or samizdat, for contributing further to the sense of cohesion. “Samizdat was very important because it was quite clear evidence of the emergence and development of civil society that was quite independent from official authorities,” he said. “It also gave Poles who were members of Solidarity the feeling they were not dissidents.” Rather, said Onyszkiewicz, it was the Communists who became the dissidents.

Goble agrees this intellectual component of the 1989 Revolutions was critical in gaining wider appeal, especially in Poland and Czechoslovakia. “The underground writing in Poland, much of which was published in Kultura, the great Polish magazine in Paris, played a critical role in recovering the values of democracy and freedom which the Soviet government in its occupation did so much to try to wipe out,” Goble said.

“No other country played a greater role in the ending of the Soviet empire in Central and Eastern Europe than Poland,” said Gobel. Through courage, the compromises they forced on the Soviet leadership, and through the encouragement of a Polish Pope, the people of Poland are widely credited for starting the movement that extinguished Communism in Europe.