19 September 2021, Sunday, 20:07
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Polish Historian: No Dictatorship Can Fight Hundreds Of Striking Enterprises

Polish Historian: No Dictatorship Can Fight Hundreds Of Striking Enterprises

Lessons of "Solidarity" for the Belarusian protest.

President of the Platform for European Memory and Conscience, Professor of Wrocław University Łukasz Kamiński has explained to Charter97.org what lessons from the Polish resistance can be learned by the Belarusians.


- Please, tell our readers how Solidarity started and what were the main objectives of this movement?

- Poland was in some ways unique in the communist bloc, because in most of the countries, there was only one big crisis, caused by confrontation with the authorities. For example, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Hungary in 1956, the GDR in 1953, and with the beginning of communist rule in Poland there was a series of mass protests starting from the 40s. And there were, of course, not only demonstrations and strikes, but also political confrontation and armed resistance. Then there were mass protests: in 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976. I can say that it was a unique Polish experience.

Some of these protests (in 1956, for example) led to a change, a kind of liberalization of the system, but it had no lasting effect, so a few years later another protest was necessary.

The situation in the late 1970s was somewhat different. We had a huge economic crisis. Obviously, the communist economy did not always work well, but the situation was even tougher that time. So, we had a factor that mobilized society to protest, but it was not just dissatisfaction with the economic situation. When we discuss the roots of Solidarity, it is important to mention that we had an active opposition movement, which informed society about the situation in the country, organized protests, etc. And last but not least in the Polish context was Pope John Paul II, his first pilgrimage to his homeland in 1979.


In the summer of 1980, we had a wave of strikes because of another price increase introduced by the communist authorities. Since the situation was bad enough, workers went on strike. However, the July strikes were not well organized; it was easy for the authorities to stop them by promising wage increases, offering some goods for the factory brigades, etc. Thus, the July strike was not successful in the sense that nothing had changed in Poland.

Another wave of protests began in August, and it was different from the others from the very beginning, because the famous strikes in the Gdansk shipyard started not only because of the critical economic situation, but also in solidarity with a repressed colleague, Anna Walentynowicz, an activist of the opposition Free Trade Unions.

The strike started on August 14 and ended on August 16. The authorities were frightened because other enterprises in Gdansk also went on strike. So the communists fulfilled all the demands, such as taking Walentynowicz and Lech Wałęsa back to work. The protesters were promised wage increases and even a monument to the workers who died in the protests of December 1970. The strike committee decided to stop the protest because there was no reason to strike if all the demands were met.

Fortunately, some people, especially women like Walentynowicz, started to object and protest saying that they should continue the strike in solidarity with other factories that had stopped work to support the shipyard in Gdańsk. The shipyard workers got what they wanted, but now it was their time to show solidarity with the others.

A new strike began, a strike committee was formed in Gdańsk, with the famous 21 demands. They were seeking the creation of free trade unions.

Two days later a strike began in Szczecin with a very similar list of demands, but nothing was happening for a week. The authorities, of course, entered into negotiations with the workers, but they could not agree to the first demand - free trade unions.

On August 26, Wrocław joined the strike. It showed the regime that they could not possibly isolate the strikes in the two regions, a nationwide wave of protests began. All that forced the authorities to sign agreements and accept what had been difficult to imagine under the communist system - the creation of independent trade unions. The only change was that those new unions were not called "free," because the authorities could not agree to the word "free," so they were called "independent self-governing unions". Two weeks later, the name "Solidarity" was chosen. It was a meaningful choice because the August strikes were all about solidarity between one group of workers with another.


- What was the driving force in Solidarity's fight against the communist regime?

- I have to start by saying that Solidarity was a unique movement in the sense that it was truly a mass movement. In a year, the union had 10 million members out of a population of 36 million in Poland. Obviously, not everyone could be a member of the union, there were individual unions of peasants, students, etc.

It was a unique time of great enthusiasm, hope and unity. Solidarity was universal, open to all those who wanted changes, including members of the Communist Party. The authorities knew that if the situation continued any longer, the communist system would come to an end. That is why martial law was imposed in December 1981, very strict, with mass repression. The army, police and security services were used against Solidarity. This was the end of the so-called "carnival of solidarity", 16 months of legal activity, and the real fight began.

Several things helped Solidarity. First, it was a peaceful movement, even during the most intense repression, when people were being killed in the streets and factories. It gave the movement the moral ascendancy. Second, Solidarity managed to organize underground structures in order to survive. You can compare the situation in Poland with Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, when after 2-3 years the resistance was completely suppressed by the authorities.

Solidarity managed not only to survive in the underground, but also to create a network of independent magazines and even radio stations. Another factor was the support at the world level. It is likely that because of that peaceful way of fighting, there was a lot of support for the Solidarity movement, including financial and technical support, but I am mainly talking about political support from various organizations.

Some Western countries, unfortunately not all, but especially the U.S. and Britain, imposed sanctions against the Communist regime, which isolated it completely. In the 1980s, Polish authorities could only travel to North Korea and other countries of the Soviet bloc.

The 1980s and 1981s were full of hope, a strong sense of unity. Naturally, not everyone in the resistance remained in Solidarity during martial law. We could not expect everyone to stay. But this sense of unity was so strong that even during the martial law, hundreds of thousands wanted to continue the struggle.

In the 1970s, it was hard to imagine that the communist system could fall. It was only expanding. The Soviet Union seemed strong and powerful, it had thousands of tanks, missiles, etc. In 1980, people started to believe that it might be over, that even the end of Polish independence would come.

However, it is good not only to draw inspiration from the successes of Solidarity, but also to draw lessons from its failures. One of these was the inability of the underground movement to offer society adequate forms of resistance in a changing situation. During the first months of martial law, they encouraged strikes that were easily suppressed by the authorities, and then demonstrations that did not lead to changes, despite casualties and mass repression. As a result, the participation in demonstrations after 1983 was very low, and no one responded to the calls to strike.

Another problem was the attempt to unify the movement in terms of political program, forms of activity, etc. The leaders believed that this would make the movement stronger, but in reality it led to conflict and deep divisions, some of which are still going on after decades. Personally, I believe that the movement should have some common goals, but that internal pluralism would serve its strength.

One other thing is worth mentioning. After December 1981, many people in the world supported Solidarity, but its structures in exile did not find a way to keep them involved. I think it's important to offer people different forms of participation in the struggle, given their profession, age, and so on.

- What was the role of strikes in the victory of Solidarity? Do you think that strikes nowadays are a powerful instrument in the struggle against dictatorship?

- I guess it depends on the dictatorship. I understand that you are referring to the current situation in Belarus. I think that in countries where the state still controls (directly or indirectly) a huge part of the economy, a strike can be a very effective way of protesting.


What have Polish workers learned? It is very important that in both the protests of December 1970 and August 1980, the Polish coast, Gdańsk and Szczecin, were crucial. In December 1970 there was another price increase. Protesters set the party committees on fire, it was a violent protest, it was suppressed by the army and militia, 45 people were killed.

In 1971, workers organized a strike, staying in the factories, occupying them. They realized that this was a successful way to protest, so they repeated it in August 1980. No dictatorship has an army big enough to suppress hundreds of factories, and the workers knew it. In fact, there was nothing the Communists could do against those strikes, only negotiate and sign an agreement. The 1980 strike was successful, but the December 1981 strike failed because there was not enough participants. People were intimidated.

In general, strikes were useful, but there is a condition. Success comes if other enterprises join the protest, not one or two. Moreover, it was crucial that the majority of workers stayed in the factories.

After all these years of struggle, the situation had reached a stalemate. Solidarity survived, but could not organize larger protests. The government did not destroy the opposition movement, there was support from the West, and there was independent press and radio. The opposition showed up in the country. So both sides started looking for a solution. The authorities were thinking about some changes. They, of course, wanted everything under control, so they considered it too risky to start a serious liberalization. Then, in the summer of 1988, a new wave of strikes began. The blows were not as strong, but they were enough to make the authorities realize the need to negotiate.

- What role did the Catholic Church play in the protests? We can remember the murder of Jerzy Popieluszko, a priest. Was it a trigger?

- The Catholic Church played an important role in Polish history, especially during the loss of Polish statehood. At that time the position of the Catholic Church in society and the nation was strengthened. After World War II, the Communists tried to suppress the Catholic Church, arresting Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński for three years.

The situation after 1956 was unique in the entire socialist camp. To be sure, religion was under surveillance and had to deal with a lot of restrictions, but still its position remained strong in comparison to other countries of the communist bloc.

In August 1980, before the first Sunday of the strike, workers asked the local bishops to send priests for services in the factories. It was a time of delicate balance between the church and the communist regime, so the bishops asked the local authorities what they should do. The latter agreed to send priests because they thought it would somehow pacify the mood of the workers.


In fact, most of the priests did not want to encourage mass protests, but that did not matter. It was important for the workers to have Masses during the strikes, it was a source of strength for them. Religion also played a symbolic role in the protest. In photos of the strikes we see many crosses, images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, images of John Paul II, and so on. The prayers were held on a daily basis.

Another side of the issue is martial law. Even under such circumstances, there was still room for freedom inside the churches. Some priests, such as Jerzy Popieluszko, started organizing support for the underground Solidarity movement and the families of the repressed. Cultural actions were organized inside the churches, holy masses for the murdered. So it was a space of limited freedom that played a key role. Many people were non-believers, but they attended services. The Communist authorities knew about these events, but they needed the Catholic Church during martial law for social stabilization. The authorities knew that the church would never call for a struggle, it would always be against any action that might lead to violence.

The regime tried to stop the support of the clergy for Solidarity by killing Jerzy Popieluszko. This crime was organized at the highest level of the Interior Ministry. It was the fall of 1984, the resistance was not very strong at that time, but after the murder there was a mobilization. However, it did not have a lasting effect. Obviously, Jerzy Popieluszko became a martyr for Solidarity and served as a symbol for the protesters.

- Solidarity activists were distributing propaganda literature, running underground radio programs, and publishing free newspapers in various cities. Was it important to have access to alternative information at the time? How did the media help Solidarity bring people together?

- The dissemination of information was extremely important, maybe even decisive. Information has its own mobilizing factor. There was no Internet, and the only possible sources of independent information were the Western radio stations, such as Radio Free Europe, but there were a lot of strays, so sometimes it was hard to understand what they were saying.

There were hundreds of underground newspapers. Some were printed once a week, some once every three months, there were small and large newspapers. However, behind each underground newspaper or magazine, there was a group of people. Those who edited the news, gathered information, secretly printed it, even fought for the paper, because you couldn't just go to the store and buy it. Dozens and sometimes hundreds of people would stand in line for one newspaper.

I believe it was the most active opposition network, especially in the mid-1980s. There were, of course, underground Solidarity structures, political parties, and other groups of people, but the most energetic were those behind the network of independent information distribution. It was a reminder to people that Solidarity was still alive. There was no other sign of the existence of the underground movement than the underground press for most people in the mid-1980s.


- Protests in Belarus have been going on for more than 300 days in one form or another. Do you see any similarities with the Solidarity movement?

- I think we can compare the events of last year to 1980 in Poland because, at least in my understanding, there was the same social change. There has certainly always been opposition in Belarus, and there were times when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the regime, but it was last year when a large part of society openly opposed the regime. Another similarity is that last summer there was the same hope for changes as in Poland in 1980. The same sense of unity, a kind of enthusiasm that we were close to achieving our goal. This is a very critical moment. As in Poland, you will probably notice that the number of active protesters is not increasing, but, on the contrary, decreasing. It happened to Solidarity, too.

We must remember that, even if these movements are somewhat similar, this does not mean the need to copy. I believe that the history of the Solidarity movement can be a source of inspiration but not a guide. However, I think that the summer of 2020 in Belarus will play the same role in the history of your country as the summer of 1980 in Poland.

- What advice can you give based on the history of Solidarity? What can bring the victory of the democratic movement in Belarus closer?

- I believe that it is important to be flexible and look for new ways of protest so as not to lose social mobilization, which is still strong in Belarus. It's easy to believe that the situation will be the same over time, but it won't. Leaders need to think about protest and mobilization as well as protection. They are responsible for their people, especially the persecuted. People will follow the leaders but, sometimes, only up to a certain point.

Right now, you have a lot of support from the world, your leaders are meeting with world-class politicians, but this will not last forever. Much needs to be done to keep the world's attention. I think this was another mistake of the Solidarity leadership in exile. In December 1981-1982, the Polish resistance movement enjoyed tremendous support, but only small groups of supporters remained later because Solidarity in exile did not find a way to keep their attention. I would say that they did not do the required job.

The success of Solidarity in exile, especially during the early period of martial law, was the mobilization of artists. For example, there were contests for artists in support of the movement. Some intellectuals organized help for an underground printing house. In the underground, not only newspapers were printed but also books. Of course, now there is no such need to print books in Belarus, but you just need to create a space in which Belarusians will be active.

Naturally, in times like these, people focus on fighting the regime. However, the day of victory will come, you need to prepare for this day. Solidarity was not prepared; it was somehow surprised by the events of 1989, and there was a need to take responsibility for the whole country.

I think there is one more lesson to be learned from the experience of Polish Solidarity. There are many young Belarusians who, unfortunately, live in exile, so I advise you to be active, protest, organize, but also develop as specialists in various fields. Your country will need engineers, businessmen, professional politicians, scientists, etc. Start arguing now. Even if you don't see any success in the near future, it's still good to start a discussion today. What do you want to achieve? What will a democratic Belarus look like? There are many opposition lawyers in Belarus. Start preparing decisions for the future, legal acts, and so on.

Another mistake was that Solidarity did not understand unity well. Their concept of unity is one organization and one leadership. They even accused others of acting against the main goal because, without unity, there can be no success. Of course, this is right, you need to unite but in diversity. There is nothing wrong with more conservative or more progressive groups. You need to be united on a few basic things, such as democracy, but there should be different views on Belarus after the fall of the regime, this is absolutely normal. The expectation of complete unity is dangerous and has caused many problems since 1989.

We only discussed the history of Solidarity, I am also an expert in other areas of history. We have been researching the communist intelligence services for 20-25 years. Archives are open in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and other countries. The Belarusian KGB is a secret service of the Soviet type. Now the KGB has different technical equipment, but it is the same way of thinking and organizing things.

I think it would be good for Belarusians to prepare and study such literature, to see how the special services worked in communist times. I am sure that the methods have a lot in common. Sometimes people forget that there is a way to look into their minds and methods of work.