Two Decades from Warsaw

WARSAW – “Poland – ten years, Hungary – ten months, East Germany – ten weeks, Czechoslovakia – ten days.” So chirped many in Prague in November 1989, reflecting the pride and the joy of the Velvet Revolution, but also the sustained effort that was needed to end communism, whose demise began in Warsaw the previous February.

Indeed, communism’s breakdown began ten years earlier in Poland, during Pope John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to his homeland, a visit that shook communist rule to its foundation. Within a year, Polish workers were striking for the right to establish independent trade unions, staging two weeks of sit-ins at state-owned factories to achieve their goal. Karl Marx would have been proud of them, but it was the Pope’s portrait that hung on the gate of Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyard during the strike.

The Solidarity union that was born in 1980 broke the Communist Party‘s monopoly on power. The movement united ten million people: workers and professors, peasants and students, priests and freethinkers among them – all of civil society. This infant democracy was harshly interrupted when martial law was imposed in December 1981, with Solidarity outlawed and dissidents arrested. But this totalitarian blitzkrieg could not last. Democracy did not die; it merely went underground.

For the next seven years, Solidarity fought for re-legalization, building the biggest underground network of resistance Europe had seen since Hitler’s war. But this was non-violent resistance. Its main weapon was the language of freedom. In the mid-1980’s, there were about 1,000 independent, uncensored journals in Poland. They represented a full range of ideas and editorial styles – from factory leaflets and bulletins to intellectual magazines. Hundreds of books prohibited by Communist censors (for example, Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum ) came to light.