A miracle happened 25 years ago. Solidarity was born.
More precisely, the first-ever independent trade union, Solidarity, in the Soviet Bloc arose from a chain of miracles. Human solidarity translated itself into an institution dubbed Solidarity.
For some, the miracle started in July 1980 in Lublin, Poland, where the first strike broke out during that eventful summer. It was even rumored the strikers welded a train full of scarce goods to its tracks to prevent it from traveling to the Soviet Union.
Others point to the Olympic pole vault champion Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz. In early August, despite the massively derisive booing by the Soviet spectators, he took the gold in Moscow, and, to boot, flipped off “the Ruskies,” Italian style, live on Polish TV. That surely sent a triumphant shiver down the spine of every patriot in Poland.
Now, seriously, all agree August 14 was an important date, as the strike at the Gdansk shipyard commenced. That definitely was a miracle. Who was responsible for this? Adherents of the school of The Great Man in History point to Lech Walesa, who appeared among the strikers soon after. However, the conspiracy theorists believe the man with a moustache was sent to the shipyard by the secret police, directly or indirectly. If he had been, the strike he headed surely did not go the secret police way.
Others stress that Walesa was dispatched to the shipyard by dissident intellectuals—Bogdan Borusewicz, in particular. This school also holds that it was the leftist intelligentsia who mainly prepared the field for Solidarity—nay, practically created it. One of them, professor Karol Modzelewski, even invented its name. There is disagreement here, of course.
One can point out that it was a high-school dropout, blue-collar worker, and a co-founder of the Free Trade Unions of the Baltic Coast, Krzysztof Wyszkowski, who put out the shipyards strikers’ news sheet, named Solidarity, before it was adopted as the union’s official name. As for the intellectuals, the credit usually goes to the leftist part of the Committee to Defend Workers (KOR). However, the leading light of the KOR-left, Jacek Kuron, admitted that had he not been arrested in Warsaw, he would have reached Gdansk to advise the strikers not to demand a free-trade union.
The legend of the leftist intellectual/adviser is so powerful that one often overlooks the logistical support for the striking shipyard workers in printing, transportation and communications was provided by the youthful activists of the neo-nationalist Movement of Young Poland (RMP). They were staunchly Christian and mildly rightist.
Be that as it may, Solidarity was born and Walesa became a powerful symbol for the strikers and, soon, for his nation and the world. Many rallied around him and identified with him—a miracle, believe it or not.
By Aug. 30, 1980, the strikes spread like wildfire all over Poland. For those who claim the miracle rests with the people who rose against the oppressor, that is proof supreme of a miracle. Naturally, there are competing theories about the nature of the “people power” miracle. The Trotskyites claim “the proletariat,” yearning for “true socialism,” rebelled against the Communist bureaucracy. Other leftists and liberals believe the workers wanted to reach democratic socialism carefully chaperoned by the intellectual advisers.
And nationalists argue, as evidenced by religious portraits of the Black Madonna and the pope and other ubiquitous public displays of Christian piety, the strikers wanted “a Catholic Poland and not a Bolshevik one.” They wanted freedom from communism, independence from the Soviet Union, and national solidarity—a system akin neither to Marxism nor to capitalism but, rather, related to the doctrine of subsidiarity and the nationalist-syndicalist Third Way. It was certainly a miracle for the people of Poland, atomized after 35 years of totalitarianism, virtually lacking a vocabulary in common. Instead, they communicated in religious and patriotic symbols, including most often the Cross-cum-Anchor, the anti-Nazi and anti-Communist underground sign of Fighting Poland (1939-45).
How about the miracle of the collapse of the Communist resolve and the Politburo disunity? After all, it was supremely propitious that a faction of the leadership decided to take advantage of the strikes to oust the Old Guard under Edward Gierek. Had the Communists been united, Solidarity would have been crushed in its cradle. Likewise, it was a miracle the Soviets did not invade.
However, almost everyone is equally convinced that the miracle manifested itself first in October 1978, when Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, and germinated in June 1979, when the pontiff visited his native Poland. His message was, “Fear Not.” And the barrier of fear slowly began to crumble. Solidarity was born a year after.
Reagan and the Pope
It persevered despite the painful blows inflicted upon it by the Communists during martial law and its aftermath (1981-89). This was not only thanks to the unconquerable spirit of the Poles but also, in large degree, of the moral and material support from the pope and the West, in particular the United States under President Ronald Reagan. The American support was both public and private. For example, Director of Central Intelligence William Casey, after visiting the pope to talk about the crisis in Poland, donated $50,000 of his own money to buy printing equipment, which was subsequently smuggled into Poland via the Vatican channels. That was before Congress voted its generous aid package to Solidarity. Yes, America and its elected representatives instinctively knew a miracle in the making when they saw one.
Of course, the historian will consider all the factors above to recreate the past as it really was. Further, a good historian will appreciate the miraculously non-violent character of Solidarity. At the same time, a solid scholar will be able to draw a straight line between Solidarity and Poland’s many modern rebellions: the Bar Confederacy (1768); the May 3rd Constitution War (1792); the Kosciuszko Insurrection (1794); the November Rising (1830-31); the January Rising (1863); the Great Poland and Silesian Risings (1918-1921); the all-Polish “Tempest” and the Warsaw Rising (1944); the anti-Communist Rising (1944-49); and the Poznan Rising (1956). All of them failed.
Solidarity ultimately prevailed, albeit after a painful string of defeats. It was surely a miracle, or a chain of miracles.
Last but not least, I would like to share a family story to prove my point. On Sept. 1, 1980, my father walked into a secret police ambush at a friend’s house. My father was an underground printer and had enough material with him to supply an entire city block. The Communist secret policemen arrested him and conveyed him to a regular police station, where he was put in a holding tank. The secret policemen left, vowing to return later to transfer the prisoner to their own headquarters. They were hoping to catch other people.
Watching TV news showing the signing of the Solidarity agreements between the regime and the strikers, the regular cops allowed my father a single phone call, against all regulations, of course, for the political prisoners had no privileges. He called my mother to ask her for a toothbrush and toothpaste. My mother came soon and started crying. The regular cops became embarrassed. A sergeant scratched his head, “Well, if an agreement was signed, guaranteeing a free-trade union, then I guess you are all right to go.” And they let my father go. A small miracle of Solidarity.