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Communism in Poland: A Brief History of Its Collapse

In retrospect, one can recognize that the Communists blundered, for example, by raising prices at inappropriate times for economically pressed social groups. The communist planners did not draw lessons from the past when a price hike started a strike wave June 1, 1980 in Lublin that ended with the victorious August 14-31 strike in Gdańsk. The triumph was a breakthrough moment that made the strike leader Lech Wałęsa a household word around the world.

No one expected that the strike that began on August 14, 1980 in Gdańsk would change history, even though changes in Communist Poland came about as a result of labor unrest. The sixteen months of Solidarity demonstrated that the eight years that followed were an endgame of communism in the bloc and put the opposition at the negotiating table in 1989. Solidarity was a self-conscious antithesis of the Bolshevik myth of the Great October Revolution. The Solidarity strike, in which well over a million workers participated, was a major event leading to the reunification of Europe a decade later symbolized by the fall of the Berlin wall.

The breakthrough became a breakthrough when it convinced those in power their days were numbered—or at least that the other side had a good chance of winning. After Solidarity, it is an exaggeration to claim that the collapse of communism was an unexpected social transformation. The participants in the events were not only convinced that communism would end but openly entertained the possibility it would, not only in Poland but elsewhere.

The martial law, introduced on the night of December 12-13, 1981, was a shock, even to many communist party members. The command to roll out the tanks into the streets sealed the fate of the regime that would relinquish its power eight years later. While no one could predict the future, the militarization of the regime exposed its illegitimacy.

The years that followed martial law can perhaps best be understood as a tug of war, involving a series of selective adjustments of social control and attempts to force a settlement that would keep the communists on top, and if power had to be ceded, to minimize the damage. Perhaps the best example of an early attempt on the part of the regime to persuade Lech Wałęsa to head a regime-managed union, which he bluntly refused: “You can kill me but you won’t defeat me.”

The regime never trusted the population, which it saw as unreliable and largely against it. A force of 250,000, including 90,000 police reserves, 30,000 militia, and 10,000 volunteers; 1,759 tanks, 1,900 APCs, 9,200 vehicles, several helicopter squadrons and transport planes [946 planes total], was used to pacify Solidarity. Reportedly 9,736 activists were detained. More than 400 demonstrations were dispersed by motorized security units [ZOMO] and thousands were subjected to interrogation.

In 1984, the number of police agents in Poland rose to 85,000, exceeding the number of agents at the height of Stalinism The futility of trying to legitimize the crumbling system is apparent in the murder of Jerzy Popiełuszko, which forced the communist regime to put its own security agents on trial.

The announcement that the regime was willing to talk with Solidarity came three days after the August 28, 1988 strike at the Gdańsk shipyard in which Lech Wałęsa participated. General Wojciech Jaruzelski eventually became president by one vote, a humbling experience for the general who publicly tried to reinvent himself as the harbinger of a peaceful transition to democracy. In an interview with Rosiiska Gazieta he has taken credit for Poland’s transition to democracy. On August 24, 1989, the parliament approved Tadeusz Mazowiecki, head of Solidarity experts, as the first non-communist Prime Minister. In December 1990, Lech Wałęsa was elected president of Poland.

 

 

Author Bio:

Michael Szporer is a Professor of Communications at University of Maryland University College and author of the forthcoming 'Solidarnosc- The Strike that Ended Communism' Penn State University Press, 2009

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Poland
Location:  Eastern Europe
Capital:  Warsaw
Communist Rule:  1944-1989
Status:  Abolished - 19.07.89
Victims of Communism:
2 million