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Polish August of 1980

In the mid-70s, the crisis of the command and control economy (a permanent ailment of Real Socialism) aggravated in the People’s Republic of Poland. Edward Gierek’s weakening team, despite intensive efforts by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and its leadership, could not prevent the sprouting of new opposition groups which took place in the years 1976–1980. These groups published clandestine press and books, managing to get their message heard not only amongst the educated classes, but also amongst workers (the Free Trade Unions).

The election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope (16 October 1978) and his first pilgrimage to Poland (June 1979) had a tremendous impact on Poles’ social awareness, increasing the nation’s resistance to communism. The government’s inept attempt at raising the prices of basic food products triggered off a wave of strikes which swept through the whole country from Lublin and Warsaw to Szczecin and Wrocław in July and August 1980. However, the Gdańsk Shipyard strike, which started on 14 August 1980, turned out to be of most importance. Initially, the workers demanded adequate pay rises and a reinstatement to work of crane operator Anna Walentynowicz. Starting from 16 August 1980, the shipyard workers’ protest turned into a solidarity strike, joined by more and more institutions every day. Twenty-one demands were presented to the communist authorities, the most important of them being the demand for a right to strike and to form independent, self-governing trade unions. When the authorities gave their consent to the creation of an organization independent from the communist party, agreements could finally be signed with the Interfactory Strike Committees in Szczecin (30 August), Gdańsk (31 August) and Jastrzębie (3 September). Lech Wałęsa, the leader of Gdańsk Shipyard workers, pronounced (while standing on top of a car) the establishment of free and self-governing trade unions.

The authorities of the neighbouring countries soon became alarmed by the events of July and August 1980. Before the onset of the strike in the W. Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, the Minister of State Security of the German Democratic Republic ordered its subordinate units to be particularly vigilant of the events in Poland. Similar instructions were issued by the highest leadership of the communist party in Moscow, which appointed a special commission to investigate the situation in Poland, headed by Mikhail Suslov, on 25 August 1980. Even before the August agreements were signed, special services of the People’s Republic of Poland (Ministry of Internal Affairs) had launched an operation codenamed “Lato 80” (“Summer ’80”). As it soon turned out, its aim was to prepare the introduction of martial law. All these decisions indicated that the communist block did not intend to allow “Solidarity” to stay on Poland’s political and social map for very long. In the months that followed (the so-called 16 months of “carnival”), the workers’ “Solidarity” became a role model for all social and occupational groups that formed new independent associations (Independent Students’ Union, Individual Farmers’ “Solidarity”). On the other hand, the existing associations, including creative societies (Polish Literary Society, Polish Journalists’ Association and others) were given the right to choose their authorities democratically – for the first time since the beginning of the People’s Republic of Poland with its “nomenklatura” system (under which appointments to positions were only possible with the party’s approval). However, the introduction of martial law on 13 December 1981 put an end to the emerging “Samorządna Rzeczpospolita” (“Self-governing Republic of Poland”), dampened the society’s energy and hope for freedom and a victory of good over evil. Throughout the entire period – the years 1980–1981, martial law and the subsequent years (until 1989), the 10-million strong “Solidarity” movement enjoyed the support of the Catholic Church. Priests accompanied striking shipyard workers in the Tricity area and steel mill workers in Warsaw. Crosses were being placed on the walls of factories, schools and hospitals to symbolise the independence of workers, the true hosts of their work place, from the party. In the 1980s, churches and religion classrooms saw the birth of independent culture – prominent scientists gave lectures on the true history and distinguished Polish priests, spearheaded by the blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, preached patriotism and forgiveness.

Jan Żaryn