30 Aug 1980

The Solidarity and The Fall of the Iron Curtain

Polish History Museum

"The Polish revolution was the first great contraction in the birth of this new Europe. If the European order that we called in shorthand 'Yalta' began in Poland, there is a real sense in which the end of 'Yalta' also began in Poland. "
Timothy Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution: Solidarity , 1999

New European Order

After the end of World War II, the Soviet Union established communist dictatorships in Central and Eastern Europe. The resulting homogeneity in the social, political and economic life of the countries of the Eastern bloc was based on the Soviet model. The process began with the building up of a political monopoly for the communist party, creating a secret police force, introducing censorship and taking control of the media, vital for propaganda purposes.

Propaganda poster. The inscription reads: ‘Soviet Army, guardian of peace’
Edward Gierek, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party (the communist PZPR) from 1970 to 1980.  Actual leader of the Party and State.  Under his leadership the country enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom which ended in the deepest crisis since the war.
Workers’ Day parade under the ominous silhouette of the Palace of Culture and Science

The annual May Day parade was supposed to be a demonstration of mass support for the ruling communist party. Delegations representing various companies and production plants, schools, universities, social organisations and the military, along with famous actors and musicians, marched and waved to the party dignitaries who looked down at them from the rostrum. The marches were broadcast on television. However, the festive atmosphere was disturbed by the fact that those who did not attend the parade faced harassment at their work place. 

The Soviet Song Festival in Zielona Góra was organised with panache. The main objective of the event was to strengthen the supposed Polish-Soviet friendship
"Ręce do góry" (“Hands Up”).  The feature film made by Jerzy Skolimowski in 1967 was banned by the censors until 1981.
Krystyna Janda in "Przesłuchanie" ("Interrogation"), directed by Ryszard Bugajski

Culture and Censorship

Artists who violated any of the numerous political or ideological taboos had to reckon with the fact that the only viewers of their works would be the censors. Many writers and film makers emigrated: Jerzy Skolimowski moved to the West when the censors banned his “Hands Up” and Ryszard Bugajski went when the authorities blocked the distribution of “Interrogation”.

Czesław Miłosz receivs the Nobel Prize in Literature
Ration coupons

The economy

The centrally planned economy introduced by the communist government did not tolerate private property in industry or in the service sector. The government’s policies led to losses in profitability and innovation in industry, a decline in the level of services and food rationing.

A queue in front of the grocery shop

Strikes and riots

For decades the Polish United Workers’ Party refused to accept any form of political competition or authentic workers’ activities. In June 1956 worker strikes and riots in Poznań were brutally suppressed. 73 people were killed and hundreds injured.

March 1968. Student protests erupted in March 1968 following the banning of the performance of a play by the 19th century poet Adam Mickiewicz, “Forefathers’ Eve”, for its “Russophobic” elements. Some 1,500 people were arrested. An anti-semitic campaign was launched against student activists and their alleged supporters.

Baltic Coast, 1970. Workers’ protests sparked by food price rises swept through the Polish port cities of Gdańsk, Gdynia and Szczecin. Protesters were dispersed by militia and army divisions (a total of 61,000 militia officers and troops were involved). 45 people were killed and 1,165 were injured.

June 1956 Poznań
March 1968 Warsaw
December 1970 Gdynia
June 1976 in Radom

Workers' Defence Comittee (KOR)

As a result of the protests in Radom, Płock and Ursus, thousands of workers were dismissed. With the aim of providing them with help, the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) was formed. This was an organisation, acting without the permission of the authorities, which was created by representatives of the intelligentsia who opposed the system. Emissaries from KOR quickly reached the majority of those who required assistance, providing them with financial support as well as legal aid. KOR activists fell victim to repression from the authorities: their flats were searched, they were detained and some were even beaten up by ‘unknown assailants’, in fact agents of the Security Services. Soon a few other opposition organisations were set up, such as the Movement for the Defence of Human and Civic Rights (ROPCiO) and Free Trade Unions (Wolne Związki Zawodowe).

John Paul II in Cracow, 1979

John Paul II

On 16 October 1978 the Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła, was elected Pope. The news of his election was received with great enthusiasm in Poland and was seen as a symbolic reward for decades of national humiliation and Church persecution. In June 1979, the Pope arrived on his first visit to Poland in his new role. His visit gathered together millions of his fellow Poles, who participated in grand religious celebrations which were not only a manifestation of their faith but also an opportunity to demonstrate their wish to live in a free country.

John Paul II in Częstochowa
Lech Wałęsa speaks of his generation
14 August 1980: The strike at the V. Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk begins


Solidarność was born as a result of a nationwide strike in August 1980, started at the V. Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk.  The shipyard workers went on strike in a gesture of solidarity with two of their colleagues who had been sacked: Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Wałęsa.

Holy Mass celebrated at the striking shipyard.
Anna Walentynowicz talks to the strikers’ families.  Walentynowicz was an activist for workers’ rights and, in 1978, organised the illegal Free Trade Unions (WZZ).

The 21 Demands

Other production plants joined in the strike. A committee of delegates from Gdańsk and neighbouring cities was formed. The strikers wanted to negotiate with the communist government the conditions for the termination of the protest. The Committee drew up 21 demands which put across the conditions. The government eventually agreed to enter negotiations with the strikers.

The 21 Demands

21 Demands of the Inter-factory Strike Committee of the Vladimir Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk (17 August 1980)

1. Acceptance of free trade unions independent of the Communist Party and of enterprises, in accordance with convention No. 87 of the International Labour Organisation concerning the right to form free trade unions.

2. A guarantee of the right to strike and of the security of strikers and those supporting them.

3. Compliance with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech, the press and publication, including freedom for independent publishers and the availability of the mass media to representatives of all faiths.

4. A return of former rights to:

a) People dismissed from work after the 1970 and 1976 strikes; students expelled because of their views. (...)

5. Availability to the mass media of information about the formation of the Inter-factory Strike Committee and publication of its demands. (...)

9. Guaranteed automatic increases in pay on the basis of increases in prices and the decline in real income. (...)

12. The selection of management personnel on the basis of qualifications, not party membership. Privileges of the secret police, regular police and party apparatus to be eliminated.

Delegates of striking production plants listening to the negotiators
Recording the negotiations
Signing of the August Agreements, signifying the government’s acceptance of the 21 Demands.
31 August 1980, the strike comes to an end
Lech Wałęsa carried in triumph by his supporters after the registration of the Solidarity Trade Union

Acknowledgement of the right of workers to set up a free and independent trade union was one of the 21 Demands. The Independent Self-governing Trade Union ‘Solidarność’ (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy Solidarność) was formed on that basis. In fact, the organisation became more than just a trade union. It was in effect a national and civic rights movement whose members were people of different social groups and political orientations. By the end of 1981 around 10 million people had become members of this organisation.

Solidarity poster for May Day 1981
1981 Protesters demanding the legalisation of the Farmers’ Solidarity
Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers 1970 – the first monument to the victims of the communist regime
'Tygodnik Solidarność' (Solidarność Weekly), the first independent newspaper in Poland since 1947 presented by its chief editor, Tadeusz Mazowiecki
1981, the First Congress of Solidarność in Gdańsk

Message issued by the delegates of the First Congress of NSZZ ‘Solidarność’ to the working people of Eastern Europe

Delegates gathered in Gdańsk at the first Congress of Delegates of the Independent Trade Union “Solidarity” extend greetings and words of support to workers of Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Romania, Hungary and all the nations of the Soviet Union.  As the first independent trade union in our post-war history we are deeply aware of our interlocking fates.  We assure you that, contrary to the lies circulating in your countries, we are a genuine 10 million-strong working people’s organisation set up as a result of workers’ strikes.  Our aim is to fight for improved living standards for all working people.  We support those of you who decide to embark on the difficult road of struggle for a free trade union movement.  We believe that your representatives and ours will soon be able to meet with a view to exchanging union-related experiences.

‘Man of Iron’ by Andrzej Wajda was the first film made about Solidarność. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
13 December 1981:  General Jaruzelski announces martial law in Poland

Martial Law

The ruling communist party (Polish United Workers’ Party) refused to reconcile itself to the gradual loss of power. The political situation in the country was becoming increasingly tense. In the spring of 1981, the defense minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, became the First Secretary of the communist party PZPR. On 13 December 1981, Jaruzelski imposed martial law on the country. The State Council suspended civic rights and freedoms, including the right to continue the activities of Solidarity. Overnight, the police, security services and the army seized all the headquarters of Solidarity and interned approximately 10,000 opposition activists, including Lech Wałęsa.  Brutal pacification of striking plants took place. Nine miners were killed by gunfire at the Wujek Mine in Silesia. Martial law formally lasted until 1983, but Solidarity was de-legalised and repression of the opposition continued.

Military armoured personnel carrier in front of the coal mine
Victim of the Motorised Reserves of the Citizens’ Militia (ZOMO) attack on the opposition demonstration in Lubin
Among the victims of dictatorship in the 1980s was the Solidarity chaplain, Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, who was murdered in the autumn of 1984
The demonstration against martial law on May Day, 1982
Interned opposition activists during a walk in the prison yard
Solidarity with Poland
Family of interned Lech Wałęsa with his portrait pinned to the wall

The Nobel Peace Prize for Lech Wałęsa

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Lech Wałęsa in 1983 was understood as a strong signal of support for Solidarity from the democratic world. The communist government refused to issue a passport to Lech Wałęsa to prevent him from receiving the prize in person. He was represented in Oslo by his wife and oldest son.

"Drugi Obieg"

The origins of the "drugi obieg" (the Polish equivalent of samizdat) date back to the late 1970s. However, it was not until the years of martial law (1981-1983) that the clandestine circulation of printed works became the driving force of the opposition. Solidarity leaders who had escaped detention set up a clandestine network of printing shops and distribution. A wide range of publications was printed to supersede the official and party-controlled media. Books, periodicals, leaflets and posters, even postage stamps and postcards, were printed and widely distributed.

Nineteen Eighty-Four
Darkness at Noon
The Captive Mind
Solidarność lives!!!
1988 student strike at Warsaw University
Strike of shipyard workers demanding the re-legalisation of Solidarity
Mikhail Gorbachev talks with General Jaruzelski during the Tenth Communist Party (PZPR) Congress

The Round Table

In 1989, faced with a growing economic crisis and under the influence of perestroika then under way in the Soviet Union, General Jaruzelski decided to open talks with the opposition. The Round Table talks began in February. These resulted in an agreement to re-legalise Solidarity and to elect members to the Senate and 35 per cent of members to the Sejm (Polish parliament) in free elections.

1989 - the Round Table Talks

The Autumn of Nations

Shortly after the Round Table Talks had started in Poland, Hungary began its own transformation. In June, the barbed wire stretched along the Hungary-Austria border was removed. In August, the ‘Autumn of Nations’ – a wave of mass demonstrations against communist dictatorships – spread across the remaining Eastern bloc countries.  Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians, Romanians and the nations of the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union openly called for freedom. The Berlin Wall fell. As a result of the ‘Velvet Revolution’, Vaclav Havel was elected to the office of President of the Republic in Czechoslovakia. In Romania, the army sided with the protesters against Nicolae Ceaucescu. The democratic transformation in the former Soviet bloc took place for the most part peacefully thanks to the decision made by Mikhail Gorbachev, who ruled out military intervention in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Posters displaying the candidates to the Civic Committee (Komitet Obywatelski) with Lech Wałęsa

On 4 June, voting took place in which Citizens’ Committee, founded by Lech Walesa and Solidarity leaders, won all 35 % of seats that it could have in the Sejm and 99 out of 100 in the Senate.

The landslide victory of the opposition led to the appointment on 12 September,1989 the first non-communist government in Eastern Europe, led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, one of the opposition leaders and an adviser to Solidarity.

The election poster of Solidarność 1989
Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s first visit in the Sejm after his appointment to the Prime Minister’s office

Free Poland

January 1990 began with the restoration of the country’s traditional name, the Republic of Poland (in place of the Polish People’s Republic) and the implementation of free-market reforms known as the Balcerowicz Plan. In May, Poles voted in their first free and open local elections. 1990 was the first year of a free and independent Poland, but it also brought an end to the Solidarity movement in the form it had in the 1980s. The Civic Committee split up and in the autumn Lech Wałęsa stood against Tadeusz Mazowiecki in the presidential election.

Mazowiecki was eliminated in the first round by a third candidate and Wałęsa won the second round with 75% of the votes.

22 December 1990:  Lech Wałęsa taking the presidential oath of office

“During the ten years which separated the summer of 1980 from the autumn of 1990, Poland experienced a political roller-coaster ride, such as few countries have ever endured. At the start of the decade, she was still in the grip of the communist dictatorship and the Soviet Bloc. At the end, she was a free nation”.

Norman Davies, “God’s Playground”, Oxford University Press, 2005
Credits: Story

Curation — Michał Zarychta, Polish History Museum
Translation —  Thomas Anessi, Barbara Kościa
IT — Artur Szymański

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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