The Solidarity and the Fall of the Iron Curtain

Polish History Museum

Muzeum Historii Polski

“The Polish revolution was 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

Map of divided Europe 1945 - 1989. by Jacek KotelaPolish History Museum

New 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.

"The Big Three" at the Yalta Conference, US government photographer, 1945-02-04/1945-02-11, Original Source: US Department of Defense
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Caricature of the Big Three on Yalta Conference, 1945, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Baby carriages alongside a queue in front of a grocery shop. (1980)Original Source: Włodzimierz Wasyluk/REPORTER

Centrally Planned Life

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. 

Ration coupons, Original Source: Wojtek Łaski/EAST NEWS
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Ration coupons, introduced by the communist regime in 1976 due to ‘temporary supply shortages’, were not annulled until 1989.

Workers' Day parade in Warsaw, 1973., Original Source: Leszek Lozynski/REPORTER
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The annual May Day parade was supposed to be a demonstration of mass support for the ruling communist party. However those who did not attend the parade faced harassment at their work place.

XIII Soviet Song Festival in Zielona Góra., 1977, Original Source: Zenon Zyburtowicz/EAST NEWS
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Poznanians bearing the banner. Inscription reads: We demand bread. (1956-06-28/1956-06-30)Original Source: Łaski Collection/EAST NEWS

Strikes and Riots 

For decades the Polish United Workers’ Party refused to accept any form of political competition or authentic workers’ activities. 

Poznań, June 1956. Worker strikes and riots were brutally suppressed. 73 people were killed and hundreds injured.

The militia prepares to attack Warsaw University students, 1968-03-08/1968-03-23, Original Source: EAST NEWS
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Warsaw, 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.

Workers carrying the body of a murdered colleague, Zbigniew Godlewski, along the streets of Gdynia, Original Source: EAST NEWS
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Baltic Coast, December 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. 45 people were killed and 1,165 were injured.

A group of protesting workers in RadomOriginal Source: EAST NEWS

Radom, June 1976. Protests broke out in response to a hike in food prices, beginning with a strike in Radom. The militia put down the protests. Several thousand people were arrested and then tortured.

Workers' Defence Committee (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).

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Lech Wałęsa addresses the crowd gathered at the Gdańsk Shipyard (1980-08) by Erazm CiołekOriginal Source: Erazm Ciołek


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. They lost their jobs because they were active in illegal trade unions.

Gdańsk Shipyard during the strike in August 1980, Original Source: Tomasz Michalak/FOTONOVA
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Anna Walentynowicz talking with strikers' families., Original Source: EAST NEWS
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21 Demands part 1Original Source: Palik/FOTONOVA

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. Among the demands were, among others: 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.

Stocznia Gdanska during the strike in August 1980, Original Source: Włodzimierz Wasyluk/REPORTER
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Stocznia Gdanska during the strike in August 1980, Original Source: Włodzimierz Wasyluk/REPORTER
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Signing of the August Agreements, Original Source: Włodzimierz Wasyluk/REPORTER
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Signing of the August Agreements signifying the government’s acceptance of the 21 Demands, by Lech Wałęsa and Mieczysław Jagielski deputy prime minister of Polish People's Republic (31 August 1980).

Demands for registration of Solidarność, Zygmunt Błażek, 1980-10, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Based on 21 Demands arose Independent Self-Governing Trade Union 'Solidarity'. It became in fact the movement for civil rights and the rights of the nation, and its members came from different social groups and different political orientations.

Construction of the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers 1970, Original Source: Wojtek Łaski/ EAST NEWS
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In the aftermath of the Gdańsk Agreement, the Monument to the fallen Shipyard Workers 1970 was unveiled on 16 December 1980. It was the first monument to the victims of communist oppression to be erected in a communist country.

1st National Congress of Delegates of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’, Olivia Builing, Gdańsk, September 1981., 1980-08-17, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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The 1st National Congress of “Solidarność” in September 1981 was the first democratically elected assembly in Eastern and Central Europe since the installation of communism. During the congress, the delegates issued a proclamation to the workers of Eastern Europe calling on them to fight for their rights, including the freedom of association.

Solidarity poster for May Day 1981, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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General Jaruzelski announces martial law in Poland. (1981-12-13/1983-07-22)Original Source: Michał Szlaga/REPORTER

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. Martial law formally lasted until July 1983, but Solidarity was de-legalised and repression of the opposition continued.

In front of the coal mine "Wujek"Original Source: Konarzewski/REPORTER

Brutal pacification of striking plants took place after imposing the martial law by General Jaruzelski. Nine miners were killed by gunfire at the Wujek Mine in Silesia.

The demonstration against martial law on May Day, 1982, Original Source: Tomasz Wierzejski/FOTONOVA
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Interned opposition activists during a walk in the prison yard, 1982, Original Source: Łaski Diffiusion/East News
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John Paul II's second visit to Poland., Original Source: Mark Carrot/FOTONOVA
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In June 1983 Pope John Paul II visited Poland for the second time. The Pope came to his homeland although it was still under martial law.

Underground postage stamp marking the 7th anniversary of the registration of the Solidarity trade union.Polish History Museum

"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 members 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.

The underground editions of anti-totalitarian literature classics, George Orwell, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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"The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible." George Orwell, 1984

The underground editions of anti-totalitarian literature classics, Czesław Miłosz, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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The Round Table talks. (1989-02-06/1989-04-05)Original Source: Wojtek Łaski/EAST NEWS

The Round Table

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 1989. 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.

High Noon, June 4, 1989., Tomasz Sarnecki, 1945/1989, Original Source: Tomasz Wierzejski/FOTONOVA
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On June 4, voting took place in which Solidarity Citizens’ Committee won all 35 % of seats it could in the Sejm and 99 out of 100 in the Senate.

General election protests, NAF Dementi, 1989-06-04, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Some of the citizens and members of the opposition objected to the compromise negotiated during the Round Table talks, especially only partially free general elections. In many cities street protests were held.

Solidarity supporters waiting for ellection results.Original Source: Tomasz Wierzejski/FOTONOVA

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.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s first visit in the Sejm after his appointment to the Prime Minister’s office., 1989, Original Source: Grzegorz Roginski/REPORTER
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The landslide victory of the Polish opposition led to the appointment on September 12, 1989 the first non-communist government in Eastern Europe, led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, one of the opposition leaders and an adviser to Solidarity.

Local election campaign in May 1990 (1990) by Mieczysław Michalak /Polish History Museum

Free Poland

1990 began with the restoration of the country’s traditional name, the Republic of Poland (in place of the Polish People’s Republic) by Parliament (Sejm) and the implementation of free-market reforms. In May, the Poles voted in local elections. It was the first fully free election in post 1945 period. In the Autumn the first presidential election took place, and Lech Wałęsa became the country’s president. 

Prime Minister Jan Olszewski, Ireneusz Radkiewicz, 1991-12-23, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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In October 1991 the first fully free general election took place and Jan Olszewski became Prime Minister.

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