Tearing the Iron Curtain Apart

Gestures of Freedom and Reconciliation

The end of World War II in 1945 did not bring freedom and sovereignty to all European countries. Nearly half the continent, including Poland and East Germany, found itself under the control of the USSR. The Cold War between the Soviet Bloc and the democratic West had begun.

There was no symmetry, however. While the West in the 1950s had systematically headed toward a multidimensional integration and reconciliation, the Eastern Bloc’s nations –  friends by decree – were deeply divided by boundaries no less hard to cross than those between the East and the West. New barriers arose from the Cold War; at the same time, old grudges and wounds were kept alive. Fear of the revival of German fascism and Western imperialism were key elements in communist propaganda.

"Adenauerowcy” – a propaganda poster, Stanisław Gratkowski, 1954, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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As problematic as physical borders were restrictions to freedom of speech, public meetings and manifestations expressing beliefs. Though official circulation of information including press photos was controlled and censored as tightly as possible, it was not possible to hide all related events and images, and diminish their meaning. There are gestures that burst into  public space and have been retained in social memory. There are words that all know that with time gained meaning and became symbolic. 

The fall of the Iron Curtain is typically associated only with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But this curtain began to rip apart earlier, beginning in the 1950s as certain gestures, pictures and symbols appeared, that penetrated boundaries, and despite the efforts of security forces and censors these couldn't be hidden. 

Dramatic gestures of protest, resistance, forgiveness, apology, joy and victory, reconciliation. Expressions of feelings, beliefs, powerlessness or actual power. Gestures that couldn't be erased from the pages of history. 

Some gestures give expression to human freedom, have the power to split open fixed frameworks. Shared human experience often allowed meaning to be understood without words.

A rally in the Parade Square in Warsaw, during Gomułka’s speech announcing reforms aimed at democratizing the political system, 1956-10-24/1956-10-24, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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October 1956. Support rally for First Secretary of the Party Władysław Gomułka's reforms. At the same time, the 1956 revolution begins in Hungary. 

After Nikita Khruschev's secret speech in February 1956, a foment begins behind the Iron Curtain. The June protests by workers in Poznań accelerated the process of change in Poland, which culminated in October with the release from prison of Władysław Gomułka  and his appointed as First Secretary of the Party. Students at the Budapest Polytechnic, inspired by events in Warsaw, organized a manifestation by the monument to Gen. Józef Bem, which sparked the Hungarian Revolution. The Soviet Army marched on Budapest and its tanks bloodily suppressed the Hungarian Revolution.

Poles preparing aid packages for Hungarians, 1956-10/1956-11, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Poles, expressing solidarity with Hungarians, donated blood for their Hungarian "cousins" and collected material aid. 

Important events in 1956 made most Western sympathizers with the USSR aware that they shouldn't maintain illusions about the nature of communist authorities.

"In this very Christian but also very human spirit, we are stretching out our hands to you, from the benches of the Ecumenical Council that is drawing to an end, we forgive and ask for forgiveness."
Polish bishops to German bishops, 18 November 1965.

At the end of the Second Vatican Council, Polish bishops sent a letter to German bishops. It was written by Archbishop Bolesław Kominek and signed by the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, and by Archbishop Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, among others. They proposed a new view of the past Polish-German relations, not focused only on Polish suffering but also that suffered by Germans, and a new vision of reconciliation and the future far-removed from communist propaganda. 

The German bishops responded with a letter that disappointed because it did not include an expression of support for the border issue along the Oder and Neisse Rivers.

The gala conference of the Polish Episcopate, Eugeniusz Wołoszczuk, 1970-05-04, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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The Polish bishops’ words “We forgive and ask for forgiveness” provoked a deluge of communist propaganda accusing the Church of betraying national interests. The letter’s tone of reconciliation stood in contradiction to official communist propaganda, which stressed the threat West Germany could be to Poland.

The act of self-immolation of Ryszard Siwiec in protest against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968-09-08, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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"People, who still harbor inside you a spark of humanity, of human feelings, come to your senses! Hear my cry, the cry of an ordinary, grey man, the son of a nation that has come to love its own and others' freedom above all else, above its own life – come to your senses! It is still not too late!"
Excerpt from Ryszard Siwiec’s taped statement, 8 September 1968.

On 8 September 1968, during the official Harvest Festival celebrated at the Tenth Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw, Ryszard Siwiec self-immolated to protest the Warsaw Pact forces invasion of Czechoslovakia, in the presence of Communist Party leaders and 100,000 spectators. He wanted to shake the conscience of Poles. Half a year later, Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague as a protest against the suppression of the Prague Spring. 

The first information about Siwiec's act only appeared four months later, on Radio Free Europe.

During the first visit by West German Chancellor Willy Brandt to postwar Poland, in December 1970, an agreement was reached toward normalizing relations between Poland and the Federal Republic. Brandt's kneeling by the Ghetto Heroes' Monument was taken as a public confession of German culpability for the World War II. It was unplanned; the German delegation was taken by surprise by the chancellor's gesture. When his wife, Rut, asked him later how it occurred, he said: “Well, something had to happen...”

Willy Brandt kneels in Warsaw, 1970-12-07, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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7 December 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt by the Ghetto Heroes' Monument in Warsaw. 

"He kneels, though he need not, for all those who need to but do not kneel – because they dare not, or cannot, or are unable to, do not dare. So he confesses a guilt that does not burden him, and he asks for forgiveness that he himself does not need. He thus kneels for Germany."
Hermann Schreiber, a journalist for Der Spiegel.

Official PRL press tried to show other photos from the Chancellor of the Federal Republic's visit, concerned about enhancing regard for Brandt and Germany. The chancellor's gesture then passed unnoticed, as within days tragic news of December 1970 events appeared.

Workers carrying the body of a murdered colleague, Zbigniew Godlewski, along the streets of Gdynia, Original Source: EAST NEWS
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Workers carry a victim's body: Zbyszek Godlewski, shot by Polish People's Army soldiers pacifying demonstrations on 17 December 1970 in Gdynia. 

"Then the engineers blew locomotive whistles, blocked them so they couldn't be moved, and over the streets the horrible call vibrated, with the whirr of shots: locomotive whistles instead of alarm bells. 'Cause the alarm was immense, bigger even than anxiety. So people walked on [...]. Silenced. Or maybe with throats parched from tears? In the crowd, over their heads, they carried a young man on a door wrenched from an outbuilding. They had lifted him from the pavement, dead."
Barbara  Seidler, Who Ordered Shots? December '70.

In reaction to the next price increase in December 1970, public protests began along the Baltic coast and in other places in Poland. PRL authorities bloodily suppressed them – 41 people perished, over a thousand were injured. 

It was the second largest public protest against PRL politics, after the June protests in Poznań of 1956.

After the massacre on the Baltic coast in 1970, protests were silenced for several years.

An Action Reconciliation Service For Peace summer camp in Laski near Warsaw, 1974/1974, Original Source: Elisabeth Here-Särchen
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An Action Reconciliation Service for Peace summer camp in Laski near Warsaw, 1974. At left: Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Günter Särchen engaged in conversation.

In the mid-1960s, the first church-related initiatives for Polish-German reconciliation began to arise. In the Federal Republic of Germany, these mainly included people from the Bensberg Circle and Pax-Christi, while in East Germany there was the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, and in Poland the Catholic Intellectuals’ Clubs in Wrocław, Warsaw and Kraków, among other places, along with those involved with the periodicals “Tygodnik Powszechny”, “Znak” and “Więź”.

Catholic Intellectuals’ Clubs

These societies, founded in October 1956, affiliated secular Catholic groups in Poland. Leaders including Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Stanisław Stomma and Władysław Bartoszewski established a dialogue with Germans. The Catholic Intellectuals’ Club in Wrocław established connections with members of the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace in the 1960s, and in the 1970s with the Dortmund section of the Bensberg Circle. Club members were aware of operating in a very specific environment in the new Poland: the former German territories.

Action Reconciliation Service for Peace 

A social initiative that originated in the Evangelical Church in East Germany in 1958, which sought reconciliation with countries afflicted by German war crimes. The efforts of the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace initiated a Polish-German dialogue and represented a form of ideological opposition to the communist regime. In 1964, as a part of its actions, pilgrimages and camps for German youth were organized in Poland. Moreover, several seminars on Poland were held in East Germany.

For Poles, the significance of the selection of Karol Wojtyła as pope can not be overestimated. His words and gestures gave hope to Poles awaiting changes. It was a spark that flashed within the official circulation of information controlled by PRL authorities. It wasn't possible to hide or snuff out the fire it had originated.

Pope John Paul II in Kraków, 1979-06-10, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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A gesture by John Paul II, kissing Polish soil during his first visit to the PRL as the Holy Pontiff.

"And I cry – I, who am a son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul II. I cry from all the depths of this Millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost, I cry with you all: Let your Spirit descend!  Let your Spirit descend! And renew the face of the earth. The face of this land!"
John Paul II, 2 June 1979. 

The hope brought by John Paul II gave people courage and fortified the need for freedom. In August 1980, a strike began in the Gdańsk Shipyard, which soon spread across Poland. Solidarity was created.

Lech Wałęsa shows a crowd gathered in front of the Shipyard the agreement signed by the government delegation., Original Source: Mirosław Stępniak/REPORTER
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Two weeks of talks with the authorities concluded with a signed agreement on 31 August 1980, and Lech Wałęsa, leader of the strike, announced an end to the protest. 

Lech Wałęsa announces the end of the Gdańsk Shipyard strike, Erazm Ciołek, 1980-08-31, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
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The success of the Strike Committee was the common work of thousands of strikers – and is seen in Wałęsa's gesture inviting them to celebrate their common victory.

"Delegates assembled in Gdańsk for the first National Congress of the Independent, Self-managed Solidarity Trade Union sent their greetings and support to all workers in Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Romania, Hungary and all the nations forming the Soviet Union. 

As the first independent union of Eastern Europe in our postwar history, we feel deeply a sense of community. Contrary to slander spread in your countries, we reassure you that we are the authentic representatives of 10 million of the working class in Poland, formed in the wake of strike actions. Our objective is the struggle for the improvement of the living conditions of all workers. We support those of you who have decided to enter the difficult road of struggle for free and independent unions. We trust that our representatives can meet soon to exchange union experiences."
Message from the First Assembly of Solidarity Delegates to working people of Eastern Europe, by Bogusław Śliwa, Gdańsk, 8 September 1981.

Martial law imposed in December 1981 by PRL authorities sustained the tottering communist system in Poland for the coming years. This was also the time when support for Polish opposition activities by people in the West, especially Germans and the French, displayed their solidarity with Poles, by measures including packages for detainees and support for entire families in Poland.

The demonstration against martial law on May Day, 1982, Original Source: Tomasz Wierzejski/FOTONOVA
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The V-for-victory sign in the PRL signified for years protest and hope for change, hope for victory.

Information Bulletin of Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity Information Bulletin of Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity, 1987-12/1990-01, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Akcja "Patronat", 1988-06-05, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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At the end of the 1970s, the first ties were established between the Polish and Czechoslovak oppositions. After one meeting of the Czechoslovak group Charter 77, KOR (Workers' Defense Committee) and Solidarity in October 1981, Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity was created. Their collaboration facilitated the covert transfer of independent publications and of equipment, established a courier network for smuggling banned publications over the porous border, and organized demonstrations in both countries. 

By late 1987, Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity began publishing its Information Bulletin. Thanks to this, it was possible to organize one of the most important joint operations: “Patronage,” which encouraged all citizens and organizations to take up concrete aid for political detainees and their families in Czechoslovakia and Poland. In the following issues, people's names and places of detention of prisoners for conscience and addresses of their families appeared, with information about the participation in this patronage by many people and organizations on both sides of the border.

Lech Wałęsa and Vaclav Havel, Ireneusz Sobieszczuk, 1990-03-17, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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The symbolic meeting of Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel on 17 March 1990 in Przesieka on the Polish-Czechoslovak border, meeting point for the oppositions of both countries in the 1970s and '80s.

While on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain the situation was becoming more and more tense, in the West ties among the countries of the European Economic Community tightened, bringing closer a gradual enactment of the uniform market, which was to mean the beginning of a Europe without borders.   

Pope John Paul II in Strasbourg, 1988-10-09, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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John Paul II, Strasbourg, 9 October 1988.

"All of the old empires imposing their dominations by power and by policies of assimilation have fallen. Your Europe will become a free association of nations, which will allow all of them to use its richness of diversity.

With the nations represented here others certainly would join. My desire – as the Highest Shepherd of the common church who comes from Eastern Europe and knows the aspirations of Slavic nations, the second “lung” of our common European homeland – is that a sovereign Europe with free institutions will spread one day to its borders marked by geography, and even more by its history."
Speech by John Paul II in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, 11 October 1988.   

Perestroika in the Soviet Union, the deepening economic stagnation in Poland, the wave of strikes in 1988 and the adamant stance of the democratic opposition finally forced the authorities to commence talks with Solidarity. From February to April 1989, talks at the Round Table continued.

Government side at the Round Table, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-02-06, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
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Government side at the Round Table 

Under conditions of the Round Table agreement, the first partially free parliamentary elections in communist Poland were held. Candidates not linked with the rulers, including Solidarity members, were allowed to take part. 65 percent of the Sejm seats were reserved for communists, but Senate elections were completely free. The opposition won all Sejm seats it had been allowed to contest, and 99 of the 100 Senate seats.

Solidarity representatives at the Round Table, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-04-05, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
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Solidarity representatives at the Round Table

The communist system in Europe could no longer be maintained. Centrally planned economies were bankrupt; people were demanding changes, they wanted freedom. Moscow resigned from control of its satellite countries. The Round Table and elections of 4 June in Poland cleared the way for freedom in Central and Eastern European countries, and for unity between the two German states.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki - the Poland's first non-Communist prime minister, 1989-09-12, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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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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On 24 August 1989, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, participant in Round Table discussions, was elected the first non-communist prime minister of postwar Poland. His gesture expressed victory and common joy. Thus the long fight from freedom brought results – the process of democratic change could start in Poland.

In summer 1989, all of Central and Eastern Europe simmered. In East Germany, a wide-ranging opposition movement formed. Prayers for peace organized every Monday in Leipzig transformed by autumn to mass demonstrations against the system, which culminated in the fall of Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. This happened during West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's visit in Warsaw – he went to Berlin to celebrate with the Germans for one day, however he returned on 12 November for the holy mass later named a “mass of reconciliation.”

Prime Minister Mazowiecki had been engaged for years in activities for Polish-German reconciliation. He intentionally chose Krzyżowa (Kreisau), a place of anti-Hitler opposition during World War II, as the site for a Mass to be attended by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and members of Polish and German minorities. He was concerned that the choice of St. Anne's Mountain, where Poles and Germans fought over Silesia after World War I, might spark conflicts.

The sign of peace between Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Helmut Kohl during a Holy Mass in Krzyżowa, Adam Hawałej, 1989-11-12, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Prior to the mass of reconciliation, Bishop Nossol was approached by officers of the Security Service with the question if, during the holy mass, the “sign of peace” really must be performed. The bishop firmly refused to leave it out.

The sign of peace exchanged between Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Helmut Kohl had symbolical, manifold meanings. It had also a religious aspect, as a gesture between two Christians. At the same time, it was a gesture of the prime minister of Poland and the chancellor of Germany. Not everyone appreciated it then; only with time did it take on political meaning, and became a symbol of Polish-German reconciliation that slowly filled with content.

Berliners Celebrate, Steve Eason, 1989-12-31, From the collection of: Getty Images
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Berliners celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of 1989.

In November, the Iron Curtain was torn apart across Central and Eastern Europe – after changes in Poland and Hungary came the fall of the Berlin Wall, which opened the way for the unification of Germany, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and negotiations of government and opposition in Bulgaria. Only the overthrow of the dictatorship of Nicholae Ceauşescu in Romania was not bloodless. There was no way to return to a divided Europe.

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Kurator—Dorota Szkodzińska

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