Poland, 1980-1984: A Witness to History

By Burgess, John | Humanities Research, September 1, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Poland, 1980-1984: A Witness to History


Burgess, John, Humanities Research


The late Francis Stuart, the first Australian Ambassador to be resident in Poland, wrote an interesting book about his long career in the Foreign Service. Towards Coming of Age was published in 1989 and Stuart's reflections on his last post abroad, to Poland, included the following:

It is fanciful to believe that the Soviet leadership would ever question the infallibility of their official doctrine or relinquish the glacis of subordinate states protecting the Soviet borders... Sadly then, Poland and like countries can expect no more freedom in the future than the circumscribed autonomy they have now.

Many would have agreed with him in the late 1980s, but that which he considered fanciful was actually to happen within a few short years. I was fortunate to be a witness to part of this historic transition.

I arrived in Poland as Australian Ambassador on 30 September 1980, about three months after the first strikes and just a month after the signing of the Gdansk Agreements between Solidarity and the Polish government. I stayed on until the end of 1984.

A previous posting in Moscow had not prepared me for what I found in Poland. The country was in ferment. In Moscow under Brezhnev, the foreign community had been effectively kept in isolation from the local society. Kremlinology had consisted largely of reading between the lines of the tightly controlled Soviet media. In Poland in 1980-81, the local society was not only accessible but positively welcoming and disarmingly outspoken. The Polish media was lifting the lid on what had actually been going on in the country. The inner workings and manifold failings of what professed to be a workers' state were revealed for all to see.

As a general rule, diplomats study their host country as detached outsiders from a privileged and protected position. Sometimes, however, they will encounter situations where they will feel drawn to take sides. In my case, Poland in 1980-81 was such a situation. A great majority of Poles, whether farmers, workers or university-educated people, were plainly deeply dissatisfied with their party-dominated governments and their Soviet overlords and had come together determined to insist upon a better future. This was not an overnight development but one born out of a very bitter and troubled history as a Soviet satellite since World War II. Just about everyone I met seemed to know their Polish history intimately and to be guided and inspired by it. This was a nation rebelling against the state, and it was hard not to be drawn to a people so dismissive of the odds stacked against them.

I recall no controversy during those years over what Australian policy towards the situation in Poland should be, either within Canberra or between Canberra and the Embassy. Nor do I recall that the Embassy received any strong policy directions from Canberra under the Fraser government. The Embassy's reporting and analysis - generally sympathetic to Solidarity's cause - seemed to be accepted. By and large, Australians in general seemed instinctively sympathetic towards Solidarity's struggle. One unexpected exception that comes to mind was an Australian shipping magnate visiting Poland - much bruised over the years by encounters with Australian unions - who felt sympathy for a government being challenged by a trade union.

It is perhaps worth recording here that in the early 1980s there was little institutional expertise in the Department of Foreign Affairs on Eastern Europe as we then called it. Few resources were devoted to it. Our embassies there were small, including the one in Moscow. The Soviet Union - superpower though it then was - did not loom large in the department's priorities. Junior diplomats might think of carving out a career path in South-East Asia or East Asia, but not in Eastern Europe. I sometimes reflected on the oddness of this low priority. There was the fact of the Soviet Union's superpower status, and there was the further fact that Australia hosted significant minorities from the region - regularly augmented by the periodic eruptions there.

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