Academic journal article The Oral History Review

The Solidarity Revolution in Poland, 1980-1981

Academic journal article The Oral History Review

The Solidarity Revolution in Poland, 1980-1981

Article excerpt

Abstract This article, based upon in-depth interviews with anti-government leaders and activists, first explains the significance of the upheaval in Communist Poland in 1980-1981 and articulates how the author became involved in this research and explains his methodology. It then concentrates on the impact on the personal lives of the participants and on social relations in Poland of the upheaval that produced an unprecedented-in-the-Soviet-bloc independent union with the right to strike. It shows how activists developed talents and cultivated abilities as they assumed responsibilities that had previously been unavailable to them. It examines how workers' lives changed as they grasped control of power: their working conditions improved; their status rose; they treated one another better; they educated themselves. These changes, which contributed to the context in which the political struggle of that period took place, survived the suppression of the union and ultimately contributed to bringing about the end of Communism in Poland.

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   Alicja Matuszewska: For the first time since the Communists
   took power, people were united: peasants, workers, clerks,
   intelligentsia. There was no more "Mr. engineer," or "Mr. doctor." A
   worker with a shovel used the familiar form when speaking with
   both. That was the greatest threat to the Communists. They could
   not divide the society any more.

   Stanislaw Handzlik: This democracy, this openness was bursting
   out day by day. Talents were released: organizing, giving
   speeches, artistic talent even. And because of all that, a lot of
   people grew more valuable in their own eyes.

In August, 1980, massive strikes enabled Polish workers to win an independent union, which they called "Solidarity," and which had the right to strike. In doing so, they broke the mold of Soviet-bloc countries by creating a means of challenging rule from above; their achievement was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire and ultimately of the Soviet Union itself. They thus changed the course of history. This colossal political achievement enabled them to change existing social relations and to grow and transform themselves individually.

I came to Poland almost accidentally to observe these changes and found that I could best understand what had happened by speaking with the activists involved and learning their history as they saw it. I was not an expert on Eastern Europe and I had not expected to do any research there. However, my field of concentration is social movements. So, when I learned that my application to participate in the exchange program between Indiana University and Warsaw University had been accepted, meaning I would be going in the summer of 1986 for about five weeks, I decided to see if I could learn about Solidarity and the significant social movements that had characterized Communist Poland. I was fortunate to make contact with Jane Dobija, a Polish American woman who had been moved by Solidarity to go to Poland and write a book about it. Jane kindly shared her contacts with me and provided me with letters of introduction to two independent journalists in Warsaw and Krakow. Each of them gave me connections that opened up the world of the opposition. In Krakow, Krzysztof Kasprzyk brought me to a church that was a center of opposition. I met the priest who, after we talked, asked me to lecture about the civil rights movement in America (about which I had then just finished a book) at the underground Christian workers' "university" that he ran. At my talk, I met Maciek Szumowski, a leader in the movement to reform the Party in 1980-1981. Szumowski took a liking to me, granted me an interview, and offered to help me make further contacts. Afterward, the priest, one of the most prominent opposition priests in Poland, invited me to go with him to Gdansk to meet Lech Walesa. I did, and also, thanks to Wojciech Adamiecki in Warsaw, I made contact with other oppositionists in Gdansk. …

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