Poland's Forgotten Battle: Who Deserves Credit for the 1989 Revolution?

By Jan Puhl

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe, symbolized by the opening of the Berlin Wall. But many in Poland feel the revolution started in their country and that their role in the continent's radical transformation has been forgotten.

The rundown headquarters of the Solidarity (Solidarnosc) trade union in Gdansk makes it hard to imagine that this was where a crucial turning point in world history has its roots.

Two wall fragments are on display in front of the entrance. One is from Berlin, and the other is part of the masonry wall that once surrounded the city's Lenin Shipyards. It is the same wall that a young Lech Walesa -- a troublemaker who stood his ground against the communists -- is said to have scaled in 1980 before becoming leader of the strikes held by shipyard workers.

An arrow -- painted in the red-and-white colors of both Poland and Solidarity -- points from the section of the shipyard wall toward the imported section of the Berlin Wall. A sign reads "Path of Freedom," and the message is clear: Without Lech Walesa and his comrades-in-arms, the Berlin Wall would have never fallen. Many Poles believe that the world has forgotten this fact, and it's something they are not happy about.

One of them is Dorota Arciszewska-Mielewczyk, 41. A member of the upper house of the Polish parliament, Dorata clearly remembers how, as a young girl, she and her grandmother brought sandwiches to the shipyard workers striking in 1980. At the time, Poland's communists were finally forced to negotiate and, eventually, to permit the first free trade union in the Eastern bloc.

What bothers Dorata is that no one seems to remember this crucial event. "Poland has lost the battle over memory," she says. "The whole world thinks that the collapse of the Eastern bloc began with the Wall." She is firm in her belief that it was Solidarity that triggered the sweeping changes. "You Germans simply marketed yourself more effectively," she adds.

It would seem that Germany's supposed marketing success is doubly offensive to the senator. In the course of her career, the former back-bencher from a rural district has grown to become one of Poland's best-known female politicians. And she's done it all by focusing on a single, overriding issue: the supposedly persistent threat emanating from Germany. "Some Germans spit on our history," she says, "and want us to pretend like it's raining."

Dorata is not motivated by nationalist hatred. In fact, she once even organized a memorial service for the German refugees who died in 1945 on board the "Wilhelm Gustloff," a passenger ship that was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine while evacuating German citizens from Gdansk. Instead, what drives her is an age-old inferiority complex, a feeling among Poles that their neighbors have not given them the respect they deserve. Likewise, many in the country feel that they haven't gotten any credit for standing on the front lines while fending off the Soviet push from the East.

Poles are particularly upset about how ignorant modern-day Germans are about how their country has repeatedly devastated Poland. The most recent time, of course, followed the agreement between Hitler and Stalin to jointly invade the country in 1939. Later, the SS and other murderous groups committed unspeakable crimes against the civilian population and carried out a major part of the Holocaust on Polish soil. And then, after the war, the country suffered through more than 40 years under the yoke of Soviet socialist oppression, while the majority of Germans enjoyed newfound prosperity.

The First Sparks of Freedom

The office of Walesa's successor, Janusz Sniadek, is on the third floor of the Solidarity headquarters in Gdansk. The room is decorated with labor union banners, a portrait of John Paul II and an oil painting of the so-called Black Madonna of Czstochowa.

Like his famous predecessor, Sniadek sports a moustache, the sign of Polish patriotic manliness. He was part of the movement since its very earliest days. Sniadek refused to give up even after the communists smothered Solidarity in 1981 and imposed martial law on the country. Instead, he joined the underground movement and stayed in it until the union was eventually tolerated once again.

"The Poles have always rebelled against the communists," Sniadek says. "And, in 1980, for the first time, we forced them to abstain from using violence."

The numbers of protestors taking to the streets were so large that the regime was forced to make a crucial choice -- between launching a blood crackdown and negotiating. In the end, it chose negotiation and signed an agreement with Solidarity, thereby establishing the principles that eventually culminated in the Round Table Talks. Although Poland's government only allowed the union free rein for 18 months, its claim to absolute power had been destroyed.

The agreement coming out of the Round Table Talks was signed in 1989 and became a model throughout Eastern Europe for those being stripped of power in a nonviolent way. By the fall of that year, when the citizens of Leipzig began staging mass protests every Monday, Poland had already had its first Solidarity prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, for four weeks.

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