x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Poles reclaim role in fall of communism

Poland is keen to remind the world its peaceful revolution of strikes and mass demonstrations which was crucial in bringing down the Iron Curtain.

Flowers, a photo of Pope John Paul II  and Solidarity banners adorn the entry to the Gdansk shipyard, where Solidarity was formed in 1980.
Flowers, a photo of Pope John Paul II and Solidarity banners adorn the entry to the Gdansk shipyard, where Solidarity was formed in 1980.

GDANSK, Poland // At the Gdansk shipyard, where striking workers in 1980 founded Solidarity, the first free trade union in the Soviet bloc, no one has any doubts about who brought down communism in Europe. "The fall of the Berlin Wall was only possible because of what happened here in Gdansk," said Jaroslaw Zurawinski, 43, who gives tours of the site. "But unfortunately the Germans are much better than the Poles at propaganda and self-promotion. The achievements of Solidarity are being forgotten, which is regrettable."

It is a view shared by many Poles who feel that they bore the brunt of Europe's fight for freedom and that the world has not given them enough credit for it. They are looking on with a mixture of frustration and envy as Germany prepares to celebrate on November 9 the 20th anniversary of the bringing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the event that most people equate with the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The memory of the struggle is more alive than ever at the former Lenin Shipyard in this Baltic port city. Its entrance gate is adorned with flowers, photos of the late Pope John Paul II, Solidarity banners and the red and white Polish flag. A few metres away, fresh wreaths lie at the Monument to Fallen Shipyard Workers, which commemorates the more than 40 people killed by the police and army during protests in 1970.

"We as proletarians had to build capitalism," Lech Walesa, the former leader of Solidarity, told foreign journalists in Gdansk last week. "Getting the Nobel Peace Prize gave us strength to fight on." Mr Walesa won the prize in 1983. Poles are not claiming that they were the only nation to revolt against communism. Their campaign in the 1970s and 1980s followed the brutal suppression of the East German uprising in 1953, the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968.

But historians and analysts agree that Poland made an exceptional contribution to ending communist rule with strikes and mass demonstrations throughout the 1980s in a peaceful revolution encouraged by the Polish John Paul II, who inspired a crowd of three million in Warsaw in 1979 with the words: "Let your Spirit descend, and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land." The revolution rolled on despite the imposition of martial law, the banning of Solidarity, the imprisonment of opposition leaders, including Mr Walesa, and the deaths of protesters at mass demonstrations violently put down by Poland's communist authorities.

And on June 4, 1989, after talks between the government and opposition that became a model for other countries in the eastern bloc, Poland held an election that a few months later produced the first government led by non-communists. Poland's breakthrough, tolerated by the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was himself enacting reforms, inspired the whole of eastern Europe. "The Poles are very proud of their role in the fall of communism. They say tongue-in-cheek it was Walesa, Pope John Paul and Ronald Reagan who brought down communism and they see Solidarity as the first chink in the block which led to a domino effect," said Adam Jasser, the programme director at DemosEuropa, a Polish think tank.

While the Poles toiled for freedom, it was the Berliners who enjoyed the historic scenes of jubilation that went around the world in November 1989. It was unavoidable - the image of Poles casting their ballots was bound to be less symbolic than the sight of thousands of cheering Berliners standing on the Wall popping champagne corks. Berlin sees itself as the city where communism was brought to its knees and it has successfully marketed that role ever since.

However, there is no denying that East Germany's revolution came late and lacked the compelling power of Solidarity, which at one point had 10 million members - a quarter of the Polish population. Mass protests in East Germany did not get going until September 1989 with peaceful demonstrations in Leipzig and other cities. Tens of thousands of citizens hastened the fall of the regime by defecting through Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which began opening their borders with the West.

Mr Walesa, never one to mince his words, has played down the contribution the East Germans made in bringing down communism. "They shouldn't make themselves look ridiculous with this Wall," he said. All they had done was "run away" to the West, "while Poland fought", he said earlier this year. Dorota Arciszewska-Mielewczyk, 41, a senator in Poland's upper house, said: "Poland has lost the battle over memory. The whole world thinks the fall of communism started with the fall of the Wall."

Poland is battling to correct that impression. In May, the foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, protested against a documentary produced by the European Union about the fall of communism because he believed it showed too much of the Berlin Wall and too little of Poland's role. Several scenes from Solidarity's protests were added. The Polish government has also hung gigantic billboards in Berlin's main train station and on the facade of its embassy in central Berlin featuring Solidarity's famous campaign poster of 1989 - a film still of Gary Cooper from the Hollywood western High Noon wearing a Solidarity badge and clutching a ballot paper rather than his Colt.

The message is simple: Solidarity, like the hero of the movie, stood alone in the fight against evil. Not that the Germans are trying to steal Solidarity's glory. "We Germans are grateful for everything the Poles achieved and suffered for the democratisation of Europe," the mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, said in June when he awarded Mr Walesa the city's highest decoration. "It started in Gdansk."

It is clear, however, that liberal democracy has not been kind to the storied shipyard. Idle cranes jut into the sky, a vast, rusting dry dock stands empty and derelict red-brick factory halls line the potholed roads. Weeds have grown out of the tarmac and the site is strewn with seemingly forgotten equipment. Its workforce has shrunk from 20,000 to little more than 2,000 and the government sold part of the heavily indebted shipyard to a Ukrainian industrial company, Donbass, in 2007.

To Mr Walesa, who believes the place should be preserved as a memorial to the workers who brought freedom to Europe, the sale was heresy. "It's the mother of Solidarity," the former Polish president said at a meeting in his spacious office in Gdansk last week. "I would have divided the shipyard into the historical part and the commercial part." A dispute between Solidarity and the government over the future of the shipyard clouded Poland's celebrations in June to mark the 20th anniversary of the historic 1989 election. Solidarity and the government ended up holding separate ceremonies, with the union staging a rally in Gdansk and the prime minister, Donald Tusk, hosting the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and other guests in the city of Krakow, far away in southern Poland, because he wanted to prevent the event being disrupted by stone-throwing unionists.

Mr Walesa, now 65, said Europe had not been prepared for the fall of communism or the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and that mistakes had inevitably been made. But despite all the problems of the post-communist era, the memory of Poland's achievement clearly still fills him with joy. "Before communism fell 20 years ago, I would never have believed the day would come when it no longer existed, when the Soviet Union no longer existed, when Europe would be united and no soldiers would stand between Poland and Germany," Mr Walesa said, breaking into a smile under his walrus moustache.

"You would have had to beat me up to make me believe it. I would have been the happiest man in the galaxy at the thought." foreign.desk@thenational.ae