European Solidarity Centre,
Solidarnosc is one word of the often-impenetrable Polish language that’s internationally understood.
Many of us can even spell it, give or take an accent, because we’ve seen it written so many times in the bold, red logo created by graphic artist and activist Jerzy Janiszewski in the early days of the Solidarnosc movement credited with toppling Communism in eastern Europe and leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As governments defy democratic mandates and Putin seeks to extend his power by dividing his opponents, it’s still a work in progress and the European Solidary Centre in Gdansk, built with the help of European Union funding, is a research centre as well as a museum.
Housed in a building designed to recall the hulks of ships in the former Lenin Shipyard where Solidarnosc began, it allows academics, students, former strikers and even presidents to browse volumes in the library or debate democracy in the roof-top garden, while a permanent and powerfully moving exhibition revives the personalities and the atmosphere that prevailed in the early 1980s.
We walk past the control board where the workers clocked in at the start of their shift. We walk past the lockers where their overalls and jackets hung and we look up at a ceiling covered in yellow helmets, each marked with the wearer’s work number.
The trigger to down tools in August 1980 was the dismissal of Anna Walentynowicz, a crane operator and workers’ rights activist, but the backdrop was broader social unrest and surging food prices. Pope John Paul II’s opposition to Communism also played a major part in giving people hope they could break free.
For the wider world, the word Solidarnosc is synonymous with shipyard electrician Lech Wa?esa. He had been sacked years before the strike in 1976 because of his trade union activism. Undeterred, he climbed over the shipyard fence and joined the striking workers who elected him head of a strike committee to negotiate with management.
The union’s most important and boldest demand was that independent trades unions should be allowed to form. In their eagerness to quell the dissent, the authorities agreed and Solidarnosc was born. It was the first trade union in a Warsaw Pact country that was not state-controlled and the largest to date: at its height it had 10 million members.
But the agreement that Walesa announced at the famous Gate Number 2, viewed as the main entry to the shipyard, was only the beginning. Faced with a direct challenge to the one-party Communist state, the authorities were intent on controlling Solidarnosc. Lech Walesa was labelled a puppet and given a code name, while a propaganda campaign sought to convince the masses of the value of “socialism”. When that failed, martial law, presented as a difficult but necessary decision, was imposed and the ring-leaders, Walesa included, imprisoned after a series of show trials.
Moving through the exhibition, we leave behind what we now realise was the relatively safe atmosphere of control boards and workers’ lockers for sinister court rooms, prison cells and a police truck that was used to transport the arrested activists. Beside it, is an artist’s rendition of Gdansk Shipyard’s Gate Number 2 as crushed by army tanks.
Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. He was no longer imprisoned, but fearing he would never be allowed to return to Poland if he left the country, his wife went to Oslo to collect it.
He remained subject to harassment until collapsing economic conditions and a new wave of labour unrest in 1988 forced Poland’s government to negotiate with him and other solidarity leaders. Solidarnosc, which had been driven underground, regained its legal status and won an overwhelming majority in semi-free elections in June 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of that year.
Walesa helped his Solidarnosc colleague Tadeusz Mazowiecki to be premier of the government in 1989, but he ran against him for president in 1990 and won Poland’s first direct presidential election by a landslide before being defeated when he re-ran in 1995.
The exhibition does not dwell on the controversies that later swirled around Walesa, who proved to be a more compelling leader of workers than of politicians, but we are free to express any views we like on a vast message board, using red paper that spells out the word Solidarnosc.
Today many of the messages are of solidarity with Poland’s invaded neighbour and, as I left the museum, a peaceful demonstration was waving Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag by the Monument to the Fallen ShipWorkers of 1970, erected following protests that predated the rise of Solidarnosc.
Barbara Lewis © 2022.