Solidarity - reflecting on a movement that changed the face of Europe


It looks like 2005 will be a turbulent year in Polish politics. Poles will be electing a new Parliament and a new president. A national referendum on the European constitutional treaty also seems likely. But on August 31 in the city of Gdansk most are hoping that party politics will be put aside as VIPs from Poland and abroad celebrate the 25th anniversary of Solidarity.

Looking at Poland's current scene, with its many corruption scandals, it is hardly surprising that most people are distrustful of political elites and somewhat disappointed with the overall record of the post-communist transformations. A prominent writer Halina Bortnowska, who was one of the founding members of Solidarity in Krakow, recalls the formation of the union as one of the most memorable events in her life.

"The moment of the greatest public enjoyment I had in my life was when in Krakow, in the steelworks, somebody came back from Gdansk and told us all these things we are doing now, they will be called "Solidarity". And then the joy and tears. This is the right name for our hope."

The Gdansk Shipyard strike in August 1980, led by the charismatic Lech Walesa, gave birth to Solidarity - the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union. Over a little more than a year, it grew to an almost 10-million strong civic movement, which tormented the communists at home and infuriated their bosses in the Soviet Union. Journalist Robert Strybel.

"It happened to attract all the natural enemies of the regime. So, probably very few times in history, other than major revolutions, have we had almost all of society lined up against an oppressive governing regime. And this was what happened.

"The word Solidarity was not simply a slogan, it was actual reality because you had young people and old people, believers and non-believers, truck drivers, farmers, intellectuals, taxi drivers, artists, actors - the most incongruous bed-fellows you could possibly imagine - all had a stake in overthrowing the existing regime."

Even though Solidarity's self-limiting revolution of 25 years ago was followed by many setbacks, which included martial law, it is clear that the events in Gdansk were a catalyst for change in the whole of Central Europe. American publisher Robert Gamble has been living in Poland for almost three decades.

"To me there is absolutely no doubt - from Solidarity, from all Poles joining in with it - I think that's what made Gorbachow see that change was absolutely necessary."

Nine years after Solidarity was born, at the time when the Berlin Wall was still standing, Poland had Central Europe's first democratic government in over fifty years. As Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek stresses, from today's perspective the importance of Solidarity cannot be overestimated.

"Well, I can assure you that's one of the first associations Poland evokes in Solidarnosc. So, I don't think Europe forgets about what happened in Poland 25 years ago."

An honorary committee for Solidarity's 25th anniversary is headed by the union's founder, former president of Poland and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa. It brings together many prominent figures not only politicians. Invitations to come to Gdansk for the celebrations will be addressed to former presidents George Bush and Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela and Zbigniew Brzezinski.