Long Teaching Module: Solidarity Comes to Power in Poland, 1989
In retrospect, it seems predictable that the first opposition group in the Soviet bloc to succeed in unseating a communist regime would be Poland’s Solidarity movement. Discontent with economic hardships and the suppression of civil liberties had long been evident in Poland, erupting in workplace unrest and mass protests more frequently than anywhere else in Eastern Europe: 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976. In 1980, during yet another wave of strikes and demonstrations, the Solidarity trade union had been formed in the port city of Gdansk.
This long teaching module includes an informational essay, objectives and guidance for executing the lesson, an activity, discussion questions, and essay prompts relating to the eleven primary sources.
It soon took on the character of a nation-wide opposition movement, attracting a membership numbering in the millions. But if this recent history demonstrated the depth and durability of hostility to the regime, it also seemed to demonstrate its futility. On every occasion, the regime had been able to use a combination of modest concessions and brute force to master the situation and re-confirm its monopoly on power. Even the unprecedented social support for Solidarity in 1980, which initially led the regime to recognize and make concessions to the union, could not prevent a subsequent crackdown.
The imposition of martial law in December 1981 forced Solidarity into the role of an embattled underground movement. It did, to be sure, maintain a significant following, and by the late 1980s, the now illegal trade union played a role in a new wave of strikes that broke out across the country. But opposition activists had to wonder: why would these protests end any differently than those the regime had successfully thwarted in the past?
And yet a number of things had changed over the course of the 1980s. Perhaps the most obvious was the international context. Earlier crackdowns on dissent had been motivated not only by the Polish Communist Party’s interest in maintaining its own rule but also by concerns about the potential for Soviet intervention if Poland’s domestic situation was deemed to be getting out of hand. Indeed, the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, named after the long-serving Soviet leader, proclaimed that Moscow was prepared to intervene militarily to prevent any threat of regime change in Eastern Europe, just as it had in response to radical reforms in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 suddenly changed the direction of the pressure that Moscow exerted on Eastern Europe. Gorbachev and his allies were convinced that the greatest danger to the Soviet system was not dissent but inertia, and they saw a policy of openness (glasnost) as essential to spurring necessary changes. The Brezhnev Doctrine was now replaced by the Sinatra Doctrine, which positively encouraged Soviet satellite states to “do it their way” by experimenting with political and economic reforms. This change in signals from Moscow greatly strengthened the hand of moderates within Poland’s communist party, who believed that some accommodation with opposition groups was possible and desirable.
Another factor spurring party reformers to reach out to Solidarity was a growing sense of urgency regarding the economy. In previous decades, the regime had been able to manage economic discontent with a mix of centralized planning (keeping the prices of staple goods artificially low) and selective opening to the Western market economy (borrowing heavily from Western governments and banks). But these expedients had only masked many of the economy’s underlying problems, not addressed them.
More fundamental reforms, most experts had come to agree, would be necessary to overcome mounting inflationary pressures and lagging growth. Since such bitter economic medicine was likely to inflame rather than calm popular discontent, party reformers believed it was crucial to achieve some kind of social consensus about the necessity of such measures. Rather than allowing Solidarity activists to continue criticizing from the sidelines, they argued, it would be smarter to make the opposition co-responsible for the unpopular but necessary economic policies to come.
Convinced that engaging Solidarity would do more to tame the opposition than to empower it, party officials made a series of gestures to the still-outlawed movement. In November 1988, the leader of the official, party-affiliated trade union, Alfred Miodowicz, challenged the head of Solidarity, Lech Walesa, to a televised debate, expecting that the event would highlight the latter’s inexperience. Instead, Walesa succeeded in focusing attention on the past failures of the regime, casting Solidarity as a clear, untainted alternative.
In February, when party officials and Solidarity representatives began the Round Table talks—an extended set of negotiations on political and economic questions—a similar tug-of-war developed over the agenda. Representatives of the regime tried to emphasize commitment to a shared, “national” program of reforms, while Solidarity insisted on the introduction of trade union pluralism and genuine political competition.
For opposition leaders, it was a delicate balancing act. If they demanded too much, party hardliners might call off the entire dialogue. If they were overly deferential, their grassroots supporters might feel betrayed and lose faith in their leaders. After two months of negotiation, a careful formula was worked out. Elections for a newly created Senate would be freely contested, as would 35 percent of the seats for the lower house of the legislature, the Sejm. This would give an unprecedented political voice to groups critical of the communist regime but guarantee the regime’s continued hold on power.
What neither side counted on was the utterly lopsided outcome of the elections held in early June. Solidarity won every seat it was able to contest in the Sejm and 99 out of 100 seats in the Senate. In the aftermath of this landslide, the “guarantees” of the party’s continued hold on power suddenly looked very shaky. Members of small satellite parties that had been in permanent coalition with the communist party spoke of refusing to support a communist candidate for prime minister or president.
Opposition leaders, in turn, worried that such a drastic exclusion of the party from positions of power could incite hardliners—possibly aided by Poland’s Warsaw Pact neighbors, if not the USSR itself—to resort to a military crackdown. Anxious to avoid a deadlock and potential bloodshed, party reformists and Solidarity leaders negotiated an extraordinary compromise. The opposition accepted the election as president of
Wojciech Jaruzelski, until then general secretary of the communist party, while Jaruzelski in turn named as prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Catholic intellectual and long-time Solidarity adviser. It was, like the negotiations preceding it, a complicated balancing act. But the outcome was nonetheless dramatic: the largest Soviet “satellite” in Eastern Europe now had a non-communist head of government.
The months preceding this transfer of power provide a fascinating case study in what historian Timothy Garton Ash famously described as 1989’s “refolutions” (hybrids of “reform” and “revolution”). As in other moments of dramatic historical change, the documentary record reveals the widespread sense of revolutionary upheaval, of long-held expectations being repeatedly overturned, of constant improvisation. And yet one also sees in the record of the era a determination—particularly among Solidarity activists, but also among reformist party members—to avoid the descent into violent confrontations that have characterized most revolutionary eras of the past.
Kings College London
The following are excerpts from a meeting of the leadership of Poland’s communist party held the day after the June 4, 1989 elections, when the magnitude of the party’s electoral defeat was just becoming clear. Particularly embarrassing was the fate of the 35 candidates on the so-called “national list,” well-known dignitaries who were running unopposed. Almost all were simply crossed out by a majority of voters, raising the prospect that those seats would have to be left empty, thus reducing the overall size of the Sejm (lower house). As remarks made at the meeting illustrate, some party leaders were disoriented and eager to place blame: on Solidarity, the Catholic church, even rank-and-file party members who had either failed to show up at the polls or had voted for the opposition. But for others, especially younger reformers like Aleksander Kwaśniewski (who later served as President of Poland from 1995-2005), this sense of bitterness was balanced by a sober assessment of the new situation and an eagerness to avoid violent confrontation. The Solidarity opposition, though sometimes described as “the adversary,” is also seen as a partner in containing social unrest.
This source is a part of the Solidarity Comes to Power in Poland, 1989 teaching module.
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One of the benefits of using primary documents to trace the fall of Poland’s communist regime step by step is that it restores some of the suspense to the proceedings. For although it is easy today to view the transition from state socialism to democratic capitalism as part of an inexorable world-historical development, a look at the thinking of decision-makers at the time reminds us that this was, in fact, a leap in the dark. Not only Communist Party functionaries but also Solidarity leaders and Western diplomats were frequently surprised and alarmed by events and often uncertain about what to do next. What is instructive and fascinating is examining how these fears and miscalculations affected key decisions, ultimately shaping an outcome that most participants would subsequently view as a major success story.
It is useful to keep in mind—and highlight to students—a couple of the key tensions and paradoxes involved in the agendas of both Communist Party leaders and Solidarity activists:
The Prospect of Violence:
The peaceful nature of the fall of Communism in Poland, as well as most of the rest of Eastern Europe, is perhaps the most striking aspect of the transformation. Why were the tanks never called out when it appeared the regime could lose power—as they were so spectacularly in China (Tiananmen Square) just as the Polish elections were underway? One answer is a growing sense of pessimism, especially economic: what good was repeatedly repressing dissent without some prospect of addressing underlying social discontent? But the restraint of both the Polish and the Soviet regimes was also, ironically, a function of confidence: With the largest military forces in the world at their disposal and a track record of crushing every revolt, they assumed they could afford to hold back.
The absence of violence in 1989 can also be traced to decisions by the opposition. Solidarity activists could have pursued a path of violent resistance (indeed, after the declaration of martial law in 1981, a few had), which could have provided easy justification for a crackdown by the regime. The refusal of the leadership to countenance such tactics—or even to encourage confrontational non-violent demonstrations—seemed to confirm the regime’s invincibility. But over time, the renunciation of violence ended up neutralizing the regime’s greatest advantage.
Political vs. economic “reform"
Although Poland, like most of Eastern Europe, would move simultaneously from one-party rule to parliamentary democracy and from a planned economy to a market economy, it was far from clear that two processes went hand-in-hand. Market-oriented reforms, after all, involved rising prices and unemployment and tended to hurt workers more than management. It was, then, rather extraordinary that an opposition movement based on a trade union championed such measures and that this stance did not seem to alienate Solidarity’s leaders from their constituency. It is worth discussing why this was the case. Was it a matter of oppositionists prioritizing political principle (achieving democracy) over economic interests? Did Solidarity leaders and supporters underestimate the costs of economic transition? Or did they (as well as many reformists in the Communist party) simply believe market-oriented reforms were unavoidable?
As described in the section “teaching strategies,” these documents reveal some of the historical contingencies in Poland during the year 1989. As students study, analyze, and discuss the documents, they will develop the ability to
- identify specific concerns held by different individuals and interest groups in different circumstances over the course of this historical period
- analyze reasons for these concerns
- weigh possible outcomes of decisions made in the course of a rapidly changing political, economic, and social climate
- propose alternative solutions to various needs identified in the documents.
Multiple copies of documents, index cards, ability to create a large timeline--on a blackboard or with cash register tape.
Prior to teaching this lesson, ensure that students are familiar with significant political and military events in Polish history from 1970 (first Lenin shipyard strikes in Gdansk) through 1989 (democratic elections in Poland and the aftermath).
They should have a basic understanding of the major groups and individuals involved in this period of Polish history. Groups include the the Communist Party (including “hardliners” and “moderates”), the Catholic Church (bearing the influence of the recently elected, Polish, Pope John Paul II), workers and intellectuals. Individuals include those referenced in the lesson’s Documents: Lech Walesa (union activist, leader of Solidarity), Alfred Midowicz (head of the official All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions), Bronislaw Geremek (advisor to Lech Walesa), General Wojciech Jaruzelski (Communist party leader), General Kiszczak (high ranking officer, former head of the Secret Service and Minister of Internal Affairs), and U.S. President George H. W. Bush (1989-1993).
Finally, students should be aware of contemporaneous developments in the U.S.S.R., namely the recent (1985) emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as head of the Communist Party, and the new policies of Glasnost and Perestroika initiated in the U.S.S.R.. In particular, students should be aware of a shift in U.S.S.R. foreign policy, namely movement away from the Brezhnev Doctrine toward a more relaxed relationship with its satellite states.
Hook: using a dictionary, look up and discuss the term “contingent.” What does it mean when we say history is contingent? Discuss--it’s often said that hindsight is 20-20. When we look at history retroactively, often a course of events seems inevitable. It couldn’t have happened any other way, right? On the contrary, these documents highlight the uncertainty experienced by many different individuals and interest groups in Poland in 1989. They indicate considerable anxiety and even, at times, outright fear. Individuals made moment-to-moment decisions, seeking to balance desired outcomes against multiple, often very real, alternatives. Instruct students, “As you study these documents, bear in mind some of the ways you are gaining insight into the real contingencies of history.”
Create groups of students; assign groups the following documents: Excerpts from Andrzej Wajda’s film “Man of Iron”(#11 ); Catholic Church's Role in Roundtable Talks (#5); Walesa and Midowicz Debate (#3); and Geremek on the Restraint in 1989 (#4). Each of these is a Polish Document that pre-dates the elections of June 4, 1989. Have students study the Documents for the following information:
Note: as Document 11 is quite short, it may be combined with another source.
Scenes, Wadja's Man of Iron (#11): Workers’ grievances. With which issues were they concerned? Which of these issues are political? Which are economic? In what ways are the workers’ political and economic concerns linked with each other?
Catholic Church's Role in Roundtable Talks (#5): To which interest groups do Stelmachowski and Glemp belong? What are Stelmachowski’s concerns? In what ways are his political/social and economic concerns linked with one another?
Walesa & Midowicz Debate (#3): To which interest groups do Walesa and Midowicz belong? What does Midowicz oppose? To what sentiments is Midowicz appealing when he says, “We are union members, but above we are all Poles . . .”? How does Walesa answer Midowicz?
Geremek on the Restraint in 1989 (#4): Who was Geremek? Geremek states, about the spring of 1989, “I realized that the scale and fragility of our success went hand-in-hand. At no time could we provoke the other side ... Social mobilization was no doubt necessary, but here we were not talking about mobilization, but about a national uprising.” What occurred instead of social mobilization and an uprising? How did this contribute to progress toward the Round Table talks?
Have students share and discuss their ideas. Together, summarize the uncertainties and concerns of these different individuals and groups prior to the June, 1989 elections. Hypothesize and predict--what if Solidarity initiated an uprising? What if the Communist government violently suppressed Solidarity? What if Solidarity’s insistence on pluralism was rejected? To what extent can economic and political issues be separated from one another? To what extent are they necessarily intertwined?
Distribute Solidarity Election Flier (#9) and Solidarity Election Poster (#10). Study Document 10 first. Have students describe the figure, the superimposition of the figure over the text, the color and lettering of the text. What does the figure hold in his hand? What badge does he wear on his chest? What messages does this poster convey? Study Document 9. Have students examine the ballots, then read the text. Notice that there are three ballots for the Sejm, and one for the Senate. How did Solidarity indicate whom to cross out and whom to support?
Distribute document Minutes of Polish CCC Meeting, June 5, 1989 (#1). In this document members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party scramble after the elections to analyze their extraordinary defeat in democratic elections. To what do they attribute the defeat? What are their concerns? What plans do they want to put into place?
- Documents Warsaw Embassy Cable, Election, 1989 (#6), Warsaw Embassy Cable, Elect Jaruzelski (#7) and Warsaw Embassy Cable, Conversation with General (#8) convey some of the concerns of the United States Government vis-a-vis events in Poland.
Create a large timeline--for example, across a blackboard or wall. Mark June 4, 1989 (date of the elections) as well as the dates of the Embassy cables. Distribute index cards to students. Have students review one or more of the documents then note embassy concerns on the index cards--one concern per card. On the reverse side of the card, students should add reasons for the concerns, or possible consequences. For example, in the Warsaw Embassy Cable, Solidarity Election, 1989 (#6), the Ambassador notes 5 possible outcomes for the elections, with 5 possible consequences. The outcome should be on the face of the card, the possible consequence on the reverse.
When students have collected data from the documents (carefully noting on each card which source they are studying!), they should affix the cards to the timeline at the appropriate points.
When the cards are done, have students verbally present the concerns, and possible consequences, in chronological order.
Discussion: Prior to the election, Ambassador Davis writes of the possibility of “utter catastrophe.” Do you agree that this was a realistic concern for the U.S. government? Why or why not? In Document Warsaw Embassy Cable, Elect Jaruzelski (#7), Ambassador Davis suggests that Solidarity must support the Communist leader Jaruzelski for President, without appearing to do so. Do you agree or disagree with this position? Why? In the Warsaw Embassy Cable, Conversation with General, 1989 (#8) some of the terms used include “alarm,” “gloomy,” “surprise,” “mistake,” “deep fears,” “disaster,” and “tragedies.” What uncertainties led Ambassador Davis and/or Kiszczak to be so pessimistic in August 1989?
Form small groups (approximately 3 students per group). Have the students discuss and propose options for General Kiszczak. These options should include political, economic, and military considerations. Have the groups share their thoughts with the whole class.
In conclusion: Return to the concept of historical contingency. Have students reflect on the work they did in this lesson. Each student should select an identity (worker, communist, soldier, American Ambassador, Catholic priest, etc.) and a moment in this year of interval of history--1981, the fall of 1988, spring of 1989, the elections of 1989, the summer after the elections. Using evidence from the documents, have each student summarize his or her key concerns as that person in that time. Using knowledge gained from the lesson, what events occurred subsequently that impacted (increased, altered or mitigated) the individual’s concerns? Students should share their work with the whole class. This summary activity will assist students in synthesizing their thoughts for the DBQ.
Students requiring additional support: Reduce the number of documents studied in the lesson. Review the documents with the students, highlighting key paragraphs where they can find the information they need.
Visual/kinesthetic learners: Students may illustrate or act out their responses to the documents.
Students requiring additional support for the DBQ: Permit them to take and use notes on the essay. Consider developing an outline for the essay in class (or more than one alternative outline) and using the outline as they write their essays.
Document Based Question
Using the primary sources in this module, answer ONE of the following prompts:
1. The labor union Solidarity was the major agent of political dissidence in Poland from the late 1970s until the transition to democracy in Poland in 1989. Discuss the strategies used by Solidarity to convince the Polish people that Solidarity was both a legitimate voice for the Polish people and an effective political alternative to Poland’s communist government.
2. In the events of 1989 in Poland, the Roundtable talks formed the basis for the peaceful and orderly transition from communism to democracy. Interestingly, the model of ‘roundtable talks’ became a standard demand across Eastern Europe as pro-democracy groups formed on other countries in the months leading up to 1989. Discuss Solidarity’s demands prior to their Roundtable talks. What did they hope to achieve? What did they stand to loose or to gain?
About the Author
James Bjork, Lecturer in History at King’s College in London, is the author of Neither German nor Pole: Catholicism and National Indifference Central European Borderland. He is the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including: Woodrow Wilson Center, American Council of Learned Societies, International Research and Exchanges Board, Fulbright-Hays, Phoenix Fellowship at the University of Chicago, Ellsworth Bunker Fellowship in Diplomacy at Georgetown University, and the National Merit Scholarship.
About the Lesson Plan Author
Elizabeth Ten Dyke is Vice Principal at J. Watson Bailey Middle School in Kingston, New York. She has taught 9th- and 10th-grade global history and geography at Kingston High School in Kingston, New York, and has also taught secondary sociology, psychology, and AP human geography, in addition to undergraduate and graduate courses in cultural anthropology. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, Dr. Ten Dyke is the author of Paradoxes of Memory in History: Dresden, Germany after 1989, published with Routledge in 2001. This study explores tensions and contradictions in social memory and historical understanding in the former German Democratic Republic after 1989.
This teaching module was originally developed for the Making the History of 1989 project.