Solidarity, Once in Poland’s Opposition, Now Aligned With Nationalists
GDANSK, Poland – Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union that four decades ago unleashed an avalanche of dissent that swept away communism, today has more modest ambitions. To start with, he wants to get his plywood boards back.
The panels, scrawled with demands for freedom and hoisted on a wall of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in 1980, have been on display since 2014 in a museum built amid the ruins of a facility that laid off most of its workers ago years.
The museum, an oasis of shimmering modernity built with funds from the European Union, is dedicated to the ideals that animated Solidarity in 1980, when it was a diverse Western-looking opposition movement with 10 million of members.
Today, that movement has curled up into a narrow and deeply conservative force, but one which, while fiercely opposed to communism, boasts of standing up for those left behind by Poland’s often painful transition to capitalism.
This change placed the plywood boards, called with almost religious reverence “the tablets”, at the center of a bitter struggle over Poland’s past and future.
Instead of the symbol of unity it once was, Solidarity has become an emblem of the divisions that now define politics across the eastern flank of formerly communist Europe, where the growing hopes generated by the end of communism and the prospect to reach the rest of Europe often curdled. in a sullen, withdrawn discontent.
No longer in opposition, the union is now closely aligned with the intolerant nationalist party in power in Poland, Law and Justice.
“Solidarity then and Solidarity today represent two different visions of Poland,” said Adam Michnik, an intellectual who joined the Gdansk strikers in the 1980s. Solidarity today, a- he says, is a “very small caricature” of the union he once supported.
Instead of defending freedoms, Solidarity is now exerting active pressure on the government side against gays, lesbians and anyone else it considers insufficiently respectful of the Polish nation and its traditional values.
Reframing the old fight against communism as a fight today against homosexuality, a cover article of the Solidarity weekly asked last year: “Are LGBTs a new neo-Marxist ideology?” It featured an image of the Soviet hammer and sickle imposed on a rainbow flag.
For today’s Solidarity, taking back the shelves from the liberal enemies of the ruling party is an essential part of a conservative campaign to reclaim and reshape the past in such a way as to justify Poland’s current orientation.
“It is only a matter of time before we get them back,” said Roman Kuzminski, a former shipyard worker who is now a leader of Solidarity in Gdansk and a staunch voter of Law and Justice.
He denied that his union, once a powerful opposition voice, now serves the government, insisting it only follows the interests of its members.
Lech Walesa, founding leader of Solidarity in Gdansk during the strikes that led to the collapse of communism in Poland and across Eastern Europe, said the union today “is so different from what it is. it was that he should not be allowed to use the same name “.
“Nothing connects me to Solidarity as it is now. We have completely different goals and interests, ”Walesa said in his office at the European Solidarity Center, a complex that includes the museum that holds the tablets, as well as a library and research center.
The tablets list the 21 demands presented by Solidarity under the leadership of Mr Walesa in August 1980. The first of these was the right to form an independent trade union, followed by demands that the government respect constitutional rights and freedoms and improve. economic conditions.
The boards are loaned to the European Solidarity Center by a maritime museum in Gdansk, to which Solidarity activists entrusted them for safekeeping in the 1980s.
After the rise to power of Law and Justice in 2015, he demanded that the boards be returned to the museum, which he controls through the Ministry of Culture.
The European Solidarity Center refused, complaining that “instead of celebrating the diversity of the first Solidarity on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, we risk using memory to strive for power”.
Aleksander Hall, historian and former Solidarity activist, described the struggle as part of a larger political battle in Poland to control the heroic but controversial legacy of the 1980s and ‘90s.
The religious conservatives and nationalists who dominate Law and Justice, he said, “want to confiscate the whole history of Solidarity for themselves” and, to do so, need to get the tablets from their people. ideological enemies. For all those looking for political legitimacy and support in Poland, Mr Hall added: “Solidarity is a great asset.
The union even claimed ownership of the famous red and white Solidarity logo, much to the chagrin of its creator, graphic designer Jerzy Janiszewski. Mr. Janiszewski, in a telephone interview from Spain, where he lives, insisted that he owns the copyright and has never given it to a union that “does not defend the interests workers but the government ”.
Mr. Michnik, the former supporter of Solidarity, said that the united front created by the fight against communism will always break down once the common enemy is defeated.
But Michnik, now editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper opposed to Law and Justice, sees the current version of government-aligned Solidarity as a threat.
“At the time, it was a mass movement of millions of people with different tendencies and currents, but its essential premise was that Poland was democratic, tolerant and pro-Western,” he said. “Today Solidarity is an organization with only a few people, which supports the destruction of democracy and supports anti-Western forces.”
The disagreement stems in part from two radically different views of Mr Walesa, who was celebrated around the world and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, but is now vilified by his former union leadership and his government allies.
The bad blood is personal, fueled by Mr Walesa’s contempt for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the frontman of Law and Justice, and his twin brother, Lech Kaczynski, a former president, who died in 2010.
“They were insignificant activists,” Walesa said, noting that unlike himself and most other prominent Solidarity players, Jaroslaw Kaczynski had “not even been arrested” after the Communist Party imposed martial law in December 1981.
The ruling party has a rival narrative in which Mr Walesa is presented as a traitor for negotiating a peaceful transfer of power with the Communist leadership in 1989.
Law and Justice has repeatedly accused Mr Walesa of allowing members of the former communist elite to escape sanctions and profit from the transition to capitalism at the expense of ordinary Poles.
The same story has been adopted by Solidarity, led since 2010 by Piotr Duda, a former parachutist and pugnacious tower operator in a now defunct steelworks, who accuses Poland’s previous liberal government and Mr. Walesa of selling ordinary workers.
After Mr. Walesa became Poland’s first freely elected president in 1990, the country embarked on a campaign to overhaul its economy through an accelerated privatization program.
According to Roman Sebastyanski – an official of the Solidarity Heritage Institute, which was created by the union in 2019 as a rival to the European Solidarity Center – this “primitive shock therapy” betrayed many of those who had supported the anticommunist cause, leaving them without use.
“We had a bloodless revolution, but there were huge costs: hundreds of factories and workplaces closed,” he said.
This carnage can still be seen at the Gdansk shipyard, where a workforce of around 17,000 under communism shrank to a few hundred as land was sold to private investors and buildings. high-end apartments have sprouted around defunct workshops. The main shipyard went bankrupt in 1996.
“We were really crying when it closed,” recalls Helena Dmochowska, who worked for 34 years as a crane operator at the shipyard. “How could this have happened in such a large and powerful workplace? “
She said she did not support Law and Justice, but she also did not like liberal opponents of the ruling party. “All of them have deceived us,” she said.
The European Solidarity Center, which welcomes the defeat of communism, makes no mention of the price paid by former shipbuilders who lost their jobs, Sebastyanski said. “They exist in space over there,” he said.
Opened in 2014, the huge center overlooks the old shipyard, now almost abandoned, and a small brick building housing a modest rival museum controlled by today’s Solidarity. The two museums are theoretically partners but promote diametrically opposed agendas, one celebrating the role of Mr Walesa and Poland in greater European history, the other focusing closely on Polish shipbuilders.
Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, the liberal mayor of Gdansk, lamented that the struggle to control the legacy of Solidarity has grown so out of hand. The councils with the 21 demands, she added, fell victim to a Law and Justice campaign to “control and rewrite history.”
“Every country, every story, every legend needs its symbols, and one of the most important symbols for us are these tablets with the 21 claims,” she said. “This is why there is such a big fight.”
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