25th Anniversary: Poland's Nonviolent Revolution

Students read and discuss a brief history of the Polish Solidarity movement, and consider how an unarmed group was able to overcome a powerful and heavily militarized government. (See also our companion lesson marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the legacy of the Cold War.) 

To The Teacher:

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1989 free elections in Poland, which signaled the end of Soviet-influenced single-party rule in the country. This move toward democracy represented the culmination of a decade-long effort by activists in the ideologically diverse trade union coalition called Solidarnosc (or "Solidarity" in English). Over the course of the 1980s, Solidarity organized numerous strikes and faced government repression that forced it underground. But despite this, Solidarity remained committed to using tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience to create change.

This lesson consists of two student readings designed to have students think critically about the history of Solidarity and the use of unarmed uprising to create political change. The first reading presents a brief history of Solidarity—from its origins to its eventual victory. The second reading takes a closer look at how unarmed groups facing a heavily militarized opponent were nevertheless able to overthrow the undemocratic government. Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Reading 1:
The Origins of Solidarnosc

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1989 elections in Poland, which signaled the end of Soviet-influenced single-party rule in the country. The 1989 elections represented the culmination of a decade-long effort by activists in a trade union coalition called Solidarnosc (or Solidarity in English). Solidarity brought together an ideologically diverse spectrum of participants, including factory workers, students, Catholics, independent socialists, and other pro-democracy activists. Over the course of the 1980s, Solidarity organized numerous strikes and faced government repression that forced it underground. But through it all, Solidarity remained committed to using tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience.

The government that Solidarity defeated first came to power after World War 2.  Poland was devastated by the German invasion and occupation during the war.  The country was eventually liberated from Nazi control by the Soviet Red Army, but this fighting also caused great destruction.  After the war, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin installed a Communist government in Poland over which the Soviet Union could hold influence. Like many other European Soviet satellite states, Poland's political system was characterized by single party rule without democratic elections. Under this regime, dissidents—who spanned the political spectrum from independent socialists to Catholic conservatives—faced widespread persecution.

Popular unrest and anger at the Communist Party government in Poland grew throughout the 1970s. Poor economic conditions combined with the government's repression of dissent made the Polish population receptive to the efforts of activists to build a new organization that would become Solidarity. In 1999, on the 10th anniversary of the "Revolutions of 1989," BBC.com hosted an interactive web series which included a discussion of Solidarity's early days. The site explained:

In the summer of 1980, government-imposed measures caused prices to soar and the growth of wages to slow. At the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, workers were outraged but reluctant to strike. The sacking of Anna Walentynowicz, a popular crane operator and well-known activist, pushed them into action.

On 14 August, the shipyard workers began their strike. They were led by Lech Walesa, a former   shipyard worker who had been dismissed in 1976 for stirring up trouble and demanding higher pay. Within days, about 200 factories had joined the strike committee. As a group, they set out 21 demands, including the right to have an independent trade union and the right to strike.

The workers' resolve was so strong that the government was forced to concede the right to strike. The acceptance of other demands was formalized in the Gdansk agreement, also known as the Social Accords.

Buoyed by the success of the strike, Lech Walesa formed a trade union, Solidarity. Over the next 500 days, 10 million workers, intellectuals and students joined. "History has taught us that there is no bread without freedom," the Solidarity programme stated a year later. "What we had in mind were not only bread, butter and sausage but also justice, democracy, truth, legality, human dignity, freedom of convictions, and the repair of the republic."

Solidarity employed strikes (work stoppages) to halt the economy and force reforms to Poland's government. As Solidarity's membership grew, it transformed from a labor union to a broader social movement and employed other protest tactics. Throughout its existence, Solidarity remained committed to nonviolent protest, even in the face of increasing repression by the government.

In response to the sudden popularity of Solidarity, the state saw no other way to maintain its grip on power than to crack down. The government declared martial law in late 1981 and Solidarity's leaders, along with thousands of members, were arrested. In 1982, the organization was outlawed.

Although it was seriously weakened, Solidarity continued to function throughout the mid-1980s as an underground organization. Martial law was lifted in the summer of 1983, but the government's position on Solidarity did not change much. Activists continued to be arrested in large numbers and to face state violence. Yet they persisted in leading protests, staging strikes, and circulating independent newspapers.

Finally, in the late 1980s, the tide began to turn. Economic conditions in Poland had continued to deteriorate. Workers again struck in large numbers, with Solidarity at the center of their movement. The government felt that it had no other choice but to agree to talks with Solidarity's leaders. These "roundtable negotiations" of early 1989 yielded significant concessions from the government, namely, promises for a freer press, greater freedom of association, and an independent judiciary. Free elections were set for the summer, and they ultimately took place in June. To the surprise of even the group's leaders, Solidarity scored a massive victory in the elections, taking control of both houses of parliament.

Just a few months after Solidarity's momentous victory, the Berlin Wall fell in neighboring Germany. Communist rule in Eastern Europe quickly crumbled. During this time, as Poland was undergoing its gradual transition from single-party rule to a more open democracy, Solidarity's leader, Lech Walesa, ran for president and was elected in December of 1990.

The overthrow of Soviet-influenced government in Poland allowed a wide range of viewpoints to be represented in the political system. New political parties represented views spanning the political spectrum:  socialists, Catholic democrats, and pro-market conservatives were all represented.

However, the advent of electoral democracy did not solve all of Poland's problems. Between 1989 and 1993, unemployment went from zero percent (according to the government) to 16.4 percent, and more than 30 percent of the country was living below the poverty line. These hardships led many to question whether pro-market reforms had been implemented in a way that benefitted a small business elite at the expense of Poland's majority.

Despite these shortcomings, Solidarity's victory in 1989 established some lasting democratic structures through which state power could be transferred peacefully. This was exemplified in 1995, when Lech Walesa was defeated in his reelection bid by an opponent from a different party, and power was democratically transferred between civilian governments.

Solidarity's victory in 1989 was the first in a series of rebellions that became contagious, empowering grassroots forces throughout Eastern Europe.

For Discussion:

1.  Does anything in the reading surprise you?  If so, what - and why?

2.  Do you have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

3. What was Solidarity? What were the conditions in Poland that led to its emergence?

4. How did an unarmed movement manage to overturn the government?  What do you think were the ingredients of Solidarity’s success?



Reading 2:
Solidarity, Nonviolence, and Civil Resistance

The success of Solidarity activists in bringing multi-party democracy to Poland raises a major question: How could an organization that was totally outgunned and based solely on "people power" face off against a heavily armed regime... and win? The Solidarity story provides an opportunity to look more closely at the concepts of civil resistance and nonviolent political conflict.

Typically, when we think of political revolutions, we imagine the revolutionaries as armed guerillas hiding out in the jungles or urban street fighters building barricades. Certainly, this has been the case with many revolutions—both successful and unsuccessful—throughout history. However, political change need not necessarily be based on armed conflict. The Polish movement led by Solidarity was characterized by a lack of armed revolt and instead relied on unarmed "civil resistance." In employing this model, Solidarity drew on a range of strategies and tactics that had previously been used in struggles such as the anti-colonial movement led by Gandhi in India and the American Civil Rights movement.

In his essay, Civil Resistance in the East European and Soviet Revolutions, British political scientist Adam Roberts describes the characteristics of the civil resistance model. He writes:

The term civil resistance denotes a movement that is peaceful (i.e., nonviolent) in character, and it sometimes implies that the movement's goals are civil in the sense of being widely shared in a society. In various forms, civil resistance is found throughout history. Demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, and other such methods are no recent invention and have been used in many conflicts in this century. Methods that do not involve the violent infliction of physical harm, even in cases where the adversary is predisposed to use violence, have been used in many struggles: against colonialism, foreign occupations, military coups d'etat, dictatorial regimes, and racial or sexual discrimination. Often the reasons for the avoidance of violence are related to the context rather than to any absolute ethical principle: they spring from a society's traditions of political action, from its experience of war and violence, or from calculations about the improbability of achieving success by violent means.

As Roberts notes, although some movements practice nonviolent resistance as a matter of principle, in other cases, they use nonviolent methods because of strategic calculations. For Solidarity activists in Poland, the use of nonviolence certainly had a strategic dimension: activists were well aware of the military strength of the Polish regime and its Soviet backers. They believed that they needed to pursue a course of resistance other than armed guerilla warfare in part because they would be hugely outgunned by the regime.

As sociologists Paul Ernest Wehr, Heidi Burgess, and Guy Burgess explain in their 1994 book, Justice Without Violence, there were several interrelated factors contributing to Solidarity's decision to employ nonviolent conflict: 

 [Polish political scientist Jan] Zielonka attributes Solidarity's use of nonviolence to three factors: tactical considerations, doctrinal issues, and ethics. The most important tactical consideration was the belief that violent resistance would dramatically increase casualties, without bringing Solidarity closer to its objectives. Nonviolence was chosen, in a sense, because it was the only option.

Second, Zielonka notes, "Solidarity's struggle is aimed at the creation of a political system based on self-government and grassroots participation.... From the doctrinal point of view,   Solidarity could not use a means of struggle that would contradict its social goals."

Third, Solidarity's choice of nonviolence was closely associated with the Christian concepts of love and social justice, promoted by Pope John Paul II and parish priests across Poland. While these factors are case specific, Zielonka suggests that explanations for  nonviolence must include social, ideological, and tactical factors which are far more important in the choice of nonviolence over violence than are history and tradition.

Solidarity drew on a tradition that offered a wide array of nonviolent tactics, ranging from labor strikes, to public protests, to the circulation of literature. Over time, Polish popular opinion was swayed to the side of pro-democracy activists and the legitimacy of the ruling regime eroded. In addition to the backing from many of the country's labor unions, Solidarity gained the support of the Catholic Church—a hugely influential social institution in the country. Indeed, Pope John Paul II, himself of Polish descent, expressed his agreement with Solidarity's cause. While the Communist regime had military superiority over its opponents, once it was seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the people, it could no longer survive. The final straw for the regime was a massive wave of strikes in the summer of 1988 that began in the country's mining industry and spread to the Gdansk shipyard. As a result of these strikes, the government was left with little choice but to begin negotiating with Solidarity over how to implement open elections in the country.

When Solidarity scored its surprise victory in the summer of 1989, the mood was jubilant. Activists recognized the massive change that popular efforts had brought about. However, they were also aware of the work still lay ahead for social movements. As Lech Walesa remarked on election night: "It is an incredible success for our struggle. But now let us see it in practice. This is just the beginning."

For Discussion:

1.  Were you surprised by anything in the reading?  If so, what and why?

2.  Do you have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

3.  According to the reading, what is "civil resistance"? How did this model apply to Solidarity in Poland?

4.  What are some reasons that Solidarity activists remained committed to nonviolent protest? Do you agree with their decision? Why or why not?

5.  Can you think of any other social movements that made use of nonviolent civil resistance? How were the strategies and tactics that these movements employed to achieve their goals similar to or different than those employed by Solidarity?