What can Poland teach us about freedom?

What can Poland teach us about freedom?

In the old dockland area of Gdańsk, Poland, a fair walk from the attractive tourist hub of the Main Town, stands a striking, rust-brown building.

This is the European Solidarity Centre (ESC), opened in 2014. Its massive bulk and ochre-coloured panels give a hint of the former function of this location, as if a giant vessel has come aground in this former shipyard.


What can Poland teach us about freedom?
View image of The European Solidarity Centre tells the story of opposition movements in Eastern Europe and the downfall of communism (Credit: Credit: Tim Richards)

What really caught my eye, however, is the older structure next to it: a sturdy set of metal gates attached to a blue guardhouse, with the words Stocznia Gdańska (Gdańsk Shipyard) in huge block letters above.

This is no ordinary gate – in fact it might be the most significant one in modern European history. For this is Gate Two of what was once the Lenin Shipyard. It was near here that electrician Lech Wałęsa scaled the wall on 14 August 1980 to organise a strike by workers against Poland’s then-communist government.

Lech Wałęsa was an iconic figure who mobilized 10 million Poles

“This is where the most important events took place,” said Dr Jacek Kołtan, deputy director for research at the ESC. “Wałęsa appeared here to talk to the people, then the strikers waited two long weeks here, before finding a solution in talks between Solidarity and the government.”

Solidarity was the independent trade union formed by the workers, and its initial push for a wage raise evolved into wider demands for free trade unions, freedom of speech and the release of political prisoners.

“We had the tremendous luck to have Wałęsa,” Dr Kołtan continued. “He was a simple electrician but at the same time someone with huge political skills and great political intuition, and someone who represented everything crucial to the strikers. So he was an iconic figure, and a leader who led to the mobilisation of 10 million Poles.”


What can Poland teach us about freedom?
View image of The strike’s initial push for a wage increase evolved into demands for freedom of speech and the release of political prisoners (Credit: Credit: SPUTNIK / Alamy)

After negotiations faltered, strikes spread across Poland and the government was forced to cave in. It wasn’t yet evident – a decade of repression, including the imposition of martial law, was to follow – but the regime had signed its death warrant and that of European communism.

After free elections in 1989, Poland effectively left the communist bloc. Soon after, the Berlin Wall fell, to be followed by communist regimes across the continent.

This dramatic story is told within the walls of the ESC. Over two floors, its permanent exhibition charts the rise of Solidarity, the 1981 imposition of martial law and the eventual downfall of communism.

A tiled shop interior with empty shelves depicts the shortages that sparked unrest

There’s a lot of captioned text to take in as the complex account unfolds, but also impressive exhibits that give a sense of the struggle and the lives at stake.

Evocations of the past include a replica of a communist-era sitting room, a dull affair of wood-panelled furniture, plastic flowers and a boxy television set. A tiled shop interior with empty shelves depicts the shortages that sparked unrest, and riot shields of the Milicja (Poland’s communist-era police force) relay the often-brutal methods by which the government sought to maintain control.


What can Poland teach us about freedom?
View image of The Milicja, Poland’s communist-era police force, used often-brutal methods to maintain control (Credit: Credit: Tim Richards)

Hope is present too, in the hand-operated printers that turned out anti-government leaflets; and in a replica of the circular table at which the regime finally agreed to surrender its monopoly on power. At the very end of the exhibition, a wall spells out the Solidarity logo composed of small red-and-white pieces of card onto which visitors have written messages.

It’s all very moving and I felt swept along by the drama of that decade as I walked through the exhibition, sensing the tension of the battle for freedom. In fact, Dr Kołtan hopes that visitors to the ESC feel a link between that struggle and their own lives in the 21st Century.

“There’s the history of Solidarity and other opposition movements in Poland on one hand, but we also try to universalise this experience as a part of the history of freedom,” he said.

“In one of the last rooms of the permanent exhibition, we show the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. But in the very last room we depict heroes of the 20th Century from around the world, including Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Junior, Pope John Paul II, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama.”

“With our visitors we’re trying to discover the meaning of Solidarity, but also the meaning of non-violent philosophy and how important it still is today. That’s the message that comes from the permanent exhibition.”

Stepping out of the centre’s lofty, plant-filled lobby with its cafe and gift shop, it’s easy to assume the working shipyard has vanished into the past. But the Gdańsk Shipyard still exists nearby as a functional facility, though shrunken from its original footprint.


View image of Getty Images 127863771

It’s ironic that the economic reforms that followed the toppling of communism led to the shrinking of the shipyard. Its 1980 workforce of 20,000 employees has diminished to less than 10% of that number, as the now privately-owned business has struggled to find a sure footing in free-market Poland.

However, life goes on. In addition to the ESC, plans have been drawn up to convert much of the shipyard area to a proposed ‘Young City’, a new district of offices, shops and apartments. If completed, it would be a far cry from the heavy maritime industry that has characterised this neighbourhood since the first major shipyards were built here when Gdańsk was19th-Century German Danzig.

Gdańsk Shipyard was the epicentre of a struggle that redefined Europe

For a decade, the Gdańsk Shipyard was the epicentre of a struggle that redefined Europe. Then it lived through a transitional period of both economic struggle and fame, the latter symbolised by concerts held here by French electronic music composer Jean Michel Jarre and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. Now the site is about to undergo a further transformation, it seems. But Gate Two will remain, attached to the European Solidarity Centre, and its impact will not be forgotten.

Dr Kołtan agrees. “The birth of Solidarity in August 1980 was the moment that changed everything in Polish history – but also in Europe. It had a huge impact on the world.”

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