1980: The Solidarity Movement in Poland

What was the Solidarity movement?

Solidarity means unity or togetherness. It was the name used for an independent trade union that emerged in communist-controlled Poland in 1980.

How did it begin?

Solidarity began when workers in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk protested against food price rises. Its leader, Lech Walesa (pronounced Lek Fowensa), presented a list of 21 demands to the government which included the right to form trade unions and However, it soon grew into a national movement that campaigned for greater freedom, democracy and better living conditions. By January 1981, it had 9 million members.

Why was solidarity so successful in Poland?

Support for Solidarity from inside Poland

  • Most Poles were Catholic so the Catholic Church was very influential in Poland. It supported the Solidarity movement.

  • Many Poles were disillusioned with the poor living standards and lack of freedom. This led to many of them joining the Solidarity movement.

  • Poles were very proud of their country and history. They resented Soviet influence over their country and saw the Solidarity movement as a way to express Polish nationalism.

  • The leader of Solidarity, Lech Walesa, was very careful in his negotiations with the Polish government. He avoided provoking a dispute that would have led to Soviet intervention.

Support for Solidarity from outside Poland

  • A Polish cardinal was appointed as Pope in 1979. He supported the Solidarity movement and encouraged others to as well.

The Polish government were reluctant to take action against Solidarity

  • Poland had greater independence than many countries in Soviet-controlled eastern Europe. Poles had successfully used strikes and against the government before.

  • Solidarity had significant support amongst workers in key industries. Strikes by workers in these industries would have devastated the Polish economy.

The Soviet government were reluctant to take action against Solidarity

  • The communist government did not see the Solidarity movement as a great threat. They believed that it would gradually lose support or break up.

  • Solidarity had significant support in the West. The situation and the Soviet reaction was being closely followed by western media which made the USSR more cautious in how it dealt with the movement.

Why did the Polish government eventually take action against Solidarity?

In February 1981, General Jaruzelski became the leader of Poland. He was a much more hard line leader who was willing to take action against the Solidarity movement.

Jaruzelski was willing to take action because:

  • Solidarity issued an open letter claiming to be campaigning for the rights of all workers in communist countries eastern Europe. This threatened the internal stability of these countries.

  • Solidarity was beginning to act like a political party. Jaruzelski claimed to have secret tapes of the leadership discussing forming a new government.

  • Strikes organised by Solidarity were plunging the country into chaos. Jaruzelski wanted a return to law and order.

  • He was under increasing pressure from the Soviet leader, Brezhnev, to take action. Brezhnev told him that he had ordered the Soviet army to carry out ‘training manoeuvres’ on the Polish border. It was clear the Soviets were close to invading and Jaruzelski feared this would lead to bloodshed.

What actions did Jaruzelski take against Solidarity?

  • He pretended to co-operate with Solidarity by negotiating to form a government of ‘national unity’ with them. When negotiations broke down, he arrested and imprisoned 10,000 members and the leaders of Solidarity.

  • He introduced martial law – rule by the army. Curfews were imposed, military courts were set up, censorship increased and over 90 people were killed.

  • He banned Solidarity and other trade unions. Only government-controlled trade unions were allowed.

What was the significance of the Solidarity movement in Poland?

Despite being crushed and banned, Solidarity was significant in the collapse of Soviet control in eastern Europe as it had shown:

  • Popular movements with huge support were a threat to communist governments and were capable to achieving their demands from them.

  • There was widespread opposition to communism and Soviet control in eastern European countries.

  • Communist control of eastern Europe was reliant on the threat of Soviet force. If the USSR refused to intervene, communism in eastern Europe could collapse.