The First Visible Crack

I remember the exact moment and place.  As we talked, Karel had made the gesture of flicking his finger at an imaginary glass globe in his hand that would crack into a million pieces:

“It would just take a small Ping — the whole thing could shatter and fall apart” he said.

I thought, yes, just like the edge-of-chaos/order: a phase transition.

Soon it happened.  Few, if any, but Karel could have imagined it happening — and so soon.

He knew the system well: as a kid, he had been prevented to pursue what he was good at — mathematics — for the powers of Czechoslovkia wouldn’t let him go to school, because his father had escaped from the Soviet bloc, leaving Karel and his mother to suffer the consequences.  Karel knew what it is like not to trust anybody outside his immediate family — not say what everybody knew but could not say — the Soviet system was a human prison: Private Truths, Public Lies.  Karel did get out in 1978 by Jimmy Carter’s diplomatic initiative with Alexander Dubček’s short regime. Only a few could escape from the system.

Karel obtained his PhD in Mathematics from Stanford University a couple years later after our talk.   Nobody really thought it would happen.  The Iron Curtain seemed still solid in 1988.  The Soviet system had lasted for more than 75 years.  The Soviet Union was one of the two superpowers: a military and nuclear super power. Rebellions had failed before: Hungary and Czechoslovakia, otherwise subversive acts had to keep a low profile.

The first real crack on the surface of that Curtain had started in 1982, three years before Mikhael Gorbachev took power. That first crack, that finally spread like that imagined shattered glass globe of Karel’s in 1989, was Promoted by one man….

It was a small crack, that almost closed up and died.

In Gdansk’s Lenin shipyard, protest seemed to be on the verge of dying out when a stocky man with a shock of reddish-brown hair and a handle-bar mustache clambered over the iron-bar fence and joined the strikers inside. They all knew Lech Walesa. He was an unemployed electrician, fired eight months earlier for trying to organize an independent trade union. With a double chin, a bit of a paunch, and of middle height, Lech Walesa, then 36, did not have an imposing physical presence. His working-class Polish was rough and often ungrammatical: his voice, perhaps from years of heavy smoking, was hoarse and rasping. His speeches were frequently riddled with mixed metaphors and skewed analogies. His real strength as a speaker was an ability to reduce complex issues to simple words and images that everyone could understand. Said one Solidarity official: “He knows his audience. He can sense what they want, and almost always he is right.”

lech_walesaBut he couldn’t have done without a little help from his friends — and his enemies, and those in between.  It was a very very hard sell at the time.  The Ghost of Khan still had a grip of that Gdansk’s Lenin shipyard, with the Polish United Workers Party, and Wojciech Jaruzelski at its head.

Lech Wałęsa, Promoter Artisan, (born 29 September 1943) is a Polish politician, trade-union organizer and human-rights activist. A charismatic leader, he co-founded Solidarity (Solidarność), the Soviet bloc’s first government independent, trade union, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and served as President of Poland from 1990 to 1995.

Promoters … they are men and women of action. When a Promoter is present, things begin to happen: the lights come on, the music plays, the games begin. Clever and full of fun, Promoters live with a theatrical flourish which makes even the most routine events seem exciting. Not that they waste much time on routine events. In work and in play, Promoters demand new activities and new challenges. Bold and daring at heart, and ever-optimistic that things will go their way, Promoters will take tremendous risks to get what they want, and seem exhilarated by walking close to the edge of disaster. Because of this, they make the very best trouble-spot administrators and negotiators, and they can be outstanding entrepreneurs, able to swing deals and kick-start enterprises in a way no other type can. [Please Understand Me II]

“From early on, Wałęsa was interested in workers’ concerns; in 1968 he encouraged shipyard colleagues to boycott official rallies that condemned recent student strikes. A charismatic leader, he was an organizer of the illegal 1970 strikes at the Gdańsk Shipyard (the Polish 1970 protests) when workers protested the government’s decree raising food prices; he was considered for chairman of the strike committee. The strikes’ outcome, involving over 30 workers’ deaths, galvanized his views on the need for change. In June 1976, Wałęsa lost his job at the Gdańsk Shipyards for his continued involvement in illegal unions, strikes and a campaign to commemorate the victims of the 1970 protests. Afterwards, he worked as an electrician for several other companies, but was continually laid off for his activism and was jobless for long periods. He and his family were under constant surveillance by the Polish secret police; his home and workplace were always bugged. Over the next few years, he was arrested several times for participating in dissident activities.”

In the 60’s and 70’s the Soviet Leaders, notably Leonard Brezhnev, maintained a tight political grip on the Warsaw Pact through its puppet bureaucratic leaders like JaruzelskiHoneckerCeaușescuZhivkov, and Kádár.   The Soviet system had used political and “legal” repression and the threat of military intervention to keep the Pact behind the Curtain, but with the rapid succession of deaths in the aging Soviet political top, new kinds of leaders could emerge from that stagnant chaos.

Margaret Thatcher was the first leader from the West to recognize Lech Walesa’s Solidarity.  She had been fighting the the legal, established, and entitled governmental and union elites of Britain.  Arthur Scargill, the British union leader of the National Union of Mine Workers (NUM), had long criticised Poland’s Solidarity trade union for its attacks upon the communist system in Poland.  Later it was revealed Scargill’s feather-bedding and hypocrisy was over the top. It was NUM’s general secretary Chris Kitchen, who said, “I honestly do believe that Arthur, in his own world, believes that the NUM is here to afford him the lifestyle that he’s become accustomed to.” For years the NUM had been paying £34,000 annual rent for the flat on Scargill’s instructions, without the knowledge of NUM members or many senior officials; Scargill claimed the NUM should continue funding his flat for the rest of his life, and thereafter for any widow who survived him. Chris Kitchen said: “I would say it’s time to walk away, Mr Scargill. You’ve been found out. The NUM is not your personal bank account and never will be again.” Lech Walesa, a trade unionist under the boot of communism, had a different experience and point of view.

“When I look back upon those momentous days of the late 1980s, the liberation of Eastern Europe from communism, I know that Solidarity started something at the Gdansk shipyards that triggered a domino-effect of change behind the Iron Curtain.

Without Solidarity it would not have been possible. And Solidarity’s strength came, quite literally, from solidarity – from the determination of Poles to stand together in a common struggle: workers and intellectuals, believers and non-believers, young and old. That was the first step to victory.

But on its own it would not have been enough. Without Solidarity’s friends in Britain, the changes we wanted to achieve would not have been possible. Because for us it was also vital to know that our fight had the support of the democratic world. Margaret Thatcher’s support was crucial. She had always been among our friends, and in those dark days she showed it.

In 1988 we were very weak after years of fighting under martial law. We needed help. Then Margaret Thatcher came to visit me and Solidarity’s other leaders in Gdansk.

It was strange, our first meeting, because I had heard about her strong character, and I rather wondered what she would make of a trade unionist like me. After all, I knew that she had had a difficult time with the unions in Britain. But what came through was her good spirit and decisiveness. Beyond any ideology, she had respect for human dignity and respect for democracy.”  — Lech Walesa

Walesa said of that she was key in hastening the fall of the iron curtain: “She was a great person. She did a great deal for the world, along with Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Solidarity, she contributed to the demise of communism in Poland and central Europe.”

Although nobody knew it at the time, with Mikhail Gorbachev taking power in the Soviet system in 1985, that the shattering of the Curtain would come soon, for Gorbachev would not use the Soviet military or authorize Pact “leaders” to repress their own people.  Once most people in the Warsaw Pact nations knew that change was possible, cracks under the power structures would grow bigger and bigger.  Lech Walesa served as one of the first of the most visible cracks.

At the celebration of the reunification of East and West Germany, Lech Walesa suggested that the future of a united Europe should be built on the foundation of truth, not on lies. With this assertion, he added that the historical truth was that freedom for East Germany was not due to politicians alone. “Truth is very important when we speak of the course of history,” said Walesa. He suggested that the fall of the Iron Curtain was due in a large part to Pope John Paul II and the Solidarity labor movement.  At the celebration, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev also walked across the old border, along with Walesa, at the site where some 136 people were shot since the erection of the wall in 1961.  The Polish Pontiff’s trip to his native country in June of 1979 made a great impact, as it was the first visit of a Pope to a Communist country.  With Yeltsin and Gorbachev at the helm in the Soviet state, and support of John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and lastly with George H. W. Bush not crowing for America’s triumph over the Russians in the Cold War, the people of Europe, following Lech Walesa’s lead, shattered Iron Curtain.
Recently, Walesa has reminisced and pronounced that Poland has had a complete political transformation from communism to democracy.
[Google Translated]”After 25 years of difficult transition in our country, I would like to symbolically announce: in Poland ended in [a] political transformation! Today, we can confidently say that we live in a democratic Poland and solidified the system of free market economy in a country built on the solid foundations of international cooperation, the country’s high aspirations and full of hope for further development. We have an incredible leap forward. We’re in a totally different place in the new era and new challenges ahead.”
“The fall of the Berlin Wall makes for nice pictures. But it all started in the shipyards.”  — Lech Walesa

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *