How a Communist Poland Changed Its Fate


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

Catholic clergy in communist Poland were expressing their own commitment to human rights. They found particular inspiration in the selection of one of their own, Karol Wojtyla, as Pope John Paul II in 1978. And in June 1979, he arrived in Poland for an official visit. It was the first time a pope had ever visited a communist country.

Polish protests in 1970
Though Poland had been under the communist influence for decades, Polish people showed that they had retained the capacity for political action. (Image: Edmund Pelpliński/Public domain)

The Case for Human Rights

Before crowds numbering in the millions, John Paul II promoted the cause of human rights in his native homeland and across Eastern Europe. In public sermons, he told listeners that people everywhere should enjoy fundamental rights, including freedom of conscience and expression. John Paul II was publicly stating what most Poles only whispered about.

Image of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland
Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland destroyed the monopoly communist Poland had on political messaging. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

The pope’s words broke the communist party’s monopoly on political messaging. As one Polish official said years later, John Paul II basically told Poles to not be afraid. At the time, Poland was struggling under the weight of a stagnant economy and rising debt. Over the next year, the situation had worsened.

Workers Strike

In the summer of 1980, the government announced large increases in the price of meat. This set off a popular reaction throughout the country. Poles went out on strike to demand lower prices.

In mid-August, at the Lenin Shipyard in the Baltic port city of Gdansk, nearly 17,000 workers walked off the job. They were led by a former shipyard electrician named Lech Walesa, who’d been fired for activism in 1976. 

The strikers called for increased wages, the right to form free, independent unions, and the easing of government censorship. In the process, they inspired others. By month’s end, 350,000 Polish workers were on strike, further upsetting the precarious state of the Polish economy. The government felt compelled to negotiate. 

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern HistoryWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Government’s Compromise

On the last day of August 1980, Lech Walesa and the Polish deputy premier signed an agreement meeting nearly all of the striking workers’ demands. It showed that a seemingly intractable communist regime was not impervious to protest. In spite of three decades of Soviet influence, the Polish people retained the capacity for political action.

The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had expected the negotiations to produce a toothless agreement that would end the immediate crisis and be ignored. But the dissidents had other ideas. Having won the right to form independent trade unions, the workers did just that.

Lech Walesa giving a speech in 1980
Lech Walesa, a former electrician/activist, led the strikes at the Lenin Shipyard in communist Poland. (Image: Giedymin Jabłoński/Public domain)

A Gradual Approach

On September 17, 1980, regional strike committees consolidated to form the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union. It became known as Solidarity. Walesa was selected to serve as chairman. Within a year, 10 million Poles joined, including several hundred thousand communists. 

Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership resolved to regain control of the situation in Poland. But, concerned about maintaining what was left of the peaceful co-existence with the United States known as détente, they ruled out force. So, they took a more gradual approach.

The first step was a change in leadership. In February 1981, Kremlin loyalist and former defense minister Wojciech Jaruzelski was appointed general secretary. His appointment hinted at a forthcoming tough response.

It came in December 1981, when Jaruzelski declared martial law, banned all political and social organizations, and arrested thousands of Solidarity activists. Lech Walesa was among them and remained in prison until late 1982.

The Brezhnev Doctrine

Revolutions need crises to come to fruition. In the Soviet bloc, a long-standing crisis of inner decay was kept in check by the threat of force. In 1968, Soviet leader Brezhnev had sent East bloc tanks to Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring. This policy became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine: the belief the Soviet Union had the right to intervene anywhere within its sphere of influence when its vision of socialism was threatened.

But Brezhnev died in November 1982. He was followed by the former spy Yuri Andropov from 1982 to 1984 and then briefly by the old diplomat Konstantin Chernenko, who had been the Soviet ambassador to Hungary during the 1956 uprising. 

Chernenko led the Soviet Union until his death in February 1984, when Soviet leadership appointed the much younger Mikhail Gorbachev to lead in a new direction. What they got was not what they were expecting.

Free Elections in Communist Poland

In Poland, a new round of massive strikes and protests started in 1988. The Polish communist government, trying to satiate the workers in the midst of a continuing economic crisis, agreed to negotiate with Solidarity leaders. Though the Solidarity trade union was still legally banned, it operated underground and retained extraordinary influence. 

Roundtable talks began in February 1989. The Polish government agreed to legalize Solidarity and announced that free elections for parliament would be held that June. They weren’t completely throwing in the towel, however. Polish communists reserved a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament, the Sejm. But they failed to realize how much popular sentiment had turned against them.

Solidarity candidates won all 161 open seats and 99 of 100 seats in the new senate. It was an overwhelming indictment of the communist regime. The tide had turned, and neither the Polish communists nor the Soviets tried to overturn the results.

The pendulum continued to swing in democracy’s favor in Poland. By the end of 1990, Walesa had been elected president in a landslide. Poland’s experience signaled a new direction for Eastern Europe was possible.

Common Questions about How a Communist Poland Changed Its Fate

Q: How did John Paul II’s visit to Poland affect the political climate?

Since John Paul II was the Pope, his message concerning humanity’s fundamental rights shattered the monopoly that the government had on political messaging in communist Poland. He encouraged Poles to speak their minds, and that made a great difference in the long run.

Q: What was the Brezhnev Doctrine?

The Brezhnev Doctrine was the belief that the Soviet Union had the right to intervene in the affairs of the countries in its sphere of influence if it sensed that socialism, as it defined it, was endangered.

Q: What happened to the Solidarity party after it was legally banned?

Even though the party was legally banned in communist Poland, it was still extremely influential when it operated underground. Its influence led to the Polish government negotiating with them.

Keep Reading
Alexander Kerensky: A Revolutionary or a Ruler?
The Rise to Power of Alexander Kerensky
The Downfall of Alexander Kerensky