State of Emergency at Polish Border Prompts Look at Recent History

illegal migration threatens poland just 30 years after transition from communism

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Poland has seen much modern political conflict. In the 1980s, the Solidarity movement rose and helped to overthrow Poland’s Communist regime. A state of emergency declared at its border with Belarus could begin a new chapter.

Close up of a pin on the location of Poland on a map
In 1980, the Solidarity movement in Poland was the first independent labor union in a country within the Soviet bloc of nations. Photo By llucky78 / Shutterstock

Illegal migration into Poland has caused President Andrzej Duda to declare a state of emergency along the Polish-Belarusian border. Poland, along with Latvia and Lithuania, have alleged that the government of Belarus has welcomed migrants into Belarus and bussed them to the three nations’ borders, offering them the chance to enter Europe. They believe this was done to destabilize the European Union in retaliation for sanctions it imposed on Belarus.

It’s far from the first time in Poland’s modern history that politics have shaken up the country. In his video series A History of Eastern Europe, Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, explained how the Solidarity movement began in 1980.

Worst Firing Decision Ever

Dr. Liulevicius said that the fall of Communism in Poland began with the firing of a single welder at Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk.

“On August 7, 1980, [Anna] Walentynowicz was informed that she was to lose her job, not as a result of bad performance at her work, which she took tremendously seriously, but because of what the officials considered antigovernment activity—that is, her championing of workers’ rights,” he said. “Her firing was actually the culmination of a nearly decade-long battle between this strong-willed woman and the bosses of the shipyards.”

Walentynowicz, a widow, had become disillusioned with Communism after seeing workers being exploited. She found she had a gift for organizing them and they saw her as a courageous leader unafraid of their bosses. In the late 1970s, she joined a group calling itself Komitet Obrony Robotników, which translates to Workers’ Defense Committee. There she met an electrician, Lech Wałęsa, who had recently been fired from the shipyard.

“After the news of her firing, outraged fellow workers went on strike to get her reinstated, and Lech Wałęsa, as well,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “The workers locked themselves into the shipyard, behind its heavy metal gates. Almost like the steady gathering of a summer storm, 16,000 workers [gathered] to demand that she be given her job back.”

The movement snowballed. Strikers demanded the freedom to form their own free trade unions independent of the government, the release of political prisoners, free speech, and salary increases. On September 17, less than six weeks after Walentynowicz’s firing, the government caved and the Solidarność—Solidarity—trade union was formed.

The Fall of Communism in Poland

In 1981, Solidarity reached 10 million members—one-third of the Polish work force. Wałęsa became its leader as the Polish communist party lost one-third of its total membership. Seeing that Solidarity had become a national independence movement rather than a simple workers’ strike, members of the Warsaw Pact threatened to invade Poland to silence the rebels. The Polish government insisted it could handle things itself.

“On December 13, 1981, it was a Polish general—Wojciech Jaruzelski, who had been named prime minister—who declared martial law,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Army troops made waves of mass arrests, including 6,000 Solidarity leaders—Wałęsa and Walentynowicz among them.

“But even the mass arrests and repression were unable to finally quell discontent; Solidarity continued underground, helped by printing and communication technology that the CIA smuggled in to bolster them.”

The Polish economy became stagnant, costing its government more credibility throughout the 1980s. In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev—president of the Soviet Union—indicated that Eastern European communist parties shouldn’t expect any Soviet invasions in the future. Poland and Hungary chose to negotiate with their opposition.

“In Poland, the party leaders miscalculated badly,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Roundtable talks led to the legalization of Solidarity, once again, and the holding of early elections—these were not fully free, with only some positions contested and others actually reserved for the regime’s own candidates.”

Amazingly, Solidarity won almost every post by a landslide, leading to them forming a democratic government as Communism fell in Eastern Europe.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily