Das Heldentum eines Danzigers

These days, every other Eastern European intellectual is hailed as a hero of sorts, and a handful of politicians get hosanna-ed on a regular basis. Havel’s a hero, and Milosz was a hero; the late Pope was a hero, and Yuschenko’s a hero, and so on. Well, heroism is normally associated with standing up to extreme adversity, which is why the people who above all qualify for the laurels in my book are the leaders of the only major liberation movement in Eastern Europe: the Polish Solidarity. The list starts, and for most of us ignorants ends with Lech Walesa (or, to be pedantical, Wałęsa).

What amazes me about the Polish resistance is exactly what would get it branded as reactionary were it to reemerge today in opposition, say, to the Brussels dictatorship. The only reason why the NYT and the WaPo lended their prime space to Walesa must have been the Cold War. These days, I guess, he would be relegated to the margins accorded to José Bové, Le Pen, the Vlaams Block, and Tony Martin.

That’s because Solidarnosc, among other things:

— was a national, and essentially nationalistic, movement;
— not just had support from the Church — the Church was part of the movement’s core;

and the most importantly,

— was not a movement for abstract Freedom against generic Communism but a fight for Polish freedom against Russian domination, and as such had strong roots far and deep in national history and, perhaps, in the national subconscious.

All in all, the strong conservative-restorationist current that set Solidarnosc on its course would be unacceptable both to Euro-enthusiasts and their overseas sympathizers. There would be cries like “anti-Semitism,” “xenophobia,” “isolationism” and so on.


  1. “All in all, the strong conservative-restorationist current that set Solidarnosc on its course would be unacceptable both to Euro-enthusiasts and their overseas sympathizers.”

    Oh don’t worry, from what I remember, in Britain Solidarity was unacceptable to a small but vociferous number of our bien pensant intellectuals right from day one (as well as the usual Stalinist suspects, many of them leading union members with a poorly developed sense of the absurd). I remember one of them complaining that the biggest problem with Father Popieluszko’s murder by the security services was that it would lead to a cult of martyrdom enabling the Church to foster ignorance and bigotry (a real contrast to the enlightened, undogmatic atmosphere provided by the PRL). I think those of a Marxist persuasion found it hard to appreciate the irony of the world’s largest workers’ movement being Catholic and nationalist in inspiration.

  2. You make a very good point. It was amusing at the time to watch Margaret Thatcher befriend a Polish trade union while dismembering those in Britain.

    One of the strangest things about living in Poland for 11 years was how little respect most Polish intellectuals had for Walesa. He is clearly a hero, and arguably one of the greatest of the 20th Century. They didn’t like him, however, because they thought he was embarassingly ignorant. They cringed when he travelled abroad as their President, because he made so many grammatical errors in his spoken Polish and because of his simple devotion to the Church.

    I tried to explain that he sounded fine in translation but their snobbery was more important to them than his heroism. As for his religious simplicity, it was more attractive – even to the non-religious – than sophistry or hypocrisy.

    I guess they were embarassed themselves that it had taken a simple shipyard electrician to stand up to the forces with which they had shamefully collaborated for decades. In fairness to them, in the end it’s usually someone with nothing to lose who makes an heroic stand. That’s why tyrants should take care to leave no-one in that position!

  3. Now I come to think about it, I wonder whether the group of people* I mentioned wouldn’t find one particular “Catholic nationalist” organisation more acceptable than Solidarity. I’m thinking of the IRA.

    (*Again I’d stress this is a small group of people whose representation among the media/”intelligentsia” has always been infinitely higher than their representation among the general public or even practising politicians.)

  4. Tom, it does not surprise me that intellectuals had no piety for Walesa the president but I think it was almost a miracle that a decade earlier, independent trade unions, intellectuals and priests had joined forces against Soviet and communist domination.

    Perhaps a distant successor of Walesa and Kwasniewski will once deal with Polish trade unions as harshly as Thatcher dealt with the miners. When the bargaining power of atomized industrial workers was tiny relative to the size of that class, unions were the only solution. But economies change… and Poland still has a mining sector, I think.

  5. JC — I think I know the kind of anti-clerical prejudice that intellectuals harbor regardless of their country of origin. Churches as earthly organizations are of course susceptible to corruption but Poland was lucky that its own Communists did not do as much damage to the Catholic Church as their Russian mentors did to Russian Orthodoxy before WWII. Also, Poland’s agriculture was not subjected to mass collectivization so post-WWII Poland did not break every living connection (such as land and faith) with pre-Communist Poland, unlike Russia and Ukraine. I’d say Poland drew its strength, in part, from a sense of historical continuity, which — unfortunately — seems unfashionable in certain important circles in Europe.

  6. Yes, you’re right. The Poles simply had more practice at resistance and rebellion than anybody else in the “Bloc”, with a tradition going back to the late eighteenth century*. Even if their grasp of basic economics was tenuous, the Polish communist leadership at least understood the history of their own country and realised there was only so far they could push people before they sparked a revolution (and the Poles wouldn’t care about the consequences). Hence no collectivisation and limited freedom for the Church. The Catholic Church had the big advantage over the Orthodox in that its HQ was in the West. The only way of dealing with Karol Wojtyla was by assassination (and that failed). The problem with the Euro-Elitists (the small but significant section of Europhiles who are determined that their “project” will go ahead regardless of how European peoples actually vote) is that they don’t seem to grasp the history and traditions of any of the countries that make up the EU and think they can just be bulldozed over to create their new utopia (which is more likely to end up as the new Yugoslavia).

    * Of course in the 19th century there was an anti-clerical (rather than anti-religious) element amongst Polish nationalists because back then (IIRC) the Pope wouldn’t support their cause for fear of annoying Austria, the leading Catholic power.

  7. Alex, you are getting so many things wrong! Let me make a list of them:

    1. “Brussels dictatorship”. Sounds familiar. “Moscow yesterday, Brussels today” chant populist demonstrators. Think for a second about this cliche and you will have to acknowledge that
    -EU forces have never occupied Poland
    -EU membership has never been introduced by force in Poland
    -EU doesn’t organise military manouvers when anti-EU voices are raised
    -there is no friendship with the EU enshrined in the constitution of the country
    Should I continue?

    2. Resistance against socialism/communism is not therefore the same thing as opposition to EU policies or even membership. Opposing the system could mean, depending on the time, execution squad, Syberia, life sentence, prison, beating, arrests, loss of job or threats. Anti-EU stand costs you nothing.

    3. The dominating theme of Solidarity movement was positive – freedom. Outright anti-Soviet/anti-Russian elements were sparse and far from dominating. The existing nationalist elements should be put in context: Solidarity was born in the situation of an oppresion of free discourse, which was conducive to prominence of defrozen old positions. Debates are free in post-1989 Poland and Walesa, as the president, showed nothing of the extremism you are trying to ascribe to him. Moreover, extremist positions corresponding to José Bové, Le Pen, the Vlaams Block, and Tony Martin mentioned by you score less well in the elections in Poland than their Western counterparts.

    4. Parties that claim loyalty to Solidarity legacy (PO, PiS, PD) cannot be reasonably branded as antisemitic, xenophobic or isolationist. This pertains also Solidarity itself, which by now has lost its character of a broad movement and has become a typical trade union.

    If you look at facts and not just speculate, Poland’s internal protests have been quite similar to what is taking place in the West, which I guess can serve us as a yardstick of democratic behaviour.

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