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1989: Poland Was First!

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa with a crowd of workers in Zyrandow, Poland, 1981 (Keystone/Getty Images)

We call the revolution of 1789 the “French Revolution” and the revolution of 1917 the “Russian Revolution,” but it seems unlikely that we will ever call the revolution of 1989 the “Polish Revolution”—even though that is essentially what it was.

In the twenty-year commemorations of the end of communism, the dominant image is German rather than Polish: the fall of the Berlin Wall. This a rather misleading choice of symbol for a peaceful revolution. The Berlin Wall did not fall. Its gates were opened on 9 November 1989 by nervous guards, pressured by impatient crowds, responding to a remark at the end of a press conference by East German politburo member Guenter Schabowski. East German authorities had taken the decision to open the border posts because their citizens were leaving anyway. Communist Hungary had already opened its frontier with neutral Austria, and East Germans were fleeing via Hungary to Austria and then onward to West Germany. Cutting the barbed wire was the latest in a series of symbolic acts by the Hungarian communist regime, following the the reburial of the executed reform communist Imre Nágy. In autumn 1989, Hungary’s leaders were seeking to follow the Polish example of negotiated revolution.

What happened in Poland before the opening of the German-German border was not the prologue to revolution, but its first and decisive act. Only the Poles had engaged in recent mass opposition to communist rule in eastern Europe. The Solidarity movement of 1980-1981 had ten million members. Although a trade union in form, the movement involved cooperation between intellectuals and workers, and between the Roman Catholic Church and secular left-wing activists. Its leaders, Lech Walesa and his rivals and advisers, all gained substantial experience in politics before the communist regime imposed martial law in December 1981. It was they who were best prepared to take advantage of the new thinking of Mikhail Gorbachev. When Gorbachev announced in December 1988 that the Soviet Union would no longer defend communism in its satellite states by force, Poland’s communists were the first to test the waters. Oppositionists from Solidarity agreed to take part in round-table talks with the communist leadership, which prepared the way for partially free elections in June 1989. Solidarity won a resounding victory, and the Solidarity activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki formed a government that September. These changes set the example that was then followed in Hungary, then East Germany, then Czechoslovakia.

No one seems to remember it that way, including many Poles. Democracy means regulated discontent, and Polish workers, the heart of the original movement, were hit hard by the economic shock therapy that followed. Precisely because the Polish revolution began with a compromise, many Poles have trouble seeing it as an achievement. Poles find it easier to celebrate bloody defeats than peaceful successes. Leaders of the Polish right have maintained that the round-table negotiations were a kind of corrupt deal between self-interested elements of the opposition and the communists, effecting a superficial change of political system while allowing the old elites to remain and prosper. Poles also tend to give credit to the Americans and the British for the revolutions of 1989. Whereas the American commitment to eastern Europe mattered enormously for the Polish opposition generally, American diplomats did little more than observe in 1989. The George H.W. Bush administration was mainly concerned with advancing arms control and supporting Gorbachev. President Bush visited Poland and Hungary in July 1989, but offered no significant support to the opposition. Prime Minister Thatcher, as we now know, worked hard to prevent the unification of Germany.

Precisely because Poles exaggerated the importance of America in 1989, they tended to support the next President Bush’s announced plans to bring democracy to the Middle East by invading Iraq. Had Polish national memory functioned a bit better, Polish leaders might have reminded Americans in 2002 of what it takes to build democracy: time, a human-rights movement, principled support from outside, the right historical conjuncture. Outstanding members of a peaceful opposition movement supported an ill-considered war. They conspired in an account in which America brought freedom to Europe in 1989, and thus could bring freedom elsewhere. The Iraq War (sadly) tarnished not only the idea of spreading democracy, but the reputation of the country that best illustrates the possibility of peaceful transformation.

If there was hope for a rescue of the reputation of the Polish Revolution, it came, ironically, from Berlin. Germany commemorated the opening of the German-German border on November 9 with a display of enormous falling dominoes. The Germans were thoughtful enough to invite Lech Walesa, the onetime leader of Solidarity, to topple the first one.

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