Despite the fact that from 1945 to 1989 the Soviet Union imposed significant control over the internal and external affairs of eastern European nations, that control was never complete. At one time or another that situation was true in all Eastern bloc nations, but nowhere so much as in Poland. The Poles demonstrated their independent streak at intervals in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s.
In many instances there were riots and bloodshed, and Soviet troops stationed in Poland ostensibly as defense against a Western attack were used to keep order. In 1953 the Polish premier informed the Soviets that while he would accept military assistance from Soviet troops already in the country, he would mobilize the entire Polish army to fight them if more were sent in. In 1980 a labor union that named itself Solidarity would come into being. It would eventually play a principle role in the ending of the communist regime in Poland.
Solidarity was founded in September 1980 in immediate response to increasing food prices, which had already precipitated several strikes. There was already a basic organization in place around which representatives of the striking workers could meet and discuss issues. This was the Workers Defense Committee, which had come into being as a result of strikes, riots, and the killing and injuring of workers in the 1970s.
The month before Solidarity was formed, almost 20,000 workers struck at the Lenin Shipyard in the city of Gdansk. These strikers, led by Lech Walesa, a shipyard electrician, locked themselves in the shipyard and were soon communicating with other groups who were joining in strikes of their own.
The workers presented a list of demands that were granted by the government, which included the ability to organize free unions that were not sponsored or sanctioned by the Polish Government. With this victory, Solidarity would come into being, replace the old Workers Defense Committee, and then begin to grow throughout the country.
In December another group, calling itself Rural Solidarity, which was the agricultural equivalent to the industrialized organization, also came into being. Growth was dramatic, and by mid-1981, nearly all laborers were members of or represented by Solidarity.
The Polish government, which had made the concessions that allowed Solidarity to legally come into being, began to view developments with alarm. The same concern applied to the Soviet leadership. Leonid Brezhnev and members of the Soviet Politburo made their concerns increasingly clear to Poland’s head of state, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who would feel pressure from the Soviet Union and at home.
Encouraged by its newfound legalized existence and successes thus far, Solidarity became active in 1981, calling for additional strikes and increasing its demands. By late 1981, faced with the demands of Solidarity, Jaruzelski was coming under increased pressure. He received frequent calls from Brezhnev demanding that he put a stop to Solidarity’s activities.
At the same time the Soviet army moved closer to the Polish border and conducted substantial maneuvers with other Warsaw Pact troops, thus underlining the threat that if he did not act on his own, Jaruzelski could face an invasion. At least that is what Jaruzelski said years later when on trial for treason.
That trial, from which he was later acquitted, tried to resolve whether Jaruzelski had saved Poland from invasion by what he did to Solidarity or had betrayed Poland’s independence, however limited that might be.
In mid-December 1981 Jaruzelski finally took action. Solidarity was suppressed. Lech Wałesa and the other leaders of the union were imprisoned, and martial law was imposed. The Polish army now ran everything in the country, and any union activities, strikes, or demonstrations would be met with force.
Eventually the leaders of Solidarity were quietly released, and, although the organization was illegal, it did remain active. Its leaders remained in contact with each other, and an underground organization, based on those that had existed during World War II, emerged. Western journalists were able to bring to the West a picture of Solidarity, no longer legal and not functioning as it had but still alive.
Having imposed order, Jaruzelski was now compelled to improve the Polish economy. Brezhnev had died in 1982, and his two immediate successors were also dead by 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev assumed responsibility for leading the Soviet Union.
In the 1980s the Soviets were beginning to exercise looser control and endless assistance to the Eastern bloc nations. Jaruzelski’s attempts at reform were now opposed by Solidarity, which was reemerging as a political force.
Widespread strikes in Poland forced Jaruzelski to begin conversations with Wałesa and the Solidarity leadership. Solidarity was once again legalized in April 1989, and that same year it won a crushing majority in the national elections.
A coalition of Solidarity and Communists formed a government in August 1989, and Wałesa, who less than 10 years before had been jailed for his union activities, was now president of Poland.
Since that time, Solidarity has declined in both membership and influence. There were personality and philosophical clashes among several of the leaders, not least of whom was Wałesa. It can also be argued that once it had defeated a common enemy that posed a major threat, it could not maintain cohesion on all issues. It did not have any of its candidates elected in 2001, and the membership is about a tenth of what it was in the early 1980s.