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Gdansk Heroes Showed a Dignity No Tyrant Can Reach

August 29, 2000|GEORGE WEIGEL | George Weigel is senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and author of "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II" (HarperCollins, 1999)

What was Solidarity, born 20 years ago this week in Gdansk on Poland's Baltic coast? By its own definition, it was an "independent, self-governing trade union." To Leonid Brezhnev and the other geriatric overseers of Stalin's empire, it was their worst nightmare come true: a genuine workers' movement challenging communism's claim to rule in the name of the working class. To one of its chaplains, Father Joseph Tischner, Solidarity was a "huge forest planted by awakened consciences." To analysts trying to describe a hybrid that combined liberal democratic politics, traditional social and religious values and market economics, it was a mass movement of national self-renewal.

Viewed in retrospect, it was also the beginning of the end of a five-decades-long civilizational emergency that opened with Hitler's military reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 and closed with the Soviet crack-up in 1991. That was what Solidarity initiated: the end game of the 55 Years' War against totalitarianism.

Among veteran Solidarity activists and supporters, there is a bittersweet flavor to this 20th anniversary. True, Poland is a stable democracy with a growing economy, a member of NATO and a prospective partner in the European Union, arguably the great success story of East Central Europe. But there is precious little left, organizationally at least, of the old Solidarity.

When democracy was restored to Poland, the movement quickly splintered into competing factions and parties. Its principal icon, Lech Walesa, had an embarrassingly erratic period as Poland's president. A reconstituted Solidarity-based coalition has controlled Poland's parliament since 1997, but everyone expects it to lose next year's elections. And it seems virtually certain that Aleksander Kwasniewski, who as a young communist apparatchik was on the other side of the barricades 20 years ago, will be reelected Poland's president later this year. Meanwhile, other "post-communists," taking advantage of the Solidarity leadership's magnanimous 1989 decision to draw a thick line across the historical ledger, have done quite well for themselves in Poland's booming market economy, even as some of the workers who first made it possible for Poland to break the grip of socialist economics have found themselves unemployed and untrained.

So what is to celebrate? A lot, I would suggest.

Solidarity made an immeasurable contribution to the security of the West and to the cause of freedom. It demonstrated empirically that the communist emperor had few clothes, a point quite missed in the late 1970s by American leaders who mused lugubriously about the United States having to play Athens to an ascendant Soviet Sparta and by Western European politicians eager for "convergence" between East and West. That demonstration of communism's fragility was crucial in creating the psychological and political climate that made more assertive Western policies possible in the 1980s. In that important sense, Solidarity helped "make" Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl.

Absent the Soviet Union, whose collapse Solidarity foreshadowed and helped effect, Americans live far more securely today, in no small part because of the workers who locked themselves into the Lenin Shipyards 20 years ago and decorated the shipyard gates with portraits of the Black Madonna and Pope John Paul II. And if the "peace dividend" of the 1990s has helped finance today's unprecedented and widespread prosperity, Americans are living better because of Solidarity, too.

Solidarity also taught some enduring lessons about the way history works and about the nature of freedom. History is not Hegel's "butcher's block" and freedom is not mere willfulness. Rather, as Solidarity showed, history is an arena in which truth can be a form of power because freedom is inextricably bound up with potent moral truths about the dignity of the human person. Convinced of that dignity, men and women are free in a way that no tyrant can reach. Jefferson asserted that in 1776; Solidarity demonstrated it in 1980.

Further, in this age of endless chatter about "moral values," Solidarity exemplified moral convictions boldly articulated and bravely acted on. The men and women of Solidarity did not wring their hands, furrow their brows and then consult a focus group or pollster to determine what ought to be done. Twenty years ago, in Gdansk, there was a short fuse between conviction and action. Once convictions about truth and falsehood, honor and dishonor had hardened in those "awakened consciences," action followed. The world has not been the same since. For that, we owe Solidarity a great debt of gratitude.

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