Forgetting Poland’s Past

Normally, I loathe anniversaries and try not to celebrate them. What a relief it was when we finally got to 1996 and finally came to an end of the 50th anniversaries (of the outbreak of the war/D-day/Hiroshima/fill in the blank). I might make an exception, however, for an anniversary that arises this week, both because the events have rather slipped out of popular memory—and as a result haven’t been endlessly rehashed—and because the changes which occurred subsequently are themselves significant.

The event is the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Gdansk Agreements between the Polish workers and the Polish Communist government: These were the accords that legally created Solidarity, the old Eastern bloc’s first and only independent trade union. The signing took place on Aug. 30 and 31, 1980, at the end of an unprecedented 18-day national general strike. About a million Polish workers are thought to have put down their tools, led by the workers of the Gdansk shipyards. Among other things, the agreements that ended the strikes guaranteed the workers the right to form free trade unions and the right to strike and also called for freedom of speech, of the press, and of publication.

It may be hard to reconstruct just how revolutionary such notions once were, but remember, Poland was then a full-fledged totalitarian society, albeit a very rickety one, complete with the full panoply of secret police, Soviet “advisers,” and an unelected government of jowly functionaries. It was in that context that the Communist philosopher Milovan Djilas described the “Polish August” as “the most significant development in Eastern Europe since the Second World War.” In just a few days, all sorts of unwritten rules had been broken, all sorts of official myths had been destroyed. Most of all, here was the working class itself, not just some disgruntled intellectuals, in full rebellion against a Communist state. It was the beginning of the end of communism and the beginning of the movement for change which culminated in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall nine years later.

As I say, the events of August 1980 do now seem rather distant. We have become accustomed, or at least I have, to thinking of Poland as a fast-growing capitalist society, as a member of NATO, even as a relatively “normal” if still poor European state whose internal affairs don’t, most of the time, even merit much international attention. Perhaps more extraordinarily, the Poles have become accustomed to the same idea. Although a handful of prime ministers and ambassadors and ex-statesmen, Lady Thatcher among them, have flown into Gdansk to mark the anniversary, lack of interest in the celebration is palpable. Partly this may be because we are still in full summer holiday mode here in Europe, and it is hard to get people to pay attention when they are lounging about on Baltic beaches or, more likely, at the Costa del Sol (40 percent of Poles recently told an opinion pollster they planned to spend their holidays abroad this year).

But partly this is because what happened in August 1980 was so much a part of another era that, even though all the main protagonists are still very much alive—Lech Walesa presided at the opening anniversary ceremony—the whole thing seems faintly irrelevant. Notable is the fact that no one seems able to find the original copy of the Gdansk Agreements. Various former Solidarity activists have been rooting around in attics, looking for things they stashed away when martial law was declared—putting an end to Solidarity—in 1981. A few days ago, one old trade unionist, now the proprietor of a private shop in Gdansk, remembered that he had stashed a bunch of papers away beneath the stairs of a friend’s house; with great ceremony, the documents were unearthed, but although it was found to be full of telegrams and letters from the time, the Agreements themselves weren’t there. The new proprietors of the old security service archives can’t find them either. One Polish newspaper has been conducting a campaign in search of the lost Agreements: Call +48 22 555 4349 if you know where they are, or click here for an update.

All of which helps to prove the fallacy of those arguments about culture and development: namely, the notion that nations are doomed to a certain kind of politics or certain kinds of behaviors because of their “national character.” Twenty years isn’t very much time, not even a full generation. Yet 20 years ago this week, Poland was a very different country, and the Polish political system was one that inspired very different kinds of behaviors. Work was undervalued: Millions of people treated the time they spent at their jobs as time to be wasted. Enormous energy was expended, by contrast, standing in lines, looking for opportunities to buy something, bartering and haggling and trading favors, making all the “arrangements” that were necessary for existence. Just as much energy was expended arguing about, and coping with, the politics and politicians who interfered in every aspect of daily life, from children’s school curriculums to state television.

I won’t say that, since then, the transformation has been complete, but it has been pretty deep. Unemployment is in the double digits, but those Poles who do work, work extremely hard indeed: The new generation of slick magazines are full of articles on “how to cope with executive stress.” You might not be able to buy the full stock list of  Dean & Deluca in central Warsaw, but no one has lately stood in line for anything either, except possibly tickets to the recent Tina Turner concert. Connections still count, as they do everywhere, but not as much as money and talent. Politicians still matter more than they should—the privatization process is far from finished—but they don’t seem to require the nation’s obsessive interest and attention. If anything, Poland’s presidential election, less than two months away, is exciting less interest than the 20th-anniversary celebrations.

There was no magic about this transformation. Although there were special circumstances, here as everywhere, at base what changed was simply the political system—the laws and the lawmakers. Nor is there any magic about what altered the economic culture of Chile, what is altering the economic culture of India, or even, dare I say it, what would alter the economic culture of the African countries that President Clinton has visited this week. No nation is stuck forever in a quagmire of hopeless politics, corruption, and poverty. Given different incentives, people do learn to think and behave differently—and it doesn’t take generations and generations.