The day after Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak was ousted by a widespread public uprising, I found myself presenting a lecture about Solidarity, the mass trade union movement that convulsed Poland 30 years ago and paved the way for the collapse of the Iron Curtain a decade later.
It also helped land me in jail in 1983, eventually resulting in my expulsion from Poland.
I had covered Solidarity—Solidarnosc in Polish—as a correspondent for United Press International, and my lecture came at the opening of an exhibition at Yale University about the dramatic strikes and public protests that gave birth to the movement in August 1980.
It got me thinking about people power—its nature and the long, complex reach of its legacy.
The so-called Polish August was the first mass protest movement to achieve some success in challenging Communist rule in Eastern Europe.
When the strikes broke out, the Communists had been in power in Poland since the late 1940s—similar to the length of Hosni Mubarak’s tenure. And as in Egypt, the protests forced radical changes in less than three weeks.
But freedom and democracy were by no means the automatic outcome of what seemed at the moment a victory; indeed, what’s happening in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East, is still very much in flux.
Thousands of workers went on strike at the Gdansk Shipyard on Aug. 14, 1980. The walkout was sparked by the firing of crane operator Anna Walentynowicz, a longtime dissident worker activist.
Her dismissal was really just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Hikes in food prices and other economic hardships, as well as heavy-handed political and social repression, were behind the discontent, and over the years there had been sporadic failed attempts to challenge the regime.
This time, circumstances were different.
For one thing, the election of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1978 had galvanized the nation and instilled a sense of national pride. When John Paul triumphantly returned home to visit in 1979, millions of Poles turned out to greet him as a national hero.
Strikes and protests spread across Poland within days of the Gdansk Shipyard walkout. Prayers and outdoor masses in the overwhelmingly Catholic country were a key part of the protests.
Significantly, too, workers and strike leaders formed an unprecedented strategic alliance with dissident intellectuals. Their list of 21 demands included labor reforms but also freedom of expression, freedom of religion and other civil rights.
These formed the basis of the Gdansk Agreement, a landmark social accord eventually signed on Aug. 31, 1980 by the charismatic strike leader Lech Walesa and a senior government representative. Walesa used a jumbo souvenir pen that bore a likeness of John Paul II.
Five days leader, the Polish Communist Party axed its longtime leader, Edward Gierek.
Various commentators have compared the events in Egypt with the fall of communism across Eastern Europe in 1989-90. The comparison is valid—and perhaps increasingly so, given the spreading protests across the Middle East.
But in some ways the Polish August and the birth of Solidarity may be a more telling comparison, at least for now. As with Egypt, the Polish August was a huge global news story that sparked ecstatic heights of optimism, exhilaration and punditry. And as with the Egyptian uprising, it took us into utterly uncharted waters: No one really knew where it was all going to lead.
Confidence and expectations were high, but martial law crushed Solidarity less than a year-and-a-half after the Gdansk Agreement was signed. The movement was banned, hundreds of Solidarity leaders and activists were jailed, censorship was re-imposed and harsh controls were put in place.
In January 1983, I myself was arrested, accused of espionage, jailed, interrogated and expelled from Poland because of my journalistic activity—apparently as a warning to both the international media and local Polish contacts.
Martial law, however, did not stop the process begun with the Polish August.
Dissent and efforts to foster civil society went underground, where they continued to build momentum as deteriorating economic conditions fueled mounting popular anger.
In Warsaw, for example, young Jews who tentatively had begun rediscovering their roots and religious heritage met in a semi-clandestine Jewish study group they called the Jewish Flying University because each meeting took place in a different apartment.
It took nearly eight years, but in 1989 round-table negotiations between the underground opposition and the government enabled a peaceful transition to democratic rule.
The images on the panels of the Solidarnosc exhibit at Yale this winter portray events that happened more than 30 years ago, but the pictures look uncannily similar to the images of the protests in Egypt. They show huge crowds, banners, slogans and confrontations between protesters and authorities.
Much has been made of the role of the social media in Egypt. Back in 1980, however, there were no social media. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no mobile phones, no Internet, no e-mail, no 24/7-hour news cycle (except for us wire service folks). CNN was the only cable news network, and it had only just been founded.
The government, moreover, cut communications between Gdansk and Warsaw during the August strikes, so that in order to file their stories, some reporters actually commuted back and forth between the two cities on domestic flights. Information was carried by word of mouth or clandestine Samizdat newsletters, or shortwave broadcasts on the BBC or Radio Free Europe.
Still, word got out. Protests engulfed a nation and all but brought down a hated regime.
If enough people want to create change, they will, Twitter or not.
One image in the Yale exhibition shows the enormous sea of people gathered in downtown Warsaw to celebrate outdoor Mass with Pope John Paul II in 1979.
“I was in that crowd,” Polish-born Yale professor Krystyna Illakowicz told me. “I remember feeling that we were not afraid any longer.”
(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com. She is currently a scholar in residence at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute.)