Remembering Poland June 4, 1989

Tadeusz Mazowiecki: first speech as Prime Minister, 24 August 1989.

Today also marks the 20th anniversary of the nearly-free elections that broke communist power in Poland and which triggered political revolution across east-central Europe in 1989.  I think it’s worth quoting this passage from Timothy Garton-Ash, writing in 1990 in We The People: The Revolution of ’89 As Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague: written when the events of 1989 were fresh in the mind, and by someone who was there and with a deep understanding of eastern Europe.

By the afternoon, Solidarity leaders knew that they had swept the board: winning outright, on the first round, all but a handful of the seats for which they were competing. Three things happened at once: the communists lost an election; Solidarity won; the communists acknowledged that Solidarity won. That might sound like a syllogism. Yet until almost the day before, anyone who had predicted these events would have been universally considered not a logician but a lunatic. Moreover, the three things, while logically related, were also separate and distinct.

First, and above all, the communists lost. They did not lose power. They still had the army, the police, the Party apparatus and the nomenklatura. But they lost the vote. While virtually all the Solidarity candidates got through on the first round, most of the Party coalition candidates had to go through to a run-off in the second round on 18 June…

Secondly, Solidarity won. Solidarity won not against the Party, but also against many quite well-known, even distinguished counter-candidates: successful managers, television personalities, representatives of more radical opposition groups, and, most formidably Christian Democrats enjoying the explicit support of senior churchmen…

The third thing that happened was, in its way, almost as remarkable. The Party told the truth. On the Monday evening, when the first results were known, the spokesman for the Central Committee, Jan Bisztyga, appeared on the television evening news, sitting side by side with Solidarity’s Janusz Onyzszkiewicz, and Mr Bisztyga said: ‘The elections had a plebiscitary character and Solidarity won a clear majority.’…

Sunday, 4 June 1989 was a landmark not only in the post-war history of Poland, not merely in the history of Eastern Europe, but in the history of the communist world. Yet as they plunged into fevered discussions, negotiations and late-night cabals, the reaction of Solidarity leaders was a curious mixture of exaltation, incredulity and alarm. Alarm at the new responsibilities that now faced them — the problems of success — but also a sneaking fear that things could not continue to go so well. That fear was heightened by the news from China, for the massacre of students demonstrating for democracy on Tiananmen Square occurred on the same day. It was an uncanny experience to watch, with a group of Polish opposition journalists, on the very afternoon of the election, the television pictures from Peking. Martial law. The tanks. The tear-gas. Corpses carried shoulder-high. We had been here before: in Gdañsk, in Warsaw.

As Solidarity leaders began to engage in real politics, with all its evasions, compromises and half-truths, many had mixed feelings. There was more than a touch of nostalgia for the simple truths and moral clarities of the martial law period. One might passionately wish Poland to have ‘normal’ politics. But it was quite another thing to watch your own friends starting to behave like normal politicians. Yet what is the alternative? Came the answer: ‘Tiananmen Square.’

One of the most famous and powerful images of the Solidarity campaign was the combination of this iconic American figure (Gary Cooper in the western movie, “High Noon”) with Solidarity text and images. This poster hammered home the message that the June 4 elections offered a stark choice between two opponents and would have momentous consequences for Poland. Source: Thomas Sarnecki, “Solidarity Poster – “High Noon 4 June 1989”, Making the History of 1989


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