Americans may have forgotten about this date, but Eastern Europeans should celebrate the 25th anniversary of the singular event that spelled doom for four decades of Soviet oppression — the formation of Solidarity, the first independent trade union behind the Iron Curtain:
The Polish city of Gdansk on Wednesday took the world’s collective memory back 25 years to the day when a strike at the sprawling Lenin shipyard on the Baltic Sea ended and Solidarity, the first free trade union in the communist bloc, was born.
The main streets of the Baltic seaport were draped in the red and white of Poland, with Solidarity logos and huge posters recalling that the wave of strikes across the country in August 1980, but especially the much-publicised Gdansk shipyard strike, were the first brave steps towards ending communism in Europe. …
On August 31, 25 years ago, Walesa emerged from more than two weeks of talks between the strikers and shipyard bosses, and proclaimed to his fellow workers: “We have free, independent trade unions.” Solidarity, described by Walesa as the greatest proletarian monopoly ever and the only movement able to take on communism, was born.
Walesa showed the world that the Soviet hegemony could be challenged, a particularly poignant demosntration given the track record not only of earlier attempts such as Prague Spring in 1968 but the track record of the United States in recent years prior to Walesa’s challenge. Jimmy Carter’s kiss still remained fresh on Leonid Brezhnev’s cheek when Walesa stood up to the Polish Communists, bolstered by Pope John Paul the Great and a sense that justice eventually prevails against tyranny.
Walesa touched off a series of events that took time to for their momentum to build into a movement. Americans rejected the defeatism of Carter and instead looked to Ronald Reagan for the same moral clarity in the war against Communist oppression that the Gdansk dock workers showed. His success and avoidance of imprisonment emboldened others to dissent. Within a decade, the superpower status of the Soviet state had crumbled into dust, and communism as a political philosophy got consigned to the asheap of history — in other words, limited to Western academia.
If you have an opportunity today to take a look at a map of Europe, draw a line through Germany and then look between that line to the edge of Russia. One man led a small movement at a Polish dock that eventually freed all of that territory without a shot being fired — one of the truly remarkable events in human history, and an anniversary well worth celebrating.