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Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, and the fall of the iron curtain

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Lefty48197 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-02-05 04:51 PM
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Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, and the fall of the iron curtain
Pronounced: Lek Va-LENS-uh
<Very long post warning, but I think it's worth it>


Few will argue that with respect to world history, the most important event in the second half of the twentieth century is the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. History classes will spend a lot of time studying the effect that the fall of the iron curtain had on world politics, but will they spend enough time discussing the events that led up to the fall, and actually caused it to happen?

Today's history classes spend a lot of time discussing the events that led up to WWI and WWII, in the hope that similar wars can be avoided. Nobody, however seems to spend much time discussing the events that led up to the fall of the iron curtain, and with it, totalitarian eastern European communism. I think we're missing an opportunity to teach non-violent revolution.

After the fall, the world found itself with over 300 million newly freed people. People with the freedom to elect their leaders, the freedom of religious worship and expression, the freedom of speech and dissent, the freedom to make career decisions, and the freedom to buy property and goods, all without prior bureaucratic approval, were all gained when the curtain fell.

Those freedoms gained by hundreds of millions of people, combined with the impact on the world economy due to the end of the cold war, and the disappearing threat of nuclear annihilation, all contribute to making the fall of the iron curtain, an event that should play a prominent role in history texts for centuries to come.

The historical end of the cold war begs the questions: Why did the iron curtain fall? Which individuals and which actions led to that fall? Afterall, if the Soviet system was a flawed system, doomed to failure, then why didnt it fall prior to 1989?

Many credit the cold war super power leaders for either their actions (Ronald Reagan) or their inactions (Mikhail Gorbachev) for bringing down the curtain. I do not believe this is a complete and fair assessment of the events that caused the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.

The military build ups under Ronald Reagan may have made the Soviets less likely to crush the freedom movement militarily, while the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika championed by Mikhail Gorbachev may have encouraged the voices of dissent. These men, however, did not create the movement that freed Eastern Europe, they merely prevented a different ending.

The movement that brought down the Berlin wall did not start in Moscow or Washington D.C.

The movement started in Poland.

It was born in the Lenin shipyards of Gdansk, Poland in 1967. It was that year, that Lech Walesa was hired to work as an electrician in the industrial shipyard of Soviet Poland.

Lech had been born in Popowo, Poland in 1943. His father, a carpenter, was forced into labor by the occupying nazi army, and he soon died due to his maltreatment. Lech had to grow up quickly, as his widowed mother struggled to raise her eight children. It was at that time that Lech Walesa decided he would dedicate his life to fighting injustice.

As a teenager, Lech went to vocational school. First, he worked as a mechanic, then he joined the army. It was after he completed his stint in the army, that he went to work in the Gdansk shipyards.

In 1969, Lech married Danute Golos. The stability that married life brought to Lech
Walesa contrasted with what was a tumultuous time in communist Poland.

In 1970, Poland was swept by food riots as protestors demonstrated against the governments decision to raise food prices. Young Lech Walesa joined those demonstrations at the shipyards.

The demonstrations grew large and violent, before being crushed by the army. As a result of his part in the demonstrations, Lech was detained by the authorities. This would be the first of many times that Lech Walesa would find himself incarcerated by the Polish government.

A devout Catholic, Lech was distressed by the brutality of the army crack-down. He soon made contact with small groups of Polish dissidents, including the Workers Defense Committee (KOR). The KOR was a group of intellectuals formed to aid the families of the workers fired for their parts in the demonstrations. The KOR was the precursor to the Solidarity trade union movement.

Lech continued to associate with the dissident groups for several years.

In 1976, Lech was fired from his job in the shipyards because of those dissident activities. His activities, however, did not stop. During this time, Lech was heavily monitored by the government, and he was frequently detained. By 1978, he and others had begun to organize trade unions, independent of the communist government.
The off and on detentions continued.

Also in 1978, Lech Walesa and Catholics world-wide were shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Pope John Paul.

The somber mood in heavily Catholic Poland, however, soon turned to jubilation, when on October 16, 1978 Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow was elected Bishop of Rome. He took the title Pope John Paul II. He was the first non-Italian Pope since the 16th century, and the first ever Polish Pope. The Polish people took to the streets and celebrated. Amid the sounds of church bells, the Poles lit candles and prayed openly, events which were previously unimaginable in Communist Eastern Europe.

The Polish Politburo met after dark, to discuss the new threat. Soviet KGB chief Yuri Andropov predicted trouble for the Soviet Union...

On the following Sunday, the Pope celebrated his inaugural mass at St. Peters Square, in the Vatican. The Polish Bishops suspended their normal services, so that their parishoners could listen to their fellow countryman on the radio.

Be not afraid, the Pope declared. Open up, no swing wide
the gates to Christ! Open up to his saving power the
confines of the state. Open up economic and political
systems... ...be not afraid.

Later the Pope was urged not to forget the church of silence, a reference to the Eastern Europeans unable to worship freely. He responded, It is not a church of silence anymore, because it speaks with my voice.

He urged the Bishops of Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, and Czechslovakia to have more courage in the face of opposition from their communist governments. An outspoken anti-communist, the Pope soon rallied the church behind the Polish dissidents.

In June of 1979, Pope John Paul II made a triumphant return to his Polish homeland, and the nation once again celebrated. Victory Square, which had previously been used only for military parades, was converted to a Holy Shrine, the centerpiece being a 36 foot tall cross. Catholics throughout Eastern Europe followed the story on radio and television. The Popes visit focused international attention on the plight of the Polish people. In a thinly veiled attack on the communists, he declared that, The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.

Meanwhile, Lech Walesa continued to work at odd jobs, as he had done since being fired from his job at the Gdansk shipyards. He also continued to organize protests, while economic conditions in Poland worsened.

In July 1980, the communist government decided to again raise food prices. Like before, their actions were met with protests. By mid August, over 100,000 Polish workers were on strike. This time, the protestors occupied the shipyards. In a dramatic move, Lech Walesa scaled the walls at the Gdansk shipyards to join the protestors. They quickly adopted him as their leader.

Inspired by the Gdansk protesters, the strikes quickly spread across Poland, and the economy was brought to a standstill. The number of strikers soon reached 500,000, while the threat of Soviet invasion loomed large.

Lech and his fellow protesters adorned the gates of the shipyards with flowers, Polish flags, and with photos of Pope John Paul II, and the Virgin Mary. They set up makeshift confessionals inside the shipyards, and listened to broadcasts of the Pope celebrating mass.

When the Pontiff saw photos of the demonstrators praying, he was said to have declared that Walesa had, ... been sent by God, by Province. Each evening, Lech would climb back over the fence to give news of the negotiations to the waiting crowds. His appearances were greatly anticipated and wildly cheered.

Lech chaired the Interfactory Strike Committee, linking the Gdansk workers with strikers at other factories. As committee chairman, Lech led the strikers away from the usual issues of workers wages and food prices, towards even bigger prizes: The right to form free and independent trade unions, and the right to strike. Such bold proposals were never before heard of in communist countries.

Crippled by the strikes, and fearing further unrest, the Polish government capitulated, and agreed to meet with Walesa. The workers sensed victory.

On August 31, 1980, Lech Walesa met with Polands first deputy Premier Mieczyslaw Jagielski to sign the Gdansk agreement allowing the workers the right to form free trade unions. The agreement also gave the workers the right to strike, while reducing government censorship, and granting the church and the union access to the very important government broadcasting facilities.

When Lech signed his name to the agreement, he used a large commemorative pen adorned with a photo of Pope John Paul II. Strikers and government negotiators stood side by side and sang the Polish national anthem.

In September 1980, the Solidarity trade union was officially born. The Pope responded by inviting a delegation of union members to the Vatican. In October, nine hundred thousand Poles dropped out of the communist party, after the party had urged them to resign their Solidarity memberships.

A few weeks later, Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. He was inaugurated in January 1981.

Also in January 1981, Lech Walesa and the Solidarity delegation arrived in the Vatican, where the Pope celebrated a private mass for them. The Pope declared, "The right to form free associations is one of the fundamental human rights.

Solidarity membership was growing, and so was the wariness of the Soviets.

Union membership soon grew to 10 million members, while U.S. satellite photos showed a massive Soviet troop build-up along the Polish border. In December, President Carters national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski notified the Pope of the military build-up.

In February 1981, the Pope wrote a letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev declaring that if the Soviets invaded Poland then he would personally stand between the Soviet tanks and the Polish people.

The invasion never materialized.

In September 1981, Solidarity held their first national Congress. There, Lech Walesa was elected Solidarity chairman. As chairman, Lech found it difficult to forge a concensus as to how fast the reforms should occur. Some of the other union members began to feel that the time had come that Solidarity could no longer co-exist with the communist government, and that one of them had to go.

On December 12, 1981, a more radical element in the Solidarity movement voted to support a national referendum on the future of the communist government, and on Polands military alliance with the Soviet Union. Frustrated, Lech Walesa knew that they were handing the communists the excuse they needed to crack down on Solidarity.

The police came to Lechs home at 3:00 AM that morning and placed him under arrest. Within hours, most of the Solidarity leadership was also under arrest. Along with him, thousands of Solidarity members, intellectuals, and dissidents were also rounded up. Hundreds of workers were injured, and some were killed, when soldiers and police forcefully evicted workers from factories and mines. Martial law had been declared, and Solidarity was suspended. Walesa was cut off from contact with the outside world, while tanks and armored personnel carriers took up positions across the countryside. Overnight, the new freedoms of the Polish people disappeared.

For the previous sixteen months, and for the first time in a couple of generations, Polish church parishoners had joyfully sung their spiritual national anthem, Oh Lord please bless our free fatherland. After the imposition of martial law, they again changed the lyrics, as they always did while under foreign domination to, Oh Lord please return our free fatherland.

In 1982, Time magazine named Lech Walesa as their Man of the Year for 1981. He was released from custody in November 1982, and he was reinstated to his position in the Gdansk shipyards. By now, the freedom movement had ground to a halt. For the next six years, Lechs activities would be monitored, he would be harassed by the authorities, and he would often find himself in jail.

In June 1983, Pope John Paul II again returned to Poland. He met with General Jaruzelski and urged him to end martial law. Again, the Pope met with Lech Walesa. In July 1983, martial law was suspended, although several of the restrictions were written into permanent law.

In October 1983, Lech was announced as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The selection was quickly denounced by the Communist regime, while it boosted the spirits of the Solidarity membership. Fearing that the communists would not allow Lech back into Poland, his wife Danute went to Norway to accept the Nobel Prize.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the leadership of the Soviet Union. His policies of Perestroika and Glasnost breathed new life into the freedom movement, as eastern Europeans slowly gained the right to free speech. In Poland, the Solidarity trade union movement remained illegal.

That year, the Soviets hinted that they wanted to open diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The two had been at odds since the days when Joseph Stalin asked, how many army divisions does the Pope have?

Meanwhile, Solidarity members continued to keep the pressure on the government to re-legalize their union. In 1987 in an attempt to appease the Solidarity members, Jaruzelski instituted a series of reform referendums. Wishing to keep the heat on the communists, and to drive for total victory, Lech Walesa led the defeat of the referendums.

In 1988 Poland was again swept by a series of strikes. Like the last time, the Gdansk workers again occupied the shipyards. This time, in somewhat of a nostalgic move, Lech Walesa again joined the workers in the shipyards. Poland was changing, but the mood was much different this time. This time, there was an air of inevitability about the reform movement. By December, it was clear to everyone that the situation in Poland was going to change.

The communists invited the Solidarity members to join them in talks beginning in February 1989. These negotiations came to be known as the, roundtable talks. The negotiations lasted for 59 days. On April 5, 1989, Solidarity and the Communists came to an agreement to share power, and to hold free elections.

During those negotiations, Lech Walesa had barnstormed the country urging his fellow Poles to support the talks. In the end, Solidarity was again legalized, the power of the parliament was expanded, and Solidarity won the right to field candidates for office.

In June 1989, the elections were held, and Solidarity candidates won every race in which they were allowed to run, including 96 of 100 Senate seats. Poland elected its first non-communist Prime Minister in over 40 years. By August 1989, Poland was being led by a Solidarity coalition government.

By this time, the rest of Eastern Europe was beginning to change, also. Hundreds of East Germans had begun seeking refuge in the West German embassy in Hungary. They crowded the embassy grounds until Hungarian authorities allowed them to travel to West Germany. By September, 60,000 more East Germans had passed through Hungary on their way to Austria. The mass exodus had begun.

In October, the Hungarian Communist party renounced Marixism. Meanwhile trainloads of East Germans left Prague and Warsaw from their refugees in West German embassies. Amazingly, the trains were allowed to pass through East Germany, undisturbed by the authorities, on their way to the west.

On October 18, 1989, East German President Eric Honecker was forced to resign in the face of massive street demonstrations. On that same day, the Hungarian Parliament ended their one party monopoly and scheduled free elections for the following year.

At the same time, the blood of Chinese freedom demonstrators was being washed from the pavements of Tiananmen Square.

On November 9, 1989, the Iron Curtain symbolically fell forever, as the Berlin Wall was breached. The crowds in West Berlin cheered as concrete drills punched holes through the wall. The streets of West Berlin were filled with people anticipating a large celebration. They stood on buildings, they climbed trees and sign posts. They sang. They cheered. They drank champagne.

When a large enough hole was finally punched through the wall, the hands of the East German guards quickly came through the hole to shake hands with as many of the celebrants as they could. By now, the East German guards had abandoned their positions on top of the wall, only to be replaced by celebrating West Berliners who climbed to the top of the wall where they danced some more, sang some more, and drank more champagne.

Soon the voids in the wall were large enough for people and even vehicles to pass through. The streets of West Berlin quickly filled with celebrating East Berliners, while the West Berliners carried the party into the East. Up to 100,000 Germans were pouring into Berlin each hour. The streets became littered with empty champagne bottles and abandoned East German Trabi automobiles.

Millions of Germans now clogged the streets of Berlin setting off fireworks, flying flags, singing, and dancing. The mayors of East and West Berlin shook hands in the street. By the end of the week, there were nearly 13 million East Germans milling about in the west, where they were welcomed like the long lost relatives that they were.

That same week, Bulgarian Communist Party head Todor Shikov resigned from the post he had held for 35 years. The streets of Prague filled with hundreds of thousands of Czechs protesters which led to the resignation of their President in December, 1989.

In Romania however, there was to be no velvet revolution. In the week preceeding Christmas, their streets filled with demonstrators. The communist security forces opened fire killing hundreds. On December 22, 1989, the Romanian Army revolted and joined the demonstrators, ensuring the collapse of the government. On Christmas Day, dictator Nicolai Ceausecu and his wife were tried, convicted, and executed.

On December 26th, Poland instituted a series of radical free market reforms.

Within days, Vaclav Havel was named the new President of Czechslovakia. Havel had spent several years in prison as a political prisoner of the communist regime.

In 1990 the Romanian Communist Party finally dissolved. That same year, Hungary held its first free elections since 1945, while Poland elected Lech Walesa as their first ever popularly elected President. On Christmas day 1991, the cold war officially came to an end as the communist system in the Soviet Union followed the lead of their former Warsaw Pact neighbors and folded.

Later, when questioned about the fall of the iron curtain, Pope John Paul II stated, I did not cause this to happen. The tree was already rotten. I just gave it a good shake, and the rotten apples fell.


Lefty48197@yahoo.com - February 2005.
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