Poland Forms a Non-Communist Government Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After more than forty years of Communist rule in Poland, a new government was established that was dominated and controlled by non-Communists, many coming from the Solidarity movement.

Summary of Event

After World War II, the Soviet Union established Communist governments in the countries of Eastern Europe. Single-party systems that repressed opposition came into existence everywhere in the region. In Poland, the Communist Party officially operated in cooperation with a number of other parties to rule the country. In reality, however, these parties were puppet organizations, and Communist domination was complete. Human and civil rights of all kinds were disregarded; education, the courts, labor, and politics were all rigidly controlled. Only the Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church;Poland had some degree of independence, for Poland was a deeply Catholic country. Solidarity Poland;Solidarity [kw]Poland Forms a Non-Communist Government (June-Sept., 1989) [kw]Non-Communist Government, Poland Forms a (June-Sept., 1989) [kw]Communist Government, Poland Forms a Non- (June-Sept., 1989) [kw]Government, Poland Forms a Non-Communist (June-Sept., 1989) Solidarity Poland;Solidarity [g]Europe;June-Sept., 1989: Poland Forms a Non-Communist Government[07260] [g]Poland;June-Sept., 1989: Poland Forms a Non-Communist Government[07260] [c]Government and politics;June-Sept., 1989: Poland Forms a Non-Communist Government[07260] Wałęsa, Lech Jaruzelski, Wojciech Mazowiecki, Tadeusz Kiszczak, Czesław Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;Solidarity (Poland) Geremek, Bronisław Kuroń, Jacek[Kuron, Jacek">Geremek, Bronisław Michnik, Adam

Poland suffered occasional strikes and riots against the Communist regime. Although the Soviet Union threatened to intervene to protect Communism and what it regarded as Soviet interests, the Polish leaders were able to convince the Soviets that they could control matters on their own. In the 1980’s, however, the Polish government was faced with a different kind of challenge. An informal alliance among the Catholic Church, intellectuals, and workers resulted in the creation in 1980 of an independent, self-governing trade union known as Solidarity. Led by Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity implicitly challenged Communist control, although it did so in peaceful, nonviolent ways. The union was repressed in December, 1981, and outlawed the next year. Labor unions;Solidarity

The moral force of Solidarity, the deep support it had within the country, and an economy that was threatening to collapse completely eventually forced the regime to legalize the union in April, 1989. More important, under General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the head of the Polish Communist Party, and General Czesław Kiszczak, the minister of the interior, and with the tacit approval of President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, the regime recognized that in order to ensure political, economic, and social stability and progress it would need to make a political compromise with Solidarity.

The Communists proposed that in the lower house of the Polish parliament, the Sejm, they and their puppet coalition partners would hold a guaranteed 65 percent of the seats, but free elections would be allowed for the remaining 35 percent. In addition, they proposed to establish an upper house of one hundred seats, the Senate, in which all seats would be freely contested. Finally, they proposed to create a presidency with broad executive powers, to be elected by the Sejm. In return, Solidarity agreed to join the regime in a government of “national conciliation,” which meant no strikes and a promise of support in implementing a radical austerity program. The election, which was set for June, 1989, was unprecedented in a Communist country. One American diplomat in Warsaw commented: “These are breathtaking changes. If Poland succeeds, it will become the model for a wholesale restructuring of socialism in Eastern Europe.”

In the election campaign that followed, the Communists were at first sure they would win. They were wrong. In less than two weeks, Solidarity candidates were nominated to contest every seat. Solidarity was also able to campaign on radio and television, for the regime had granted it access to national media in the April agreements. In addition, Solidarity published and distributed a national newspaper, Gazeta wyborcza (election news), edited by Jacek Kuroń, a journalist and Solidarity adviser, and printed—ironically—on the presses of the Communist Party newspaper, Trybuna Ludu (tribune of the people).

Throughout the country, student activists conducted door-to-door canvassing, and candidates fanned out into the countryside, promising higher farm prices, better health care, and rural schools. In addition, clergy within the Catholic Church urged the faithful to support Solidarity. Although Wałęsa chose not to run for a parliamentary seat, his picture with each of the Solidarity candidates, avuncular and reassuring, was plastered throughout the country. Wałęsa’s prestige as a Nobel laureate, national leader, and symbol of opposition to the regime was subliminally associated with all the Solidarity candidates.

The magnitude of Solidarity’s victory in the election was stunning. It won all 35 percent of the seats in the Sejm and ninety-nine of the one hundred seats in the Senate. Equally important, virtually all of the regime’s thirty-five candidates, including Prime Minister Mieczysław Rakowski, Rakowski, Mieczysław lost, even though they were running on an unopposed slate: Voters simply exercised the legal option of crossing out their names, which meant that a second round of balloting had to be held to fill those seats. Solidarity’s victory was so decisive that moderate Communists, knowing that the next parliamentary election would be an entirely open one (as stipulated in the April agreements), began to seek rapprochement with Solidarity. At the same time, members of the regime’s puppet parties began to suspect that their future lay with Solidarity rather than with the Communists. The morning after the election, Jaruzelski was said to have admitted, “Our defeat is total. A political solution will have to be found.”

The next two months were crucial. Everyone expected that General Jaruzelski would stand for president, but on June 30, he announced that he would not do so. In the meantime, the Solidarity parliamentary faction had been organized under the leadership of Bronisław Geremek, a medieval historian and longtime close political adviser to Wałęsa. It was at this time that Kuroń proposed that Solidarity try to form a government. Wałęsa was at first opposed, arguing that it was better to remain in opposition for the time being, but Kuroń’s proposal was taken up by Adam Michnik, a longtime political dissident and Solidarity adviser. In an editorial in Gazeta wyborcza, he suggested that Solidarity needed to take up the mandate given it by the election. Gradually, Wałęsa was won over. He let it be known that he was not opposed to Jaruzelski as president, and the general reversed his decision not to stand. On July 19, Jaruzelski was elected president by a margin of one vote. Solidarity’s support, marshaled by Geremek, had been crucial.

Jaruzelski then resigned as party boss and was replaced by Rakowski, who nominated Kiszczak as prime minister. It was the same old revolving door of familiar Communist faces, going nowhere. To break the impasse, Wałęsa in turn proposed that Solidarity and the former puppet parties together form a government. In the political crisis that erupted at this point, the “Polish question” became an international issue; Nicolae Ceauşescu Ceauşescu, Nicolae of Romania even proposed that the members of the Warsaw Pact Warsaw Pact intervene in Poland. Gorbachev held firm to the position of noninterference he had adopted earlier, however. In a forty-minute telephone conversation with Rakowski, he let it be known that the Poles were on their own to work out their affairs.

On August 17, Jaruzelski and Wałęsa met, and the president identified three acceptable candidates for prime minister: Geremek, Kuroń, and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the Solidarity adviser who had been with Wałęsa since the beginning of the movement in August, 1980. In the end, Wałęsa chose Mazowiecki, perhaps believing that Geremek’s popularity was growing too fast. Within the week, the Sejm elected Mazowiecki as prime minister by an overwhelming majority. In September, Mazowiecki completed naming his cabinet. Although it contained four Communist ministers in crucial positions (defense, the interior, transportation, and foreign economic cooperation), it was a non-Communist government, the first to achieve power in Eastern Europe since the end of World War II. The unprecedented emergence of this government was auspicious for the cause of human rights, and Mazowiecki promised that his government would be based on the rule of law.

Significance

Among the European consequences of the establishment of a non-Communist government in Poland was an end within the next two years of the system of Communist governments that had dominated the East in the Cold War era. Economic reforms had already proceeded very far in Hungary, but in the months of July, August, and September, a multiparty system emerged there that spelled the end of Communist control. In the German Democratic Republic, opposition forces took heart from the Polish example and, in a series of peaceful demonstrations, revealed the impotence of the Communist regime there. In November, 1989, the Berlin Wall, Berlin Wall the symbol of the Cold War, Cold War;conclusion began to come down, and within a year the two Germanys had been reunited.

In Czechoslovakia, playwright and human rights activist Václav Havel Havel, Václav organized an opposition group known as Civic Forum, Civic Forum and in a matter of ten days in November, 1989, the Communist regime there collapsed. Velvet Revolution (1989) Even in the Balkans, where Communist control remained to some degree, that control was weakened. In violent confrontations beginning in Timişoara and spreading to Bucharest, the Romanian dictatorial regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown by year’s end.

Although all these events cannot be said to have happened entirely because of the Polish example, it is undeniable that those who sought human dignity and the exercise of their rights throughout the region took courage from Poland’s leadership. They believed that what had been wrought in Warsaw could be accomplished in their own locations.

In Poland, Mazowiecki’s new government struggled to overcome the economic problems plaguing the country. A market economy Poland;market economy was introduced, effective January l, 1990, and had made substantial progress by the fall of that year. By that time, however, Wałęsa was critical of Mazowiecki, Geremek, and others, whom he thought to be too willing to compromise with the remnants of Communism and whose intellectual and liberal, secular outlooks contrasted sharply with his moderate and Catholic views. He forced a call for a new presidential election in the fall of 1990, and Jaruzelski retired. In a bitterly fought three-way campaign among Wałęsa, Mazowiecki, and a political outsider, Wałęsa was elected president in December, 1990. In the fall of 1991, he was able to call the first truly free and open elections to the Polish parliament since the 1930’s.

The same forces that had brought about the recovery of human rights in Poland and much of the rest of non-Soviet Eastern Europe were at work also in the Soviet Union. Communist rule, which had been weakened by Gorbachev’s efforts to reform and restructure it, collapsed in the months after a failed coup by conservative hard-liners in August, 1991. In December of that year, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a state. Solidarity Poland;Solidarity

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borrell, John. “An Epochal Shift: Communism Yields as Jaruzelski Asks Solidarity to Head a Government.” Time, August 29, 1989, 28. Brief article provides sound insights into the events in Poland. Shows the internal stresses within Solidarity over the question of Wałęsa’s occasional lack of democratic leadership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borrell, John, and James O. Jackson. “Uncharted Waters: Soviet Allies Draw Conflicting Conclusions from Gorbachev’s Agenda.” Time, September 4, 1989,18-20. Although devoted to more than Polish affairs, this journalistic account touches on the most crucial aspects of the Polish scene. Reports events during the crucial week when Mazowiecki was being designated prime minister.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garton Ash, Timothy. The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague. New York: Random House, 1990. Authoritative account of the crucial developments in the region in 1989 by a British journalist and academic. Ash knew the major figures well, was on the spot when the events he describes took place, and has a keen eye for detail. His fine analytic sense is evident in his interpretations of events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Presents a detailed account of events in Poland and examines the reasons behind those events. Includes chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kemp-Welch, A. The Birth of Solidarity. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Much of this volume is relevant to events in 1980, but the final chapter, “From Gdańsk to Government,” provides a careful analysis of the events in 1988 and 1989 that led to the legalization of Solidarity and the elections. Provides excellent analysis of the dynamics of Wałęsa’s decision to seek to form a government and to choose Mazowiecki.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Penn, Shana. Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Examines the often-neglected topic of the role that women played in keeping the Solidarity movement alive in Poland when its male leaders were all imprisoned or underground. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Staar, Richard F. “Poland: Renewal or Stagnation?” Current History 88 (November, 1989): 373-376, 405-407, 409. In his annual survey of Polish matters for this journal, the author provides a fine analysis of events, especially the economic issues facing Poland. Places the narrative of events into a larger context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Transition in Poland.” Current History 89 (December, 1990): 401-404, 426-427. Picking up where he left off in the article cited above, the author treats Polish foreign policy against the backdrop of the then-pending unification of Germany. His analysis of internal political affairs in the early months of the Mazowiecki administration is sound and straightforward.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weschler, Lawrence. “A Reporter at Large: A Grand Experiment.” The New Yorker, November 13, 1989, 59-104. Building on his previous reporting from Poland during the height of Solidarity, its suppression, and the subsequent years of illegal activity, the author provides an excellent study of the personalities and events connected with the establishment of the Mazowiecki government.

Solidarity Leads Striking Polish Workers

Poland Imposes Martial Law and Bans Solidarity

Martial Law Ends in Poland

Poland Begins Switching to a Market Economy

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

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