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Sandwiched between Germany and Russia, Poland is under constant threat of invasion from the time of its formation in the middle of the 10th Century. The country's borders expand and contract dramatically over the centuries as regions are either annexed by or won back from its neighbours. Following the First World War, Poland achieves an uneasy and short-lived independence that is shattered when Germany invades on 1 September 1939, starting the Second World War.
At the end of the war the country falls behind the Soviet Union's 'Iron Curtain', becoming a satellite state of the superpower. A pro-Soviet communist government is installed. Popular dissent mounts as the Polish economy begins to falter. When the Soviet Union begins to break apart the Polish people seize the opportunity to again achieve their independence.
The Solidarity movement, which began in Gdansk, Poland, served as a frontier in the fall of Eastern European communism. Poland's poor economic and political situation, which had increased since the rise of communism, fueled this revolt. In pursuit of democracy, Poles came together to form "Solidarnosc," or the Solidarity trade union, which fought for equal rights and better conditions for Poles. Although Solidarity faced opposition, it eventually led to the downfall of communism in Poland and also inspired other Soviet satellites to revolt. Thus, the uprisings in Gdansk served a frontier in the fall of the iron curtain throughout Eastern Europe.
The Solidarity movement stemmed from years of economic hardship resulting from communist rule. Communism was firmly established in Poland by 1948, only four years after the U.S.S.R. had invaded the country. Communist officials firmly believed that by government central planning, all goods and services would be shared equally. They promised a bright future under communism. However, while industrial production increased, domestic consumer products decreased. According to Mr. Biedak, a Polish emigrant and a former member of the Solidarity union, "You would go to a store, like Sudbury Farms [supermarket], and there was no food on the shelves. Poland was one of the world's leading industrial producers, and yet the people never saw any of the goods that were produced."
The deteriorating economic conditions and the Poles' overall exasperation with communism led the Polish working class to stage as series of demonstrations in 1956,1968,1970 and 1976. However, these revolts were unsuccessful because the Poles weren't united in their fight to end communism.
Strikes in Gdansk
In 1980, meat prices in Poland had reached an all time high, causing workers to organize another uprising, centralized in the Gdansk shipyard. Many factors made the 1980 revolt successful, including nationalism. In 1979, John Paul II, a Pole, was elected Pope. Returning to his homeland, he evoked a massive outburst of national pride, and encouraged a revolt to gain religious freedom. His speeches attracted thousands of Poles, encouraging them to revolt against communist rule. In addition, the 1980 revolt united the "intelligencia" and the working class for the first time. Strikers in Gdansk formed the trade union called Solidarity. The trade union drafted 21 demands, including the right to strike, freedom of speech and improved working conditions. Solidarity's leader, Lech Walesa, led Poles to defeat communism and pave the way for democracy in Eastern Europe.
While Solidarity moved to win reform, the Polish government declared marital law in 1981, establishing military rule. Trade unions were outlawed, Walesa and other leader were jailed. According to Mr. Biedak, "Strict rules were set in the city. No one could leave town and everyone must be in their house by six o'clock." However, solidarity went underground, and leaders continued to press for reform.
Although martial law persisted for almost a decade, the communist party found that military rule could not revive Poland's failing economy. As the economic crisis worsened, public discontent increased. In August 1988, the communist government, faced with the largest labor unrest since 1980, agreed to hold talks with Solidarity leaders
Negotiations began in February 1989. By April, representatives had agreed on the legalization of Solidarity and free elections for seats in the Sejm (Polish Parliament). Polish voters overwhelmingly supported Solidarity candidates. On August 25, 1989, the Polish parliament chose Solidarity leader Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the nation's first noncommunist prime minister. Thus, Poland was free from communist rule.
The revolutionary changes in Poland sparked reforms throughout Eastern Europe. As in Poland, other Soviet satellites were faced with deteriorating economic conditions and oppressive communist governments. Inspired by the collapse of communism in Poland, radicals in Hungary opened its borders and dissolved its communist party. Demonstrations in Eastern Germany led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reinstatement of democracy. Communist governments also fell in Czechoslovakia and Romania. Because of the Solidarity movement, the iron curtain, which had cast its shadow on Eastern Europe since World War II, had finally been lifted.