Freedom broke out in Gdańsk - history of August 1980

Ostatnia aktualizacja: 10 maja 2017 r.

When, on the 14th August 1980 a strike broke out at the Gdansk shipyard, nobody thought that Poland and consequently the whole of communist Europe would be taking their first steps toward freedom. The socialist block authorities were still in a very strong position and the Soviet Union was one of the most powerful countries in the world. Alone, against this unconquerable Goliath, stood David in the form of the workers. It was time to say “Enough!”.

The workers chose to strike after their demands for the reinstatement of Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Walesa, dismissed for their activities within the Independent Trade Unions, were not met. On the first day of the strike, Lech Walesa was outside the shipyard and had to jump over a wall to get back in. On the 15th August the strike spread to other plants across Gdansk. On the night of the 16th August the Inter-Enterprise Stike Committee was formed with Lech Walesa as its Chairman.


The Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee drew up a list of 21 postulates. The most important of these being the first: “Acceptance of the Free Trade Unions independent of the party and employers”. This postulate was to cause the fiercest discussions with the governments representatives. The workers participating in the strike in the Gdansk Shipyard did not think only about their own employee issues. The following postulates demanded a guarantee of freedom of speech, printing and publishing, release of political prisoners, a guarantee of strike rights and access to the mass media for people of all religious beliefs. The postulates far exceeded the scope of regular employees’ demands. They demanded freedom, justice and equality for citizens. It was the first such movement, in a country under communist rule, which arose to defend fundamental human rights.

The workers protest soon gained the support of outstanding Polish intellectuals, as well as representatives of the democratic opposition. In Warsaw, 64 intellectuals wrote an open letter: “Polish workers with maturity and determination fight today for their and all of our rights for a better life with dignity.” In this battle the whole forward looking populace is on their side. A superior requirement of the raison d'état (national interest) is an immediate commencement of talks between an appointed government committee and the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee, it is absolutely necessary to recognize the rights of the staff to appoint authentic representatives of the Trade Union by way of an election. Many members of opposing organizations (eg. the Workers’ Defence Committee and Young Poland Movement) actively supported the strikes by its own print shop and providing essential supplies. The Strike Information Bulletin, published in the Gdansk Shipyard, was then the most sought after publication in Gdansk. It was the first newspaper for many years which was openly published outside of the government’s censorship.


Despite the arrest of many activists, amongst them, Jacek Kuron, Lech Moczulski, Adam Michnik and Miroslaw Chojecki, on the 20th August, a large group managed to reach Gdansk and support the Independent Trade Unions as fellow citizens including Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Bronislaw Gieremek. The strike in Gdansk very quickly became a big event for all Gdansk inhabitants. Everyday, under the shipyard’s gates, crowds of people gathered to support and uplift the strikers. People brought food, warm clothes and blankets. Doctors and other representatives of the health service provided health care and priests offering spiritual support. Religious masses conducted inside the shipyard also attracted the participation of thousands of people on the other side of the gates. Actors, who visited the strikers, performed a program of songs and poems to uplift the exhausted workers. At that moment, at gate no 2 of the Gdansk Shipyard, the real solidarity of people fighting for freedom was born.
During that time support was coming from the whole world. Delegations of trade unions from Western Europe arrived and brought equipment and money for the strikers. Individuals wanted to support the new movement by their presence or just by making a small donation. From the start of the strike numerous crews of Polish and foreign journalists remained at the shipyard and broadcast the Polish workers struggle to the world. Without the resolve of the media, the strikers plight might have gone unnoticed.

Talks with government representatives were difficult and arduous. The communists could not agree to surrender part of their power, but they had to consider the will and determination of the people and this influenced their decision to concede. On the 21st August the authorities sent a governmental committee to Gdansk with the deputy prime minister Mieczyslaw Jagielski and one to Szczecin with the deputy prime minister Kazimierz Barcikowski. In Gdansk, the governmental committee finally began talks with the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee on the 23rd August. During that time a wave of strikes spread to the whole country. On the 26th August, despite a calming sermon from the Primate of Poland, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski from Jasna Gora Monastery, the workers became more radical.


On the 31st August the agreement between the committee of Mieczyslaw Jagielski and the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee was signed. When Lech Walesa appeared at gate no 2 and announced: “We have Independent Self-governing Trade Unions” many thousands of people, gathered on the other side, spontaneously shouted “Thank you!” In a country governed by oppression, using a lies and hypocrisy, the victory of freedom, truth and justice became a reality. It was the greatest victory in the history of Poland after the Second World War. It was also a victory of all those in the socialist block countries suffering a lack of freedom. The victory of the Gdansk workers gave hope to Czechs, Slovaks, Russians, Hungarians, Germans from the German Democratic Republic, Romanians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians – all the people living in “the block of progress and peace” that their lives can change and that in their countries the flame of freedom will ignite and that they will never have to sing such songs as this one, composed in the Gdansk Shipyard:

Postulate 22
Stop constantly apologising us
And saying you err
Look at our tired faces
Gray and crumpled like our lives.
Stop dividing us and agitating,
Giving out points, privillages,
Passing over in silence uncomfortable facts,
Falsifying the history.
Bring back values to many words,
No more to be empty words,
To live with dignity and work
With solidarity between us.
Stop constantly apologising us
And saying you err.
Look at our mothers, wives,
Gray and crumpled like our lives.

In November 1980 the Independent Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity” was finally registered in court. The first, working organization, independent of government authorities began activities. The first crack, in the communist foundations, was made. Later more were to follow. The Polish road to freedom was unstoppable. Even the night of martial law, imposed by the Polish authorities on the 13th December 1981 to defend “trophies of socialism”, couldn’t halt its progress.


On the 4th of June1989, when the representatives of “Solidarity” won the first free parliamentary election, the history of Poland, Europe and the World took a rapid course towards freedom and democracy. During memorable days of the Autumn of Nations 1989, on the streets of Prague posters: appeared; “Poland – 10 years, Hungary – 10 months, GDR – 10 weeks, Czechoslovakia – 10 days”. The author of this poster was right. In Poland the battle for democracy, freedom and truth had to last so long in order that in other countries aspirations of freedom could be met quicker. In September 1939, an isolated Poland fell foul of Nazi Germany, western allies of Poland said that “it’s not worth dying for Gdansk”. In August 1980, Gdansk workers claimed dignity and freedom not only for themselves but also for all of those who lived under the dictatorship of the communist totalitarianism. They introduced a Polish motto: “For our freedom and yours”. If, the then unknown young electrician Lech Walesa hadn’t jumped over the Gdansk Shipyard wall in August 1980, the Berlin Wall wouldn’t have fallen in Autumn 1989.

The “Walesa Wall” and the “Berlin Wall”. Two significant symbols of contemporary Europe; a symbol of the battle for freedom and a sign of victory in this battle. August 1980 in Gdansk and the Autumn of Nations 1989 – the beginning and triumphal finale of the road to freedom for the whole of Europe.

Text: Mieczyslaw Abramowicz
Photos: Zbigniew Trybek, Dariusz Kula