Bernard Guetta, now MEP for the Renew group, covered for Le Monde the events on Solidarność from August 1980 to 1983. As Le Monde’s correspondent in Poland, he saw the birth of this great movement on August 31, 1980 and was a privileged witness to its evolution.
Today, Solidarność is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and Bernard Guetta gives us his analysis of this historical turning point.
This interview was conducted by Arthur Kenigsberg.
It’s not possible to begin this interview without mentioning the current events in Belarus. Do you see some similarities in this revolution with Solidarność ? There has been a lot of rapprochements since the demonstrators and the opposition have taken up the famous song Mury.
The song… Yes, of course, it’s important, but I am much more struck by how quickly the political situation has changed in Belarus. That’s exactly what happened when, at Gdańsk, the workers of the Lenin shipyard relaunched the July strikes and in less than a week Poland was on general strike, one big factory after the other¸ one city after the other. What happened in Belarus reminded me of that Polish moment, because from one hour to the next, everything changed.
To remain with the comparison with Solidarność, should we also expect a Round Table in Belarus?
I don’t know if it’s to be expected, but it’s certainly to be wished for. If Mr. Lukashenko has an ounce of lucidity, that’s what he should accept and even inspire to. Will he do it? No one can know because it will depend on the balance of power, on what the people of the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin himself will tell him. It depends on so many things that we cannot predict it, but without seeking a political compromise, we will go towards new repressions that will generate, one day or another, a boomerang effect to a new revolution that will not be as peaceful and non-violent as it is today.
Let’s go back to Solidarność. When did you arrive in Poland and what were your first feelings at the time?
My first contact with Poland dates back to 1972, eight years before the birth of Solidarność. I was then an intern at the Nouvel Observateur and decided to go and interview Leopold Trepper who had been the conductor of the Red Orchestra, one of the two largest Soviet spy networks of World War II. He had had men all the way to the leadership circles of Nazi Germany. He was an incredible guy, a small but great hero, and this man whom Stalin had thanked by locking him up in the Loubianka was once again in a very paradoxical situation since he was the only Jew that Communist Poland had refused to let go after having practically driven out all the survivors of the Nazi genocide, collectively accused by the anti-Semitic wave of 1968 of constituting a « fifth Zionist column ». His wife and children were gone and he had to live alone, under surveillance, in his small apartment in central Warsaw.
So, there was a police car in front of his house, doors open because the summer was very hot, and the two cops on duty were drinking beer after beer and slept three-quarters of the time. I entered the building without them noticing me, without anyone asking me anything, and my first impression of the communist world, which was perfectly right, was that this system was no longer what Stalin’s had been.
I spent two or three fascinating hours with Trepper, I told the tale about it lengthily in the Observateur and then in several books, and the second shock for me was, full of lessons for the future as well, when he tells me : « I was yesterday at the Central Committee »… I am stunned with an unclenched jaw because, for me, the Central Committee was a place of mystery, totally terrifying and completely inaccessible, especially to a man in delicate dealings with power. But he spoke of it as if it were some kind of administration, not like a mayor’s office of course, a place of high administration but, in the end, nothing more, with which he had been vainly pleading his cause and about which he sighed as he pulled on his Russian cigarette that he was still smoking, as in the Loubianka.
My first impression of the communist world, which was perfectly right, was that this system was no longer what Stalin’s had been.
For the second time in a single afternoon, I realized that the Soviet bloc was no longer what I had read about in so many accounts of the 1930s and late 1940s, that it was no longer Hitchcock’s films and the times of the great Stalinist repressions, that it was… something else I would later come to know so well, this mixture of police arbitrariness and anarchy, of constant repression and gaping holes in the nets of totalitarianism.
When I left Trepper’s, I didn’t even notice that I hadn’t been spotted yet, but looking at the people in the street, I had my third surprise of the day because, hold on, they were… normal, poorly dressed, yes, and badly shod, but busy, between shopping, children and marital disputes, nothing of Gulag prisoners overwhelmed by despair and hunger. They did not radiate happiness or ease. Their life was obviously hard, but that was not at all the idea I had of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Then I returned to Poland after the strikes in Radom and Ursus, after that amnesty which had been the first great political victory of the KOR, the Komitet Obrony Robotnikow, the Workers’ Defense Committee. It was there that I realized the strength that the Polish opposition had gathered, its radiance, its ramifications, its support in artistic, intellectual and workers’ circles. At Jacek Kuroń’s place, I interviewed a KOR worker, again for the Observateur, which I hadn’t already left for Le Monde at the time, and when I returned to the newspaper my colleagues and my hierarchy found it hard to believe me: « What!!? There are workers in the dissidence, factory workers, blue-collar workers »?
I came back to Poland a third time after the election of John Paul II and there… Do you know what a whole country is like, drunk with happiness? Well, it was the Poland of those days, a country on the move, the real country that had woken up under the frightened eyes of the official state and was asserting itself in the tranquility of its strength and the certainty that History was on the move even though no one had yet suspected that the Wall would fall in a very short decade.
So when I returned in August 1980 to Gdańsk, the day after the strike at the shipyard was resumed, in the early hours of what was to become Solidarity, I was surprised by the magnitude of the movement, yes, but not at all by the determination that I saw in the eyes, the evidence of the rejection of the regime and the absolute disarray of the government.
I had already seen the weakness of the surveillance of Trepper’s home, the strength of the opposition after Radom and Ursus, I had already seen the population drunk with happinness at the time of the election of John Paul II, and it was all of these things added up that I found in the shipyard.
How do you explain the challenges that led to the formation of Solidarność? Is it the fruit of a slow but progressive social evolution, or rather the fruit of a spontaneous and surprising movement for power and citizens?
The August strike, the Gdansk Accords and the legalization of a free trade union, the first in the communist world, were the penultimate step, before 1989 and the advent of democracy, of a movement that dates back to 1956. In October 1956, this first break between the real country and the legal country took place. Poland – horrible to say, but that’s how it is – then took advantage of the fact that the USSR could not invade both Budapest and Warsaw. In Hungary, the tanks crush the insurrection, but in Poland, the USSR relies on Mr. Gomulka, whom the party has just placed at its head, to find a form of political stabilization based on relative but real concessions.
For the Pole, October was a victory, a first moment of rupture from which things came out that were as fundamental for the future as the press and the Catholic intellectual clubs, and a certain tolerance too, which did not last very long but which left its mark on the minds of the intellectual protest movements within the party.
Many of the first opposition leaders came out of these two matrices of 56, the Catholic intelligentsia and the communist reformers. Then there were the student demonstrations of 1968 and their repression from which a second wave of opposition leaders emerged, led by Michnik. Less than two years later, there were the Baltic strikes and the bloodbath in which General Jaruzelski drowned them. It was in these strikes that Wałęsa and so many others were formed. They were the prelude to the strikes in Radom and Ursus and there, the KOR and the opposition were already strong enough to impose an amnesty on the government that the whole country was hoping for.
This was the balance of power that had made Communist Poland an effectively pluralist country, when John Paul’s first visit took place and the Poles, marching behind their Pope, instinctively discovered what was to become the great strength of Solidarity – the absolute contempt that the real country showed for the official state, the power that was not even deemed worthy of being whistled at but was simply ignored. In the footsteps of John Paul II, as during the Solidarity, Communist Poland no longer existed, and this was, moreover, largely true.
In the footsteps of John Paul II, as during Solidarity, Communist Poland no longer existed, and this was, moreover, largely true.
In August 1980 the authorities were thus forced to give in on everything: the liberation of political prisoners, the creation of the trade union, on all the demands formulated by the strikers except on the wage increases which they had voluntarily renounced at Walesa’s appeal. This was the trembling we know, the fruit of a quarter of a century of permanent struggle and the harbinger of the end of communism nine years later.
You mention a united Poland in Solidarność. How did the various Polish political sensibilities coexist in this union? Were there tensions?
Within a few weeks, Solidarność had become a union of ten million members. So there was all of Poland in Solidarność! There were people very much on the left and people very much on the right, Christian Democrats who didn’t know each other yet, but who resembled in every way the German or Italian Christian Democrats. There were socialists, social democrats and, of course, nationalists. We felt it at times, but it didn’t matter much because everyone was united around an extraordinarily simple idea: to grab as much freedom as possible! In the face of the common adversary, in the face of communism, the extreme right, the extreme left, the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the nationalists formed a common front, and it was not until the end of the communist regime and democracy that these political currents got separated and forgot their solidarity of old.
I can understand that this is surprising, but after all, the French Resistance during the war went from the Communists to the Action française, passing through the Socialists, the Catholics of the Left, the Catholic Right and the Trotskyists, and there in Poland a little bit the same thing happened. I would even say that the different currents coexisted naturally as they coexisted in Poland because Solidarność was Poland! So it was quite natural that the different currents that existed in Poland coexisted in Solidarność too.
In the face of the common adversary, in the face of communism, the extreme right, the extreme left, the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the nationalists formed a common front, and it was not until the end of the communist regime and democracy that these political currents separated and forgot their solidarity of old.
The break-up took place after 1989, gradually, and now it is extremely hard, politically violent because there were two great political currents that clashed, as there are two great political camps in all European countries, as in the United States also with the confrontation between the Democrats and the Republicans or, more precisely, between Mr. Trump and the Democrats. And then… You know what they said in France after Napoleon III: « How beautiful the Republic was under the Empire! ».
In June 1989, Solidarność achieved a major electoral success that very quickly led to the fall of communism in Poland. Was this a goal that could have been imagined 9 years earlier when it was created?
It was everyone’s hope, as I told you. But this hope was not publicly expressed. What was extraordinary in those years of Solidarność was that everyone was lying in Poland! The authorities said that Solidarnosc was a legal organization and that the goal was to reach a national agreement, to negotiate economic and social compromises with the first trade union in the country. That’s what the communist authorities were saying, but they were obviously waiting, at every moment, every minute, for the opportunity to break this union. On the other hand, the leaders of Solidarność said that they had no intention of overthrowing the regime, but wanted it to respect the Constitution, laws and international agreements signed by Poland. They did not say they wanted the end of communism, even though everybody had had enough of it by then. Everybody was lying like that and everybody lied in the name of perfectly well-founded and wise political imperatives because nobody wanted a civil war, let alone a Soviet invasion.
The comic dimension of this political drama is that everyone knew that everyone was lying, but here it is! It was the rule, a good rule, and the government waited 18 months before promulgating the state of war, when the trade union base made no secret of its desire to quit communism and the Soviet pressure became too strong.
What was extraordinary in those years of Solidarność was that everyone was lying in Poland!
It was terrible, the end of an enchanted parenthesis, of a moment of total exception as there were few in history, a kind of anarchist dream where the country was self-managing in the face of a power that had become non-existent. The night of the coup d’état, all my friends were arrested in front of my eyes. I tried to hide Geremek whom I had woken up to tell him the news. He made me repeat everything, everything I had seen. He was white, pinched lips, absolutely calm and told me with total conviction: « They won’t succeed ».
They did indeed fail, those putschists, and all communism with them, but you had to be Geremek to be so certain that night. One had to be Geremek or simply a good observer because it quickly became clear, in a few hours, that it was not the return of the communists, like the Czechoslovak normalization.
The Poland of the state of war was simply a military dictatorship. It was not the re-establishment of the full powers of the Communist Party because that Party hardly existed anymore. A considerable number of its members had moved to the side of Solidarność, a number had even moved to different forms of political opposition, including high-ranking cadres. With the proclamation of the state of war, it is not this defunct Party that regained control but the military intelligence services led by General Kiszczak, a putschist with white gloves.
What was your personal experience with Solidarność? Were there a lot of foreigners revolving around this movement?
No, there were no foreigners around this movement. As for me, I had an extremely singular place there because I knew practically all the great figures of the Polish opposition before the strike, of which I wrote a coverage for the Observateur that was very actively followed by the dissidents of the whole block, the USSR included, and by their opponents whom I did not know personally but who knew me by signature, because my papers about the dissident Poles were very regularly taken up by the Western radios broadcasting in the East.
Therefore, when I arrived at the shipyard, I had points of contact that Adam Michnik had indicated to me. There I met KOR militants that I knew or who knew me by name and I also became the correspondent of Le Monde, that is to say of a newspaper extremely well known and respected in these countries for the excellence of its coverage of the communist world. The papers of Le Monde thus played a decisive role in popularizing the birth and struggles of Solidarnosc not only abroad, but also in Poland, and probably even more so in Poland because they were picked up again and again by Radio Free Europe, Radio France International, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle. Many Poles would follow political developments in their country through the papers of Le Monde rebroadcast by Western radio stations. This would give me a very special and increasingly important role, because all the leaders of Solidarity would make sure that I wouldn’t miss out on anything.
Did you feel militant within Solidarność?
Militant, no, but invested with a responsibility, essential and very heavy, yes, of course! A political responsibility first of all, because I knew absolutely everything that was happening and even things that I was told « you can’t talk about that yet, but you have to know it to let it be foreseen ». Geremek and Mazowiecki regularly told me things that only they and Walesa knew. This way, several days before the signing of the Gdansk Accords, when many people were still expecting a Soviet invasion, Le Monde was able to let foresee the possibility of a historical compromise in Poland and it took place just like that until my departure from Poland three years later.
In 1983, I had to leave because my relations with the authorities of the war state were becoming increasingly difficult. It was going to end in a bad blow. It was more reasonable to avoid it and I was also afraid that the relations I had immediately established with the underground could lead to provocations or arrests. I was secretly meeting too many people, in conditions that were too crazy. I attended secret meetings because people trusted me, but I was not an expert on throwing off people who were following me and I no longer wanted to play a game that I had only mastered through reading John Le Carré.
40 years later, is there still a legacy of Solidarność in Poland?
I ask myself this question every time I come back to Poland, at least once a year. The more time passes, the more I realize that the memory of Solidarność fades away. It is fading for biological reasons because people who lived through the communist regime as adults and even teenagers are dying more and more. I realize this because every time I arrive in Warsaw I have one or two less friends, recently my Jesuit friend, Father Opiela, died. Geremek and Mazowiecki are no longer there, Kuroń is no longer there and neither is Modzelewski. These men whom I was so close to and whom I loved and admired so much are gone.
This generation is disappearing, and we understand less and less what the balance of power was at the time. We understand less and less what fear may have been, the fear that fell in August 1980, but which existed until then and which determined the behaviors of many. We understand less and less that so many people were able to join the Communist Party simply because they didn’t want to vegetate at the bottom of the professional ladder.
Poles no longer understand what Communist Poland was like. They no longer apprehend it, but that’s not surprising, because see, in France, it was only in the mid-1970s that people began to rediscover what the France of the Occupation and the France of the Resistance really had been.
That’s normal! There is a period of oblivion and then historians intervene, testimonies are recorded before people die.
Look at the success of Karol Modzelewski’s Memoirs in Poland. I was very struck by this success because it was mainly with readers who were 20 years old and who were discovering everything he was telling them. For me, who prefaced the French edition of Karol’s Memoirs, there were no great surprises in this book because I knew all that and Karol had told me the rest, but I am almost 70 years old, 50 years older than a 20-year-old Pole, and Solidarnosc was 40 years ago.
If I transpose this into the political history of France, 40 years after the Liberation, it’s 1984. Who remembered the Liberation and the Resistance in 1984? No one! Well, it’s the same thing in Poland, and even if that’s not surprising, it saddens me, I admit it.
It saddens me because I belong to this generation and I am hurt that the book of memories in which I told so much about Solidarity has not found a publisher in Poland, not even an answer. It saddens me because I belonged to that group of men who are disappearing and I miss them so much, but, if you go beyond personal feelings, there is only normality.
If you had to remember just one thing from Solidarność?
This would be the collective intelligence that the Poles had showed spontaneously. All Poles knew very well how far not to go. They knew that they had to go beyond the imaginable, but they had to do it without exceeding the limit of saying publicly: « Our ultimate goal, our deepest aspiration, is the end of this regime”.
This manifestation of collective intelligence was absolutely incredible because if Adam Michnik had theorized the idea of « self-limited revolution », very few people would have read his texts. He was very well known, much admired, but his articles and books were of course not so much, and yet Poland as a whole spontaneously reinvented and applied what he had recommended to do. Yes… This collective intelligence of the Poland of Solidarity is what I liked most about it. It was wonderful…