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The Fall of Communism in Poland. The Catholic Church Solidarity and its supporters

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Mark Hardcastle P08254387                               HIST3094                                                   Dr Kathy Burrell

HIST3094: Independence & Occupation of Poland since 1918

In what ways do your two chosen topics shed light on the nature of the socialist regime and the extent of its impact on ordinary people?

The Catholic Church

Solidarity and its supporters

The communist regime in Poland in the mid to late 20th Century had many detractors, which took the form of Political movements, social movements, religious groups’ art & literature. Arguably, the two most important in terms of shedding light on just how the Socialist regime impacted Poland during this period are the Catholic Church and Solidarity.

The Catholic Church has been under the grip of Catholicism ever since the Poland officlally adopted the Roman Catholic Church in 966; and it has played an important role in shaping culture and politics in Poland ever since.

However, it only became a legally recognised religion in Poland in 1946 and it only managed to do so upon meeting several criteria that the newly positioned Communist regime had dictated, namely that it defranchised itself from the Western parent to the Polish Catholic Church, the United States based Polish National Catholic Church, headed up by a US citizen, Bishop Franciszek Hodur.

Here we see, at the very early days of Socialist entitlement within Poland, the ruling regime taking a hardline stance on religion operating under its jurisdiction. This would set the tone for the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Polish Government for the next thirty-years, as the Communist regime sought to limit the reach of the Church and prevent a platform for socio-cultural disruption.

Often, new laws and legislation would be introduced on a completely ad-hoc and unplanned manner,Marian S. Mazgaj (2010) support the view that initially over-eager attempts to stunt the power of the Church lead to mass internal confusion for the regime:” Methods of Persecution and law issued at the headquarters of Communism were quite often changed on the Polish battlefield. This resulted in much confusion in the communist camp.”

Author Sabrina Rampet (2004) suggest that the constant legal and political manoeuvrings of the Communist Regime in Poland limit the amount we can infer from their long-term Anti-church plan and even suggests that its possible that there wasn’t a long term goal, simply a constant renewal of attempts to disrupt the religion:” Frequent and abrupt policy change make it difficult to distinguish aspects of basic to the long-term communist strategy from those which expressed only tactical modifications.

Church & State in communist Poland: a history,1944-1989 (2010) Marian S.Mazgaj [pg11,12]

Catholicism and Politics in Communist societies (2004) Sabrina Rampet [pg119]

Rampet goes on to verify the very reason why Religion and hard line socialism could not exist. Marxism and Leninism at their very cores do not recognise religion as legitimate school of thought, they aren’t necessary and cannot survive alongside a school of thought that is built around Atheism and the ruling regime superseding all other power bases, such as religious ones in the Catholic Churches case.

So how did these regime-imposed agendas affect the people of Poland?  It’s important to note that as with any non-democratic controlled country, that controlling the public’s perception and therefore the press and the materials allowed to reach the people. Rampet also discusses just how disproportionate the amount of Catholic produced forms of media were reaching the public, as of 1986 ‘of 2776 newspapers and magazines in Poland, only thirty-three were Catholic, of fifty-six dailies, none were Catholic.’

What Rampet states supports the claims Thomas Lanford makes in Communism (2007) where he discusses amongst many other facets of the communist era, it’s hard line stance on media and propaganda, a trend that still exists within Socialist states around the world, Lanford states: “ In an effort to maintain support and stifle dissent, the communist regime maintained rigid control over the information people could obtain.”

Kemp-Welch, Poland under communism: A cold war history (2008) Suggests that another reason why Communist Poland at this point could not tolerate a powerful church was that, religion actually helped impose social classes and furthered cultural fragmentation amongst the population, of course having a diverse group of people to control is more difficult than a single, unified group of non-religious citizens. He suggests that person cannot be ‘enslaved to a state’ whilst living a second life to a religious group: “The Soviet model of communism is totalitarian by enslaving the person to the state. In particular, the communist notion of class struggle destroys the cooperation essential between all classes.”

Of course, the biggest issue with the Catholic church to the Polish State was the fact that it was an external threat, they could impose new laws and boundaries on the media, freedom of speech, employment and the arts, as they were all grounded within the state boundaries of Poland, The Church

Dennis Dunn, The Catholic Church and Russia: popes, patriarchs, tsars and commissars discusses how just like the Polish communist party being an appendage of Moscow and a greater power, The Polish Catholic church was also part of a much bigger picture.  This parental relationship continued between the Church and the state until Pope John Paul II ascended to the papal throne in October 1978.

Dunn discusses how this threw the Eastern Bloc totally off balance and on to the defensive:  “ He  [Pope John Paul II] threw the entire Communist Bloc on the defensive. The communists of Poland were embarrassed and caught in a deep dilemma.”

Catholicism and Politics in Communist societies (2004) Sabrina Rampet [pg.123]

Communism (2007) Thomas Lanford [pg.82,83]

Poland under communism: A cold war history (2008) A. Kemp-Welch  [119-120]

The Catholic Church and Russia: Russia, Popes, patriarchs, Tsars and Commissars (2004) Dunn [pg173,174]

This dilemma that Dunn spoke was whether Polish regime acknowledged the new Pope as a national and celebrate him as a western state would or ‘boycott the Pope as a religious figure who was anathema to communism’

Their hand would tried and tested and eventually forced as the New, Polish Pope made life very difficult for the communists. By 1979, the Pope was regularly commenting on the socio-economic state of Poland during his very first to Poland as Pope.

The communists efforts to limit his appeal to the people of Poland were seen as out of touch as the Popes appeal to the majority of the state became apparent, off the back of this a platform was provided for changes of sort to occur within Poland, less than a year late a Papal-endorsed Polish Workers labourer union was formed, Dunn discusses how this undermined the regime: “ The party, which purported to be the representatives of the workers was now thoroughly compromised.”

Again, this new threat that Poland and Moscow faced forced major change again less than 12 months to combat the new threat of Solidarity; it removed the existing infrastructure and emplaced a military leader, General Wojiech Jarauzelski – who now reported directly to Moscow.

The Polish Catholic church was now intertwined with Politics as it declared its unflinching support for Solidarity. Solidarity began life in 1980 as the first Non-Communist Trade Union in Poland, as well as in the entire of the Sphere of influence Communism had in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Within ten-years, this trade union comprised of Shipyard Workers and Laborers had amassed a following of over 10 million and was recognized as a completely legal, political opponent to the Socialist Regime.

Solidarity provided the perfect platform to gain momentum and grow from a Trade Union campaigning for more rights, such as the right for workers to strike, to a Political party challenging the Socialists rights to run the country both from within and externally, ironically via support from external agents be it Western banks or the Catholic Church.

Arista Cirtautas ‘The Polish solidarity movement: revolution, democracy and natural rights’ (2003) suggests that Catholicism and movements such as Solidarity were the perfect guises to allow for dissidents to go against the socialist grain.

The Catholic Church and Russia: Russia, Popes, patriarchs, Tsars and Commissars (2004) Dunn [pg175]

Cirtautas states: “ Polish dissidents had to determine a legitimate basis for their opposition.”  She goes on to compare the movements towards religion and Solidarity to defy the state to the activity we saw during the respective American and French revolutions, albeit on a far less-violent level.

Human rights were the factor that would eventually unify those dissidents who sought a poltical body or religious sect to maintain their stance. Cirtautas that the opposition to the communist state only became effective when they were unified into and under a single body: “ Initially however,  dissident groups remained divided by the differing conceptions of rights they employed.”

This fragmentation amongst the people of Poland continued until the mid-1970’s at which point, as former Polish dissident and politician, Adam Michnik states, they reached a collective goal, “A community of collective human values.”

From fragmentation to a collective, containing intellects, philosophers, labourers and religious believers all wanting an improvement in their human rights, finally a real threat to the Communist hierarchy within Poland; secular and religious Poland were unified.

This doctrine laid out to further the rights of the Polish people was to be Solidarity. This new dawn began on 14th August 1980 when fourteen-thousand worker seized control of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk to put into practice a protest for human rights. The leader of this new strike-movement under Solidarity was Lech Walesa.

In the ten years previous to the Solidarity movement, the Catholic church went some way to bridging the gap between religion, intellect and workers and laid the groundwork for what was to come. In 1968, Polands two cardinals, Karol Wojtyla and Stefan Wyszynski were already selling the Polish peoples’ rights to freedom of speech and greater human rights.

Timothy Garton Ash, author of The Polish revolution: Solidarity (2002) states that the Catholic church is in fact largely responsible for the Solidarity movements success, suggesting that the Churches slow integration into low-level politics allowed later for closer integration between politics and religion:”  It was a convergence from both sides. Within the church,  a brilliant group of philosophers and writers concentrated around Krakow weekly [a newspaper] gradually formulated a new catholic and political social philosophy.”

The strike took place to promote and protect, workers rights to strike, fair pay and employment and to combat food shortages. These strikes and Solidarity movement were fed by a faltering economy that Poland was suffering with from the mid 1970’s.

The Polish revolution: Solidarity (2002) Timothy Garton Ash [pg.22,23]

The Soviet Union was working behind the scenes to solve the economic crisis and in turn fix many of the things that Solidarity sought out to resolve, then Prime Minister, Edward Babuich announced a plethora of economic reform plants in attempts to prevent further nose dive of the economy, a matter of months later, despite the fact that mass-media was still very much state controlled word of striking to cause change spread, after beginning in the Urus Tractor factory.

In a short amount of time, Solidarity began a people’s trade union with the support of over ten-million people within Poland, receiving the backing from the Catholic church, Poland’s foremost followed religion.

The Lenin Shipyard Strike committee had several demands for the Socialist government: The re-employment of victims of politically motivated dismissals, an erection of a monument in memory of those killed during the strikes of 1970 and guarantees that there would be no further reprisals for this strike in the future as well an increase in wages, so that the Gdansk workers were paid comparable amounts to those earned by the police and military forces.

As we can see, even in the form of a union, the Solidarity movement was deeply rooted into low-level politics but also a social movement with mass appeal.  Michael D Kennedy, Professionals, power and Solidarity in Poland: a critical sociology of Soviet-type society (1991) Cites Solidarity’s appeal to the masses of labour workers, to students, intellects as well the deep-rooted Catholic nature of Poland as part of its success.

The fact that strikes and committees organising them were able to bypass the heavily restricted and vetted media via pure volume of participants and word of mouth allowed massive growth within the movement. “Strikes and inter-strike committees were not limited to the tri-city area. By the end of August committees had been established in Gdansk, Szczecin, Elblag, Wroclaw and Jastrzebie.”

This indicates just how far and quickly the movement spread and also facilitated a far more effective and efficient economic and social movement.

I previously discussed the Churches support, which would prove to be essential in the continued success and survival of both Solidarity and the Church in a symbiotic relationship but it also important to highlight the effect of the support of the intellects towards both groups. After all the intellectuals and Poland and the Catholic church had rarely agreed on matters prior to the 1970’s.

Mcdougal, cites the Polish nation circling the Church after murder of Father Jerzy Popiclusko in 1984 as a key moment in the mobilization of the intellectuals towards the church and in turn Solidarity. Conversely,  Andrzej Paczkowski ‘From solidarity to martial law’ suggests that Solidarity gaining the momentum and recognition within Poland but also on a global stage was to do with its support from the West.

.  Michael D Kennedy, Professionals, power and Solidarity in Poland: a critical sociology of Soviet-type society (1991) [pg.275,276]

Paczkowski cites how the United States was essentially funding the Solidarity’s underground movement, propaganda and informational presence. At the same time, the west leveraged concessions from Jaruzelski  by promising that trade embargos and trade sanctions would be lifted if the political system and human rights with Poland were further liberalized. This put Poland in a unique position within the world of economics and politics, a single state receiving funding from the East and the West.

.  Michael D Kennedy, Professionals, power and Solidarity in Poland: a critical sociology of Soviet-type society (1991 [pg.274,275]


Nowak. J ‘The Church in Poland’

Szajkowski, Bogdan, ‘Next to God – Poland: Politics and religion in contemporary Poland (Pinter 1983)

Marian.S, Mazgaj ‘Church and State in Communist Poland: a history,1944-1989

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