It was 20 years ago today...

As Poland celebrates 20 years of political independence, feelings are mixed. While Gazeta Wyborcza raises a glass to a free Poland, “shared by all”, Pawel Lisicki, in Rzeczpospolita laments “a time of ‘amnesia and a weakening of the sense of civic duty.”

Published on 4 June 2009 at 14:59
Lech Walesa (left), Solidarity party chief, his advisor Bronislaw Geremek (2nd right) in conversation with Polish president Wojciech Jaruzelski (2nd left) and Prime Minister Mieczysclaw Rakowski, 18th April, 1989 in Warsaw (Poland). AFP

On the 20th anniversary of Poland’s first free elections that ended Communist rule, Adam Michnik, editor of Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza remembers that "1989 was a year when Poland prevailed over its cruel fate. (…) The People, previously gagged and helpless, finally had a voice." One, he adds, "the whole world heard."

He identifies Solidarity trade union leader Lech Walesa and Wojciech Jaruzelski of the Communist regime as leaders of two sides in a "Polish-Polish war." Both, he declares, served Poland well in the transition to democracy. The result of that year’s election came out at a time when “We, the people of Solidarity, feared Moscow’s reaction”. To its credit, he insists, the Communist Party leadership officially recognised an election result that heralded its own dissolution. Like Solidarity, it “understood that we were walking on thin ice, that Soviet troops were still stationed in Poland”.

Hommage is paid to Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church, for playing “such an important role during the breakthrough.” In 1989, “Poles showed their best face to the world – brave and tolerant.” They can therefore raise a glass "to Poland free, independent and shared by us all." There may be bitterness about the past, and problems in the present, but for all that, "we can reproach ourselves for our sins on other occasion."

Because the last twenty years can also be looked at in a different light. Pawel Lisicki, of conservative daily Rzeczpospolita, sums them up as a time of "amnesia and a weakening of the sense of civic duty." Those guilty of communist crimes were not punished, and the criteria of good and evil in public life was blurred. Instead of national pride, Rzeczpospolita’s editor-in-chief complains that Poles were taught to be ashamed and mistrustful of a strong national identity. One possible explanation of this is that Polish independence was not a result of a victory over communism but of a "contract with the former regime."

In contrast to Michnik, he argues that the elections of 1989 were only partly free. Solidarity firmly won, but "instead of thinking of wresting power away from the communists as quickly as possible, it tried to stifle its supporters’ enthusiasm." Lisicki, however, does not write off the events of June 4th completely. He closes by saying that, after all, it is worth remembering a day when "Poles proved able to focus themselves and opt for freedom."

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