The passion of Poland : from Solidarity through the state of war by Lawrence Weschler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"'Please abandon hope,' the voice of the police commander intones in a recent poem by the émigré Stanisław Barańczak. 'I want this square, this brain, this country cleared of hope, so it will be pure as a tear.'"
The book I am reviewing here should be required reading for all people in Poland who have not themselves experienced the exhilarating, dangerous, and often tragic times of Solidarity, one of the most important mass movements of the 20th century. In fact, the reading is even more essential now that the Great Falsification of History is happening in my native country where a gang of scumbags led by Mr. Kaczyński is trying, successfully so far, to transform the truth about the historic events into a "better truth", which would serve their political aims.
A few weeks ago I reviewed here Laurence Weschler's
Solidarity. Poland in the Season of Its Passion
, a chronicle and analysis of momentous events happening in Poland in 1980-1981, based on the articles the author wrote for the New York Times. That book seemed unfinished: indeed, Mr. Weschler left Poland in October of 1981 and was not able to cover the last two months of the "Solidarity freedom" and the period of martial law that followed. I am happy that I have found The Passions of Poland (1984) by the same author, which covers both the times of the revolution and the subsequent period of government repressions. This now complete work offers a comprehensive study of the Polish revolution that precipitated the fall of the Soviet empire and its ideology and expedited the eventual liberation of the entire Eastern Europe from Soviet domination.
I lived in Poland throughout the entire period that Mr. Weschler writes about and I can positively state that his chronicle of events is accurate and his observations and analysis are truthful and full of insight. In fact, being an external observer, experienced in interpreting political events, he had a much clearer view of what was happening than the understanding I had at the time. I have not found a single passage in the book that I would disagree with. The author has the facts right and, what's much more important, his diagnoses and prognoses are right on target.
The first 96 pages of the book are basically the same as the text of Solidarity that I mention above - I have found only minor changes. The new material takes two chapters, A State of War - October-December 1982 and Epilogue - September 1983, where the dates refer to the time that the author wrote his notes rather than to the dates of actual events. For the reader not familiar with the Polish history of the 1980s, here's a very brief chronology. The Solidarity revolution lasted for about 16 months, from the end of August of 1980 till December 12, 1981, when a group of generals, led by W. Jaruzelski, staged a military coup, declaring "a state of war", and placing the country under the rule of the so-called Army Council of National Salvation. (The martial law could not be called what it was because of the absence of suitable provision in the Polish constitution.) The "state of war" was suspended on December 31, 1982, but the repressions against the Solidarity resistance lasted for many years, to finally end with the so-called Round Table Talks in 1989. These talks and the eventual agreement resulted in the liberation of Poland from Soviet ideology, and the collapse of the regime, which led to similar changes in all Eastern Bloc countries.
There is so much in the book that I can focus here only on a tiny subset of topics. The hundred pages of the new material present all important events that happened in Poland just before and during the state of war (the author also includes an extremely detailed chronology of the years 1939-1983 in the Appendix). One reads about the fateful Sunday of 12/13/1981, the announcement of the state of war on the Polish nation imposed by its own generals: the mass internments and arrests of activists, elimination of almost all civil rights, shutting down the mail and telephone system in the entire country, etc. Then came the full year of nationwide resistance, at the time seemingly futile, yet sowing seeds for the eventual freedom seven years later. While several people were killed by the militarized police in the early days of the martial law, many more were arrested later and scores were beaten during demonstrations. The nation responded with the "passive resistance" - underground press and publishing houses were flourishing, people were wearing resistance signs, and most citizens boycotted the state-controlled radio and TV.
From today's - 34 years later - point of view, the book unequivocally shows who the actual leaders and heroes were: Wałęsa, Kuroń, Michnik, Bujak, Geremek, Modzelewski, Frasyniuk, Gwiazda, Wujec, Rulewski, Walentynowicz, and many others. There is not even a single mention about either one of the Kaczyński brothers: they did not have courage and certainly not the brains to be of any value to the revolution. Speaking about brains, the book shows the great depth of the political analyses that many leaders of the movement had written in prison and then managed to smuggle to the outside world. One of the most interesting passages in the book concerns the argument about the tactics of resistance between Mr. Kuroń and Mr. Bujak.
But to me personally the most resonating passages are the ones about the collapse of plans for the general strike on November 10, 1981, which signified the end of hope for millions of Polish people. The military rulers took several masterful steps like allowing the Polish Pope's visit in the following year and promising to release Wałęsa from internment. Yet the proverbial last nail in the coffin was the capitulation of the Polish church hierarchy and the agreement between the primate, Cardinal Glemp and General Jaruzelski. The beginning of November was precisely the time when I lost all hope for a better future, and these were precisely the events that led me to leave the country.
The review is already way too long so I am leaving out most of the good stuff offered by Mr. Weschler in his outstanding chronicle and analysis of the tumultuous times. It is hard not to love the very ending of the book: the author quotes the Polish graffiti of the late 1982: the famous CDN sign, that means "To be continued." And indeed it was. Solidarity had eventually won and its ideals were alive for a quarter of a century. During its over a thousand-year history Poland survived numerous wars and occupations so it will survive the regressive and populist Kaczyński regime as well, but the human cost will be staggering.
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