The Other June 4, 1989
How the events in Tiananmen Square drove the first free election in Eastern Europe from front pages around the world.
- Poland never received full credit for helping close one of the darkest political eras in European history.
- In 1989, two communist parties – China’s and Poland’s - took sharply divergent paths.
- The Iron Curtain crumbled faster because of the smart way in which the Poles went about de-communizing their state.
- Poland’s path in 1989 brought personal liberty and the cultural and economic enrichment of the entire planet.
- The Poles showed East Germans, Czechs and Hungarians that the stakes weren’t as high as they had feared.
- Many young Poles today seem to have little sense of the leading role their parents played in this global drama.
Twenty-five years ago, two communist parties thousands of miles apart were faced with a similar dilemma: How to loosen state control of the economy while maintaining unquestioned political authority.
On June 4, 1989, these two parties took sharply divergent paths. The Communist Party of China decided that economic liberalization had led to too much criticism of the party eroding its political power.
Believing that the country was on the verge of chaos, the CPC dispatched the People’s Liberation Army to restore order. And it did so, particularly in Beijing, with lethal force. China’s economic liberalization could proceed, but only on the condition that the supremacy of the CPC could not be challenged, even verbally.
The Polish miracle
On that same day, the Polish United Workers Party sanctioned a fair and reasonably free election, in which it expected to win enough votes to stay in control.
Instead, Solidarity, the free-trade union movement brutally suppressed eight years earlier by the Polish army, swept to a convincing victory that took even Solidarity’s leadership by surprise. But Poland’s communist hierarchy, led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, after some hesitation accepted the verdict of the voters.
Economic liberalization would go forward under the direction of a democratically elected government. And Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, preoccupied with the crumbling of his own economy and political authority at home, did not even think about intervening.
Yet because of the horrific, headline-grabbing events in China, that other June 4 is one that few people outside of Poland remember, even though it marked the true beginning of the dissolution of communist power in Eastern Europe and eventually in the Soviet Union itself.
How Poland’s courage radiated
The first cracks that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall five months later are often ascribed to a series of events involving East Germans fleeing through Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
But the Wall might have stood for many more years were it not for that Polish election and the remarkable maturity and responsibility with which the Poles went about the process of de-communizing their state.
If a year earlier you had asked anyone who knew anything about Poland if such a smooth transition would be possible, the vast majority — including the Poles themselves — would have sadly shaken their heads.
Solidarity had been crushed on December 13, 1981, because the communist regime and the Soviet leadership decided the experiment of the first free trade union in a Soviet bloc country had gone too far.
But it is also true that Solidarity was a mess. Its fabled leader Lech Walesa had lost what little control he had managed in the previous year, and the country was descending into chaos. Economic activity was plummeting and long lines of people were waiting to buy even the most basic food items.
Old Polish stereotypes, mainly spoofing irrational individualism, played a part in the pessimism — à la “The Poles make great fighter pilots, but lousy bomber crews” and “If you get three Poles together in a room, they’ll create four political parties.”
But what had gone largely unnoticed in the years since martial law was imposed, is that the Poles had received a civic education that began to undermine that image.
Underground civic education as a key
An underground press, led by people like Helena Luczywo and Adam Michnik (founders of one of modern Poland’s most successful newspapers), blanketed the country with hundreds of thousands of flyers, leaflets and books.
But unlike previous dissident publishers in communist countries, these publications did more than pillory and ridicule the military regime, though they did that as well.
Instead, the Polish underground press became an instrument of mass civic education. Publications included everything from how a stock market works to the difference between the French and American presidential systems.
Needless to say, some of this material was dry as dust, but people ate it up because it was forbidden. In addition, the collapsed economy forced many Poles to work (often illegally) in the West, which exposed them to more liberal political cultures and systems.
When Solidarity and the Polish people got a second chance in 1989, their expectations about economic reform were far more rational than eight years earlier when the typical demand was for higher wages, more high quality food at lower prices and a shorter workweek.
Keeping their cool
Just as important, the animus in Polish politics had somewhat dissipated. The goal of putting their former communist rulers in prison faded to just putting them out to pasture.
The unexpected determination of the vast majority of Poles made possible the dissolution of communism in the rest of the Eastern Bloc.
The rulers of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary had also been trying to figure out how to reform their economies without political upheaval and with no more success than Jaruzelski’s team. But they had feared the mass uprisings and aftermath of a loosening of the political reins.
But if the Poles could do it peacefully, even smoothly, maybe the stakes weren’t as high as they had feared. Perhaps political power was not a zero-sum game after all. It was that calculation — and the forbearance of Gorbachev’s USSR — that led to those breathtaking changes in the fall of 1989.
Then and now
Many young Poles today seem to have little understanding of the leading role their parents played in this global drama. And Poles today are just as disillusioned with the political and economic realities of the 21st century as their fellow Europeans and Americans.
But the unexpected path that Poland took in 1989 led to the personal liberty of millions of people and the cultural and economic enrichment of the entire planet.
It is a major historical injustice that Poland never received the full credit it deserves for helping bring to a close one of the darkest political eras in European history.
That injustice is made even more painful by the fact that our collective memory of its achievement was obliterated by the decision of the communist authorities thousands of miles away to take another path.