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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Tribute to the Polish People

Free people everywhere should toast the brave people of Poland for the pivotal role they played in those momentous events.

The cause of liberty saw memorable highs and unconscionable lows in 1989. Surely that year will be best remembered as the year Soviet hegemony over central Europe disintegrated, paving the way for the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1991. Free people everywhere should toast the brave people of one nation in particular–Poland–for the pivotal role they played in those momentous events.

As Chinese tanks crushed a mass uprising, Poland held the first free elections in communist Europe.Twenty years ago this fall, just days after the Berlin Wall had come crashing down, I visited with friends in Warsaw and Krakow to celebrate. The Velvet Revolution was underway in neighboring Czechoslovakia. Hungary had opened its doors to the West a few weeks before. Romania’s megalomaniac, Nicolai Ceausescu, would be gone by Christmas. But Poland had led the way.

It was on June 4, 1989, as Chinese government tanks crushed a mass uprising in Tiananmen Square, that Poland electrified the world by holding the first free elections in communist Europe. Anticommunist (and in many cases, also antisocialist) activists stunned even fellow Poles by their showing. They won 99 of 100 seats in the Senate and every single one of the 161 seats in the lower house of Parliament that the regime allowed to be contested. These results assured that the momentum for liberty across the Soviet empire would mushroom until it toppled dictators and parties from East Berlin to Ulan Bator.

Poland’s communist leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski had struck an agreement with Lech Walesa’s banned Solidarity organization early in the year to legalize suppressed political groups and schedule elections for June 4. He had little choice. Poland, he declared, had become “ungovernable.” I knew exactly what he meant because I had witnessed it myself in November 1986 while living for ten days with underground elements of both Solidarity and a youth group called Freedom and Peace.

The Torchbearers

The history of Poland from the imposition of martial law and the crushing of Solidarity in December 1981 to the glorious elections of 1989 is not the saga of a pessimistic, defeatist, or compliant people. Rather, it is a remarkable testament to the human will to be free. While the constellation of strong leaders in Britain, the United States, and the Vatican (Thatcher, Reagan, and John Paul II) helped the process of communist disintegration immensely, those very same leaders rightfully and repeatedly credited the defiant spirit of the Poles. “The people of Poland,” declared Reagan, “are giving us an imperishable example of courage and devotion to the values of freedom in the face of relentless opposition … The torch of liberty is hot. It warms those who hold it high. It burns those who try to extinguish it.”

One of the intellectual giants of Polish liberty, Leszek Kolakowski, died this past July at the age of 81. Kolakowski labeled Marxism “the greatest fantasy of our century” and regarded totalitarian brutality as the inevitable outcome of the concentration of power. He told the New York Times in 2004, “This ideology was supposed to mold the thinking of people, but at a certain moment it became so weak and so ridiculous that nobody believed in it, neither the ruled nor the rulers.”

I learned during my 1986 visit that five years after the regime’s harsh crackdown, Poles were dodging and weaving around the Jaruzelski regime in ways that almost defied imagination. Shortages of basic foodstuffs, double-digit inflation, and a powerful secret police did not deter them from creating thriving black markets and flourishing private institutions, from radio to theaters to publishing houses and schools. Solidarity’s Wiktor Kulerski had sketched the outlines of Polish resistance a few years before when he wrote, “This movement should create a situation in which authorities will control empty stores, but not the market; the employment of workers, but not their livelihood; the official media, but not the circulation of information; printing plants, but not the publishing movement; the mail and telephones, but not communications; and the school system, but not education.”

Thirty-eight million Poles were thumbing their noses at the State. They knew from painful experience that, as dissident Stefan Kisielewski put it (and was arrested and beaten for saying), “Socialism is stupidism.” They had had enough of it.

Lloyd’s of Warsaw

At a dinner party hosted secretly for me by several underground printers in Krakow, I was dazzled by the scope of what my hosts called “independent publishing ventures.” They had translated and printed “subversive” works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, George Orwell, and even Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand.

When the coast was really clear, they would print their illegal works on the government’s own printing presses.“Where do you get the paper to print all this stuff?” I inquired. A young Pole named Pawel answered, “We get it from two places: we smuggle it in from the West and we steal it from communists.” Pawel explained that workers in government printing houses who were sympathetic to the resistance often spirited paper to the underground. When the coast was really clear, they even printed the illegal stuff on the government’s own printing presses. When the government mounted a campaign to confiscate the cars of their distributors, the underground printers formed their own insurance company (they called it “Lloyd’s of Warsaw” ) to cover the costs of the confiscation of their cars, paper, and materials.

I asked those printers who entertained me that evening how I could help. It turned out that they had a specific request already planned for me. If I could raise $5,000 and channel it to their émigré allies in Paris, they would eventually get the money and be able to translate into Polish and print several thousand copies of Milton and Rose Friedman’s classic Free To Choose. Among my most prized possessions is a copy of that book, inscribed by activist Wojciech Modelski with these words: “Thank you, Larry! Without your help it was not be [sic] possible to publish this book.”

My favorite story from that visit, though, involves a very brave couple, Zbigniew and Sofia Romaszewski. They had only lately been released from prison for running an underground radio station. “How did you know when you were broadcasting if people were listening?” I asked. Sofia answered, “We could only broadcast eight to ten minutes at a time before going to another place to stay ahead of the police. One night we asked people to blink their lights if they believed in freedom for Poland. We then went to the window and for hours, all of Warsaw was blinking.”

Zbigniew Romaszewski won election to the Polish parliament in those June 1989 elections, and he serves in its Senate today. Jan Rokita, a leader of Freedom and Peace and my chief escort until I was arrested, strip-searched, and deported, was elected to the lower House in 1989 and served there until retiring in 2007. Among the liberty-loving organizations in Poland today is the Polish-American Foundation for Economic Research and Education, which regularly reprints articles from us.

To all those millions of Polish freedom fighters who ushered communism into the dustbin of history twenty years ago, thank you for your courage, your perseverance, your vision, and your example.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is