Remembering Poland: Catholicism in a Communist Society

July 29, 2010

In the midst of the Gdansk shipyards in Poland stands the monument that commemorates the lives of the shipyard workers crushed by Communist leader Gomulka in 1970.  The late 60s and early 70s were a tumultuous time for the Polish economy, and rising inflation saw both workers and intellectuals bond together to demand free trade unions and resist the authorities through a series of strikes.

The introduction and fall of Communism in Poland were nothing short of hard-won efforts.  After Russia failed to aid Poland during the Warsaw Uprising, Polish-Russian relationships soured all the more; however, since Poland was always of strategic interest to Russia, Russia supported the growth of communism in Poland from its tiny seedling origins until it grew into an all-encompassing force.  Two things, however, set Poland as a unique Communist country — agriculture, for one, was not collectivized, and Catholicism was not outlawed.

When Pope Paul John II became the first non-Italian Pope in over four and a half centuries, the fact that he was a Pole caused the Polish people to rejoice and a surge of nationalism to sweep the country.  When he visited his homeland in 1979, he instilled within the Poles a hope that political change was soon in coming.  After Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech where he publicly, for the first time in history, denounced Stalin’s criminality and brutality, even the Polish Communist party started to question the system and release old political prisoners.  The demographics of Poland was changing, and the mass unity of the people rallying against the Communist regime set it apart from other uprisings.

Gomulka’s successor, Gierek, further mired the country in economic turmoil as more strikes accrued.  Workers at the Gdansk shipyards downed their tools, demanding wage increases and the release of worker Lech Walesa, future leader of the Solidarity movement.  In an attempt to appease Lech Walesa and his group, the Gdansk shipyard memorial was constructed on the tenth anniversity of the 1970 strike.   The gesture, however, was not enough to settle anything by itself, and martial law was imposed upon the members of Solidarity in the early 80s.  In less than a decade’s time, however, with the aid of Gorbachev breaking the bonds of communism, the Solidarity party was again legalized and won most of the government seats in the free elections, with Walesa elected President in 1991.

The Pope, although cautious about supporting the Solidarity movement, did so nonetheless.  The faith of the Polish greatly aided their fight and instilled within them a belief that God was on their side.  The monument of the shipmasts tied together their struggles, the symbol of the ships, and the shadow of Golgotha with the three crucifixes.  The religious undertones lurk everywhere in the fight of the Polish people, in a nation that truly believes that God liberates them from their struggles.

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