Gdansk – 11

On 4th June, 1989 the Solidarity Civil Committee contested 35% of the seats in the Polish Parliament, the Sejm and all the seats in The Senate. Solidarity obtained 161 seats in the Sejm, the maximum possible, and 99 out of 100 in The Senate. For some reason, Piotra Baumgarta didn’t find favour with the voters, but all the other 99 Solidarity candidates were elected.

Solidarity is the heartbeat of recent Polish history and to emphasize this point a ‘feedback wall’ in the final exhibition room is covered with a reproduction of the 1981 cardiogram poster of Czesław Bielecki. The word “Solidarity” is the culmination of a number of upheavals, starting with the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and including many revolts against communism. Visitors can write their feedback, on what they’ve seen, on small pieces of white or red paper and then place these thoughts on small pegs and add to the thousands already there.

I spent 2.5 hours in this museum and I was not conscious of the time passing as the exhibits and information were fascinating, interesting, and brought alive by their presentation.

Gdansk – 9

Although the authorities were hoping to reduce the effectiveness of the Gdansk Agreement for workers’ rights in Poland, a number of different situations conspired against them. The first was the film Man of Iron by the Polish Andrzey Wajda, about the shipyard strike of 1980, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 1981. The publicity for the film meant the authorities couldn’t prohibit it from the cinemas. The second event was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Lech Walesa on 5th October 1983. Walesa feared he would not be let back into Poland, so his wife Danuta and son Bogdan accepted the award on his behalf. The biggest reason why Poland remained in the news was that the Pope John Paul II was Polish and the pontiff visited his homeland often, including paying a visit to Walesa in June 1983 after he’d been released from prison.

Gdansk – 8

The next room moves on to 1980. An economic crisis led to the Communist government authorizing an increase in food prices for the summer of 1980. Once again a revival of labor disturbances erupted throughout the nation. Workers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk went on strike in mid-August, sparked by the firing of Anna Walentynowicz a crane operator, who was regarded as a trouble-maker by the management at the shipyard. Led by electrician Lech Wałęsa, the workers took control of the shipyard and demanded labour reform and greater civil rights including the freedom of expression and religion, and the release of political prisoners. The original 21 demands of the Inter-Factory Strike Committee written on plywood were hung on Gate 2 of the Gdansk Shipyard (this gate appears further along in the museum as it was destroyed by a T55 tank during a period of Martial Law). In 2003, these items were placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Demand number 1 was the authorities should accept that Trade Unions such as Solidarity be independent. Number 2 was the guarantee of the right to strike. On the third day of the strike, on August 16, 1980, management granted Lenin Shipyard workers their working and pay demands. Lech Wałęsa and others announced the end of the strike. Two women at the shipyard, Anna Waletynowicz and Alina Pienkowska, managed to close the gates of the shipyard and keep some workers inside. Wałęsa was stopped near the Gate No° 1 as he was leaving, and was persuaded to change his plans and return to the shipyard. Over the next few days, he led the negotiations on the worker’s side and Mieczysław Jagielski was the main negotiator for the government. The Gdańsk Agreement was signed on 31 August 1980, recognizing the right to organize free trade unions independent of the Party for the first time in the Communist bloc. When the Solidarity trade union was registered shortly after the Gdańsk Agreement, it had nearly ten million members, the world’s largest union to date.

Gdansk – 5

The exhibits then contrast the ordinary nature of some people’s lives with the extraordinary events taking place in the Communist countries of the Eastern Bloc. Some events such as the Hungarian uprising of 1956 when Imre Nagy withdrew his country from the Warsaw Pact, the raising of the Berlin Wall on 13th August 1961, and the Alexander Dubcek-inspired Prague Spring of 1968 are well known.

Others are not but are of equal significance in the gradual breaking down of the Communist system under the control of the Soviet Union. On 16th June 1953, three months after the death of Stalin, 300 East Berlin construction workers went on strike and marched down Stalinallee towards government buildings after their superiors announced a pay cut if they did not meet their work quota. These demands soon escalated into an outcry for a General Strike on the following day.

Early the next morning, 40,000 protesters had gathered in East Berlin. Protests were held throughout East Germany in almost all industrial centres. The original demands had turned into political statements including one that required the resignation of the East German government, who decided to crush the uprising, a theme that was often repeated behind the Iron Curtain, though not in 1980 in Gdansk as already indicated. The East German authorities turned to the Soviet Union for military support. 16 Soviet divisions with 20,000 soldiers were used to quell the uprising.

Gdansk – 3

I stayed at a hotel close to the station as I was moving on by train to Torun in a couple of days. Rather than heading to the reconstructed Old Town I first walked to a large monument visible over the tops of the trees and buildings. Anchors were suspended at the top of three tall, grey columns.

This was the Monument to the fallen Shipyard Workers 1970 unveiled on 16th December 1980 near the entrance to what was then the Lenin Shipyard. This huge structure was created in the aftermath of the Gdańsk Agreement, about which more later, and was the first monument to the victims of communist oppression erected in a communist country. This memorial commemorates the 42, or more, people killed during events in Gdańsk, Gdynia, Elbląg, Szczecin in December 1970. Polish citizens had protested after the government suddenly announced massive increases in the prices of basic foodstuffs, especially dairy products, after a bad harvest throughout the course of the year.

Gdansk – 2

Gdansk airport is named after Lech Walesa and if visitors don’t know much about this man before they arrive then they will know a lot by the time they leave, especially if they visit the European Solidarity Centre, which is about 500 metres from Gdansk Glowny by the entrance to the shipyards.This museum is an absolute joy and educational beyond belief. I left wondering why on earth I hadn’t known some of the information on display in the centre. The museum made me realise my own ignorance of events in the continent of Europe just before my birth and that’s a good thing. It does show we are always living through history and the key is to be finding out the truth at all times.

Northern Ireland and Scotland

My new book is called: Travels through History – Northern Ireland and Scotland 

Belfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet.

Lonely Planet praised its “timeless beauty and high-grade distractions – golf, whiskey and some of the world’s most famous rocks. The region may be famous for Game of Thrones but its many scenic filming locations are just the start.”

In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by readers of the respected Rough Guides.

This book is short and provides a brief history of Northern Ireland and Scotland, ideal for dipping into during your busy life.