Free City of Gdańsk – How Poland’s window to the world rises against populism

Solidarnosc merchandising in Gdansk

In an icy chill, residents of Gdańsk, never before connected to any movement, are protesting outside a local court against a new law of the Law and Justice party (PiS) that seeks to subordinate the judiciary and local elections to government authority. Around 400 people have gathered in the cold. They carry lit candles, their symbol of defiance. Across Poland tens of thousands more have taken to the streets to protest against a wholesale power grab by the governing PiS.

Two years of democratic backsliding have already passed in Poland under the leadership of the PiS. Step by step the party has stripped the judiciary of its independence. The latest law has provoked protests in more than 40 cities. In Gdańsk the few hundred protestors risk easy identification by the police, who, according to Roman Daszczyński, journalist and editor-in-chief of the portal, record the protest from beginning to end. People are well aware of this but still come out despite the fear among those who work in state-controlled enterprises or institutions of reprisals. Gdańsk city is controlled by the liberal Civic Platform, but the voivodship, the next level up of regional administration which employs thousands of people, is controlled by Law and Justice. It’s much easier to find anonymity among the tens of thousands of people protesting in Warsaw, says Daszczyński.

A familiar figure emerges

From within the crowd, candles flickering in the cold breeze, a corpulent figure with a familiar grey walrus mustache steps out on to the stairs. Lech Wałęsa, the legendary Gdańsk shipyard electrician who in 1980 led the march to freedom of a 38 million-strong nation. Wałęsa, the first President of independent Poland after 1990 and still a resident of Gdańsk, stands with the protesters.

“You have probably noticed that things are going badly with Poland,” he says. “PiS are destroying everything we have gained so far. We are fighting it with the whole world behind us. I had thought I would be able to take a rest. I’ve already worked a bit in my life. But from what I see we have to wake up and get back to work. I do not agree with the destruction of Poland. We must do everything to reject this group from power as soon as possible!” says Wałęsa to huge applause.

Across the street, from a fourth-floor window of Gdańsk City Hall, Paweł Adamowicz, a former opposition member, calmly watches the protest. He has been here as President of the city administration for the last 20 years. A lawyer and Wałęsa’s former co-worker, he is a figure hated by PiS who accuse him of lying about his property assets. To the ruling party’s activists he is the very embodiment of corrupted evil. A liberal and member of Civic Platform, he soon became the target of a government propaganda campaign. (In his official statements, Adamowicz claims he owns less than is claimed).

Aside from the accusations of corruption the facts speak in favor of Adamowicz. Under his rule the city flourishes. Gdańsk has been a big beneficiary of European funds, receiving in recent years PLN 2.6 billion (among Polish cities only Warsaw has received more). Money spent on infrastructure in Gdańsk has become the driving force of the city’s development, with road, tram and tunnel projects attracting investors who in turn create jobs. “The air we breathe here,” says journalist Roman Daszczyński, “is cleaner now, different from Warsaw.”

Gdańsk today is also Poland’s largest seaport, handling every year about 40 million tonnes of cargo, a record volume compared to many European ports.

A very Polish dystopia

The economy is vital for the city but not the most important factor. Against the backdrop of political developments in Poland, Gdańsk is growing into an island of freedom. When the parliament, where Law and Justice has the majority, passed a special act in the framework of populist “de-communisation” legislation, almost 30 years after the fall of communism, there was an order to change street names across the country. As in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984”, old names were replaced, more often than not with the name of Lech Kaczyński, deceased identical twin brother of the former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński. Lech was chair of PiS, a position his brother now holds.

In January this year, Paweł Adamowicz was one of the few city presidents to say “no”. PiS wants to take away the powers of local government, he said. “This law violates the constitutional principle of the decentralization of the Polish state.” Adamowicz is known for supporting the Union of Polish Cities, an association of city presidents who oppose centralization. It is Adamowicz who loudly says what others only think: the intention of state authorities is to take over the competence of local governments so as to strengthen the centre and the ruling party.

The government and local PiS members have got in a sweat over the President of Gdańsk’s liberalism and protest loudly over all his actions. Even when the city prepared a booklet for students on contraception and safe sex, PiS representatives accused it of issuing propaganda encouraging young people to have sex. Emotions are high across the country, Gdańsk included, ahead of local elections to be held in November.

A grand enigma

Tourists here often confront a conundrum: how to understand Gdańsk in the context of what it is now and what it was as a Polish city with German/Hanseatic architecture and a complex historical Polish/German identity? The history of Gdańsk is the history of Europe in a nutshell: Hanseatic granaries, Napoleonic fortresses, pavements on which Hitler-saluting troops marched, shipyard cranes that witnessed bloody clashes between workers and police during communist times. It is a story full of human dramas, defeats and failures, but also victory. From the ruins, both literal and metaphorical, the inhabitants have managed to rebuild Gdańsk, to forgive and repair relations with their neighbours and, pushed by an invisible sea breeze, seem to go beyond limits and make the impossible happen.

This history teaches one more thing: that crazy ideologies bring misfortune to millions of people. Gdańsk bore witness to many of them, but none managed to separate the city from its European destiny.

The late and censored publication in 1983 of the Polish translation of Günter Grass’s “The Tin Drum”, and the limited screenings of Schlöndorff’s film, provoked a real revolution in thinking about the city. Grass became the godfather of the new, post-communist and post-nationalist model of consciousness of Gdańsk’s inhabitants.

The awesome power of the myth

There are two components to this: the rediscovery of the German presence in pre-war Gdańsk and the anesthetizing effects of the mythologization of the city’s multi-culturalism. The myth of the multi-culturalists of the late 1980s was very attractive because it sang with the aspirations of Poles for multi-culturalism and the idea of a post-nationalist, mythical Europe. It was easier to accept that Gdańsk was co-created by numerous peoples – Scots, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Italians, Dutch, Flemish people, and of course Germans, Kashubians and Poles – than to address the historical fact of the absolute dominance of Germans in Gdańsk during the last few centuries.

For Poles today, Gdańsk embodies solidarity and a place open to the world, firmly rooted in Europe. It is this duality of Gdańsk’s nature, its multi-culturalism and global patriotism that define its strength and make it a place that can rightly be called “a city without borders”. The “window to the world” myth arose from the city’s situation on the Baltic Sea. It’s no coincidence also that Gdańsk was one of the most important centres for the Polish “big beat” rock movement, the east bloc’s answer to rock and roll that was banned during communism.

The 1970s and 1980s strikes meant that the shipyards, especially the Lenin Shipyard, couldn’t any more be associated only with a maritime economy. They strengthened the idea of Gdańsk as a wayward, rebellious and freedom-loving city.

From Gate No.2 to all points east

Twenty minutes’ walk from the court in Nowe Ogrody Street and the Town Hall three huge crosses stand out in the grey winter sky, a monument to murdered shipyard workers. Waves of protests against the authorities took place constantly in Gdańsk, in the shipyards in particular, during over 40 years of communism in Poland. In December 1970 39 people were killed by the army and communist militia. The workers were murdered in front of Gate No. 2 of the shipyard. When in 1980 a new strike broke out there one of the main reasons was to commemorate those murdered ten years earlier. The monument stands today only a few metres from Gate No. 2.

This gate is also the symbol of the 1980 protest that led to the emergence of “Solidarity” and the monumental changes in Poland and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that followed. For many years the shipyard was ringed by a wall that separated it from the city. During the strikes, thousands of inhabitants of Gdańsk used to gather under Gate No. 2 with flowers and food for protesters. It was from this place that Lech Wałęsa announced the end of the strike. Today the gate is still decorated with flowers, portraits of John Paul II and the Madonna. But the shipyard is now gone. A new district, known as the “Young Town”, is to be built on 70 hectares of the former site.

Out of the shipyard rubble

Behind the symbolic gate a new, gigantic building housing the European Solidarity Center (ECS) is taking shape. The façade of ECS, the Solidarity museum, is a rusted structure made with the remains of ships’ hulls. Here, on the one of the higher floors, Lech Wałęsa has his office.

At Gate No. 2, I pass a handful of employees of one of the factories that grew on the rubble of the shipyard. They’re Ukrainians, newcomers from the east saving today’s Polish labour market.

It’s February and a tour of the ECS starts with “Free European Media”, a conference on freedom of speech organized by the European Federation of Journalists. Mayor Paweł Adamowicz welcomes the guests.

“You could not have chosen a better place for this conference,” he says. “Gdańsk has always been a place of struggle for democratic values, for openness and freedom. Gdańsk always gave inspiration to others. It’s good that in the days of propaganda and “fake news” there are still journalists who believe in trustworthiness, reliability, credibility and service to the public. I hope that thanks to you free, independent media will survive.”

Basil Kerski, director of the European Solidarity Center, declares: “Europe starts here.” His voice sounds sad in a large and empty room. “The ECS is not only devoted to the Polish story of the birth of democracy, but to being a European centre devoted to democratic traditions. Today we should ask ourselves questions about the condition of modern society, about how stable democracy is today, not only in Poland, and how tolerant we are as citizens.”

He continues: “Many countries in Europe have problems reconciling the national interest with a wider European interest. The EU can no longer be merely an economic union. It must also be a cultural union based on the tradition of openness, dialogue and empathy.”

Against the speeches of Adamowicz and Kerski, the voice of Manuel Mateo Goyet from the European Commission sounds bland and official. “Media pluralism must be understood, understood not only as quantity but as diversity,” he says. “The media must be transparent and reliable.”

When journalists from Poland take the stage no one’s bored anymore. Krzysztof Bobiński from the Journalism Society talks openly about the censorship currently being conducted in the Polish public media and about the mass dismissal of journalists for their political sympathies. Welcome to today’s Poland.

The image of Gdańsk, the city that first waged the fight against communism, was great in the 1980s. There was no one in Poland who didn’t associate it as the cradle of Solidarity and the opposition. Today, places like the ECS with its discussions about freedom of speech are hated by the PiS for their liberalism and for bringing together people who don’t follow the voice of populism. When in 2016 Krzysztof Wyszkowski, an opposition figure in the communist era and now supporter of Law and Justice quit the supervisory board of the ECS, he described Wałęsa as a “crime genius and imposter” and Donald Tusk as “invented by the secret communist police”.

Museums on the frontline of conflict

The ECS belongs to the local government. The City Hall makes all the decisions there. But another new museum, the Museum of the Second World War, is managed by Warsaw and directed and staffed by the government. Just after the opening in 2017, the exhibition received great recognition from historians from around the world. “There are many museums about World War II, but the narrative of the Gdańsk exhibition completely changes the perception of the war,” said Prof. Timothy Snyder from Yale University.

Unfortunately, this opinion is no longer valid. The new director of the museum, Dr. Karol Nawrocki, has already removed from scrutiny evidence documenting efforts to finish the exhibition despite obstruction from the PiS authorities. Censorship had begun. The Ministry of Culture commissioned a review of the permanent exhibition by historians associated with the government. All of them were critical. PiS also does not like the film shown at the end of the exhibition, a loud anti-war cry from the authors of the exhibition.

In November 2017 the apartment of Professor Pawel Machcewicz, a former director of the museum, was visited by agents of the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA). The historian was abroad on a scholarship at the Wissenchaftskolleg zu Berlin, so the agents informed his son that they wanted to interrogate his father regarding acts allegedly committed to the detriment of the museum. At the same time CBA agents entered the City Hall of Gdańsk looking for documents. Earlier, the Minister of Culture had accused the authorities formerly running the museum of mismanagement during its construction.

On the way from the City Hall to the shipyards tourists pass an elegant office building. This is the headquarters of the Solidarity trade union. But Solidarity today is a shadow of what it was in the 80s. Instead of defending workers’ rights, the trade union has become a hub for rulers from PiS.

For people remembering the 1980s, those who proudly wore the lapel badge of Solidarity in which all the libertarian and democratic aspirations of Poles were concentrated, the fall of the union ethos is painful.

“At the demonstrations I chanted, together with thousands of my fellow citizens, the word Solidarity, which was a symbol and a synthesis of everything we fought for,” says Roman Abramski, a former history teacher and a pensioner today. “I was proud of this word and brand.

Today the same brand is used to scare people who dare oppose the authoritarian government. Solidarity has become a government helper, taking the role of the regime’s trade union, not a workers’ union.”

Abramski points his finger in the direction of Gate No. 2. Every year the August 1980 anniversary celebrations take place there. Ever since PiS rule in the country there has been a dispute over who can and who can’t demonstrate that day at the gate. The governor of Pomorskie voivodship, representing the government, made an administrative order that the organizer of the celebrations could only be “Solidarność”, banning opposition groups from the place.

Janusz Śniadek, a former chairman of Solidarity and today a PiS deputy, announced in a press interview: “It is Lech Kaczyński who is a symbol of Solidarity, not Lech Wałęsa”.

They stopped honouring us

Roman Abramski, the former history teacher, says Solidarity wasn’t just an employee syndicate but also a great social movement linking compatriots with very different political views in the struggle for civic rights, and extending the freedom and sovereignty of the country. “Why should the only right to the anniversary belong to Solidarity?”, he argues. “Especially since they stand clearly on one side of the political scene? Today, they support the party that limits civic rights and the field of freedom.”

Piotr Duda, today’s chairman of Solidarity, did not strike in 1980 as he was too young. He is known less for protesting, more for his love of spending holidays in a luxurious apartment and for his attacks on liberal journalists. Of Duda, Roman Abramski says: “The dispute over who has the right to honour the anniversary of August 1980 is in fact a struggle against the falsification of history. An attempt to push Lech Wałęsa to the margins.”

The collapse of the shipyard is a visible sign of change in the city. But the history of such an extraordinary place, combined with the widespread narrative about its freedom-loving people, will remain fixed in the visitor’s memory.

Spring is coming to Gdańsk, then the summer. On the last day of August, during the anniversary of an agreement between those striking with the communist regime, delegations will again gather at Solidarity Square, near the Monument to the Murdered Shipyard Workers and Gate No. 2. But the symbolic association with Solidarity is all but exhausted. In the frosty chill, under a leaden sky, few lay flowers in front of the Gate No. 2 these days. The wall separating the shipyard from the rest of Gdańsk has disappeared, the halls and cranes gone too. In the local court at Nowe Ogrody Street a civil trial for the protection of personal rights will soon begin. Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of Law and Justice, is filing a suit against Lech Wałęsa about the words the former Solidarity leader published about him on Facebook.

Without waiting for the autumn elections, the test as to whether society has bought into populism, anti-Europeanism and nationalism has already been passed. When Polish President Andrzej Duda visited Gdańsk in December someone in the airport tried to cover the plaque bearing the inscription “Lech Wałęsa Airport”. In recent days activists associated with PiS have filed a petition to change officially the name. Probably this idea won’t fly. The airport administration still belongs to the City Hall. And the mayor and the city are not the easiest of opponents to take on.