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

“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.