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Gdansk, the Domino that Toppled the Berlin Wall

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a struggle between capitalism and communism, ready to annihilate each other with nuclear weapons. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union imposed its will on Eastern Europe, and in the 50s, 60s and 70s the dominos began to fall as communism took hold in China, North Korea, Vietnam and other South East Asian countries.

But in August 1980, a group of striking shipyard workers in Gdansk, Poland began pushing those dominos back in the other direction. The election of Krakow's Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II two years earlier emboldened them to challenge the atheist communist system that had been imposed on Poland by the Soviet Union. The new Pope told the people of Poland "do not be afraid."

And so began the end of Russia's Soviet empire. The shipyard workers pulled back the Iron Curtain and exposed the communist worker's paradise for what it was - a farce. Strikes broke out across Poland, as coal miners, factory workers and others followed suit, bringing the communist system to a standstill. The communists were forced to allow the establishment of a free trade union called Solidarity with the electrician Lech Walesa as its leader. They also agreed to release political prisoners and allow uncensored media.

During the autumn of 1980, millions of Poles joined the Solidarity movement, which numbered 10 million strong by the end of the year. U.S. President Ronald Reagan wanted to confront "the Evil Empire," as he called the Soviet Union, and Solidarity proved that the Soviet system could be challenged.

While Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev told Polish General Wojciech Jaruzelski that Solidarity was an issue that the Poles should deal with internally, the Soviet Union mobilized the Russian army and amassed tanks on the Polish border. The Kremlin's show of force was clear. To avoid a bloodbath, Gen. Jaruzelski declared martial law on Dec. 13, 1981 and mobilized his own Polish troops to outlaw Solidarity.

This forced the Solidarity movement underground, and during the 1980s, Poles struggled to revive it. Secret newspapers were printed and distributed as Solidarity continued the fight with help from the American trade union, the AFL-CIO.

With the Soviet Union's economy collapsing, Mikhail Gorbachev took over in the Kremlin in 1985 and declared a new era of openness. Starting out as a journalist, I traveled to Poland in 1985 and met activists such as Lech Walesa and later Zbigniew Bujak, the head of Solidarity's Warsaw branch. Bujak explained that he had studied passive resistance and the methods of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Sands. Using passive resistance, and their faith the in church, the Poles waited for a sign from Pope John Paul II.

On June 12, 1987, I attended an open air mass in a residential neighborhood in Gdansk that the Pope dedicated to workers. In an open air field, surrounded by high rise apartment buildings, the Poles built a spectacular altar designed to look like a ship. The bow had a 15-foot sculpture of St. Peter and the deck where the Pope stood was 50 feet above the crowd. The communists were stunned when nearly one million people showed up to hear the Pope.

In his homily, Pope John Paul II told the multitudes, "Feel solidarity, show solidarity with one another." He then scolded the communist authorities, saying that workers had the right to independent and self-governing trade unions.

As if part of a one-two punch against the Evil Empire, that same day, President Reagan gave a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, where he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Solidarity was reinstated as a free trade union on Jan. 27, 1989, and by June, Poland was independent. The other nations in Eastern Europe also rose up, and one by one, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Romania all earned their freedom. Communism began to fall like a row of dominos.

On Nov. 9, the Germans themselves began tearing down the Berlin Wall. Soon after, the Soviet Union crumbled, and its former republics, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Moldavia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia all gained their independence. After that, Yugoslavia fell apart and Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro also won their independence.

Later this month, the Kosciuszko Foundation will host a series of panel discussions and films about the Solidarity movement. In the meantime, you can view a short film, "Roads to Freedom," prepared by the Solidarity Foundation Center in Gdansk, by visiting the Kosciuszko Foundation's web site: http://www.thekf.org

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