A new style of Polish protest


Elzbieta Rawicz-Oledzka

Elzbieta Rawicz-Oledzka from Poznan spoke of the impact the protest group Wolnosc i Pokoj (WiP -- Freedom and Peace) had on the Polish political climate when it emerged after four years of martial law. WiP began in 1985 with a public fast in a church. Two years later it pulled off a previously impossible feat for an opposition group: an international peace movement seminar in Warsaw. Even though two churches succumbed to their hierarchy and withdrew facilities, and despite a lot of visa problems, WiP managed to bring together peace activists from 17 countries who were addressed by leading figures in the Polish democratic opposition.
At a time when other groups were organising in clandestine ways, WiP members put their names to statements, publicly returned their military papers, and developed new forms of demonstrations such as ┬┤roofing' (climbing onto the roof of large buildings to display banners). Conference participant Michael Randle, of the UK Social Defence Project, interviewed Elzbieta in July 1990 -- another version of this interview appears in his book People Power: the building of a new European home (Hawthorn Press, 1991)
What in your view were the key factors that led to revolt and political change in Poland?

The economic factor was most important. The Round Table talks between representatives of the government and Solidarity in early 1989 opened the way to a new political and economic system; they also set a precedent which was followed elsewhere in Eastern Europe. But it was largely the economic situation which forced the government to take this unprecedented step. The government needed a compromise at home to get the economy moving again; and it needed international legitimacy to encourage other countries to assist Poland in a period of economic crisis. Back in 1981 the government had tried to crush Solidarity through brute force. But this did not touch the root of the problem, and by the mid-1980s the economic crisis had become so acute that it was clear that a new initiative would have to be taken.

There were, of course, other factors, notably the changes in Soviet policy, but the economic factor was central.

How important was nonviolence in the struggle for change?

For the movement I worked with, Freedom and Peace (Wolnosc i Pokoj -- WiP), nonviolence was crucial right from the start. This is clear from WiP's founding statement in 1985. Contact with the Western peace movements was also important, both tactically and in the exchange of ideas. Tactically it enabled us to put pressure on the Polish authorities to avoid extremes of repression in dealing with our movement. Thus we distributed our founding document to friends in the Western peace movements and as widely as possible both within Poland and outside. As a result when all the participants in one of our actions were arrested and faced the possibility of long sentences, protests from the Western peace movements, publicity on Radio Free Europe, and so forth, prompted the Polish authorities to release everyone involved quite soon.

Nevertheless when you and others openly protested against the policies of the government, you knew you faced serious risks of being beaten up or spending years behind bars. What led you to overcome your fears and take to the streets?

I and many from a still younger generation had been at school or university during the period 1980-81 when Solidarity emerged as a major force in Polish society, and at the time of the crackdown in 1981. In a sense, we felt that it was our turn to do something to try to change it.

It is true that at first arrests, searches and imprisonment have a traumatic effect. For instance, when your home is searched for the first time, it feels like a violation of your person and privacy. But afer a few times you know what to expect and the impact is less. Speaking for myself, I can say that there came a point when I felt that the situation was quite unbearable, and that I simply had to do something to try to change it.

How important was the church to the emergence of WiP?

We saw the church as a kind of physical necessity; it provided almost the only space open for public initiatives. Some WiP members saw themselves as Catholics, but WiP also included non-religious and even anti-religious people. So holding fasts, vigils and meetings in churches was less because people were influenced by Catholic ideas as that church buildings were almost the only places we could meet; the church offered some sort of social sphere of independence. A few clergy were open to peace initiatives, and the rest tended to take an attitude of silent acceptance: after all, there was not so much going on in 1985-86 and Solidarity had little visible presence.

WiP adopted a very different style of protest from Solidarity.

That's true. Since the imposition of martial law in 1981, Solidarity had been operating underground. By 1985, however, it had largely lost momentum, and we in WiP decided that the time had come to act openly. We informed as many people and organisations as possible about our intentions in advance of an action. We even wrote to the police sometimes giving them details of our plans. The underground press was very important in spreading the word within Poland. It was a flourishing industry at that time, with many factories producing two or three underground papers.

Humour soon became an important element in our protests. In Wroclaw the ┬┤happenings' of the Orange Alternative Movement were often so amusing that people watching would all be laughing and the police would stand round embarrassed not knowing how to react. Some of these demonstrations coincided with significant anniversaries. One ┬┤celebrated' the anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, with groups of people representing the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Czarist forces. Even though all public demonstrations were banned, the atmosphere was relaxed and good-humoured, and for some time the police did not realise that this was an action aimed against the authorities. When the police finally did realise what we were up to, they moved in and arrested everybody. But then down at the police station many of the demonstrators were charged with the offence of "Celebrating the Russian Revolution" -- and these were the words which actually appeared on the charge sheets and were solemnly read out when they appeared in court.

On another occasion, one group of demonstrators dressed up in imitation police uniforms and used French loaves instead of truncheons to stage a mock attack on the rest of the participants. The bystanders were all laughing, and again for a while the police did not know what to do. This style of demonstration spread from Wroclaw to other cities, and humour became a feature of many WiP demonstrations.

Did Solidarity follow this lead at all?

No, not to my knowledge. I think the Solidarity leaders were too old and rather too serious to adopt this style of protest.

Did they follow your example in other ways -- for instance in organising and demonstrating more openly?

I don't think we influenced them in that way either. However, after the opening of the Round Table Talks in early 1989, Solidarity were in a curious situation of semi-legality. Formally they were still an illegal organisation; but their leaders were sitting down with government and Party representatives to try to reach an agreement on a new constitution for Poland. By this time Solidarity had their own offices and were able to organise quite openly and without interference.

But of course there was a considerable degree of interaction between WiP and Solidarity. Some WiP people were invited to join the Solidarity National Committee. It was largely due to WiP influence too that Solidarity eventually took up the issue of alternative service for conscientious objectors.

Has there been much interest, arising out of the success of civil resistance in Poland, in the notion of social defence?

Not as such. For a while after the end of communist rule, there was a lot of interest in the idea of Polish neutrality, and of drastically reducing the size of the armed forces and the level of military expenditure. But people have been alarmed by the pace of German unification and the ambiguous statements by Chancellor Kohl on the issue of Poland's borders.

How strong is WiP at this stage?

Unfortunately the end of the old system has left many WiP activists feeling unsure of their role; there are disagreement about what to do, and some people have become demoralised. Numerically WiP was never strong -- it had no more than a few hundred active supporters at the height of its activities. However, because of the style and daring of its demonstrations, it had an impact out of all proportion to the numbers involved. It succeeded in particular in making conscription and alternative service a major issue in the country.

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