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(Author’s note: This column contains a special announcement, which readers can learn more about via this link).
1989 was a momentous year for liberty in the world. It was the year Soviet rule over central Europe disintegrated, paving the way for the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in December 1991. Free people everywhere should toast the brave people of one nation in particular–Poland–for the pivotal role they played in those historic events.
It was on June 4, 1989, as Chinese government tanks crushed a mass uprising in Tiananmen Square, that Poland electrified the world by holding the first free elections in communist Europe. Anti-communist and anti-socialist activists stunned even fellow Poles by their showing. They won 99 of 100 seats in the Senate and every single one of the 161 seats in the lower house of Parliament that the regime allowed to be contested. The momentum for liberty across the Soviet empire would mushroom until it toppled dictators from the Baltics to the Carpathians.
The history of Poland from the imposition of martial law by the communist government in December 1981 to the glorious elections of 1989 is not the saga of a pessimistic, defeatist, or compliant people. Rather, it is a remarkable testament to the human will to be free.
One of the intellectual giants of Polish liberty, Leszek Kolakowski, labeled Marxism “the greatest fantasy of our century” and regarded totalitarian brutality as the inevitable outcome of the concentration of power.
Communist rule was brutal but arbitrary arrests, shortages of basic foodstuffs, double-digit inflation, and powerful secret police did not deter the Polish people from creating thriving black markets and flourishing private, underground institutions, from radio to theaters to publishing houses and schools. Poles knew from painful experience that, as dissident Stefan Kisielewski put it, “Socialism is stupidism.” He was beaten and arrested just for saying that, which only proved his point.
As a freelance journalist, I spent a couple weeks inside Poland in 1986, visiting each day with activists in the anti-communist underground. They had built a pervasive and powerful resistance in defiance of the dictatorship. My favorite story from that time involves a very brave couple, Zbigniew and Sofia Romaszewski. They had only lately been released from prison for running an underground radio station.
“How did you know when you were broadcasting if people were listening?” I asked. Sofia answered, “We could only broadcast eight to ten minutes at a time before going to another place to stay ahead of the police. One night we asked people to blink their lights if they believed in freedom for Poland. We then went to the window and for hours, all of Warsaw was blinking.”
When he announced those historic free elections for June 1989, the head of the communist regime, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, was asked by a reporter, “What made you decide to hold elections?” His reply was, “Poland has become ungovernable.” Having seen the powerful resistance to his rule from the inside, I knew exactly what he meant.
My underground activities in communist Poland produced some difficulties. I was arrested and detained, strip-searched, and interrogated, then expelled. Not until the communists were crushed in 1989 was I allowed back into Poland, which I have visited many times since.
Soon I will go to Poland again, this time to proudly accept from its President the highest honor the country bestows upon a foreigner, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. U.S. President Ronald Reagan is a past recipient. It will be the proudest moment of my life.
While this award is a wonderful gesture of “thanks” from the Polish people for my work on their behalf, all of us who love liberty owe a debt of gratitude to them—for their role in bringing down the Soviet Empire, for their extraordinary generosity in assisting Ukraine in recent months, and for producing a super-abundance of real heroes over the centuries.
To the Polish people: Thank you for your courage, your perseverance, your vision, and your example. Your love of liberty burns as brightly today as ever!
Lawrence writes a weekly op-ed for El American. He is President Emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Atlanta, Georgia; and is the author of “Real heroes: inspiring true stories of courage, character, and conviction“ and the best-seller “Was Jesus a Socialist?“ //
Lawrence escribe un artículo de opinión semanal para El American. Es presidente emérito de la Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) en Atlanta, Georgia; y es el autor de “Héroes reales: inspirando historias reales de coraje, carácter y convicción” y el best-seller “¿Fue Jesús un socialista?”