Exploring Gdansk Shipyard: Where communism in Eastern Europe went into free fall

Take plenty of pictures if you visit Gdansk Shipyard anytime soon: change is in the air. Exploring this once-bustling industrial district on Poland’s Baltic coast, there were a few large vessels lying in dock and cranes towered on the horizon when we visited. But given that most of the red-brick workshops and offices we passed seemed to be derelict, with windows smashed and covered in graffiti, it was clear that the area’s best days as a place of heavy industry are now over.

As Gdansk continues to grow, thanks in part to increased tourism, the brownfield land in the vicinity of Gdansk Shipyard is being requisitioned for new apartments, offices and even a shopping centre. While some of the old industrial structures have already been demolished, hopefully the ones still standing – some of which date back more than a century – can be renovated and incorporated into new developments.

Gate 2 at Gdansk Shipyard

Construction of Royal Dockyard, as it was originally known, began in 1844 and battleships for the Second and Third Reichs from 1871 to 1914 and 1939 to 1945 were built here. But it was the incredible history of the site in the decades following the Second World War when, as Lenin Shipyard, it was used for the production of ocean-going vessels for the Soviet Union that had really brought me here.

It was here that communism in Poland started to crumble when rising prices and food shortages brought strikes and discontent. When riots brought out in December 1970, the Soviet regime used brute force to crush them and 45 people were shot dead by police.

Fast-forward exactly 10 years after the massacre and on 16th December 1980 the towering Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers was unveiled in front of tens of thousands of people close to Gate 2 of Gdansk Shipyard. Consisting of three 42-metre steel crosses – standing for Faith, Hope and Love – with anchors attached to their tops, it was a pioneering memorial for a Soviet nation.

Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers

Quite why the communist regime permitted it to be erected needs to be understood in the political climate of 1980. On August 14th, a strike in the Lenin Shipyard was initiated by two young workers – one of which, an electrician called Lech Walesa, later appointed President of Poland – who had been dismissed from their posts and it quickly spread. The strikers demanded that the duo be re-hired, pay rises awarded and safety guarantees be provided, as well as a series of other measures be given, including permission to build the aforementioned monument.

After three days of negotiations with the Government, an agreement was reached. But it wasn’t enough to satisfy the strikers and an Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee (MKS) was set-up which issued 21 demands for Polish workers, including permission to establish a self-governing trade union called Solidarity. There is today a replica ply wood board on the perimeter wall outside Gate 2 which provides, in Polish, a complete list of what the strikers called for. After the so-called Gdansk Agreement was signed on August 31st 1980 Lech Walesa commented:

“…We brought our dispute to an end without using force, by means of talks and persuasion. We showed that Poles can always come to an agreement with each other if they really want to. So both sides are successful… We gained all we could in the present situation. We will gain other things too, because we have the most important thing: our independent, self-governing trade unions. This is our guarantee for the future!”

Although it was by no means the end of the struggle for the Polish people, the Gdansk Agreement was an important milestone in bringing about change and influencing the course of history in Eastern Europe.

Free city

The Second World War brought devastation to Gdansk and some 90% of buildings in its main town were destroyed. Large black and white pictures taken during the conflict and on display in prominent spots in historic gatehouses show the main streets as little more than rubble. But thanks to 20 years of intensive, large-scale reconstruction works launched in 1949, the town looks much as it would of in the mid 16th to 18th centuries when it was at its height of its prosperity.

Gdansk main town

Gdansk’s known history dates back to at least 997 and its port quickly grew thanks in part to the arrival of a succession of migrants including those from the German community from Lubeck in the early 13th century and then the Teutonic order in 1308. It would go on to become Poland’s largest city and the most important trade centre in Central Europe. The restored lavish merchants houses and towering red-brick town hall that can be found along the Royal Way, where Polish kings paraded during their visits to Gdansk, demonstrates how wealthy Gdansk had become by the 18th century.

The city was annexed by Prussia in 1793 which held it, bar a short interlude from 1807 1815 when it wasn’t in German hands, until the First World War. After Germany’s defeat in the conflict, Gdansk became in 1920 the Free City of Danzig and was protected by the League of Nations, although Poland represented it internationally. Support in the city for Hitler was high, with perhaps nine out of 10 people supporting the Nazi regime.

In 1945, two weeks before the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union ‘liberated’ Gdansk in accordance with the agreement reached by the three Allied leaders – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin – earlier in the year at the Yalta Conference. Polish newcomers, brought in from the east, replaced German residents who had either fled or died in the conflict, but it was the Soviets that well and truly stamped their authority on Gdansk, creating for example the Safety Office, which imposed censorship and issued passports. It was housed in a 19th century brick-built building near the centre of the main town.

But as prices rose and the shelves of food shops became empty, the workers at Gdansk Shipyard decided enough was enough.

Solidarity is born

The European Solidarity Centre (ESC), housed in a modern – and some have said ugly – building on the edge of Gdansk Shipyard, is a good place to start to piece together the story of how Poland not only won peace for itself, but also made a sizeable contribution to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe as a whole. Artefacts, ranging from the plywood boards with the 21 demands to the overhead crane cab where one of the original two strikers worked, and multimedia footage describes through seven chronological halls how the wide-spread strikes of the 1970s finally resulted in the country’s first partially free elections in 1989.

Overhead crane cab where one of the original two strikers worked in 1980

Afterwards its worth taking a walk to the BHP Hall (the ‘Health and Safety at Work Hall’), which was built in 1902 and was where the aforementioned MKS was set-up and held its meetings and then where in 1980 the Gdansk Agreement, permitting Solidarity to be established and Lech Walesa was made its Chair. It is one of the few industrial buildings on the site that I spotted that didn’t seem to be derelict and is today the Gdansk Shipyard Museum, which has an amazing, detailed model showing what it would have looked like in 1980 (you could even see the protestors pouring through the gates, where the world’s media would have been camped out during the dispute).

Some 10 million Poles joined Solidarity, the first free mass Socialist organisation in the communist bloc. But the 1980 agreement was only the beginning of the end of Poland’s struggle because on December 13th 1981 martial law was declared in the face of pressure from the Soviets and local hardliners not to introduce significant reforms. Tanks went out onto the streets, Solidarity was outlawed, strikes were brutally crushed and mass arrests took place (a STAR Police truck that was used to take protestors away features in the ESC exhibition).

The opposition to the regime didn’t go away however: it just went underground. In July 1984 a limited amnesty was announced and some political prisoners were released from prison. Pilgrimages by the Pope to Poland also helped to bring hope – and plans – for solving the crisis.

Eventually the government was forced to negotiate and between February and April 1989 Roundtable Table Talks took place, prompting elections (regarded as partially free because the communists were guaranteed a certain number of seats) to be held in the June of that year. While Wojciech Jaruzelki, the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party from 1981 to 1989 became president, Tadeusz Mazowiecki was the first non-communist prime minster in the Soviet Bloc.

The events of 1989 in Poland helped to bring about the collapse of communism throughout Eastern Europe as whole and the following year the Communist Party itself was dissolved. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa became president of the country in November 1990 after winning the first fully free elections. But after initially winning the support of the people through restoring food availability in the shops, prices and unemployment increased which made him extremely popular. After presiding over no less than five governments during his statutory five year term, he was defeated in 1995 elections by a former communist.

In more recent years Poland has swung further to the right and the ruling Law and Justice Party has also become a vocal opponent of the EU; Poland was one of a new wave of countries that joined in 2004 and many now want to leave the institution saying it is becoming a drain on the economy. The governing party’s leader is Jaroslaw Kaczynski who was Lech Walesa’s comrade in Solidarity, but the two don’t exactly see eye to eye. “They are destroying my victory,” said Mr Walesa in a recent interview.

After the fall of communism, Gdansk Shipyard specialised in the early 1990s in building refrigerated ships, but it went bust in 1996. Although it was revived, it faced more struggles due to rising costs when Poland joined the EU due to increased competition. Gdansk Shipyard was sold to a Ukrainian company in 2007 and the decision was taken to focus production mostly on building windfarm components and hulls for Norwegian ships, rather than assembling complete vessels.

Re-development at the site has been slower than hoped as the economy dipped slightly in more recent years, but there is every expectation that new, yet tasteful development will succeed on this vast and almost abandoned area. Our tour guide seemed very optimistic for the future when she urged our group: “Take plenty of pictures.”

I took a free two hour guided ‘Solidarity’ walk to Gdansk Shipyard with the Free Walking Tour Foundation. The tours, which are funded by tips, leave daily from main town Gdansk.

The European Solidarity Centre (ESC)

Model showing strikers flowing through Gate 2 of Gdansk Shipyard in 1980

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