Friday, 1 June 2018

Nexus of Change: Gdańsk Shipyard, Poland

I visited Poland in 2016 courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

In 1980, the Solidarity trade union was founded at the Lenin Shipyard (later renamed the Gdańsk Shipyard) in Gdańsk, Poland.

Led by electrician Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity became the first independent trade union recognised in Eastern Europe's communist bloc, after a massive strike forced the Polish government to legalise it.

A decade of struggle, repression and civil disobedience followed, until the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of Europe's communist regimes.

The Wall's collapse can be traced back to Solidarity, its foundation having forced the first cracks into the totalitarian structure.


Nowadays the Gdańsk Shipyard is much reduced as a working facility. On part of its former footprint stands the European Solidarity Centre, opened in 2014 with an exhibition explaining the long struggle for freedom which began here.


I walked through it on my 2016 visit, and for a student of history it was fascinating. From mock-ups of communist-era homes and offices, to chilling details of the surveillance state, it gives a sense of what it was like to live through those times.


At the end of the exhibition is a stylised replica of the circular conference table which negotiated a peaceful end to the regime. I saw it as a symbol of hope. Not every tussle for power has to end in bloody civil war.


In addition to housing the Centre, the shipyard site has hosted major rock concerts to mark Solidarity's struggle, and its distinctive Gate Number Two has become a symbol of freedom.

The gate still stands, and makes an impressive architectural counterpoint to the hyper-modern ESC building.


In a time of political uncertainty across Europe, with democracy seemingly shaky, this site - so crucial in the spread of freedom across the continent - is well worth a visit.

The European Solidarity Centre is open daily from 10am, admission 20zł ($7). For more details, visit its website.