In the spring and summer of 1989, the people of Poland had no energy and no desire to celebrate their revolution. Does it make sense, however, to now regret this and to try to “make up” for lost time? How should we respond to Bronisław Komorowski’s idea about making the 4th of June a national holiday of Polish freedom?
Tomasz Jastrun, a poet and perceptive observer of the end of the 1980s, recalls the 5th of June, the day the initial results of Poland’s first free, post-communist elections were announced in the following way: “I went […] to check out the results […] in our local voting station. Of the people who were there, none were shouting, or dancing, or cheering. Their hope and their triumph were both cloaked in silence. The scale of the success was so vast, it crushed us”. Aleksandra Domańska, a theatre director, had a similar experience: “Such a great outcome, so clear we had won everywhere – yet nothing. […] We haven’t retained any symbolic image of those days – […] the city just as grey as before. I was talking to a Solidarity activist from Siedlce, and he said the same thing that I was feeling: he was alone then, busy doing the same old, watching television – and no one even rang him. The pastel shade of that day is for me incomprehensible” (Łukasz Bertram, Wolność z wyboru, Karta Magazine 2014, nr 79). Stanisław Świerad, a journalist from Białystok, wrote in his diary at the start of July: “And the streets? The people? They just keep on living their grey lives. The queues in the shops the same as before. And the fear of something even worse to come, at any moment. People are irritated. Why aren’t they happy about the win over communism and the new light shining over Poland? Maybe they are afraid of what it will bring, this raw and uncertain future?” (from the KARTA Archive) These individual observations confirm surveys of public opinion dating back to the summer of 1989. Poles were overcome by a sense of doubt and helplessness. It was impossible to grasp the end of a political era, while the future was viewed with suspicion.
Historical breakthroughs, given specific dates or protected by censorship, are artificial constructions, formulated after the event by experts or politicians. 1989 is no different in this respect, this epoch-defining grey zone between an inert, expiring dictatorship and the first steps of a new order, more and more confidently pushing in to take over power. Poles did not charge into independence with any cavalier gusto. This unrevolutionary end to the Solidarity revolution lacked its Jacobeans, and was not provided with its own Bastille. This march towards freedom resembled more a slow, gasping crawl, the dragging on of an exhausted nation, which had over several decades been torn between resistance and adaptation, between nine million members of Solidarity and more than three million members of the Communist Party, as of August 1980. And yet on the 4th of June 1989, in a partially democratic show, the old regime’s last attempts at retaining power were brought to a definitive end. Yes, pastel-coloured in places, but bitter too – that is how the victory of those elections feels today. And yet, do Poles need a national anniversary celebration in memory of its importance? The effects of a government-sanctioned celebration could have two outcomes. On the one hand, specific dates printed in all calendars in red could help fix things in people’s memory, helping the nation gel through stable points of reference for a collective identity, and even as moral pointers. On the other hand, however, there is the risk of heavy over-simplifications and mythologisations coming into play. Giving the celebrations of a given event the status of a national holiday means we are more likely to see it in an idealised light, concealing any controversies which would otherwise interfere with the carnival of self-satisfied celebration.
Hence, the 4th of June 1989 is a lot more important in terms of who we are and what our options are today than 11th of November 1918. There is in this a little of our own fault, that we weren’t able to celebrate that earlier moment of reclaimed independence with anything other than pitiful processions or a sequence of film adaptations featuring Marshall Piłsudski. It would therefore be a terrible shame if celebrations of the 4th of June – regardless of whether it would be a day free of work, or free from barbecues – were to be only about revelling in the electoral act as carried out by the populace then and the watching of one more actor, dressed as Lech Walesa, arriving in a polished-up Polonez car to re-stage the historic moment when he placed his voting card in the ballot box. It would awful if in celebrating the 4th of June we forgot that in 1989 four out of ever ten Poles did not go to vote. It would also be terrible if in this way we tried to hide from the awareness that 1989 is a moment when our – undoubtedly our – Third Polish Republic was created, yet in a dual context: both of successes, as well as failures and inefficiencies.
Wanting to celebrate the date in a sensible fashion, we have to locate the point of balance between – maybe even socio-technological and to a certain extent manipulative – trying to improve one’s own sense of self-worth (for it was us, as a nation, who went to those polling booths), and the constant questioning about the costs and alternatives (for there is nothing more dangerous than a collective which delights in itself). The same is also true of the 31st of August, the anniversary of the August accords, another symbol drowning in formalin and political bickering. The Day of Freedom, which we do seem to need – in order to learn how to enjoy the success we attained – must also be a Day of Responsibility – so that we don’t grind to a halt convinced that we are living in the best of all possible worlds.
This article is a part of Kultura Liberalna’s book “To place Poland in the centre”. See the table of contents here.