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Review: The Stockholm “Solidarity” Memoirs

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Torbjörn Nilsson & Thomas Lundén (eds) 1989 through Swedish Eyes: Witnesses’ Seminar of 22 Oct., 2009,
(Stockholm : Samtidshistoriska institutet, Centre for Baltic and East European Studies, 2010).
Fredrik Eriksson (ed.) It All Began in Poland : Sweden and “Solidarity ” 1980–1981, (Stockholm: Samtidshistoriska institutet, 2013).

Among the sources used by scholars of contemporary history, oral accounts are becoming increasingly popular. These are told by eye-witnesses, people who had major or minor impacts on the events in question, or who have knowledge that could not possibly be found in written sources.

This method, however difficult in its techniques, has become practically indispensable. It encompasses not only individual interviews, but also panel discussions. Meetings of this nature, called “witnesses’ seminars” (Vittnesseminarium), have been regularly held by the Contemporary History Institute at Södertörn högskola in Stockholm since 1998. After each of the meetings a precise account of all the speeches and discussions is published.

Over the last few years four of the meetings have dealt with the historic events of 1989. The first, held in 2006, concerned Sweden’s role in the Baltic States’ struggle to break free from Soviet domination. A year later Swedish policy towards the Baltic States in the first years of their independence became the focus of discussion. The opening of the 2009 sessions was marked by a conference devoted to the meaning of “the peaceful revolution of 1989” and the subsequent “witnesses’ seminar.” This time, the subject was treated from a broader perspective, inviting panelists who were able to talk about the changes in the GDR, Poland, Hungary, and the USSR from a Swedish perspective. A seminar organized on 13 December, 2010, devoted entirely to Polish issues, was an important complement to the above-mentioned series of meetings. The last two publications are particularly noteworthy, because this is where the voices on Polish events were heard. These voices represent part of Swedish historical memory dealing with the proceedings of the 1980s.

We should note that during the first of the two seminars the discussion revolved primarily around the demolition of the Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November, 1989.

Jan Blomqvist, Sweden’s military attaché in Bonn, focused on the German context of the dissolution of the Communist Bloc. He mentioned that the reunion of the two German states swiftly became a point of debate between the superpowers. He praised the policy of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who had been taking advantage of all possible opportunities to maximize his gains. Ingrid Thörnqvist, a Swedish TV reporter, who was in Berlin on that day, interviewing passers-by about their emotions, first followed in Blomqvist’s footsteps. The Swedes could hardly believe what was happening. First reports of the opening of the border crossings in the capital of the GDR were unconfirmed, so not counting their chickens until they were hatched, the journalists remained rather conservative in their enthusiasm.

Örjan Berner, the Swedish ambassador in Moscow at the time, also spoke about the Berlin events. For him, the reaction of the Soviet authorities was key. As he recalls, there was a cool reception to the news from Berlin, with visible symptoms of being taken by surprise. At least nobody spoke of a military intervention, a fact which was decisive in the Swedish perception of the situation in the GDR. As for the long-term aftermath of the liberation of the Soviet satellite countries, the reaction of the West, including Sweden, was more reserved. What the western democracies feared most was the prospect of unpredictable domestic turmoil within the Soviet Union itself, which could easily lead to a civil war.

Journalist Arne Ruth of Dagens Nyheter, a leading Swedish daily, emphasized that the fall of the GDR and the rapid changes in Eastern and Central Europe were a great surprise. Now it seems obvious that these countries took the path leading to NATO and the European Union, but back then it was simply inconceivable. In Ruth’s opinion, a few other important figures of the time apart from Helmut Kohl should be mentioned: US President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and above all, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The notion of fear about Europe’s future made I. Thörnqvist reflect upon the chronology of its origins. She mentioned that the anxiety appeared right after the rise of the “Solidarity” independent trade union, when it was the deepest. Western observers were afraid of pan-European destabilization. Ingrid Thörnqvist also supplemented the list of main actors of the time, mentioning the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, the Protestant Church in East Germany, trade unions in various countries which had their ties to Solidarity, because “Poland was where the collapse of the Berlin Wall began.” Thörnqvist added that it had always been her conviction that “it was the Poles who did all the work, paved the way to freedom, fought against the regime through acts of resistance and made several endeavors.” She recalled the elections of 4 June, 1989 and the fact that a few weeks later Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minster of the first non-communist government in the Eastern Bloc. The others only followed in Poland’s footsteps.

Örjan Berner mentioned that he had a chance to observe the Polish grass roots movement of the anti-communist opposition in mid-1980s, when he was the ambassador in Warsaw. At a glance, this social movement seemed genuinely invincible, but on the other hand, the attitude of the regime, which still had the power to take repressive measures, was very important. From the Swedish perspective, then, the eventual changes came as a surprise, for the communist repressions were not lifted or diminished. According to Berner, the internal economic problems appeared decisive.

In his final statement, Arne Ruth stressed that the prime mover of the change was “the civil revolt, which coincided with the Soviet domestic crisis.” Without the civil opposition, anchored in the tradition of the Polish KOR [Worker’s Defense Committee] and the Czechoslovak Charter 77, the transformation would have been far less likely. It was the resistance of individuals, then, that made the first step in undermining the dictatorship.

A follow-up seminar, devoted to the Swedish response to the events in Poland in 1989, was also held. Sten Johansson, a renowned social-democratic politician, once the editor-in-chief of Tiden magazine and an adviser to Olaf Palme, talked about his contacts with Maria Borowska, who was spreading knowledge about the real nature of the communist dictatorship and the democratic opposition in the PRL (People’s Republic of Poland). With admiration, but doubtful of its effects, he observed the phenomenon of samizdat in Poland and the activities of the Workers’ Defense Committee in the 1970s. It was not until the dawn of the Solidarity era that he finally believed in the opposition, however small a group of activists they might have been.

Jakub Święcicki, Borowska’s close associate, active mainly in liberal circles, remarked that the sense of KOR’s existence lay not in the number of its members, but in openly expressed views shared by the majority of society, that is, a rejection of communism. Disregarding the circumstances at hand, it was a battle for democracy. Another speaker about Maria Borowska’s service was Bengt Säve-Söderbergh, a leading social democratic activist, a diplomat, and the leader of Arbetarrörelsens Internationella Centrum [International Working-Class Movement Center], now the Olof Palme International Center. He described Borowska as an “astute and stubborn” person and remarked that the Swedish Social Democratic Party had supported Solidarity from the very beginning through the Swedish Trade Union Confederation. All the people involved were well aware that the meaning of Solidarity was much broader than that of a trade union movement, but these aspects had to be avoided at all costs, or else the authorities in communist Poland would have had a pretext for making accusations of anti-state activities and repressing the Solidarity activists. Generally speaking, in Sweden Poland had been associated with opposition against oppressive and unwanted rule since the nineteenth century and anti-Russian uprisings. Another characteristic feature of the time was the strong position of the Catholic Church, whose cooperation was absolutely necessary in terms of distributing humanitarian aid, which seemed quite an exotic alliance for social democrats.

Sven Hirdman, a professional diplomat, focused on the international safety issues. He reminded the audience that Solidarity was formed in a difficult period, right after the beginning of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and just before Ronald Reagan took office, which were “two events that made us really anxious.” In spite of relatively correct bilateral relations (Olof Palme visited Poland in 1974 and a year later Edward Gierek made a trip to Stockholm), Hirdman held the conviction that the communists in the Eastern Bloc, deprived of popular legitimization of their authority, would collapse. The only question was when and how they would give up their rule. On the other hand, any changes on the international arena in that phase of the Cold War could have resulted in a nuclear conflict. Considering this context, the Swedish diplomacy feared that Solidarity would eventually destabilize the region, which, in the end, nobody would be able to control. Håkan Holmberg, a journalist connected to the Liberal Party [Folkpartiet], mentioned that the Committee for Solidarity with Eastern Europe [Östeuropeiska Solidartietskommittén], where he served with Jakub Święcicki, was active in Sweden in the time of KOR’s activities in Poland. Their main task was to provide real information about the situation in the Communist Bloc, as a counterweight to the official propaganda of the PRL regime.

Above all, they worked toward making the Swedish public aware that the communist regime in Poland was illegitimate. As a result, Polish democratic activities were unofficially and extremely cautiously supported, while the official Swedish line remained in concert with the Brandt and Kreisky doctrine, that is, curbing the opposition movements as dangerous, not only to the domestic order in Poland, but also from an international perspective. Hirdman admitted that the Swedish politicians, no matter who formed the government, “obeyed the Germans.”

Święcicki emphasized that had the Brandt “neutral line” continued, the Soviet Union would still exist. Säve-Söderbergh protested, denying that Palme followed Brandt’s policy toward Poland. In his opinion it was just the opposite: support for the Polish and Czechoslovak opposition was evident, as were the Swedish anti-apartheid activities in South Africa. The evidence for the involvement were transports of printing equipment and material aid for Solidarity, which continued even after 13 December, 1981.

A considerable part of the seminar was taken up by Sven Hirdman’s address, in which he exposed a government report of December 1980. It showed the consequences of the crisis for Sweden caused by the expected Soviet intervention. As the report had it, for the first time since the conclusion of WWII the Swedish government made a decision to raise the level of combat readiness of the Swedish armed forces. This meant extending the obligatory service period in the navy. The government also considered accepting a larger number of refugees from Poland, including soldiers and officers. Yet the most serious concern was that, should an armed conflict between the Polish and the Soviet army occur, the combat would unquestionably spread through Swedish territorial waters and airspace.

Hirdman himself did not believe the Soviets would decide to take military action, neither in 1980, nor a year later, as this would have meant “serious consequences for their relationship with Europe and the United States.” Swedish diplomats took every opportunity to explain to their Soviet peers that the Poles should handle their own affairs and that they would undoubtedly do this. Considering this position, it became even more difficult for the participants to express an unequivocal judgment of General Jaruzelski’s decision to declare Martial Law. The disputants agreed that, in order to state beyond doubt if this decision was in fact a lesser evil or not, access to secret, still inaccessible archives would be necessary. Attempts to assess General Jaruzelski’s conduct become even more complex considering his later approval of the elections of June 1989, which led to the eclipse of his rule.

In essence, the seminars on the Swedish perception of the events of 1980s which culminated in the fall of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe show that the collapse of the Berlin Wall still dominates the popular reception of those times. Deeper analysis is needed to realize that in fact it was Poland where “it all began” in 1980, and which was also the country which played the leading role in 1989 in a series of changes that transformed the entire Communist Bloc.


Paweł Jaworski. Researcher and instructor at the History Institute of the University of Wrocław. His research interests include the history of Poland and the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history of Scandinavia and Polish-Scandinavian relations, the history of Central-Eastern Europe, and Czechoslovakia in particular, and the history of diplomacy and international relations. He has written Independent Poland and Scandinavia 1918–1939, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, Wrocław 2001 and Dreamers and Opportunists: Polish-Swedish Relations from 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo IPN, Warsaw 2009.


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