It was a moment of triumph for Poland and its people 20 years ago when parliament gave a rapturous reception to the country’s first post-communist era prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. He was the first such head of government in eastern Europe and his appointment was another key event in the idealogical sea-change taking place in that part of the world at the time.
His rise to international political prominence was linked to the growth of the Solidarity movement, which emerged as a major force in 1980. A well-known Catholic intellectual, he threw his weight behind the Gdansk shipyard workers’ strike and the social change they sought to bring about. In the summer of 1980 Mazowiecki became one of the advisors to strike leader and future president Lech Walesa. He advocated caution rather than confrontation in the unions’ dealings with the hardline authorities. But it did not prevent a crackdown. In December 1981, in the face of rising protests Poland’s military ruler General Jaruzelski imposed martial law. The government said the drastic measure was needed to head off an intervention by Soviet troops. Solidarity was declared illegal and Mazowiecki, along with many others, were interned for more than a year. The outlawed union movement went underground and, with the support of the Catholic Church, grew in strength during the 80s, ultimately forcing the communist leadership into dialogue. Mazowiecki remained a guiding influence for Solidarity throughout the negotiations. He could take no little credit for many of the constitutional and social reforms that emerged. The most fundamental change was the introduction of free elections. In early June 1989 Poles, still under the watchful eye of the Soviet military, went to the ballot boxes in their millions and ushered in a new era for their country and the rest of Europe. Tadeusz Mazowiecki took his place as the head of a new democratic government, with Lech Walesa as president.