The 1989 Polish Round Table Revisited: Making HistorySkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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What exactly does it mean to "make history"? To what degree can individuals formulate their own identities, make sense of the past, and create the future? How can we theorize the constructedness of historical narratives while still taking into account Marx's famous adage that people are restrained by "conditions not of their own choosing"? Few events allow us to explore these questions better than the 1989 Polish Round Table. On April 5 of that year, negotiations in Warsaw between the Communist government and the opposition led to the legalization of the Solidarity movement and the scheduling of the first contested elections in Poland in over four decades.
To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Round Table accords, the Center for Russian and East European Studies organized a four-day conference, "Communism's Negotiated Collapse: The Polish Round Table, Ten Years Later." The conference brought to the U-M many of those who participated in the talks of 1989. Our collective aim was not only to revisit the Round Table, but also to put the subsequent era of "negotiated revolutions" into historical perspective. Attendees included Adam Michnik, a famous dissident during the communist era and now the editor of Poland's leading newspaper; Aleksander Kwasniewski, Poland's current president and a former Communist party official; Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the last Communist prime minister; Wieslaw Chrzanowski, former speaker of parliament; as well as many of the leading dissidents, government officials, and Church leaders of the 1980s. Even His Holiness Pope John Paul II participated: on March 5, he sent a letter to U-M President Lee Bollinger conveying his hope that the work of the conference would "call needed attention to the superiority of patient dialogue over all forms of violence in the resolution of conflicts and the building of a just and humane social order."
The publicity material for the conference begins with the following headline: "On April 5, the world as we then knew it began to unravel." This statement is no exaggeration. Many of us remember those heady days, when even the most cynical observer shared the exhilaration that was so evident in Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Sofia and Berlin. For a moment, at least, it seemed appropriate to suspend our customary critical stance and celebrate the triumph of democracy; later we could analyze the new dynamics of power and injustice that would emerge in Eastern Europe. In 1989 we could only watch with amazement as one authoritarian regime after another came crashing to the ground (see sidebar below).
But 1989 wasn't a year of triumph for everyone. The "velvet revolution" in Czechoslovakia and the "negotiation revolution" in Poland must be set against the violent overthrow of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the Chinese massacre of student protestors in Tiananmen Square. The images of Germans laughing and singing atop the Berlin Wall must never make us forget the pictures Romanians killed as the Securitate desperately tried to hold on to power, or the photo of a lone Chinese student standing before a tank. Why did change come peacefully to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, but not elsewhere? How can these revolutions help us understand contemporary instances of civil strife, such as Yugoslavia's civil war and the current crisis in Kosovo?
The Uncertainties of Negotiated Change
Amidst all the discussions generated by Michigan's conference on "Communism's Negotiated Collapse," one point seems clear: some sort of change in Eastern Europe was inevitable in the late 1980s. No one imagined that the Round Table talks would topple the Communist party altogether, but everyone accepted that Poland was going to be transformed dramatically and permanently. In the grand scheme of things, we might say that the form of that change hardly mattered: powerful social and economic forces were at work, and individuals could do little to alter them. While there are several reasons why Poland's transition from authoritarianism was peaceful, it is all too easy to imagine a different course of events.
During the U-M conference, Janusz Reykowski, who served as the government's chief negotiator at the 1989 Round Table, related a fascinating but disturbing story that illustrates how close the talks came to collapsing. On the last day, just as an agreement was about to be signed, the leader of the pro-government trade union, Alfred Miodowicz, attempted to scuttle the deal. He fixed on a symbolic procedural point, demanding to speak immediately after Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and Interior Minister Czeslaw Kiszczak had opened the final, supposedly ceremonial session of the talks. As Miodowicz expected, the Solidarity delegates would not agree to this, fearing that it would unduly elevate the symbolic importance of the pro-government unions. Both sides threatened to walk out if they did not get their way. The proceedings were being televised live, when without much warning a recess was declared and the pictures from Warsaw were replaced by a static image with music in the background.
For almost three hours people all over Poland waited, fearing the worst. One of our participants recalled packing his overnight bag and taking a shower, because he was certain that the police would arrest him when the talks broke down and martial law was renewed. Reykowski described this event as the worst moment of his life. Towards the end of that agonizing stalemate he stood by helplessly while Kiszczak spoke with General Wojciech Jaruzelski (the communist first secretary and de facto head of state) about suspending the agreement. At that moment, after two months of hard negotiations, Reykowski was sure he would have to resign from the party in protest and face all the consequences that such a move would bring. But in the end Solidarity decided to give in to Miodowicz's demand: Miodowicz was allowed to speak, and the accords were signed.
In hindsight, it seems absurd that everything could have collapsed over a matter of procedure, but in 1989 mistrust was so deep and compromise so tenuous that every dispute, no matter how small, threatened to bring the whole negotiated house of cards tumbling down. To suggest that the Round Table talks might have failed, and that Poland's transition from communism might not have been peaceful, is not speculative counter-history. As many of our guests assured us, there were several moments when agreement was hanging by a thread.
Had the accords of April 5, 1989 never been signed, capitalism would probably have arrived in some other manner. But with this observation we see the great virtue of bringing to a scholarly conference the individuals who actually "made history" during a pivotal event like the Polish Round Table. "History" might have been pushing them forward, but their individual fates could have been much more painful, and today's Poland could have looked very different. Michnik called the struggles of the 1980s "Poland's Internal Cold War"; in 1989 everyone realized how close they were to a "hot" war. As Zbigniew Bujak recounted, during his time as a leader of the conspiratorial underground, he had to intervene personally to prevent the stockpiling of weapons (he ended up tossing some guns he found into the Vistula River). The Solidarity leadership and the Catholic Church consistently preached peace, but could popular patience have lasted had the Round Table negotiations failed?
Thinking Seriously about Alternatives
To this day the meaning and value of the Round Table is hotly disputed among Poles. The words "treason" and "manipulation" are heard in almost every discussion about the events of April 1989. Some complain that the Round Table accords failed to punish the communists for their crimes. Others resent that many state functionaries from the old regime have gained wealth and authority in the new state. Still others are angry because the new Poland is a liberal democracy rather than a state founded on Catholic values. Among the many letters of protest we received was a poem written by a certain Miroslaw M. Krupinski, complaining about the "traitors" who "ten years later, fat and arrogant / well fed from profits, and victorious / without any disputes, any disagreements / once again raise a toast - in Michigan."
Only a minority of Poles shares such opinions, but they remain prevalent enough to demonstrate that real alternatives existed to a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the crisis of the late 1980s. The insanity into which the former Yugoslavia has plunged reminds us even more poignantly that there were multiple paths away from communism, even if we accept that the ancien régime was doomed. The path taken by the men and women of the Round Table was a risky one, and it was not without its drawbacks. Moreover, the system that emerged after 1989 was by no means perfect. But I can think of no other example in history of such a fundamental systemic transformation-one encompassing not only the political sphere but the cultural and economic realms as well-without bloodshed. Things could easily have been otherwise.
The goal of our conference was to explore these alternatives, to think seriously about the historical contingencies that shaped the outcomes of 1989. We wanted to move away from the grand theorizing that casts the end of communism as the necessary outcome of some overarching narrative. Our basic argument was best articulated by Michael Kennedy, the director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies and a co-organizer of this event:
Instead of naturalizing  with appeals to the logics of necessity, or sanctifying it with reference to miracles, I wish that it might be examined with an eye toward developing a theory and practice of negotiating revolution. Systemically derived identities and grand narratives of historical change are hardly adequate for explaining the transformations of identity, the alterations of conflict, and the mutations of strategy that allow for the peaceful resolution of fundamental differences in the search for reasonable solutions. And by developing just such a theory further, it might also allow us to place greater responsibility on the shoulders of those who, in the wake of 1989, make violence and war another outcome of communism's collapse.
To pursue this "theory and practice of negotiating revolution," we subjected our guests to the penetrating questions of an interdisciplinary team of moderators from American and Polish universities. We also set their comments alongside those of Dai Qing (an environmental activist from China), László Bruszt (a sociologist from Hungary) and Maria de los Angeles Torres (a political scientist specializing on Cuba). The result was a rare opportunity for analysis to meet praxis, for scholars and those they study to focus on a common set of problems. We may not have arrived at any clear or conclusive answers during the four days of our conference, but we certainly fortified our conviction that we need to take contingency seriously, that we need to avoid the tendency to cast 1989 within any fixed historical narratives. Indeed, as we advance our Round Table project forward, we will be focusing on the many narratives the conference brought to light. By understanding better how people locate the events of 1989 within historical or prophetic schemes, we can identify the sites where people do indeed "make history."
Of course, there are many other stories to tell about 1989, especially the stories of those who were not present at the Round Table, of those who felt themselves to be the excluded from what was decided there. Over the coming months we will be examining these exclusions and silences; the conference itself was only the first stage in an ambitious research project. But there can be no doubt that in 1989 the Round Table and those who sat around it were at the center of a storm of historical change. For four exhilarating days in April we at the University of Michigan had an opportunity to see first-hand what that storm was like, and to discuss questions of agency and contingency with the actual agents of that change.
(Sidebar) 1989: Negotiations and Crackdowns
- February 6: The Polish Communist party and the opposition begin the "Round Table" negotiations, aimed at legalizing Solidarity and bringing some members of the opposition into the government.
- March: Slobodan Miloševic amends the Yugoslav constitution, rescinding autonomy for Kosovo. Violent protests follow.
- March 22: In Hungary an "opposition round table" is formed to press the government for reforms.
- April 5: The Polish Round Table leads to an agreement to legalize the Solidarity trade union, hold partially free elections, eliminate censorship, and in general end four decades of authoritarian rule.
- June 4: Protestors in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, are massacred when the military breaks up student-led pro-democracy demonstrations.
- June 4: Free elections are held in Poland, followed by runoffs on June 18. Solidarity wins all the contested seats in the lower house of parliament, and 99 out of 100 seats in the senate.
- June 13: The Hungarian opposition begins round table negotiations with the government.
- July 7: Mikhail Gorbachev explicitly declares that the USSR will no longer interfere in the internal affairs of East-Central Europe.
- August 19: Tadeusz Mazowiecki becomes the first non-communist prime minister of Poland since World War II.
- September 10: Hungary opens its border to the West.
- October 9: Anticommunist protests begin in Leipzig, East Germany.
- October 23: The Hungarian People's Republic is officially renamed the Republic of Hungary, with an amended constitution proclaiming the virtues of democracy.
- November 9: The Berlin Wall comes down.
- November 10: Todor Zhivkov is removed as leader of Bulgaria.
- November 17: Protests began in Prague, culminating eight days later when 750,000 people demonstrate against the government.
- December 17: Security forces open fire upon protestors in Timisoara, Romania. The violence spread, leading to the overthrow and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu on December 25.
- December 29: Václav Havel is elected President of Czechoslovakia
Brian Porter, an assistant professor of history at the U-M, is a specialist in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Polish history. He received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1994. He is the author of When Nationalism Began to Hate: Imagining Modern Politics in Nineteenth-Century Poland (Oxford University Press, forthcoming December 1999).
Mr. Krupinski sent us an e-mail expressing his concerns on April 5, and posted his poem at http://worf.albanyis.com.au/~matuzal/PG49.htm