Few nations are as conditioned by their past as the Poles. By chance, Poland's latest crisis has coincided with the anniversaries of two earlier popular uprisings, both emotional reminders of the historical cycle of rebellion and tragedy that has helped shape the Polish character.
This month saw huge and emotional ceremonies along the Baltic coast to pay tribute to workers killed by police 10 years ago. In the port of Gdansk on Dec. 16, several hundred thousand Poles -- including state, church and independent union leaders -- attended the unveiling of a 120-foot-high monument erected outside the Lenin shipyard. The hopes released by the crisis of December 1970 were symbolized by soaring crosses; the disappointments that followed, by heavy anchors.
Several weeks before, smaller but equaly moving services were held in Warsaw to recall the 150th anniversary of the 1830 uprising against domination by tsarist Russia. That episode too began in hope, as rebellious Polish army officers took over the capital, and ended in despair when the revolt was finally crushed by Russian troops the following year.
Similar powstanie -- or insurrections -- have recurred throughout modern Polish history. Best known of them all is the Warsaw uprising of 1944 when sparsely armed Polish partisans held out for 66 days against the Nazi military machine. Camped across the river Vistula, the Red Army waited until the fighting was over, pleading that it was unable to relieve the London-backed insurgents. By the time Soviet troops finally moved in, the city had been reduced to rubble on Hitler's orders. Almost a quarter of a million people are estimated to have been killed.
Historians agre that such episodes have had a decisive influence on the Polish national psyche, which displays two conflicting characteristics: romanticism and realism. Long periods of foreign domination produced the romantic strain in the Polish character, the yearning for freedom and national sovereignty. The realistic strain is a product of past tragedies, an awareness of Poland's hopeless geographical position sandwiched between Russia and Germany.
Of course history never repeats itself exactly. Each successive generation of Poles learns something from the disappointments of its predecessors. The tremendous discipline shown during the strikes of last August can be traced back directly to mistakes made during the uncontrolled outburst of workers' rage in December 1970.
It is interesting that many of the most influential advisers to the newly established independent trade union, Solidarity, are historians, either professional or amateur. Bronislaw Geremek, for example, researches into medieval history at Warsaw's Academy o Sciences. These days, however, he is more frequently to be seen at the side of Solidarity's leader, Lech Walesa, whispering suggestions on tactics and strategy into his ear.
Geremek sees the establishment of independent unions in August -- against seemingly overwhelming odds -- as a result of Poland's romantic tradition. Now he thinks it important to act in a way that will reassure the Soviet Union that its vital interests are not threatened in Poland.
He comments: "For the good of the country, we have to be eclectic and draw on both historical traditions. Victory in August was only possible because we had behind us a mass of people who were refusing to think in realistic terms, refusing to be deterred by what looked impossible. Now, however, we are entering a different realm. We can only make our victory durable by displaying realism."
Another writer-historian, Andrzej Kijowski, acted as adviser to the interfactory strike committee in the port of Szczecin last August. He too agrees that Poland's present upheavals, which he describes as "a bloodless uprising," have parallels in the past. But there are also significant differences.
"This uprising is different not only because it is bloodless, but also because it is aware of certain political limits. There have been no attempts to establish an alternative government," he says.
Kijowski notes that from the rebellion of 1863 (also against Russia) right up to the 1966 Warsaw uprising, it was an article of faith among all Polish plotters that they should begin by announcing the formation of an independent state. This he calls "the romantic line of Polish uprisings."
By contrast, the present Polish opposition has largely ignored the question of state power. Instead it has concentrated on organizing society to negotiate with the authorities, thus changing the political context in which decisions are taken. Kijowski sees this strategy as a return to the traditions of the 1830 revolution.
On that occasion, the aim of the army officers and intellectuals who led the original revolt was not to establish a government. Instead, they asked that the existing government should conform to the constitution. It was only later that radicals among the rebels steped up their demands -- and war with Russia became inevitable.
Official Polish historians reject comparisons between this year's crisis and the rebellions of the 19th century. During television coverage of ceremonies marking the anniversary of the 1830 uprising, there was almost complete avoidance of the word "Russians." Commentators referred instead to the inequities of "tsarist rule" or the superiority of "enemy forces."
Even so, the official accounts of the 1830 uprising still strike a contemporary note. Interviewed by the Warsaw daily Zycie Warszawy, Prof. Jerzy Skrowronch attributed that revolt to "deep dissatisfaction of Polish society at all levels caused by economic stagnation, increasing unemployment, an agricultural crisis, abuse of police power and political repression." Substitute "underemployment" for "unemployment," and that is a pretty fair description of Polish grievances in 1980.
The plotters, the professor added, were mainly young people "born in slavery and subjugated in their cribs. This generation looked at modern history in different ways from their fathers. They hadn't experienced the bitterness of losing their independence and were not suffering from a disaster complex." Allowing for hyperbole, that too provides an insight into the attitudes of Poland's young generation today, born after the agony of Nazi occupation and Stalinist terror.
Skrowronch's conclusion is that the conspirators of 1830 are worthy of praise but badly miscalculated their chances of success. "They were all alone -- and this resulted in tragedy," he told the paper.
Of course Poland has changed enormously since the Communists came to power in 1945. For professor Henryk Samsonovitch, the newly appointed rector of Warsaw University, these changes are crucial in understanding the events of summer 1980.
"We are a very young society, both in biological and sociological terms. Before the war, 70 percent of the population was still engaged in agriculture. Today the figure is less than 40 percent. Our society is still trying to find its place in the modern world -- and it's no wonder that our first attempts have not always been successful," he explains.
Samsonovitch, a historian, notes that during the period of the formation of capitalism, Poland was divided between three occupying powers -- Russia, Austria and Germany. The railways had different gauges, there were different laws and different systems of administration. But Poles had two things in common: their language and their national consciousness.
Today the Polish nation has been unified both territorially and socially. One of the key elements in this year's uprising was the cooperation between workers and intellectuals.
Prof. Geremek, who was recruited by Walesa to join his team of expert advisers back in August, comments: "Never before in our history have there been such close links between the intelligentsia and the working class. Traditionally, it used to be the intellectuals who were interested in political freedoms -- and the workers in living conditions. Now we are fighting for both together."
Other historians believe that the population at large has absorbed the values, forged under foreign domination, of the old Polish nobility. Writing 50 years ago, the father of modern Polish sociology, Kazimierz Dobrowolski, defined the nobility's mentality in the following way: "A look at Poland's history shows that the nation's soscial elite was able to display great feats of sacrifice and valor. But the durability of their will power was much weaker . . . Often they were crushed by petty difficulties rather than steel."
Prof. Dobrowolski described "durable will power" as "the highest social value," since it alone can guard society "against subjugation by more populous nations."
No one knows how the Polish drama of 1980 will end. Many options remain open -- from reneweed hope to tragedy caused either by economic difficulties or tanks. Polish history, however, has a lesson not just for the Poles themselves, but also for those nations that have attempted to dominate them.
If there is one constant theme in Poland's past, it is that the crushing of one uprising prepares the ground for the next. The collapse of the 1830 rebellion led to massive emigration, the birth of the Polish romantic movement and an even bigger explosion of national discontent in 1863. Under communist rule, there have been similar cycles (reform -- frustration -- revolt) at ever shorter intervals.
The problem of how to ensure the stability of Russia's East European empire is hardly a novel one. Debates over what to do with Poland raged among the tsar's advisers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. They kept returning to one issue: whether to preserve a monolithic empire, or to recognize the diversity of its subject peoples.
Kijowski noted that the 1830 uprising took place because of a change of policy in St. Petersburg. Alexander I had been working towards a federal framework for the autocratic empire, making Poland a kind of constitutional enclave. But his policy was overturned by his successor, Nicholas II, who liquidated Poland's limited autonomy.
"Sooner or later Alexander's idea is bound to crop up again," Kijowski remarked hopefully.
But how does an empire react if it is already in decay?
"Various gestures are possible: enraged distress, arrogance, hopeless procrastination, or even -- provided it is not too late -- common sense. After the disastrer of the Japanese war of 1905, the tsarist empire attempted to reform itself . . . But by that time is fate had already been sealed."