Will the Polish Renewal Movement Achieve Something?

Thoughts on a Visit to Warsaw in March 1981




In the early days of the Polish renewal movement in the fall of 1980, the jesting question was frequently raised by local citizens as to whether the movement should be classified as an “od nowa” or an "odnowa". The former could be freely translated with “once again (the same old story), the latter with "renewal”. Developments since then have proven the later version more appropriate; the movement shows signs of considerable longevity. The probability of again returning to the conditions of the Gierek era seems minimal. "0dnowa” clearly has not occurred without a cause. The problem of corruption and the concrete disadvantages of indulging strictly in honest labor were most apparent. Many corrupt officials have been removed from office; some have been arrested and are facing charges.          


It appears that in periods of strong East-West tensions, it can often be more peaceful in the eye of the storm rather than on the fringe. I recall a sermon delivered by an American guest in Warsaw’s Baptist church in January 1980. In it, the speaker referred to Americans’ grave doubts about "risking" a trip to Poland during the post-Afghanistan crisis. We locals were startled: To us, no real tensions seemed evident. Probably in connection with Poland’s desire to retain its close Western ties, we Westerners at that time felt better-treated than ever before.


Undoubtedly, much of the same applies today. My impression during a visit in March 1981 was strongly one of "business as usual”. The streets remained full of automobiles; I enjoyed  (too much) meat with every meal. Of course, some consumer lines are much longer than ever before. The necessity of workers waiting in ones has undoubtedly decreased productivity significantly.     


Presently, thousands of “Care-style” packages are being sent to Poland from Western Europe. They may be one cause of Poles’ increasing alienation from their most immediate neighbors. The socialist governments were first in sending material aid, but it was sent in the form of bulk shipments and consequently surfaced on store counters. The individual is thereby less existentially blessed than in the direct shipment of gift packages to his personal mailing address. I was surprised that so many Poles (also evangelical ones) blamed their economic woes almost entirely on Soviet exploitation. Yet their socialist neighbors complain of diminishing living standards due to Poland's need for increased aid. Because of the abrupt and unplanned shortage of Polish exports to its immediate neighbors, the East Germans for ex. are being forced to purchase their hard coal from West Germany with hard cash. Increased mutual consideration and empathy between Poles and their closest neighbors would seem helpful.


Concerned North Americans should recognize the fact that the Soviet super power has vital strategic interests in Poland, comparable to those of the U.S. in Mexico. The Reagan administration has threatened Draconian measures in the event of a Soviet military move, which would be comparable to a promise by the USSR to aid Mexico (or El Salvador) in a response to U.S. intervention. The U.S. in its present post­Nicaraguan mood would not tolerate such foreign meddling in its own hemispheric sphere of influence.


Poles are much more relaxed than Westerners concerning the above eventuality: It is seen as one of the natural, historical risks involved in any struggle for societal change. Poland never has "had an easy road"' co-existing with its powerful neighbors.


The minute evangelical groups are quite removed from the podiums of political dialogue; one cannot speak of a specific Protestant contribution to the Polish "odnowa". Individual Protestants are active in the lower echelons of "Solidarity", but not their churches as institutions.


Protestant-Catholic, and in particular Lutheran-Catholic, relations are presently at a low ebb; yet this is not directly a result of the “odnowa” movement. Since 1979, several Lutheran chapels in the north-eastern section of the country have been expropriated by Catholics without the owner's consent. In one instance, Catholic "squatters" arrived during the course of a Lutheran worship service. As a consequence, the Lutherans have suspended all official ecumenical contact with Catholics. Some fear that the Catholic church, surging ahead on the euphoric wave of Polish renewal, may once again attain positions of power discriminatory towards Protestants. In this respect, Protestants harbour no nostalgia for pre-socialist Poland.


I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but assuming that moderate elements remain in control of "Solidarity", it would appear that the process of Polish renewal is here to stay. The consequences of all other options are too drastic.


Bill Yoder

West Berlin, April 14, 1981

(A resident of Poland from 6-78 to 4-80)


Appeared in the Mennonite “Gospel Herald”, Pennsylvania/USA, May 26, 1981, 747 words


Notes from January 2022. Regarding the context of this article: Wojciech Jaruzelski (1923-2014) had become Prime Minister of Poland in February 1981; martial law was not called out until 13 December of that year. Solidarity had been officially registered in November 1980. Jaruzelski remained President of the country until 1990. Edward Gierek (1913-2001) had been the factual head of the country from 1970 until 1980.


The Sandinistas had driven the Somoza government into exile and occupied the Nicaraguan capital on 17 July 1979.


The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan had begun in December 1979. The US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics in July and August of 1980 ensued.