European Solidarity Centre
A gigantic museum-cum-library-cum-cultural-centre next to Plac Solidarności
just within the territory of the old shipyards
. The large exhibition inside is the third incarnation of a museum covering the history of Solidarność
, the trade union and resistance movement that in the 1980s brought down communist rule in Poland and sparked the collapse of the entire Eastern Bloc.
The name of the Centre is often abbreviated to ECS
, from its name in Polish, “Europejskie Centrum Solidarności
”. Some parts are naturally darker than others, but given the quality of the exhibition and the momentous history it represents, this is not to be missed. One of the most significant institutions in the whole of Poland
More background info:
Solidarność (‘solidarity’) was the name adopted by Poland
’s worker-based free trade union movement that came out of a history of protests through the 1950s to the 1970s, and was primarily centred around the Gdańsk shipyards
and the steelworks of Kraków
at Nowa Huta (both, coincidentally, or not, named after Lenin
by the communist authorities), but it was also active elsewhere in Poland.
Unrest came not only as a result of the increasing economic hardships of food shortages, rationing, rising prices, but also from a deep longing for political freedom. Resistance had already been a defining characteristic of Poland’s psyche during the years of the World War II Nazi
occupation (cf. Warsaw
), and Soviet
communist repression wasn’t accepted long-term either. This was coupled with Poland’s deeply ingrained Catholicism, which fuelled opposition to communism
The leadership of the Solidarność movement was assumed by Lech Wałęsa, by trade an electrician at the shipyards, though interestingly, he wasn’t even employed in the shipyards when he took over the helm of the movement – he had been sacked long before, and only climbed over the fence to join the workers again as the strikes at the plant re-emerged. He then kind-of “grabbed” the role as their public leader …
Being a charismatic and media-savvy character, Wałęsa certainly fulfilled the role of the movement’s leader well. Although there had always been controversy over his style of leadership too, not least on the part of some grass-roots activists from the movement’s early days. But his well-publicized appearances on TV surely helped to weaken the country’s communist regime and thus facilitated the movement’s ultimate success. Wałęsa even became an international celebrity, especially after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
However, after some initial successes in 1980
, including especially the August 31 agreements
with the government (see Sala BHP
), there came a dramatic backlash: in December 1981
, after mounting pressure from the Soviet Union
, universal martial law
was declared for the entire country by General Jaruzelski
. This Polish government leader’s wooden appearance, and huge dark shades reminiscent of Kim Jong Il
, were almost emblematic of the rigidity of the old guard’s rule.
Telephone lines were cut, activists were rounded up, arrested and interned (even in special camps), curfews were imposed, and the militia controlled the streets. There were fatalities too – in Katowice, for instance, nine protesting miners were shot dead.
And so it looked like the old approach of brutal repression
would work yet again, just as it had before, not just in Poland but also elsewhere: 1953 in the GDR
, 1956 in Hungary
, and in the crushing of the Prague Spring
But Solidarność continued to develop underground (and to a significant degree also in exile) and was ready to bounce back …
Another figure of historical importance that has to be mentioned at this point is Pope John Paul II
– who was originally from Kraków
. His support for the resistance movement in his home country and his visits back home, when he was welcomed by hundreds and thousands of Poles, certainly helped to raise media attention and further upped the pressure on the communist government.
Towards the late 1980s
, Solidarność was stronger than ever and managed to force through concessions by the government, as well as meetings at a “Round Table
” (a term later adopted during the negotiations in the final months of the GDR
too). Eventually, Solidarność was not only officially recognized but semi-free elections
were held. Only ‘semi-free’ in that the government still retained a guaranteed 65% of the seats in parliament – only the remaining 35% came up for free elections. Still, all but one of those seats were won by the opposition. A clear signal, sure enough.
In the wake of this, General Jaruzelski departed and Solidarność member Tadeusz Mazowiecki
, formerly editor-in-chief of Solidarność’s premier underground newspaper, became the first non-communist prime minister
in an Eastern Bloc
country. At the end of 1989 Poland
was a ‘Republic’ again – the communist era was over.
But it also has to be noted that developments within the USSR had been crucial in making this possible. In the mid-1980s Mikhail Gorbachev
began the restructuring and opening up of the Soviet Union
itself (‘Perestroika’ and ‘Glasnost’). This included the end of direct interference in the other Warsaw Pact
states. The fact that it had become clear that there would no longer be military interventions to crush democratic opposition in these states further encouraged the resistance movements in Poland as well as in the GDR
and the CSSR
, Lech Wałęsa
proceeded to become the country’s president
, a post he held until 1995
. By then Solidarność had faded pretty much into insignificance as a political party, though it continues to exist as a trade union; and Lech Wałęsa too failed to get re-elected as Poland’s president in 1995. The times had clearly changed, as had Poland. However, the achievements of Solidarność remain firmly part of the nation’s psyche and the history of modern-day Poland – a fact clearly brought home in the main exhibition of the Solidarity Centre.
This is the third and largest incarnation of a museum exhibition about Solidarność and its peaceful revolution. After modest beginnings, a larger exhibition called “Roads to Freedom
” was established at a nearby underground location (this has now become a club or venue for events).
opened on 31 August 2014, on the 34th anniversary of the Gdańsk Agreement (see Sala BHP
) which was the birth of Solidarność. This is likely to be the final incarnation of the exhibition about this topic in Gdańsk
. It couldn’t possibly be any bigger or more impressive.
What there is to see:
To begin with, the architecture
of the ECS is already quite stunning. Not everybody would say it’s beautiful, but it’s certainly gigantic. As you approach via Plac Solidarności
you see the south facade, which is basically just a rust-red five-storey-high wall of steel plates, invoking the hulls of ships that were built at the Gdańsk shipyards
(and on a smaller scale are still built in the city’s harbour).
The east-facing front facade, where the entrance is located, is mostly glass behind a lattice structure (for shade, I presume), and you can see that the complex consists of four separate sections parallel to each other, separated by narrow semi-open spaces. Lining the path to the entrance there are already a few open-air photo panels serving as a first introduction to the theme of the museum. Also take note of the strange, industrial-looking monument opposite the ECS’s entrance.
Inside you are greeted by an airy atrium that in the centre opens up into a five-story-high open space with greenery and even whole trees. It is absolutely huge. The permanent museum exhibition only takes up a part of the space here, on two of the five floors. The rest serves as a library, reading rooms, offices, conference and meeting rooms, a shop and a supervised play area where parents can park their kids while exploring the exhibition (as that wouldn’t be especially suitable for small children). There’s also a roof terrace and a couple of on-site restaurants/cafes.
Get your ticket at the counter on the ground floor – and decide whether to make use of an audio guide (I declined); for English (and Polish) speakers it isn’t really necessary, since everything in the exhibition is bilingual, in Polish and English, and thus largely self-explanatory.
Then head for the escalators taking you upstairs to the beginning of the main permanent exhibition. This kicks off with a recreation of a shipyard, complete with workers’ lockers, a punch clock (aka time-punch machine) and a crane operator’s cabin. Inside the latter you can watch film footage of a working shipyard cleverly projected on to the inside of the cubicle’s front window. This is just one of the many state-of-the-art technologies employed in this exhibition. There are also small video screens inside welders’ face shields and a large interactive screen in the form of a table.
Content-wise, this first section is about the beginnings of Solidarność
, the strikes, the emergence of Lech Wałęsa
as the movement’s unlikely leader, and a key exhibit is the panel with the original
” proclaimed in 1980 on the shipyard’s gate
. Another large exhibit is a negotiating table, complete with cigarette-butt-filled ashtrays – and again there are screens providing background information. Screens are everywhere, in fact, from the tiny ones inside welders’ face shields to huge floor-to ceiling projections. Some smaller ones double up as audio stations where you can listen to key figures speaking about the events back then (English subtitles are provided). The reactions of the international (Western) press to the developments in Poland in 1980 are a final part of this section.
The circuit through the exhibition then continues in the neighbouring wing of the ECS, reached via a bridge between the two wings that allows another unusual view of the unconventional architecture of the building. The second section of the exhibition is less visual, with no big installations, but more focused on smaller items and sub-stories. One is the Palme d’Or, the highest award of the Cannes Film Festival, won by the Polish film “Man of Iron” by Andrzej Wajda that is about the strikes at the Lenin shipyards
and the formation of Solidarity. This was a great popularity boost to the movement, and millions of Poles watched the film, until it was banned in December 1981 with the imposition of martial law.
Solidarność’s new form of a peaceful revolution
with broad support also from intellectuals and artists is presented in great detail, also the formation of other unions and associations (including a student one, whose pamphlet was signed by a young Donald Tusk, later prime minister of Poland). The commemoration of earlier strikes and clashes with the communist government are another topic here, including the erection of the monument
to the strikers of 1970 that forms the main element on Plac Solidarności
. The level of freedom
achieved by the movements is illustrated through uncensored publications, free theatre, and also in rock music with openly political lyrics. The role of the church is pointed out too.
The next section is predictably about the darkest chapter of the whole story, beginning with the imposition of martial law by General Jaruzelski in December 1981. With that the government’s crackdown on Solidarność and the freedoms it had brought began, with arrests, show trials, internment camps and general suppression.
The exhibition returns to large-scale exhibits here, especially in the form of a whole militia/police truck, an installation made of “Milicja” shields, and large broken down barricades. Inside the truck a video plays in a loop – and a sign by the steps leading inside warns of a “dramatic scene”. That’s the footage of a protester being run over by a police truck. There are also reconstructions of prison cells and of underground printing shops.
The ongoing resistance
and agitation underground are illustrated – not least by a screen showing various political cartoons that sharply criticize the developments under martial law. Support
from abroad (even from places as far away as Japan
and Peru!) is also illustrated. The biggest sign of support was the Nobel Peace Prize
awarded to Lech Wałęsa
in October 1983
. In the same year Polish Pope John Paul II paid his land of birth a visit, trying to instil hope and faith. Both aspects are covered on separate panels.
But these were nonetheless hard times and for a while it seemed like Solidarność’s cause had lost, even though in an amnesty in 1986 political prisoners were released. By 1987
, though, many people seemed to have lost hope. But another boost came with the Pope’s third visit
to Poland, and this time including Gdańsk
, in 1987, in which he voiced support for Solidarność in hardly veiled words which helped rekindle the movement. Of course it also helped that the political climate between the West and the USSR
had changed with the reforms by, and Western negotiations with, its new leader Mikhail Gorbachev
, which is also duly acknowledged in the exhibition.
This leads us to the next section
of the exhibition, the final road to democracy. The economic crisis of 1988
and renewed strikes eventually forced the government into negotiations. The famous “Round Table
” at which these were held is reconstructed in the exhibition and forms the largest exhibit here. This is followed by a celebration of Solidarność’s subsequent success, with an emphasis on the first semi-democratic elections in 1989
, with a Solidarność member becoming the first non-communist prime minister
, and then the ascension of Lech Wałęsa
to the office of president
A large, floor-to-ceiling projection shows how the whole Eastern Bloc crumbled away
, one country after the other, in the wake of the developments in Poland
. Not least, this included the “Fall” of the Berlin Wall
and the collapse of the old-guard communist regime in the GDR
, and the state’s eventual dissolution. A dedicated screen informs about the special commemoration of all this within Germany
. But the unsuccessful protests in China
in the summer of 1989 are also mentioned (see Tiananmen Square
One hall features a whole wall, perhaps 15m (50 feet) long, filled with the logo of Solidarność made from little pegs on to which visitors can pin little paper notes in white or red. Ample use of this had clearly been made, but all the notes I found were in Polish so I couldn’t decipher what they actually said.
And so the exhibition ends anything but dark, but rather with a celebratory tone that is occasionally bordering on the excessive. But never mind. The Poles do have every right to be proud of their achievement of overcoming the repressions under communism.
At the time of my visit (August 2019) there was an additional temporary exhibition celebrating the 30th anniversary of the 1989 culmination of Solidarność’s success. What I found strangely absent from this museum, though, was any mention of the subsequent decline and loss of influence by Solidarność, and the country’s later shift into nationalist ultra-conservatism, especially since 2015. Well, the ECS opened in 2014, so maybe this development just wasn’t foreseen by the creators of the exhibition and it hasn’t been amended or updated since.
Anyway, overall it’s undeniable that the ECS is a massive addition to the attractions of Gdańsk and an absolute must-see sight.
Access and costs: easy to get to, reasonably priced.
To get to the ECS you can walk, from the main train station it’s only about ten minutes, from the heart of the Old Town perhaps 20 minutes. To cut it shorter you can take one of the trams heading north from the main station (lines 3, 7, 8, 10) to Plac Solidarności. Head north along the main thoroughfare that runs along the western side of the Old Town, and where it forks, take the right-hand-side route, and soon after you will already see the big rusty-red hulk of the ECS and the monument on Plac Solidarności
. En route from there to the centre’s entrance you can pass through the historic Gate No. 2 of the shipyards, which remains as a historical monument of sorts.
Opening times: Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday to 8 p.m., closed Mondays. (At the time of writing, during the Covid-19 pandemic – they may well be longer once this crisis has been overcome.)
Admission: 25 PLN (various concessions apply), audio guide included (available in a range of nine languages, obviously including Polish and English, as well as German, French, Italian, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish).
Time required: a minimum of two hours, better three, and possibly significantly longer still if you want to read and watch everything that’s offered.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Gdańsk
If you are getting the boat from the Old Town to Westerplatte
you can also get good glimpses into the still working parts of the shipyards and the harbour of Gdańsk in general.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Gdańsk
- ECS 01 - front of the building
- ECS 02 - side of the building
- ECS 03 - monument outside
- ECS 04 - inside, escalators to the exhibition part
- ECS 05 - first hall of the main exhibition
- ECS 06a - crane driver cubicle
- ECS 06b - projection onto the windows inside
- ECS 07 - screens everywhere
- ECS 08 - even inside welders face shields
- ECS 09 - exhibits and media mix
- ECS 10 - interactive media table
- ECS 11 - negotiating table
- ECS 13 - the historic 21 demands
- ECS 13 - time-punch machine
- ECS 14 - workers lockers
- ECS 15 - in between wings
- ECS 16 - second main section
- ECS 17 - tapes
- ECS 18 - into yet another wing
- ECS 19 - militia truck
- ECS 20 - with open rear doors
- ECS 21 - video inside with graphic content
- ECS 22 - broken-down barriers
- ECS 23 - en route to prison
- ECS 24 - open cell
- ECS 25 - underground printers shop
- ECS 26 - fire extinguisher used for smuggling papers
- ECS 27 - round table
- ECS 28 - square interactive media table
- ECS 29 - and the Eastern Bloc fell apart
- ECS 30 - wall of notes in Solidarnosc colours
- ECS 31 - library
- Solidarity Centre 32 - where the previous exhibition used to be, now a club