More on mercy in politics emerges from an international seminar that I attended in Brussels today, “The Treasure of Solidarity: Lessons for Europe.” Sponsored by the Centre for the Thought of John Paul II in Warsaw, the seminar assembled a fascinating group of mostly Polish politicians and intellectuals, many of whom were active in the Solidarity movement of the 1970s and 1980s that overthrew Poland’s Communist government in 1989, leading, in turn, to the end of the Soviet empire and to the end of the Cold War.
Reflecting back on Solidarity, they identified several extraordinary features. First, it brought together in a sense of community sectors of society who would not otherwise be inclined to associate with one another – workers, managers, farmers, and intellectuals. Second, it was arguably the first truly working class movement to overthrow a government – ironic, given the Communist regime’s claim to represent the working class. Third, it was a rare revolution in that it succeeded without collapsing into revenge or war. Fourth, relatedly, it was non-violent. Fifth, it was a Christian revolution, undergirded by Catholic thought and the leadership of John Paul II.
There was also a general consensus that Solidarity was quickly forgotten about soon after Communism was defeated. Speakers felt that Poland has descended into deep domestic divisions; it is now the most divided country in Europe, according to one panelist.
These cleavages include a division over the Communist past. Conservatives believe that the Roundtable negotiations of 1989 proceeded too quickly, involved too hasty a compromise with the Communist government, and that too little has been done to bring accountability and the telling of truth about the Communist period. Those on the left demur, calling for a drawing of a line across the past in order that the nation may move on with its future. Another source of intense controversy is over the Smolensk air crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and other top officials on April 10, 2010, with one side believing it was an accident and the other side that it was a conspiracy. Then, there are culture wars over life and marriage, divisions over economic policy, and a general sense that the spiritual depth of the Solidarity years has been replaced by materialism and technocracy.
Many speakers thought that Solidarity’s stress on reconciliation, faith, and forgiveness could be retrieved and brought to bear on Poland’s cleavages as well as on those of other countries and relationships between countries – Poland and Ukraine, for instance.