Solidarity Comes to Power

Lesson Plans


As described in the section “teaching strategies,” these documents reveal some of the historical contingencies in Poland during the year 1989. As students study, analyze, and discuss the documents, they will develop the ability to

  • identify specific concerns held by different individuals and interest groups in different circumstances over the course of this historical period
  • analyze reasons for these concerns
  • weigh possible outcomes of decisions made in the course of a rapidly changing political, economic, and social climate
  • propose alternative solutions to various needs identified in the documents.


Multiple copies of documents, index cards, ability to create a large timeline--on a blackboard or with cash register tape.


Prior to teaching this lesson, ensure that students are familiar with significant political and military events in Polish history from 1970 (first Lenin shipyard strikes in Gdansk) through 1989 (democratic elections in Poland and the aftermath).

They should have a basic understanding of the major groups and individuals involved in this period of Polish history. Groups include the the Communist Party (including “hardliners” and “moderates”), the Catholic Church (bearing the influence of the recently elected, Polish, Pope John Paul II), workers and intellectuals. Individuals include those referenced in the lesson’s Documents: Lech Walesa (union activist, leader of Solidarity), Alfred Midowicz (head of the official All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions), Bronislaw Geremek (advisor to Lech Walesa), General Wojciech Jaruzelski (Communist party leader), General Kiszczak (high ranking officer, former head of the Secret Service and Minister of Internal Affairs), and U.S. President George H. W. Bush (1989-1993).

Finally, students should be aware of contemporaneous developments in the U.S.S.R., namely the recent (1985) emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as head of the Communist Party, and the new policies of Glasnost and Perestroika initiated in the U.S.S.R.. In particular, students should be aware of a shift in U.S.S.R. foreign policy, namely movement away from the Brezhnev Doctrine toward a more relaxed relationship with its satellite states.


Hook: using a dictionary, look up and discuss the term “contingent.” What does it mean when we say history is contingent? Discuss--it’s often said that hindsight is 20-20. When we look at history retroactively, often a course of events seems inevitable. It couldn’t have happened any other way, right? On the contrary, these documents highlight the uncertainty experienced by many different individuals and interest groups in Poland in 1989. They indicate considerable anxiety and even, at times, outright fear. Individuals made moment-to-moment decisions, seeking to balance desired outcomes against multiple, often very real, alternatives. Instruct students, “As you study these documents, bear in mind some of the ways you are gaining insight into the real contingencies of history.”

  1. Create groups of students; assign groups the following documents: Excerpts from Andrzej Wajda’s film “Man of Iron”(#11 ); Catholic Church's Role in Roundtable Talks (#5); Walesa and Midowicz Debate (#3); and Geremek on the Restraint in 1989 (#4). Each of these is a Polish Document that pre-dates the elections of June 4, 1989. Have students study the Documents for the following information:

    Note: as Document 11 is quite short, it may be combined with another source.

    Scenes, Wadja's Man of Iron (#11): Workers’ grievances. With which issues were they concerned? Which of these issues are political? Which are economic? In what ways are the workers’ political and economic concerns linked with each other?

    Catholic Church's Role in Roundtable Talks (#5): To which interest groups do Stelmachowski and Glemp belong? What are Stelmachowski’s concerns? In what ways are his political/social and economic concerns linked with one another?

    Walesa & Midowicz Debate (#3): To which interest groups do Walesa and Midowicz belong? What does Midowicz oppose? To what sentiments is Midowicz appealing when he says, “We are union members, but above we are all Poles . . .”? How does Walesa answer Midowicz?

    Geremek on the Restraint in 1989 (#4): Who was Geremek? Geremek states, about the spring of 1989, “I realized that the scale and fragility of our success went hand-in-hand. At no time could we provoke the other side ... Social mobilization was no doubt necessary, but here we were not talking about mobilization, but about a national uprising.” What occurred instead of social mobilization and an uprising? How did this contribute to progress toward the Round Table talks?

    Have students share and discuss their ideas. Together, summarize the uncertainties and concerns of these different individuals and groups prior to the June, 1989 elections. Hypothesize and predict--what if Solidarity initiated an uprising? What if the Communist government violently suppressed Solidarity? What if Solidarity’s insistence on pluralism was rejected? To what extent can economic and political issues be separated from one another? To what extent are they necessarily intertwined?

  2. Distribute Solidarity Election Flier (#9) and Solidarity Election Poster (#10). Study Document 10 first. Have students describe the figure, the superimposition of the figure over the text, the color and lettering of the text. What does the figure hold in his hand? What badge does he wear on his chest? What messages does this poster convey? Study Document 9. Have students examine the ballots, then read the text. Notice that there are three ballots for the Sejm, and one for the Senate. How did Solidarity indicate whom to cross out and whom to support?

    Distribute document Minutes of Polish CCC Meeting, June 5, 1989 (#1). In this document members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party scramble after the elections to analyze their extraordinary defeat in democratic elections. To what do they attribute the defeat? What are their concerns? What plans do they want to put into place?

  3. Documents Warsaw Embassy Cable, Election, 1989 (#6), Warsaw Embassy Cable, Elect Jaruzelski (#7) and Warsaw Embassy Cable, Conversation with General (#8) convey some of the concerns of the United States Government vis-a-vis events in Poland.

    Create a large timeline--for example, across a blackboard or wall. Mark June 4, 1989 (date of the elections) as well as the dates of the Embassy cables. Distribute index cards to students. Have students review one or more of the documents then note embassy concerns on the index cards--one concern per card. On the reverse side of the card, students should add reasons for the concerns, or possible consequences. For example, in the Warsaw Embassy Cable, Solidarity Election, 1989 (#6), the Ambassador notes 5 possible outcomes for the elections, with 5 possible consequences. The outcome should be on the face of the card, the possible consequence on the reverse.

    When students have collected data from the documents (carefully noting on each card which source they are studying!), they should affix the cards to the timeline at the appropriate points.

    When the cards are done, have students verbally present the concerns, and possible consequences, in chronological order.

    Discussion: Prior to the election, Ambassador Davis writes of the possibility of “utter catastrophe.” Do you agree that this was a realistic concern for the U.S. government? Why or why not? In Document Warsaw Embassy Cable, Elect Jaruzelski (#7), Ambassador Davis suggests that Solidarity must support the Communist leader Jaruzelski for President, without appearing to do so. Do you agree or disagree with this position? Why? In the Warsaw Embassy Cable, Conversation with General, 1989 (#8) some of the terms used include “alarm,” “gloomy,” “surprise,” “mistake,” “deep fears,” “disaster,” and “tragedies.” What uncertainties led Ambassador Davis and/or Kiszczak to be so pessimistic in August 1989?

    Form small groups (approximately 3 students per group). Have the students discuss and propose options for General Kiszczak. These options should include political, economic, and military considerations. Have the groups share their thoughts with the whole class.

  4. In conclusion: Return to the concept of historical contingency. Have students reflect on the work they did in this lesson. Each student should select an identity (worker, communist, soldier, American Ambassador, Catholic priest, etc.) and a moment in this year of interval of history--1981, the fall of 1988, spring of 1989, the elections of 1989, the summer after the elections. Using evidence from the documents, have each student summarize his or her key concerns as that person in that time. Using knowledge gained from the lesson, what events occurred subsequently that impacted (increased, altered or mitigated) the individual’s concerns? Students should share their work with the whole class. This summary activity will assist students in synthesizing their thoughts for the DBQ.


Students requiring additional support: Reduce the number of documents studied in the lesson. Review the documents with the students, highlighting key paragraphs where they can find the information they need.

Visual/kinesthetic learners: Students may illustrate or act out their responses to the documents.

Students requiring additional support for the DBQ: Permit them to take and use notes on the essay. Consider developing an outline for the essay in class (or more than one alternative outline) and using the outline as they write their essays.