Tuesday, June 21, 2005

1968 and all that

A new book by award winning American journalist, Mark Kurlansky, 1968: the year that rocked the world, unravels the connections between the revolutionary events of that year in Paris, Prague, America and Poland.

Like 1945 or 1989, 1968 is one of those years that are seen as pivotal to the history of the 20th century.

We were only one year away from the first human being walking on the moon. It was a time of civil rights and anti-war protests, of new and inventive music and sub-cultures, of scientific and social experiment. A very different time, then, from the one we live in today, characterized as it is by aversion to risk and a fear of the new.

The motor of this movement for social change were young, mostly middle class sons and daughters of the old ruling elites. It was a time when students were concentrating more of sit-ins and love-ins than they were on their studies. It was a time of hallucinogenic drugs, which my granny used to tell me made one want to jump from the top of multi-story car parks in the mistaken impression that one was an albatross.

Most people, except perhaps for the most historically challenged, will have heard of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Abie Hoffman in the US; or in France, Henri Comte and Jean Paul Satire; or in the Czechoslovak capital, the students and Alexander Dubcek. All over the world, ruling elites had lost their legitimacy and were under pressure.

But few in the West have heard of the names associated with events in Poland of that year: Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik…

Radical theatre
In Warsaw, it all started in March with an evening at the theatre. The Polish National Theatre decided to stage a new radical interpretation of Dziady. – which is sometimes translated in English as Forefathers’ Eve – by Poland’s most celebrated poet, Adam Mickiewicz. The play, written in the early nineteenth century, tells the story of Polish political prisoners under czarist Russia. As well as a being a political play it is also interpreted by theatre and literary critics as being a mystical, religious piece of work.

The communists had no problem with the political content, but they weren’t too keen on all the religious stuff. They saw this version of the play as being subtly subversive, and with a stupidity characteristic of the regime, decided that they were going to ban it.

On the last night of the performance, about 300 students from Warsaw University picketed outside the theatre and then marched through the center of town in protest. They were met by police and so-called workers-militia (who were basically a bunch of thugs) who beat them up and the police arrested anyone trying to get away from them.

The next day thousands of students joined in the demonstrations on the university campus, refused to go to classes, called for more freedom of expression and held sit-ins outside the Dean’s office, just as they had seen American students do on television. Before long, students from other universities had joined the struggle. All were met by the workers militias, and were beaten and arrested.

These protests had a similar character to those in Paris, or New York; mostly middle class kids from good homes, connected to parents who were part of the establishment. Another thing that the leaders of these protests had in common was that many of them were Jewish.

But in Poland, as ever, there was an extra twist.

The communist party in the late sixties was divided into two factions: those who had fled Poland as the Nazis invaded, or lived in areas in the east of the country grabbed by Stalin in 1939. Many of these people were taken to the gulags, only to team up with the Soviet army as a way of freeing themselves from Stalin’s grip. Many of these, not surprisingly, were Jews. The other group, more nationalist in their outlook – the self-styled Patriots – came from communist cells within the underground movement, who fought the Nazis from within Poland.

Many of the ‘Patriots’ were anti-Semites and wanted to get rid of Jews from the party, who they accused of being ‘Zionists’. Remember, 1968 came just a year after the Israeli-Arab conflict, in which Moscow sided with the Arab states.

Jews in Poland had become communism’s scapegoats. And with many sons and daughters of Jewish members of the party taking part in the student protests, the opportunity for an anti-Jewish purge was just too tempting to be turned down.

The ‘Patriots’ organized counter-demonstrations, leading chants such as: “Zionists go back to Zion.” Unfortunately, the mob that the party had assembled were simple folk who had never even heard of Zionism. In fact, they thought that the militias were shouting, “Siamists go back to Siam”, and chanted along with gusto.

Yul Brynner would have been proud of them.

Meanwhile, the communist regime had given most of Poland’s remaining Jews one-way tickets to the West, stripping them of their passports.

Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik and many of the other protest leaders were arrested again and thrown in jail. The demonstrations gradually ran our of steam, and a potentially dangerous ‘counter-revolutionary’ movement was snuffed out.

One of the failures of the demos in Poland, as elsewhere, was that the intellectuals failed to make connections with the workers. It was only when, in the late 1970’s, intellectuals such as Kuron connected up with workers such as Lech Welasa that the opposition movement really gained steam. And that is why the name of Solidarity was chosen for the first independent trade union in the communist bloc: it was a solidarity between workers and intellectuals – two parts of Polish society that were finally, and mutually, dependant on each other.

In the book, 1968, the year that rocked the world, American journalist, Mark Kurlansky tells this story well, and captures the spirit of adventure that was so characteristic among university students all over the world back in 1968.

Fast forward to today and look at the university students. Do you see that same idealistic, adventurist spirit? If you do, then maybe you have been ingesting some of those chemicals that make you want to jump off the roof of multi-story car parks.

Read on:

See review of 1968: the year that rocked the world

This article originally was published on the Radio Polonia web site

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