Published December 31, 2008
Twenty-five years ago, in one of its intervals of lucidity, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to an unemployed Polish electrician whose surname 95% of the world mispronounced. The electrician, Lech Walesa (pronounced vah-WHEN-suh, if you were wondering), was not allowed to attend the ceremony in Oslo: a churlish Polish communist government, which had only recently released Walesa from detention under martial law, refused to give Poland’s second-most-famous son a passport. His wife, Danuta, accepted the award in his name, and gave a moving speech in which her husband acknowledged the 1983 Peace Prize as a tribute to the ten million members of Solidarity, the trade union/social movement he led, which had modeled a new way of being revolutionary in the late 20th century by mounting the world’s largest peaceful resistance to the world’s worst tyranny.
To mark the silver jubilee of Walesa’s Peace Prize, the European Solidarity Center — recently created by the European Union at the old Gdansk shipyards as a memorial to Solidarity, a research center, and an educational facility — and the Polish Foreign Ministry invited some two hundred young adults from forty-four countries to come to Poland and ride the “Solidarity Express”– a special train that took them from Cracow and Auschwitz to Warsaw and then to Gdansk. There, they met Lech Walesa and several other recent Nobel Peace Prize winners and discussed the future of “solidarity” as a virtue necessary for the free society. Along the way, I had the privilege of giving four lectures, to set an intellectual and moral framework for the journey. The lectures addressed the roots of 20th century totalitarianism in defective ideas about the human person; the failed resistance to totalitarianism heroically embodied by the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 1944 Warsaw Uprising; the role of Pope John Paul II in igniting the Solidarity movement and inspiring the Solidarity martyr, Father Jerzy Popieluszko; and the triumph of freedom in the Revolution of 1989, which led to the “springtime of nations” that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The young people were fascinating and friendly, and brought a remarkable diversity of experiences to the “Solidarity Express:” the mix included Russians and Georgians, two Macedonians and a Greek, two Israelis and a Palestinian, and a Belarusian human right activist who told me of his being kicked out of his university for his pro-democracy activities. For all their diversity, however, these young people shared several characteristics: they were all addicted to cell phones, which in a few cases seemed permanently welded to their ears; they were eager to learn; they were almost completely ignorant of the history of the 1980s, the realities of communism, and the reasons for its fall; and they were deeply, if unreflectively, influenced by the post-modern cult of “your truth, my truth, but nothing called ‘the’ truth.”
I hit a few batting practice home runs when the last came up during a post-lecture Q&A period, demonstrating to one young woman that she in fact believed in moral absolutes (such as the legal equality of women and men). The problem was that, having absorbed the notion that “moral absolutes” are bad, she didn’t know how to account for the secure moral truths in which she believed quite firmly. It was also striking that Hannah Arendt’s classic analysis of Nazism and communism as two variants on the same lethal political disease (demonstrated in the three volumes of The Origins of Totalitarianism) came as news to just about everyone; the old Left lie that “Nazism = conservatism-on-steroids” is very much a part of the general culture-smog in which even the brightest young people live these days.
Along the way. I had the opportunity to explore the splendid new Museum of the Warsaw Uprising in Poland’s capital, as well as the “Roads to Freedom” exhibit mounted in Gdansk by the European Solidarity Centre. Those places, and the “three crosses” memorial at the Gdansk shipyard (which was erected at Solidarity’s insistence to honor workers killed during a 1970 strike), are a powerful reminder that freedom is never free.
Which is another lesson I hope got absorbed on the “Solidarity Express.”
–George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.