In 1982 and 1983, the currents of life took me to Oxford University, from where friends tied to the Polish Underground took me into that Eastern European country, then besieged by Soviets trying to hold control – which they eventually lost. That period carries profound lessons for this one.
Meeting and living with Solidarity leaders, as a wide-eyed student, several things were instantly clear. Even then, the power of history significance of the moment through which we were living was clear. So were the life-lived lessons of that moment.
First, free peoples have no end of motivation to fightbacks against the wall; they will die for freedom. Visiting underground leaders, their willingness to give all was obvious. Many had been imprisoned. Taking risks endangering their families. Opposing a ruthless army was filled with risk. They were all-in.
Second, once the battle for freedom is joined, more and more people materialize in pursuit of victory. Small gatherings became massive. Secret police, the Ministry of Public Security, deployed goon squads for Communist intelligence, counterespionage, secret police missions. Poles were undeterred. ZOMO and the paramilitary police, were feared – but not enough to stop the resistance.
Third, support from outside a beleaguered, struggling nation is vital – especially moral support. If material support matters, moral support matters more. American President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Polish-born Pope John Paul II resolved Poland could be free.
Their resolve was like an infusion of spiritual adrenaline into the Polish body politic. Watching a massive rally, tens of thousands, in Gdansk and Gdynia, I asked an underground friend, “what are they shouting?”
She said, with quiet confidence, “They are shouting, ‘Reagan will show you’.” Even remembering that poignant moment sends chills down my spine. The Poles knew the world was behind them.
Fourth, unflinching leadership is powerful, especially as low morale weakens an oppressor from within. Never did I meet Lech Walensa, but his influence was widely felt – just as Zelensky’s is now, as leaders like General George Patton in WWII, General McAuliffe at Bastogne, and so many others turned the tide.
Fifth, religious convictions – not surprisingly – create an all-or-nothing bedrock for the fight. In 1983, communist oppression notwithstanding, 90 percent of Poland was Christian, mostly Catholic. Today, 70 percent of Ukraine is Christian, mostly Orthodox.
The power of faith overwhelmed communist atheism. Somewhere in the hearts of Ukrainians, this is a battle for what is right, as understood by their faith. To many, this is St. Paul’s “Good Fight.”
Sixth, small victories for an unfairly oppressed population can magnify effort and energy. As time passed in Communist-dominated Poland, little things mattered more and more.
Poles pinned little homeland flags of free Poland, crosses, and radio transistors (what they called “resistors”) to their clothes. They intentionally violated oppressive laws. They resisted at all turns. This effort wore down the Soviets, which further elevated the freedom-loving spirit of the Poles.
Seventh, the courage of the “everyman” or “everywoman” is infectious, a force multiplier. Seeing one person do the unexpectedly courageous – confront a tank head-on, take a beating and getting back up, save a child in danger, dare feats involving great risk, is invariably inspiring. These things happened and are happening now.
Eighth, the power of evil is not to be underestimated, a lesson well known to Europe and America. Between 1981 and 1983, countless Polis citizens and freedom fighters were killed, tens of thousands arrested, Soviets indifferent to the evil committed, preoccupied by power.
But ironically, the audacity of these horrific acts created a new sense of outrage, a wave of popular disaffection that rose like the towering right-front wave of a hurricane. That wave swamped the evil.
Ninth, for reasons unclear, history favors those who give their all to win, refusing to compromise with evil. On the numbers, American patriots fighting for freedom should not have prevailed in the American Revolution, nor at Normandy, Anzio, Bastogne, Midway, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, and other places. They did.
Some tenth lesson would be nice, but only nine resonate just now. They all matter because evil is again afoot on the globe, narrow eyes focused on what happens in Ukraine, despots and communists, autocrats and dictators watching to see if those defending freedom can somehow turn the tide.
We do not yet know, just as we did not know when all Eastern Europe struggled desperately for freedom against the oppressive communist Soviet Union. All conflict’s facts differ.
But some elements of human history and behavior are unchanging, like the price desperate people grounded in the love of freedom, right, and faith will pay –to win. This moment will long be remembered.