Heritage of the shipyard
History of the Shipyard
The Gdańsk Shipyard is a phenomenon – the cradle of both the Polish shipbuilding industry and of the rebellion against restrictions on fundamental human rights, including, above all, the right to freedom and self-determination which led to with the victory of Solidarity.
The cultural heritage of the Gdańsk Shipyard is multi-layered. The world remembers it mainly as the birthplace of “Solidarity”. However, Poles, and in particular the people of Gdańsk, also remember it as the birthplace and global success of the Polish shipbuilding industry after World War II. During the Nazi occupation, it was a place of forced labour for thousands of prisoners from all over Europe. Modern shipbuilding began here in the first half of the 19th century. Two shipyards were founded then: the state-owned, Prussian Imperial Shipyard, and the private Ferdinand Schichau Shipyard. However, the historical memory of this place goes back much further, to the early Middle Ages, when in 1380, the Teutonic Knights, after conquering Gdańsk, founded here the competitive Jungstadt (Young Town).
In spite of the lack of any Polish historical tradition of seagoing shipbuilding, the Gdańsk Shipyard, in the period of about 20 years of its launch after war-time destruction in 1947, was one the five largest shipyards in the world and took the second place in the production of innovative and technologically advanced deep-sea fishing vessels. It employed about 17,000 people and was a source of prosperity and pride for the entire city and region.
Poles have never been a maritime nation and there was no tradition of building seagoing ships in this country. When the modern shipbuilding industry was born in Europe in the first half of the 19th century, Poland was partitioned. It was not until after the World War II that Poland launched its first seagoing ship in November 1948 – the ore carrier “Sołdek” – in the Gdańsk Shipyard rebuilt from war damage. Several years later, the modernised Gdańsk Shipyard, with its own design office and engine building plant, was already building 25 ships a year on 9 slipways, 2 hull plants, and 2 floating docks. The total of 308 fully equipped ships of total carrying capacity of 1 million tons were built here by 1961 – both for Polish shipowners and for export, to the USSR, Norway, West Germany, Holland, France, Great Britain, and Japan. This scale of production ranked it the 5th largest shipyard in the world. Ten years later, Gdańsk Shipyard took the second place in the world in production of innovative and technologically advanced fishing motherships, combining features of a processing ship, cold storage vessels, tanker, and passenger ship. At that time, about 17,000 people were employed in the Gdańsk Shipyard. It was the largest plant in Gdańsk that dozens of other plants in the entire region and country cooperated with. Shipyard workers made good money which created prosperity for the entire city.
The weakening communist authorities decided to punish the rebellious Shipyard. In November 1988, the Gdańsk Shipyard, despite having the best economic results of all the major Polish shipyards, was put into liquidation by the government of Prime Minister Mieczysław Rakowski. While other large shipyards in Poland received state aid, the Gdańsk Shipyard did not.
The political transformation of 1989 and introduction of a free market capitalist economy on 1 January 1990 drastically changed the financial situation of Gdańsk Shipyard leading to its huge indebtedness (due to hyperinflation and more expensive loans as well as the withdrawal of guaranteed compensatory subsidies, also for contracts concluded earlier and for vessels under construction). The drop in production at the Shipyard and deterioration of its financial situation immediately affected the whole chain of suppliers and subcontractors leading in numerous cases to their bankruptcy. In 1990, Gdańsk Shipyard was transformed into a joint stock company (Stocznia Gdańska Spółka Akcyjna) with a large shareholding of the State Treasury (about 60%) and the staff (about 40%).
However, the situation of the Gdańsk Shipyard was deteriorating year by year. Soon, the bankruptcy trustee started the process of selling Shipyard.
In 1996, Gdańsk Shipyard went bankrupt, and was acquired in 1998 by Gdynia Shipyard and Evip Progress, a developer interested in transforming some of its land into a new waterfront district of Gdańsk. A year later, Synergia 99 company was established to manage the process.
History of shipyard “Solidarity”
In August 1980, a strike broke out in the Gdańsk Shipyard in protest of the violation of human and civil rights, ideological discrimination, and economic exploitation. It was led by Lech Wałęsa, and soon a list of 21 strike demands was put up on Gate 2. The first of them was the most important: “acceptance of free trade unions, independent of the party and employers.”
When, as a result of the August Agreements, the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity” was established, Wałęsa said: “We ended our dispute without the use of force, through talks and reasoning. We showed that Poles can always communicate with each other if they want. So it is a success for both sides.” Soon, Solidarity had 10 million members, gaining popularity worldwide as the benchmark for contemporary civil rights and social movements.
Today, the Gdańsk Shipyard is a powerful symbol of social and political changes that have transformed the world as we knew it. The idea of Solidarity was based on a strong conviction that its mission and message, deeply rooted in universal values, reach far beyond the internal affairs of Poland. The example of Solidarity inspired other nations and countries struggling with injustice and human rights violations, and gave them hope for democratic change. This was reflected in the “Message to the Working People of Eastern Europe” of September 1981, which referred to the “common fate” of nations in the entire region, encouraging them to self-organise. The Solidarity story was the first stage in the process leading to erosion of totalitarian regimes in the region and the ultimate collapse of the Iron Curtain, which opened the way to unification of the continent. As British historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in 1990: “The Polish revolution of 1980–81 was the first great contraction in the birth of a new Europe.”
The strike at the Gdańsk Shipyard and the victory of Solidarity are now deeply rooted in the world’s collective consciousness. When in 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, symbolic domino blocks were set up in Berlin, the first one represented the victory of Solidarity. Pushed by Lech Wałęsa, it overturned all the other blocks – symbols of the totalitarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. A few years on, Joachim Gauck, an activist of the democratic opposition in the GDR and later president of a united Germany, spoke of the role of Solidarity as an inspiration for German dissidents: “It gave us courage when we still lacked courage. It gave us hope when we still lacked hope.”
Solidarity defended the inviolability of human dignity, demanded freedom and justice, strove for equality and decent working conditions, promoted the ideals of living in truth and in harmony with one’s conscience. The importance of Solidarity’s contribution to the wide campaign for universal freedom of organisation was appreciated by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. When its leader, Lech Wałęsa, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, the Committee substantiated its choice by noting that his actions were characterised by determination to solve social and political problems peacefully, through negotiations and cooperation.
The experience of Solidarity is still universally relevant and remains a source of hope for individuals and societies who face injustice or human rights violations. It continues to positively inspire initiatives for the common good – to take up actions that transform the conditions of individual and collective life from within using peaceful methods, gradually expanding personal freedoms, building and strengthening ties between people and creating the foundations of modern civil society. Alain Touraine regarded the phenomenon of Solidarity as the greatest outburst of freedom in the world after the Second World War. In his opinion, it was one of the most important things that happened to humanity in the second half of the twentieth century: people, unconditionally devoted to freedom, formed an association to take full responsibility for the future. The words of the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, published on occasion of the 40th anniversary of the August 1980 Agreements, also testify to the undeniable impact of the idea of Solidarity on world history: “40 years after birth, Polish Solidarity continues to inspire fighters for freedom and human rights around the world. Its lesson will always be relevant: the only way to resolve conflicts is constructive dialogue.”