R. Brier: Poland's Solidarity Movement and the Global Politics of Human Rights

Poland's Solidarity Movement and the Global Politics of Human Rights.

Brier, Robert
Anzahl Seiten
XVI, 269 S.
£ 75.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Jan Olaszek, Institute of Political Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw

This book features a vast array of historical actors from different walks of political life, including Polish opposition leader Lech Wałęsa, Pope John Paul II, neoconservative US president Ronald Reagan, and American trade unionist Lane Kirkland, as well as Michel Foucault and other French left-wing intellectuals, Italian communist leader Enrico Berlinguer, and German peace activist Petra Kelly. What did these people, with their diverse political backgrounds, have in common? Robert Brier argues that they all played a part in shaping late 20th century discourse on human rights.

Brier, a historian and political scientist specializing in the history of international relations and intellectual history, is among those scholars who have prepared the ground for the recent trend of bringing a transnational perspective to dissident movements under communist regimes.[1] This vein of research has resulted in a growing awareness of the engagements of dissidents with opposition actors operating in different countries within the Soviet bloc, as well as their connections with politicians, intellectuals, and activists on the other side of the Iron Curtain.[2]

In his latest book, Brier writes about the history of Poland’s Solidarity movement against the backdrop of the emerging transnational discourse on human rights. Brier looks at the birth of the dissident movement in Poland and investigates how it appealed to human rights activism through its reinterpretation of the concept of totalitarianism. Then, he shows the ways in which the rise of the mass opposition movement and the Polish crisis of 1980–1982 influenced public perceptions of Western public opinion policy on human rights violations. He takes a closer look at the intricacies of German Ostpolitik in light of the emergence of Solidarity and compares it to the French and American stances on independent trade unions. Brier examines the impact of political prisoners in 1980s Poland on the evolution of the human rights discourse, noting especially Adam Michnik and his “letters from behind bars,” and traces the a process in which Polish dissidents became icons of resistance and the fight for human rights, which culminated in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Lech Wałęsa in 1983.

The distinct advantage of Brier’s approach is that he considers the “Polish case” both in the context of Western policy regarding the Soviet bloc and as an integral part of the emerging global discourse on human rights. This is best seen in the chapter intriguingly titled “General Pinochecki.” Brier merges traits of Polish communist general Wojciech Jaruzelski with those of Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet, creating a figure who symbolizes how the Reagan administration tried to present Poland’s anti-communist Solidarity movement, that is, as a symbolic counterweight to the left-leaning human rights fighters in Chile. American neoconservatives brought accusations of double standards against left-wing human rights activists, who focused on human rights violations committed by the Chilean dictatorship while showing less interest in tackling similar issues under communist regimes. Convincingly highlighting what he calls “the ambiguities of human rights culture” (p. 10), Brier emphasizes the agency transferred to Polish opposition activists by the discourse emerging from it. As he points out, they “proved surprisingly savvy using their symbolic power to further their goals, even by striking a symbolic coalition with Chilean human rights activists and thus undercutting attempts to use their cause for Cold War purposes. Activists from Eastern Europe and Latin America shaped human rights discourses as much as they were shaped by them” (ibidem).

Brier's book impresses with its nuanced perspective on its subject. Undoubtedly, Brier sympathizes with Solidarity. At the same time, he is far from holding a Manichaean black-and-white view of the world in which he idolizes everyone who supported the movement. His study presents ample evidence for the ambiguity of Western human rights policy, albeit without equating the two sides in the Cold War. In doing so, Brier makes an important contribution to current research on the global rise of human rights policy in the late 20th century. According to Brier, the notion of and policies on human rights as we know them today did not, as other authors have contended, experience a sudden breakthrough in the 1970s.[3] Rather, their status was contested and they underwent “repeated reinvention” throughout the 1980s (p. 3f), largely influenced by events in Poland.

Still, Brier does not overstate his point. In his concluding chapter, he presents a nuanced answer to the question of whether human rights policy actually contributed to ending the Cold War. Although he concedes that the discourse on human rights did not lead directly to the fall of communism, he attributes to it a significant influence on the form this process took. Under constant pressure by Western human rights policy, Polish communists refrained from arresting and repressing opposition activists, paving the way for their ultimate acceptance as partners in the Round Table negotiations. According to Brier, human rights policy also provided symbolic, material, and informational support for opposition actors in Poland, which was of great importance for establishing their authority.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in early 2022 has significantly changed the way we read books about the Cold War. Instead of issues that belong to an ever more distant past, such books now speak to problems that have political relevance in the present. Thus, reading Robert Brier’s book is useful for understanding not only the past but also the present.

[1] Robert Brier (eds.), Entangled Protest. Transnational Approaches to the History of Dissent in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Osnabrück 2013, reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by Françoise Mayer, 12.02.2016, https://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-20697 (08.06.2022).
[2] Cf. recently Kacper Szulecki, Dissidents in Communist Central Europe. Human Rights and the Emergence of New Transnational Actors, Cham 2019, reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by Jan Olaszek, 08.12.2020, https://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-29225 (08.06.2022).
[3] See most prominently Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia. Human Rights in History, Cambridge, MA 2010, reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by Lasse Heerten, 21.03.2011, https://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-14700 (08.06.2022); Jan Eckel / Samuel Moyn (eds.), The Breakthrough. Human Rights in the 1970s, Philadelphia, PA 2013.

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