In America, our Thanksgiving celebrations range from large family gatherings to Good Samaritans volunteering in soup kitchens serving turkey dinners to the hungry. Now think about what it is like in other parts of the world where people are lucky to have a few slices of bread and some rice to eat.
For example, before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was that way for people living in Poland and Eastern Europe. Communist dictators tightly controlled everything from the farm to kitchen table and resistance to the brutal Russian-subjugated decree often meant imprisonment.
The Soviet-style centralized planning and government control of factories, farms and people’s everyday lives failed miserably. In all, 3.5 million emigrated before the Berlin Wall and the “border kill zones” were constructed — all to keep people suppressed behind the Iron Curtain.
The loss was disproportionately heavy among professionals — engineers, technicians, physicians, teachers, lawyers and skilled workers — because there was no future for them in a country where people were told what to do and every move they made was monitored by callous snitches and secret police.
The evidence of the failure of total government domination can be found in the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk. There is a display of a grocery store with only lard and vinegar on the shelves. Walking out of the store is a mannequin of a shabbily clad Polish woman carrying only rolls of toilet paper on a broom stick and no food.
The direct cost of manpower losses to East Germany alone (and corresponding gain to the West) was estimated at $7 billion to $9 billion before the wall went up. The combination of World War II and the massive migration westward left East Germany with only 61 percent of its population of working age, compared to 71 percent before the war. The Berlin Wall would plug that drain.
In the end people simply got fed up because there was nothing to lose by protesting. That was especially true in Poland where Lech Walesa, an electrician at the mammoth Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, initiated the Solidarity movement. Workers struck for better wages, working conditions and to end the austerity.
Solidarity gave rise to a broad, non-violent, anti-communist social movement that, at its height, claimed some 9.4 million members. It contributed heavily to the fall of communism. Not even jailing the union leaders or imposing martial law could break it. Protestors just went underground.
Poland union leaders had support from then AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland who kept the pressure on American presidents to back the movement and funneled money to Solidarity.
While Kirkland’s belief was that common people, not diplomats, would free Poland and bring down the Iron Curtain, it was the work of the Polish Pope (John Paul II) and President Ronald Reagan that brought the world’s attention to the plight of the Poles and the failings of ruthless government oppression.
The rest is history, and today Poland prospers from the free market system. No matter where you go in Poland, you see malls and grocery stores fully stocked. If the names on the stores were the same, you could mistake a mall in Warsaw with South Center in Tukwila.
We are blessed because we are free to innovate, create and have the chance to succeed or fail. No government central planning or nationalized industries can replace our vibrant private enterprises. Not even socialism.
This Thanksgiving, we ought to stop and realize that America is still the land of freedom and opportunity. Too bad we are so accustomed to having so much for so long that we forget what makes it possible to have abundance.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.