GDANSK, Poland — World leaders paid tribute to Solidarity on Wednesday, saying the labor movement launched 25 years ago in the Gdansk shipyards was a catalyst for some of the most profound changes Europe has seen, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia.
Poland's triumph over communism "led to the unification of Europe, led to a united Germany," German President Horst Koehler said at a ceremony marking Solidarity's 25th anniversary.
"Poles freed not just themselves — they launched a process which radiates until today," he said.
During an outdoor Mass at the gates of the shipyard, the late Polish-born Pope John Paul II was honored for his historic role in inspiring the birth of Solidarity.
Pope Benedict XVI, in a message read out by papal nuncio Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, said Solidarity "not only peacefully created unimaginable political changes in Poland, putting Polish people on a road to freedom and democracy, but also showed other nations of the former eastern bloc the possibility of correcting historic injustice."
"I know how close it was to the heart of my great predecessor, the servant of God John Paul II, that this act of historical justice take place and that Europe be able to breathe with two lungs — one western and one eastern," Benedict said.
Krakow Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul's longtime aide, delivered a homily from an altar decorated with flowers and a Byzantine-style painting of St. Mary and baby Jesus — imagery that underlines the important role the Roman Catholic Church played from Solidarity's start.
"The free homeland is largely the fruit of his teachings," Dziwisz said.
The movement's leader, Lech Walesa, has often credited John Paul with inspiring the birth of the movement with his historic 1979 visit to his homeland, during which he celebrated Masses that electrified the nation and subtly criticized the communist regime.
A year after that, on Aug. 31, 1980, 18 days of strikes began at the Lenin Shipyards of Gdansk and elsewhere that culminated with the communist regime making unprecedented concessions to the workers, including allowing the Soviet bloc's first free trade union.
Solidarity suffered setbacks after martial law was declared in December 1981, but it went on to negotiate a peaceful end to communism in Poland in 1989, which in turn helped hasten the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said it was "a second wave of Solidarity" that brought him to power in U.S.-backed street protests in 2003, as well as Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine following last year's "Orange Revolution."
"Solidarity has become a road for everyone," Yushchenko added.
President Bush sent a statement recognizing Solidarity's "vital and important contributions to the spread of liberty."
"Those striving for democratic rights need our support, and they can look to Solidarity as a shining example of liberty and justice," Bush said in a statement read by his envoy, James Baker, who was secretary of state under former President George H.W. Bush.
Those at the ceremonies also included Walesa and former Czechoslovak dissident leader Vaclav Havel.
Walesa, a former shipyard electrician, reflected on how he and the other strikers risked their lives to defy the communist regime when they had no guarantee of success.
"Why did we do all of it?" Walesa said. "To launch a new epoch, one without divisions. Without one shot, our generation was able to do it."
Later in the day, Walesa and leaders signed the founding act for the European Solidarity Center, an institute in Gdansk that will work to propagate democracy, monitor human rights in the world and commemorate Solidarity's legacy.
But even as leaders celebrated, some disgruntled former activists met in Gdansk to express their disapproval of Walesa and the path that post-communist Poland has taken.
Many like former Solidarity leader Andrzej Gwiazda — in the radical wing of Solidarity — sharply criticized Walesa for his willingness in 1989 to negotiate the transition with communists. Many are bitter that today Walesa gets the bulk of the credit despite the activism of many others.
Walesa "compromised the idea of Solidarity but reaped all the profits," Gwiazda said.
The message of discontent comes as others in the country also question whether there is much to rejoice.
Poland's transition to democracy and a free market have left the country with a fast-growing economy, but one that so far has not rewarded everyone. The jobless rate is 18 percent and annual income averages only $9,330.
"The revolution has eaten its own children," said protester Edward Roeding.