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Lech Walesa
1943 -


Poland's brash union organizer stood up to the Kremlin and dealt the Eastern bloc a fatal blow
By TIMOTHY GARTON ASH for Time Magazine


Lech Walesa, the fly, feisty, mustachioed electrician from Gdansk, shaped the 20th century as the leader of the Solidarity movement that led the Poles out of communism. It is one of history's great ironies that the nearest thing we have ever seen to a genuine workers' revolution was directed against a so-called workers' state. Poland was again the icebreaker for the rest of Central Europe in the "velvet revolutions" of 1989. Walesa's contribution to the end of communism in Europe, and hence the end of the cold war, stands beside those of his fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II, and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Walesa's life, like those of Gorbachev and the Pope, was shaped by communism. Born to a family of peasant farmers in 1943, he came as a young man to work in the vast shipyards that the communist state was developing on the Baltic coast, as did so many other peasant sons. A devout Roman Catholic, he was shocked by the repression of workers' protests in the 1970s and made contact with small opposition groups. Sacked from his job, he nonetheless climbed over the perimeter wall of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980, at age 37, to join the occupation strike. With his electrifying personality, quick wit and gift of the gab, he was soon leading it. He moved his fellow workers away from mere wage claims and toward a central, daringly political demand: free trade unions.

When the Polish communists made this concession, which was without precedent in the history of the communist world since 1917, the new union was christened Solidarnosc (Solidarity). Soon it had 10 million members, and Walesa was its undisputed leader. For 16 months they struggled to find a way to coexist with the communist state, under the constant threat of Soviet invasion. Walesa--known to almost everyone simply as Lech — was foxy, unpredictable, often infuriating, but he had a natural genius for politics, a matchless ability for sensing popular moods, and great powers of swaying a crowd. Again and again, he used these powers for moderation. He jokingly described himself as a "fireman," dousing the flames of popular discontent. In the end, martial law was declared. Walesa was interned for 11 months and then released.

Yet Solidarity would not die, and Walesa remained its symbol. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. With support from the Pope and the U.S., he and his colleagues in the underground leadership of Solidarity kept the flame alight, until the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin brought new hope. In 1988 there was another occupation strike in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, which Walesa again joined — though this time as the grand old man among younger workers. A few months later, the Polish communists entered into negotiations with Solidarity, at the first Round Table of 1989. Walesa and his colleagues secured semifree elections in which Solidarity proceeded to triumph. In August, just nine years after he had climbed over the shipyard wall, Poland got its first non-communist Prime Minister in more than 40 years. Where Poland led, the rest of Central Europe soon followed — and the Soviet Union was not far behind.

The next phase in Walesa's political career was more controversial. Angered by the fact that his former intellectual advisers were now running the country in cooperation with the former communists, he declared a "war at the top" of Solidarity. "I don't want to, but I must," he insisted. Fighting a populist campaign against his own former adviser, he was elected Poland's first noncommunist President, a post he held until 1995. Some people liked his stalwart, outspoken style. Others found him too undignified to be the new democracy's head of state. Brilliant as a people's tribune, he stumbled over long formal speeches. You never felt he was quite comfortable in the role. When he stayed with the British Queen at Windsor Castle, he characteristically quipped that the bed was so big, he couldn't find his wife.

Politically, he was also erratic. As Poland was struggling to be accepted into NATO, he suddenly proposed a "NATO bis," a shadowy "second NATO" for those in waiting. Not for the first time, his colleagues put their heads in their hands. His closest adviser was his former chauffeur, with whom he played long games of table tennis. He developed close links with the military and security services. His critics accused him of being authoritarian, a "President with an ax." In another historical irony, he was defeated by a former communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski. Walesa went back to Gdansk, to his villa, his wife Danuta and their eight children. But at 54 he is still young, and he recently announced the formation of his own political party. Like Gorbachev, he finds it very difficult to accept that he has become a historical figure rather than a politician with serious chances.

Walesa is a phenomenon. Still mustachioed but thickset now, he stands for many values that in the West might be thought conservative. Fierce patriotism ("nationalism," say his critics), strong Catholic views, the family. He's a fighter, of course. But he's also mercurial, unpredictable--and a consummate politician. He is an example of someone who was magnificent in the struggle for freedom but less so in more normal times, when freedom was won and the task was to consolidate a stable, law-abiding democracy. For all his presidential airs, he still retains something of the old Lech, the working-class wag and chancer that his friends remember from the early days. But no one can deny him his place in history.

Without Walesa, the occupation strike in the Lenin Shipyard might never have taken off. Without him, Solidarity might never have been born. Without him, it might not have survived martial law and come back triumphantly to negotiate the transition from communism to democracy. And without the Polish icebreaking, Eastern Europe might still be frozen in a Soviet sphere of influence, and the world would be a very different place. With all Walesa's personal faults, his legacy is a huge gain in freedom, not just for the Poles. His services were, as an old Polish slogan has it, "for our freedom — and yours."


Lech Walesa (born 1943), charismatic leader of Solidarity, the independent trade union movement in Poland, was awarded the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize for his valiant struggle to secure workers' rights through negotiation and peaceful means.

Lech Walesa was born on September 29, 1943, in the village of Popowo, located between Warsaw and Gdansk, the son of a private farmer and carpenter. He attended technical school in nearby Lipno and worked briefly as an electromechanic in Lochocin. After completing military service from 1963 to 1965, he moved to Gdansk where he was employed as an electrical technician at the Lenin Shipyard. While there, Walesa was in the vanguard of trade union activists who sought to redress workers' grievances. To gain objectives, he pursued negotiations and non-violent resistance when dealing with government authorities.

In December 1970, as food shortages and drastic increases in food prices precipitated violent protest strikes in shipyards along the Baltic coast, Walesa was elected chair of the Strike Committee at the Lenin Shipyard. There, on January 15, 1971, he was among those who negotiated workers' demands with First Secretary of the Communist Party Edward Gierek. After an interim of political inactivity, Walesa was elected delegate to the shipyard Works' Council meeting in February 1976, where he spoke out against the authorities for reneging on concessions agreed to in the 1971 negotiations. Dismissed from his job at the shipyard, he found work in May 1976 at a construction machinery enterprise.

Working To Build True Trade Unionism

During the fall of 1976 Walesa made contact with the Workers' Defense Committee (KOR, Polish initials), renamed Committee for Social Self-Defense, which was founded in September 1976 by dissident intellectuals in Warsaw to provide aid to the brutalized workers of Warsaw and Radom. June strikes against increased food prices. Walesa and union activists in Gdansk drew up a Charter of Workers' Rights on April 29, 1978, and formed the unofficial Baltic Committee of Independent Trade Unions to defend the workers' economic, legal, and human rights.

Although involved in the underground trade union movement, Walesa continued to work with the government-controlled, official trade unions. Elected delegate to the official union's elections, he protested against flagrant election manipulation and in December 1978 was fired from his job. Five months later Walesa began work at the engineering enterprise Elektromontaz, where he earned recognition as an outstanding electrician.

Walesa and union activists arranged unofficial memorial services in December 1978 at Gate Number Two of the Lenin Shipyard for the 45 workers who were killed by military and government security forces in the 1970 food strikes. On the following anniversary, December 16, 1979, Walesa and members of the Baltic Committee organized unauthorized mass demonstrations at the gates. He urged the formation of independent trade unions and social self-defense groups, modeled on KOR, to assist workers. After numerous arrests were made, Walesa defended his coworkers who were to be discharged in January 1980 for taking part in the rally. He, too, lost his job at Elektromontaz. Over a ten-year period, Walesa was held under 48-hour arrest with great regularity.

After the government covertly attempted to increase meat and meat product prices in July 1980, triggering numerous strikes, Walesa, unemployed, scaled the 12-foot-high perimeter fence of the Lenin Shipyard on August 14, 1980, and took charge of the shipyard strike. He demanded his own job reinstatement and that of the recently fired veteran crane operator and union activist Anna Walentynowicz and stipulated that the proceedings be broadcast throughout the yard. At the successful conclusion of three days of negotiations, Walesa abruptly reversed his decision to call off the strike and began a solidarity strike in behalf of sympathy strikers from factories in the Gdansk area who were excluded from the settlement. With 21 demands in hand and his commission of experts, Walesa entered into negotiations with Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Jagielski on August 23 and, after a week of hard negotiations, won the government's acceptance of independent autonomous trade unions and the right to strike. On August 31, 1980, he signed the final phase of the Gdansk Agreement and ended the strike.

The Founding of "Solidarity"

Walesa issued the official Charter of the Independent Autonomous Trade Union in Gdansk on September 15, 1980 as Party First Secretary Stanislaw Kania extended the Gdansk Accords to the entire country. On September 17, 1980, Walesa was elected chair of the highest decision-making body of the new national union, the National Coordinating Commission of the Independent Autonomous Trade Union "Solidarity". Leading a large delegation, Walesa presented Solidarity's statutes to the Warsaw District Court on September 24 for registration as required by law. From September to November 1980 Walesa utilized the "strike" mechanism effectively to counter a series of confrontations designed by the authorities to weaken and destroy Solidarity.

On December 16, 1980, Walesa dedicated the long-promised monument to the martyred workers of December 1970 at the gates of the Lenin Shipyard. With only 27 names of the dead conceded by the government, Walesa commemorated the tenth anniversary together with representatives of Solidarity, the Catholic Church, and the Communist Party in a public display of unity. In mid-January 1981 Walesa led a delegation to Rome where he was received by Pope John Paul II and met with Italian trade union leaders.

During 1981 Walesa was frequently called upon to defuse wildcat strikes. To halt rampant strike activity, Walesa acquiesced to Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski's request of February 10 for a 90-day strike moratorium and promise of dialogue on the reform of labor laws.

The unprovoked, violent police action against representatives of Rural Solidarity in Bydgoszcz on March 19, 1981, required the hospitalization of three Solidarity members. Walesa demanded the arrest and prosecution of those responsible. He began a nationwide four-hour warning strike and prepared for a massive, general strike scheduled for March 31, 1981. When the Warsaw Agreement was reached, Walesa drew severe criticism from Solidarity members for his undemocratic actions and for arbitrarily suspending the planned general strike. He was also castigated by members of Rural Solidarity, who were dissatisfied with the outcome. As a result of Walesa's negotiations, however, the weekly journal "Solidarity" (Solidarno??) was published a few days later and Rural Solidarity was registered as an independent union on May 12, 1981.

By August 1981 talks between Walesa and government negotiator Mieczyslaw Rakowski collapsed as Solidarity, with ten million members, prepared for its first national congress. Walesa and Solidarity came under fire from fierce propaganda attacks while Soviet military and naval maneuvers increased fears of an invasion. Opening the first session of the national congress in September 1981 in Gdansk, Walesa defended his undemocratic negotiating methods and called for free elections on local and parliamentary levels. Between sessions he pushed through a workers' self-management compromise on worker participation in economic reform at the factory level, which the Sejm (parliament) hastily passed. Walesa was re-elected chairman of Solidarity on October 1, 1981.

"Solidarity" Declared Illegal

With strikes and protests continuing unabated, Walesa declared a three-month strike moratorium on November 4, 1981, and met at an unprecedented summit with Archbishop Jozef Glemp and Party First Secretary General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who offered plans for a Council for National Agreement. Recognizing that Solidarity and the Church would play mere consultative and symbolic roles, Walesa rejected the plans. On November 19, due to a severe national economic downturn, he appealed to the West for food aid for a period of five months.

Despite Walesa's conciliatory gestures, riot police forcibly evicted strikers at the Warsaw Fire Service Academy's sit-in on December 2, 1981. Walesa called the presidium and regional chairmen into closed session in Radom, where he issued a statement on the government's refusal to conclude a genuine national agreement. On December 7, 1981, a secretly obtained, edited tape of the meeting was broadcast by Warsaw Radio, implicating Walesa in confrontation with the authorities and the Solidarity militants in the overthrow of the government.

In a massive, predawn, secretive military crackdown, Walesa and nearly all of Solidarity's leadership were arrested and interned on December 13, 1981, and martial law was imposed. Flown to Warsaw for talks with General Wojciech Jaruzelski, he refused to negotiate or televise an appeal for calm and, while in custody in Warsaw, smuggled messages to Solidarity advocating peaceful resistance. Transferred to the Arlamow hunting reserve in southeast Poland, Walesa continued in his refusal to cooperate with the authorities. Solidarity was delegalized in October 1982 by the Party-dominated and controlled Sejm. Walesa was released on November 11, 1982, after 11 months of internment.

Wins Nobel Prize for Peace

In June 1983 during Pope John Paul II's second journey to Poland Walesa was granted leave for a private audience with the pope at a remote retreat in the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland. As a result of the meeting Walesa lessened his overt political activity to ease the internal situation in Poland. After receiving permission to return to the Lenin Shipyard in April 1983, he resumed work at his own request in August 1983, ten days after martial law was lifted.

For his determined and nonviolent fight for human rights, Walesa won the 1983 Nobel Prize for Peace. But, fearing that Polish authorities would block his return to Poland, he designated his wife, Danuta, mother of his seven children, to accept the award in his name in Oslo in December 1983. In his acceptance speech, delivered by his wife, Walesa declared, "We crave for justice, and that is why we are so persistent in the struggle for our rights." He called for dialogue with the authorities, as well as East-West dialogue, and appealed for aid to Poland.

Walesa dedicated the Nobel Prize to the ten million members of the outlawed Solidarity movement and pledged the prize money to a Church-sponsored agricultural foundation for private farmers. He called for the resumption of dialogue with the authorities, with the Church as intermediary, and continued to seek talks during the succeeding years while maintaining a low profile.

On August 30, 1985, the fifth anniversary of the Independent Autonomous Trade Union in Gdansk, Walesa appealed once again to the authorities to resume talks and to seek an agreement. He offered positive proposals in a document, "Poland Five Years after the August," compiled by Solidarity activists, which would serve as a basis for dialogue and which would bring about the hoped-for peaceful solution to workers' problems in Poland.

In 1989, when it was announced that Poland would be able to freely choose its government, Walesa began promoting a new presidential election, and when it was apparent that he had public support, he announced his intention for candidacy. In 1990 he was elected president of Poland. Although the country suffered a deadlocked government and high unemployment rate during Walesa's term, he accomplished much. Walesa pushed hard for reforms, and devoted a great deal of energy to ensuring Poland's entry to the European Union. He was responsible for ending Polish ties to Russia and even received a declaration from Russian president Boris Yeltsin that stated Russia's lack of objection to Poland's entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Under Walesa, the Polish economy became sixty percent privatized, with a growth rate of six percent. He is, however, not credited with this achievement, because of both his apparent lack of interest in the plight of workers mired in the transition economy and the Polish people's rather unrealistic desire for immediate change. Many of his critics say that Walesa failed to prepare Poland for the shock of the economy's transformation from Communism to democracy. The Poles' dissatisfaction with the pace of change helped ensure Communist opponent Aleksander Kwasniewski's presidential victory in the elections of 1995.

While he lost the presidency to a former Communist in Poland's 1995 elections, Walesa can nevertheless be credited with helping to unfurl the banner of democracy across Communist Europe. Indeed, the key role he played in liberalizing Eastern Europe has earned him a long list of honors, not least of which was the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. Walesa is also the author of several books, including A Way of Hope (1987) and The Struggle and the Triumph (1991). In 1995, he became the vice president of the Lech Walesa Institute Foundation.










This web page was last updated on: 17 December, 2008