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Lech Walesa

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Lech Walesa was born on September 29, 1943, in Popowo, Poland. After primary and vocational education, he pursued a career as an electrician and was employed at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, on the Baltic coast of Poland. As a shipyard worker, he became increasingly active in labor matters and committed himself to promoting workers’ rights. In the 1970s, he became a leader of the effort to establish independent trade unions, which were forbidden in communist Poland. Walesa organized shipyard workers, distributed underground leaflets, and educated workers on their rights.

Walesa was a principal organizer of the Lenin Shipyard Strike in August 1980 and as spokesman for the workers, he quickly became the public face of the independent labor movement. His tenacious negotiations with communist authorities and steadfast support of workers’ rights inspired Poles and resulted in the establishment of the Solidarity trade union, the first independent labor union in the communist world. Solidarity soon expanded its reach beyond labor issues and became the hub for the country’s dissident activity, uniting democratic forces across Poland.

The communist regime attempted to crush Solidarity’s influence and popularity by declaring martial law on December 13, 1981. As the movement’s leader, Walesa was among the first to be arrested and imprisoned. During this time, Poland’s communist government banned Solidarity, but Walesa wouldn’t surrender. He remained a symbol and spokesman for the ideals embodied by Solidarity as the movement continued its activities underground. Walesa’s struggle was recognized by the international community when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.

As popular dissatisfaction grew against the regime in the late 1980s, Walesa led negotiations with the government to ease tensions. The negotiations resulted in elections on June 4, 1989, that saw the establishment of the first non-communist government within the Warsaw Pact. With the acquiescence of the Soviet Union and inspired by the moral leadership of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, Poland began its transformation to democracy and free markets.

On December 22, 1990, Lech Walesa became the first democratically elected president of Poland. While in office, Walesa was a driving force in Poland’s European integration, laying the groundwork for Poland’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. After leaving office in 1995, he founded The Lech Walesa Institute, an organization committed to supporting democracy throughout the world. 

The problem is that Gdansk is its own special city; even under those communist circumstances. This was a city to which all types of very active people came from all over the country who had found it constraining in their hometowns, so that is one thing. The second thing is that people who converged on Gdansk came from all over the world; they were merchant seamen, they were shipbuilders, et cetera. So that all those discussions, observations and comparisons which were made became all the more clear-cut, and these [realizations] would cause people to attempt to fight for an improvement in their living conditions.

I think you would have to add as well the circumstance that after the Second World War we were saddled with a system, a communist system, which we did not accept. So there was really not a single moment when the struggle had subsided for the overthrow of the yoke of the communist regime. And that is why any discontent was used, and led us in the direction of overthrowing the system of communism. But we fought from the very beginning – in the 1950s [1956 anti-communist uprising], 1940s [uprisings against Nazi and Soviet occupation], you know – brandishing arms in hand. In the 1960s and 1970s – the strikes and the street demonstrations.

So this was all about people clamoring for freedom. People wanting to overthrow Communism as a system. Now, the greatest struggle in many ways took place in 1970 [anti-government demonstrations in response to rising prices], and it was in fact at the Gdansk Shipyard where I was a leader and was involved in directing this fight at the time. But after the second day of our struggle, of that strike it became clear to me that we didn’t have so much as a prayer of victory; that we didn’t know what that victory might look like; that we weren’t organized at all. So it became my goal to conclude this battle as soon as possible and take as few losses as possible.

All that in order to start preparing for a serious and smarter struggle, which is what happened in 1980. Along the way we had 1976, the Workers Defense Committee [KOR]. So what you have here is a chain of subsequent events, which led us to August of 1980 [the strike organized by workers from the Lenin Shipyard that led to the formation of Solidarity]. 

Poland is a central European country bordered by the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Ukraine, Germany, Russia, Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Poland has a population of 38 million people; nearly 90 percent are Roman Catholic.

Poles struggled against foreign dominance from the 14th century and the modern Polish state is less than one hundred years old. Polish borders expanded and contracted through a series of partitions in the 18th century. After a brief period of independence and parliamentary democracy from 1918 to 1939, World War II brought occupation by Nazi Germany and the near annihilation of the Jewish population. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Poland’s Jewish population went from over 3 million in 1933 to 45,000 in 1950.

After the war, Poland became a Soviet satellite state and a communist system was imposed. Farms were collectivized, basic freedoms curtailed, and a culture of fear developed under a Stalinist regime. The 1960s brought greater prosperity and some liberalization. Labor protests in the early 1970s tested the communist government’s resolve and prompted modest reforms.

In 1978, Polish Archbishop and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian to hold the position since the 16th century. The pope’s triumphant return to Poland in 1979 saw massive outpourings of public support, shaking the foundations of the government and inspiring the opposition to press for peaceful change.

In 1980, shipbuilders in the seaport city of Gdansk united to confront the government. Their calls for greater political liberties and improved working conditions developed into the Solidarity movement. Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa, became the movement’s voice. Protests and unrest spread throughout the country and the communists replaced their leadership. General Wojciech Jaruzelski became prime minister and declared martial law on December 13, 1981. Solidarity was outlawed and Walesa and other Solidarity leaders were imprisoned.

While martial law was lifted in 1983, Poland continued to stagnate. Mikhail Gorbachev’s elevation to leadership of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 brought new pressures for reform in Poland. A failing economy and continued repression incited workers to a new wave of strikes in 1988. A desperate regime agreed to legalize Solidarity and conduct semi-free elections. In the 1989 parliamentary elections, Solidarity won 99 of the 100 Senate seats and 160 of the 161 lower house seats they were allowed to contest. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarity leader, became Poland’s first non-communist prime minister in over four decades. In 1990, Lech Walesa was elected president with 74 percent of the vote. While Solidarity splintered as Poland democratized, a coalition government of anti-communist parties won fully free parliamentary elections in 1991.

Poland transitioned to a market economy and applied for integration into western institutions. Economic dislocation returned the former communists, now social democrats, to power in 1993. Free elections and peaceful transitions in the following decades solidified Poland’s multi-party democratic system. Reforms eventually led to a more robust economy and Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2013, Poland earned the status “Free,” (as it has since 1990) receiving the best possible rankings in the categories Political Rights and Civil Liberties. 

More from Lech Walesa

Lech Walesa: Gdansk as a Hub of Unrest “Gdansk is its own special city, even under those communist circumstances.” Lech Walesa: Gorbachev and the Fall of Communism “Anyone wanting to stop this thing would have had to kill between one million to ten million people.” Lech Walesa: International Support “If you cannot lift a load by yourself, then go ask others who will help you lift it.” More + Lech Walesa: Winning the Development Battle “You have just driven the last nails into the coffin of Communism.” Lech Walesa: Overcoming Fear “At the beginning everyone's afraid, but with the passage of time you are able to defeat fear.” Lech Walesa: A Polish Pope “So in this state of powerlessness, the state of despair, a Polish man becomes pope.” Lech Walesa: Reagan, Mitterrand, and Thatcher “And all these people were fed up with Communism.”