Lech Walesa

Lech Walesa : Poland

Lech Walesa, the son of a peasant farmer, was born in Popowo, Poland, on 29th September, 1943. After leaving school he worked as a car mechanic. In 1967 Walesa moved to Gdansky where he became an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard.

Walesa was active in the trade union movement and during an industrial dispute in 1970 he became chairman of the shipyard's strike committee. In 1976 lost his job as a result of his trade union activities and for the next few years had to earn his living by taking temporary jobs.

Walesa continued to involve himself in organising free non-communist trade unions and in 1980, along with some of his friends, founded Solidarnosc (Solidarity). It was not long before the organization had 10 million members and Walesa was its undisputed leader.

In August 1980 Walesa led the Gdansk shipyard strike which gave rise to a wave of strikes over much of the country. Walesa, a devout Catholic, developed a loyal following and the communist authorities were forced to capitulate. The Gdansk Agreement, signed on 31st August, 1980, gave Polish workers the right to strike and to organise their own independent union.

In 1981 General Wojciech Jaruzelski, replaced Edward Gierek as leader of the Communist Party in Poland. In December 1981, Jaruzelski imposed martial law and Solidarnosc was declared an illegal organization. Soon afterwards Walesa and other trade union leaders were arrested and imprisoned.

In November 1982 Walesa was released and allowed to work in the Gdansk shipyards. Martial law was lifted in July 1983, but there were still considerable restrictions on individual freedom. Later that year, in the recognition of the role he was playing in Poland's non-violent revolution, Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Reformers in Poland were helped by the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev had gained power in the Soviet Union. In 1986 Gorbachev made it clear he would no longer interfere in the domestic policies of other countries in Eastern Europe. Wojciech Jaruzelski was now forced to negotiate with Walesa and the trade union movement. This resulted in parliamentary elections and a noncommunist government and in 1989 Solidarnosc became a legal organization.

In December 1990 Walesa was elected President of the Republic of Poland. He was not a success and his critics claimed he developed an authoritarian style in running the country. His behaviour was erratic and he was criticised for his close links with the military and security services. In November 1995 Walesa was defeated by the former communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Lech Walesa, Nobel Lecture (11th December, 1983)

I belong to a nation which over the past centuries has experienced many hardships and reverses. The world reacted with silence or with mere sympathy when Polish frontiers were crossed by invading armies and the sovereign state had to succumb to brutal force. Our national history has so often filled us with bitterness and the feeling of helplessness. But this was, above all, a great lesson in hope. Thanking you for the award I would like, first of all, to express my gratitude and my belief that it serves to enhance the Polish hope. The hope of the nation which throughout the nineteenth century had not for a moment reconciled itself with the loss of independence, and fighting for its own freedom, fought at the same time for the freedom of other nations. The hope whose elations and downfalls during the past forty years - i.e. the span of my own life - have been marked by the memorable and dramatic dates: 1944, 1956, 1970, 1976, 1980.

And if I permit myself at this juncture and on this occasion to mention my own life, it is because I believe that the prize has been granted to me as to one of many.

My youth passed at the time of the country's reconstruction from the ruins and ashes of the war in which my nation never bowed to the enemy paying the highest price in the struggle. I belong to the generation of workers who, born in the villages and hamlets of rural Poland, had the opportunity to acquire education and find employment in industry, becoming in the course conscious of their rights and importance in society. Those were the years of awakening aspirations of workers and peasants, but also years of many wrongs, degradations and lost illusions. I was barely 13 years old when, in June 1956, the desperate struggle of the workers of Poznan for bread and freedom was suppressed in blood. Thirteen also was the boy - Romek Strzalkowski - who was killed in the struggle. It was the "Solidarity" union which 25 years later demanded that tribute be paid to his memory. In December 1970 when workers' protest demonstrations engulfed the towns of the Baltic coast, I was a worker in the Gdansk Shipyard and one of the organizers of the strikes. The memory of my fellow workers who then lost their lives, the bitter memory of violence and despair has become for me a lesson never to be forgotten.

Few years later, in June 1976, the strike of the workers at Ursus and Radom was a new experience which not only strengthened my belief in the justness of the working people's demands and aspirations, but has also indicated the urgent need for their solidarity. This conviction brought me, in the summer of 1978, to the Free Trade Unions - formed by a group of courageous and dedicated people who came out in the defense of the workers' rights and dignity. In July and August of 1980 a wave of strikes swept throughout Poland. The issue at stake was then something much bigger than only material conditions of existence. My road of life has, at the time of the struggle, brought me back to the shipyard in Gdansk. The whole country has joined forces with the workers of Gdansk and Szczecin. The agreements of Gdansk, Szczecin and Jastrzebie were eventually signed and the "Solidarity" union has thus come into being.

The great Polish strikes, of which I have just spoken, were events of a special nature. Their character was determined on the one hand by the menacing circumstances in which they were held and, on the other, by their objectives. The Polish workers who participated in the strike actions, in fact represented the nation.

When I recall my own path of life I cannot but speak of the violence, hatred and lies. A lesson drawn from such experiences, however, was that we can effectively oppose violence only if we ourselves do not resort to it.

In the brief history of those eventful years, the Gdansk Agreement stands out as a great charter of the rights of the working people which nothing can ever destroy. Lying at the root of the social agreements of 1980 are the courage, sense of responsibility, and the solidarity of the working people. Both sides have then recognized that an accord must be reached if bloodshed is to be prevented. The agreement then signed has been and shall remain the model and the only method to follow, the only one that gives a chance of finding a middle course between the use of force and a hopeless struggle. Our firm conviction that ours is a just cause and that we must find a peaceful way to attain our goals gave us the strength and the awareness of the limits beyond which we must not go. What until then seemed impossible to achieve has become a fact of life. We have won the right to association in trade unions independent from the authorities, founded and shaped by the working people themselves.

Our union - the "Solidarity" - has grown into a powerful movement for social and moral liberation. The people freed from the bondage of fear and apathy, called for reforms and improvements. We fought a difficult struggle for our existence. That was and still is a great opportunity for the whole country. I think that it marked also the road to be taken by the authorities, if they thought of a state governed in cooperation and participation of all citizens. "Solidarity", as a trade union movement, did not reach for power, nor did it turn against the established constitutional order. During the 15 months of "Solidarity's" legal existence nobody was killed or wounded as a result of its activities. Our movement expanded by leaps and bounds. But we were compelled to conduct an uninterrupted struggle for our rights and freedom of activity while at the same time imposing upon ourselves the unavoidable self-limitations. The program of our movement stems from the fundamental moral laws and order. The sole and basic source of our strength is the solidarity of workers, peasants and the intelligentsia, the solidarity of the nation, the solidarity of people who seek to live in dignity, truth, and in harmony with their conscience.

Let the veil of silence fall presently over what happened afterwards. Silence, too, can speak out.

One thing, however, must be said here and now on this solemn occasion: the Polish people have not been subjugated nor have they chosen the road of violence and fratricidal bloodshed.

We shall not yield to violence. We shall not be deprived of union freedoms. We shall never agree with sending people to prison for their convictions. The gates of prisons must be thrown open and persons sentenced for defending union and civic rights must be set free. The announced trials of eleven leading members of our movement must never be held. All those already sentenced or still awaiting trials for their union activities or their convictions - should return to their homes and be allowed to live and work in their country.

The defense of our rights and our dignity, as well as efforts never to let ourselves to be overcome by the feeling of hatred - this is the road we have chosen.

The Polish experience, which the Nobel Peace Prize has put into limelight, has been a difficult, a dramatic one. Yet, I believe that it looks to the future. The things that have taken place in human conscience and re-shaped human attitudes cannot be obliterated or destroyed. They exist and will remain.

We are the heirs of those national aspirations thanks to which our people could never be made into an inert mass with no will of their own. We want to live with the belief that law means law and justice means justice, that our toil has a meaning and is not wasted, that our culture grows and develops in freedom.

As a nation we have the right to decide our own affairs, to mould our own future. This does not pose any danger to anybody. Our nation is fully aware of the responsibility for its own fate in the complicated situation of the contemporary world.

Despite everything that has been going on in my country during the past two years, I am still convinced that we have no alternative but to come to an agreement, and that the difficult problems which Poland is now facing can be resolved only through a real dialogue between state authorities and the people.