Lech Walesa, THE FLY, FEISTY, MUSTACHIOED ELECTRICIAN from Gdansk, shaped the twentieth century as the leader of the Solidarity movement that lead the Poles out of communism. It is one of history’s great ironies that the nearest thing we have ever see to a genuine workers’ revolution was directed against a so – called workers’ state. Poland was again the breaker for the rest of the Central Europe in the “velvet revolutions” of 1989. Walesa’s contribution to the end of communism in Europe, and hence the end of Cold War, stands beside those of his fellow Pole Pope John Paul II, and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Lech 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 shipyard 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 the workers’ protests in the 1970′s 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 of thirty-seven, 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 communists world since 1917, the new union was christened Solidarnose (Solidarity). Soon it hasd 10 million members, and Walesa was its undisputed leader. For sixteen 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 as Lech – was foxy, unpredictable, often infuriating, but he has 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 eleven 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 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 bought 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 in 1989. Walesa and his colleagues secured semi free 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 fifty years. Where Poland led, the rest of the 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 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 advisor was his former chauffer, 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 in his fifties 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 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 the 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 came 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”.