Lech Wałęsa Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Wałęsa’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 underlined his contributions to peaceful political evolution in the Eastern Bloc. Wałęsa’s role since 1980 as leader of Solidarnost (Solidarity) in pressuring the Polish leadership for recognition of proletariat demands that were not addressed by the country’s government-controlled trade unions was capped by the Polish authorities in 1989 with the holding of free elections and the subsequent victory of the Solidarity-led ticket.

Early Life

Lech Michal Wałęsa was born in Popowo, Poland, north of Warsaw on September 29, 1943, the son of a carpenter, Boleslaw Wałęsa, and his wife, Fela Kaminska. His father died of deprivations suffered during World War II in a Nazi concentration camp when Lech was eighteen months old; his mother later married her deceased husband’s brother, Stanisław. Lech was reared with seven siblings in the straitened circumstances of postwar Poland.

Wałęsa was trained in a state agricultural school at Lipno as an electrician and, after completing his studies, served two years in the army. Wałęsa moved to Gdańsk in 1966, where he began working in the Lenin Shipyards as an electrician. Wałęsa was working in the shipyards in 1970 when rioting erupted over the high cost of food; more than one hundred people were killed in the subsequent unrest. The demonstrations brought down Władysław Gomułka’s government, but little was ultimately achieved. The same year, Wałęsa married, and he and his wife eventually had eight children.

Life’s Work

Wałęsa was dismissed in April, 1976, for participating in protests over the decline in living standard concessions made in 1970 by the authorities to the workers after riots over declining living standards. Wałęsa was unemployed for the next four years, during which time he supported his family by taking odd jobs. During this period he participated in meetings of the Workers Self-Defense Committee and edited an underground paper, The Coastal Worker, critical of the government. In 1978, Wałęsa also became a founding member of the Free Trade Union of the Baltic Coast, which would later provide many leaders and ideas for Solidarity. As Wałęsa’s political awareness grew, so did his scrapes with the authorities; by his own estimate, he was detained more than one hundred times by the authorities during 1976-1980. Polish consciousness was heightened in October, 1978, with the election of Cardinal of Kraków Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II. John Paul returned to Poland in June, 1979, for a nine-day visit to scenes of extraordinary national rejoicing.

Wałęsa’s star again rose in August, 1980, when workers across Poland engaged in wildcat strikes protesting price increases. On July 1, the government had raised the prices of several types and cuts of meat 60 to 90 percent. In the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyards, events that summer were brought to a head by the dismissal for labor agitation of Anna Walentynowicz, an elderly woman who was six months short of receiving her retirement benefits. On August 14, the day that the strike began, Wałęsa climbed the fence and joined strikers in the Lenin Shipyards. The strike quickly spread throughout Poland, from the steelworkers at Nowa Huta to the Silesian coal mines. Intellectuals, peasants, and working men throughout Poland joined the labor unrest. More than 300,000 workers were shortly out on strike. The Gdańsk Lenin Shipyards’ Inter-Factory Strike Committee, chaired by Wałęsa, presented a list of twenty-one demands to the government.

On August 31, 1980, the Polish government signed an accord with Wałęsa that granted unprecedented rights to labor organizations in a Communist country. Shortly thereafter, the first secretary, Edward Gierek, was dismissed. The right for workers to form independent trade unions was recognized, wage and benefit increases were granted, Catholic mass was broadcast on Sundays, censorship was eased, and political dissidents were freed. The 1980 strike that led to the formation of Solidarity drove Gierek’s government from power. While Solidarity sought change from the authorities, it was careful not to offer challenges that would force the government’s hand. Wałęsa and Solidarity called their innovations a “self-limiting revolution.” As chairman of the National Commission of Solidarity, Wałęsa had enormous visibility.

Solidarity immediately attracted many followers; shortly before the imposition of martial law, Wałęsa numbered its followers at ten million. Wałęsa once described his role as that of a “democratic dictator”; goals are developed in a democratic context, and Wałęsa then sets himself to realize them. Despite his prominence and popularity, Wałęsa as the head of a broad democratic movement spent much of his time attempting to calm militants within his organization and striking to head off confrontation with the authorities. Such a broad-based movement had many shades of opinion within it, and Wałęsa as a realist attempted to rein in its more extreme members.

The Soviet Union began to take an increasingly harsh line toward its unreliable Western neighbor and ally. Most menacing was the massing of fifty-five Soviet divisions near Poland’s eastern frontier. The nervous Polish government began to see Soviet intervention as an increasingly likely possibility.

Events continued to show the increasing influence of Solidarity; on...

(The entire section is 2260 words.)