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Diplomacy and Conflict • Cold War Leadership

Lech Walesa was born on September 29, 1943 to a peasant family in the village of Popowo, Poland. He finished a vocational school education and after 1961 was employed as a auto mechanic. His work was interrupted by mandatory military service in the Polish communist army in the years 1965-1967. Upon the completion of his military service, Walesa began working as an electrician in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. In 1969, he married Danuta Golos.

Early Labor Union Agitator

In December 1970, during the crisis precipitated by the government's announcement of price increases, Walesa took an active part in the strike at the shipyard and was one of its leaders. Walesa was subsequently arrested and convicted for "anti social behavior," and he spent one year in prison.

Six years later, during a 1976 labor-government crisis, he was fired from the shipyard for his activities directed "against the Polish government." He had been collecting signatures for a petition to build a memorial to commemorate the casualties resulting from the 1970 uprising. Thereafter, he had to earn a living and support his family by taking temporary jobs. In 1978, Walesa, together with Andrzej Gwiazda, Aleksander Hall, and a group of other activists, organized free, independent, non-communist trade unions at the seacoast. Polish security forces closely observed this activity. Walesa was often detained, arrested, and could not find a permanent job.

In August 1980, Poland was struck by yet another wave of strikes. When strikes reached Gdansk, Walesa jumped over the shipyard wall to become the leader of the strike committee. Because of the strike and negotiations with the communist government, workers signed an agreement (Walesa signed the agreement on August 31), which allowed workers to organize on their own union, independent of the Communist Party's trade unions.

The resulting Solidarity trade union was registered in the fall of 1980. One year later, Walesa became Solidarity's president, and almost 70% of all working people in Poland subsequently joined the union. During 1980–1981, Solidarity became a major movement. It sought to change the social and economic conditions under Poland's socialist system. Although individual Solidarity members criticized the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, Walesa and Solidarity's leadership never allowed the union to drift fully towards politics.

On December 13, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, now under pressure from Moscow, introduced martial law, a move intended to crush Solidarity. Walesa was among those arrested in the aftermath of the crackdown. In November 1982, Walesa was released and went back to work at the Gdansk shipyard. In spite of security police surveillance, he managed to maintain contact with other Solidarity leaders operating in the underground. In July 1983, martial law was lifted, but little changed in Poland. Many of the restrictions were continued through the civil code, and Walesa steadfastly refused to collaborate with the communist government. In October 1983, it was announced that Walesa would receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which was met with elation by the Polish opposition and attacked by the government press.

Walesa and Poland after Communism

Virtually a prisoner in his own home, Walesa was nevertheless able to communicate with his colleagues, and beginning in 1987 he organized and led the "half-illegal" Temporary Executive Committee of the Solidarity Trade Union. In 1989, with no improvement in the economy and a steadily worsening social situation, Jaruzelski agreed to talks with Walesa and his colleagues. During February–April 1989, a roundtable meeting was organized to discuss the future of Poland. Walesa served as the leader of the opposition. As a result of the discussions, semi-free elections were held in June 1989. They resulted in a new government under a non-communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. The change of government precipitated similar changes in other nations of Eastern and Central Europe, which led ultimately to the collapse of communism and the end of Cold War by 1991.

Walesa, now head of the revived—and legal—Solidarity labor union and the broader Polish citizens' movement, worked hard to move Poland toward democracy and promote its interests abroad. He soon began a series of meetings with world leaders, and was celebrated in the West as a champion of freedom and democracy. In November 1989, he became the third foreigner in history, after the Marquis de Lafayette and Winston Churchill, to address a joint session of the United States Congress.

In December 1990, Walesa was elected president of Poland in a general election. He thereafter resigned as the leader of Solidarity and supported the full privatization of Poland's economy. Unfortunately, Poland's infrastructure was unable to support the massive changes that Walesa sought, and critics began to question his ability to lead an entire government. Walesa announced his intention to seek reelection in 1994, but by then most of his supporters had deserted him. He lost his reelection bid in the December 1995 elections to Alexander Kwasniewski.

Walesa has since remained in the public sphere, mostly by speaking and writing on numerous topics. He has staked out some controversial positions, however, including the perpetuation of homophobic stereotypes. He was publicly critical of U.S. president Barack Obama, asserting that he did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize and had not helped the United States "reclaim its moral leadership" in the world. During the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, he pointedly endorsed Republican nominee Mitt Romney. In the fall of 2015, amidst the European refugee crisis, Walesa warned that opening the floodgates to refugees from the Middle East would lead ultimately to the refugees pursuing their own customs, "including beheading." In 2017, Poland's government-run history institute concluded that recent handwriting analyses show that Walesa had worked as a paid informant for the Polish secret police in the 1970s. Walesa has insisted, however, that although he agreed to be an informant, he never provided the secret police with any useful information.

"anti behavior," "against government." "half-illegal" "reclaim leadership" "including beheading."
Jakub Basista
Dr. Jakub Basista is associate professor of history at the Institute of History, Jagiellonian University. He specializes in early modern European and world history. He has made several contributions to publications such as Encyclopedia of World's Nations (2002) and Milestone Documents of World Religions (2010).

Further Reading

Ascherson, Neal, The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution, 1981; Ash, Timothy Garton, The Polish Revolution: Solidarity 1980-1982, 1991; Biskupski, M. B. The History of Poland. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000; Garton Ash, Timothy. The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague. New York: Random House, 1990; Held, Joseph. Dictionary of East European History Since 1945. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994; Kurski, Jaroslaw. Lech Walesa: Democrat or Dictator. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993; Paczkowski, Andrzej, The Spring Will Be Ours. Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003; Walesa Lech. The Struggle and the Triumph. New York: Arcade, 1992; Wróbel, Piotr. Historical Dictionary of Poland, 1945-1996. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

MLA Citation

Basista, Jakub. "Lech Walesa." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/316173. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2155829

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