|2nd President of Poland|
22 December 1990 – 22 December 1995
|Prime Minister||Tadeusz Mazowiecki
Jan Krzysztof Bielecki
|Preceded by||Wojciech Jaruzelski|
|Succeeded by||Aleksander Kwaśniewski|
|Chairperson of Solidarity|
14 August 1980 – 12 December 1990
|Preceded by||Position established|
|Succeeded by||Marian Krzaklewski|
29 September 1943 |
|Political party||Solidarity (1970–1988)
Solidarity Citizens' Committee (1988–1993)
Nonpartisan Bloc for Support of Reforms (1993–1997)
Christian Democracy of the 3rd Polish Republic (1997–2001)
Civic Platform (2001–present)
|Solidarity Electoral Action (1997–2001)|
|Spouse(s)||Danuta Gołoś (1969–present)|
Lech Wałęsa (English pronunciation: / /; Polish: [ˈlɛx vaˈwɛ̃sa] ( ); born 29 September 1943) is a Polish politician, trade-union organizer, philanthropist and human-rights activist. A charismatic leader, he co-founded Solidarity (Solidarność), the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and served as President of Poland from 1990 to 1995.
Wałęsa was an electrician by trade. Soon after beginning work at the Lenin Shipyard (now Gdańsk Shipyard), he became a dissident trade-union activist. For this he was persecuted by the Communist authorities, placed under surveillance, fired in 1976, and arrested several times. In August 1980 he was instrumental in political negotiations that led to the ground-breaking Gdańsk Agreement between striking workers and the government. He became a co-founder of the Solidarity trade-union movement. Arrested again after martial law was imposed in Poland and Solidarity was outlawed, upon release he continued his activism and was prominent in the establishment of the 1989 Round Table Agreement that led to semi-free parliamentary elections in June 1989 and to a Solidarity-led government.
In the Polish election of 1990, he successfully ran for the newly re-established office of President of Poland. He presided over Poland's transformation from a communist to a post-communist state, but his popularity waned. After he narrowly lost the 1995 presidential election, his role in Polish politics diminished. However, his international fame remains. Wałęsa continues to speak and lecture in Poland and abroad on history and politics.
Wałęsa was born in Popowo, Poland. His father, Bolesław, was a carpenter who was arrested by the Nazis before Lech was born and interned in a concentration camp at Mlyniec. Boleslaw returned home after the war but lived only two months before succumbing to exhaustion and illness – he was not yet 34 years old. Lech's mother, Feliksa, born Kamienska, has been credited with shaping her son's beliefs and tenacity.
In 1961, Lech graduated from primary and vocational school in nearby Chalin and Lipno as a qualified electrician. He worked from 1961 to 1965 as a car mechanic, then embarked on his two-year obligatory stint of military service, attaining the rank of corporal, before beginning work at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk (Stocznia Gdańska im. Lenina), now called Gdańsk Shipyard (Stocznia Gdańska), as an electrician on 12 July 1967.
From early on, Wałęsa was interested in workers' concerns; in 1968 he encouraged shipyard colleagues to boycott official rallies that condemned recent student strikes. A charismatic leader, he was an organizer of the illegal 1970 strikes at the Gdańsk Shipyard when workers protested the government's decree raising food prices; he was considered for chairman of the strike committee. The strikes' outcome, involving over 30 workers' deaths, galvanized his views on the need for change. In June 1976, Wałęsa lost his job at the Gdańsk Shipyards for his continued involvement in illegal unions, strikes and a campaign to commemorate the victims of the 1970 protests. Afterwards, he worked as an electrician for several other companies, but was continually laid off for his activism and was jobless for long periods. He and his family were under constant surveillance by the Polish secret police; his home and workplace were always bugged. Over the next few years, he was arrested several times for participating in dissident activities.
Wałęsa worked closely with the Workers' Defence Committee (KOR), a group that emerged to lend aid to individuals arrested after 1976 labor strikes and to their families. In June 1978 he became an activist of the underground Free Trade Unions of the Coast (Wolne Związki Zawodowe Wybrzeża). On 14 August 1980, after another food-price hike led to a strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk—a strike of which he was one of the instigators—Wałęsa scaled the shipyard fence and, once inside, quickly became one of the strike leaders. The strike inspired some similar strikes, first at Gdańsk, then across Poland. Wałęsa headed the Inter-Plant Strike Committee, coordinating the workers at Gdańsk and at 20 other plants in the region. On 31 August, the communist government, represented by Mieczysław Jagielski, signed an accord (the Gdańsk Agreement) with the Strike Coordinating Committee. The agreement, besides granting the Lenin Shipyard workers the right to strike, permitted them to form their own independent trade union. The Strike Coordinating Committee legalized itself as the National Coordinating Committee of the Solidarność (Solidarity) Free Trade Union, and Wałęsa was chosen chairman of the Committee. The Solidarity trade union quickly grew, ultimately claiming over 10 million members—more than a quarter of Poland's population. Wałęsa's role in the strike, in the negotiations, and in the newly formed independent trade union gained him fame on the international stage. Wałęsa held his position until 13 December 1981, when General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law. Wałęsa, like many other Solidarity leaders and activists, was arrested; he would be incarcerated for 11 months at several eastern towns (Chylice, Otwock, and Arłamów, near the Soviet border) until 14 November 1982. On 8 October 1982, Solidarity was outlawed. In 1983 Wałęsa applied to return to the Gdańsk Shipyard as a simple electrician. That same year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was unable to accept it himself, fearing that Poland's government would not let him back into the country. His wife Danuta accepted the prize on his behalf.
Through the mid-1980s, Wałęsa continued underground Solidarity-related activities. Every issue of the leading underground weekly, Tygodnik Mazowsze, bore his motto, "Solidarity will not be divided or destroyed." Following a 1986 amnesty for Solidarity activists, Wałęsa co-founded the first overt legal Solidarity entity since the declaration of martial law—the Provisional Council of NSZZ Solidarity (Tymczasowa Rada NSZZ Solidarność). From 1987 to 1990, he organized and led the "semi-illegal" Provisional Executive Committee of the Solidarity Trade Union. In late summer 1988, he instigated work-stoppage strikes at the Gdańsk Shipyard.
After months of strikes and political deliberations, at the conclusion of the 10th plenary session of the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR, the Polish communist party), the government agreed to enter into Round Table Negotiations that lasted from February to April 1989. Wałęsa was an informal leader of the "non-governmental" side in the negotiations. During the talks, he traveled the length and breadth of Poland, giving speeches in support of the negotiations. At the end of the talks, the government signed an agreement to re-establish the Solidarity Trade Union and to organize "semi-free" elections to the Polish parliament (semi-free since, in accordance with the Round Table Agreement, only members of the Communist Party and its allies could stand for 65% of the seats in the Sejm).
In December 1988, Wałęsa co-founded the Solidarity Citizens' Committee. Theoretically it was merely an advisory body, but in practice it was a kind of political party and won the parliamentary elections in June 1989 (Solidarity took all the seats in the Sejm that were subject to free elections, and all but one seat in the newly re-established Senate). Wałęsa was one of Solidarity's most public figures; though he did not run for parliament himself, he was an active campaigner, appearing on many campaign posters. In fact, Solidarity winners in the Sejm elections were referred to as "Wałęsa's team" or "Lech's team," as all those who won had appeared on their election posters together with him.
While ostensibly only chairman of Solidarity, Wałęsa played a key role in practical politics. In August 1989, he persuaded leaders of former communist-allied parties to form a non-communist coalition government – the first non-Communist government in the Soviet Bloc. The parliament elected Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister – the first non-communist Polish prime minister in over four decades.
Following the June 1989 parliamentary elections, Wałęsa was disappointed that some of his former comrades-in-arms were satisfied to govern alongside former Communists. He decided to run for the newly re-established office of president, using the slogan, "I don't want to, but I've got no choice" ("Nie chcem, ale muszem."). That year, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson encouraged Walesa to raise awareness to charitable giving and sent him a dollar bill that Walesa has kept in his wallet ever since. On 9 December 1990, Wałęsa won the presidential election, defeating Prime Minister Mazowiecki and other candidates to become the first democratically elected president of Poland. In 1993 he founded his own political party, the Nonpartisan Bloc for Support of Reforms (BBWR – the initials echoed those of Józef Piłsudski's "Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government," of 1928–35, likewise an ostensibly non-political organization).
During his presidency, Wałęsa saw Poland through privatization and transition to a free-market economy (the Balcerowicz Plan), Poland's 1991 first completely free parliamentary elections, and a period of redefinition of Poland's foreign relations. He successfully negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Polish soil and won a substantial reduction in Poland's foreign debts.
Wałęsa supported Poland's entry into NATO and into the European Union. Both these goals would be realized after his presidency, in 1999 and 2004, respectively. In the early 1990s, Wałęsa proposed the creation of a NATO bis as a sub-regional security system. The concept, while supported by right-wing and populist movements in Poland, garnered little support abroad; Poland's neighbors, some of whom (e.g., Lithuania) had only recently regained independence, tended to see the proposal as Polish "neo-imperialism."
Wałęsa has been criticized for a confrontational style and for instigating "war at the top," whereby former Solidarity allies clashed with one another, causing annual changes of government. This increasingly isolated Wałęsa on the political scene. As he lost more and more political allies, he came to be surrounded by people who were viewed by the public as incompetent and disreputable. Mudslinging during election campaigns tarnished his reputation. The ex-electrician with no higher education was thought by some to be too plain-spoken and too undignified for the post of president. Others thought him too erratic in his views or complained that he was too authoritarian – that he sought to strengthen his own power at the expense of the Sejm. Jacek Merkel, Wałęsa's national security advisor, credited the shortcomings of Wałęsa's presidency to Wałęsa's inability to comprehend the office of the president as an institution. Walesa was an effective union leader capable of articulating what the workers felt but as president he had a difficult time delegating power or navigating the bureaucracy.[clarification needed] Finally, Wałęsa's problems were compounded by the difficult transition to a market economy; while in the long run it was seen as highly successful, it lost Wałęsa's government much popular support.
Wałęsa's BBWR performed poorly in the 1993 parliamentary elections; at times his popular support dwindled to some 10%, and he narrowly lost the 1995 presidential election, gathering 48.72% of the vote in the run-off against Aleksander Kwaśniewski, who represented the resurgent Polish post-Communists (the Democratic Left Alliance, SLD). Wałęsa's fate was sealed by his poor handling of the media; in the televised debates, he came over as incoherent and rude; at the end of the first of the two debates, in response to Kwaśniewski's extended hand, he replied that the post-Communist leader could "shake his leg". After the election, Wałęsa said he was going to go into "political retirement", and his role in politics became increasingly marginal.
Since the end of his presidency, Wałęsa lectured on Central European history and politics at various universities and organizations. In 1996, he founded the Lech Wałęsa Institute, a think tank whose mission is to support democracy and local governments in Poland and throughout the world. In 1997 he helped organize a new party, Christian Democracy of the 3rd Polish Republic; he also supported the coalition Solidarity Electoral Action (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność), which won the 1997 parliamentary elections. However, the party's real leader and main organizer was a new Solidarity Trade Union leader, Marian Krzaklewski. Wałęsa ran again in the 2000 presidential election, but received only 1% of the vote. During Poland's 2005 presidential elections, Wałęsa supported Donald Tusk, saying that he was the best candidate.
In 2006 Wałęsa quit Solidarity, citing differences over the union's support of the Law and Justice party, and the rise to power of Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński. On 27 February 2008, at Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center, in Houston, Texas, in the United States, Wałęsa underwent a coronary artery stent placement and the implantation of a cardiac pacemaker. In the run-up to the 2009 European Parliament elections, he appeared at a rally in Rome to endorse the pan-European Eurosceptic party Libertas, describing it and its founder Declan Ganley as "a force for good in the world." Wałęsa admitted that he had been paid to give the speech but claimed to support Civic Platform, while expressing the hope that Libertas candidates would be elected to the European Parliament.
He is member of the international advisory council of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a recipient of the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom, along with Anna Walentynowicz and John Paul II.
In 2009 Wałęsa condemned the Obama administration's abandonment of a long range missile defense agreement with Poland. In 2011 he wrote an article claiming that only communism is a viable temporary solution for the poor African countries in the 21st century. He also voiced support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Wałęsa endorsed Mitt Romney during the 2012 US presidential campaign, stressing the importance of the US restoring its leadership role.
Allegations of being a collaborator
Over the years, Wałęsa has been accused of having been an informant for the Polish secret police Służba Bezpieczeństwa (SB) in the early 1970s, codenamed "Bolek". Although this was long before Wałęsa emerged as a hero of the Solidarity, questions remain whether it had an effect on his later decisions; for example, making him a probable target of blackmail. On 11 August 2000, the Warsaw Appellate Court, V Wydział Lustracyjny, declared that Wałęsa's lustration statement was true – that he had not collaborated with the communist regime. Nonetheless, periodically the question resurfaces.
A 2008 book by historians from the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), Sławomir Cenckiewicz and Piotr Gontarczyk, presenting new evidence, received substantial coverage in the media, provoked a hot nation-wide debate, and was noted by the international press. The book is seen by some as very controversial; however, it contains over 130 pages of documents from archives of the secret police (which were inherited by the IPN) to support its claims, and Cenckiewicz defended his discoveries on a factual basis. Janusz Kurtyka, president of the Institute of National Remembrance at the time, staunchly affirmed the thesis of the book while admitting that it does not contain a "hundred-percent" proof that Wałęsa was the agent Bolek, as some of the documents went missing during Wałęsa's presidency of Poland (1990–1995). He expressed hope the book would be subject to a wider debate.
In his autobiography A Way of Hope, Wałęsa admitted that he did not come out clean from his interrogations in the aftermath of the December 1970 strikes and in subsequent conversations admitted that he and his family were threatened by security agents. At times he has said that he tried to outwit his interrogators, although historians have observed it would have been an impossible self-delusion with more than a hundred agents assigned to dissident leaders. He has denied having been "Bolek"; or that he collaborated with the secret police, which seems to be the case after 1978 when he became a member of the Coastal WZZ [Free Trade Union]. His most dramatic refusal to cooperate with the regime came shortly after the introduction of martial law when he rejected the offer to head regime controlled Solidarity, which would have been a major blow to the popular dissident movement.
Others have noted that the Polish secret police commonly falsified their own top secret reports (known as fałszywka in Polish) in order to ruin the good name of prominent individuals. In November 2009 Wałęsa sued the then president of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, over his having repeated the collaboration allegations.
On 15 April 2010, during a civil trial brought by Wałęsa against former fellow activist Krzysztof Wyszkowski over the collaboration allegations, a retired MO and Służba Bezpieczeństwa officer appeared in court and confirmed the fact of Wałęsa's collaboration in a sworn testimony. The officer, Janusz Stachowiak, was in charge of keeping documentation on Wałęsa from December 1970 to 1974, although never met him in person. He stated that Wałęsa was convinced to cooperate by SB Capt. Henryk Rapczyński and SB Capt. Edward Graczyk, after a two-hour interrogation, albeit without the use of threats, and signed an agreement to keep his cooperation with SB in secret. The officers asked him to "calm down" the atmosphere in the shipyard after protests were bloodily suppressed. Wałęsa kept meeting regularly with the secret police, reportedly receiving substantial sums of money, but after about four months he started to "withdraw" (although it was not until June 1976 when he was unregistered, because of his "reluctance to cooperate").
Previously, in 2008, Capt. Edward Graczyk (long thought to be deceased and as such not summoned to testify in the 2000 trial) was interrogated by the IPN about his contacts with Wałęsa and subsequently interviewed by Gazeta Wyborcza. In the interview, which somewhat contradicts his earlier testimony, Graczyk recounted Wałęsa's cooperation, but denied his own actions had been "recruitment" of an agent. He also denied giving money to Wałęsa. The other of the two officers, Capt. Henryk Rapczyński, was never interrogated.
On 22 December 2011, it was reported that the prosecutor Zbigniew Kulikowski from the Białystok division of the IPN (National Remembrance Institute) determined that the SB (communist secret security) had forged documents in the 1980s that suggested Wałęsa was their agent during the 1980s. Perhaps the most controversial act was the wanton destruction of government files, which occurred during the Wałęsa presidency, which some have argued have contributed to legal distortions and derailing of lustration in free Poland.
Religious and personal views
Wałęsa is a devout Roman Catholic. He is a staunch opponent of abortion, and has said that he would rather have resigned the presidency twenty times than sign into law a bill permitting abortion in Poland. In an interview for Polish television in 2012, Wałęsa said that, as a Catholic, he opposes in vitro fertilization and same-sex marriage. At a political campaign rally in 2000 he said regarding gay people, "I believe those people need medical treatment", continuing with "Imagine if all people were like that. We wouldn't have any descendants." As part of the same interview in 2012, he said that if his son were a homosexual he would pray for him to "step down from the wrong way".
Wałęsa has also said that he is interested in information technology and likes to use new developments in that field. He has stated that he has assembled several computers to find out how they work and takes a smartphone, a palmtop, and a laptop with him when traveling. Early in 2006 he revealed that he is a registered user of the Polish instant-messaging service Gadu-Gadu, and was granted a new special user number – 1980 (A reference to the year Wałęsa cofounded Solidarity). Later that year, he also said that he used Skype, his "handle" being lwprezydent2006.
Apart from his 1983 Nobel Peace Prize, Wałęsa has received many other international distinctions and awards. He has been named "Man of the Year" by Time (1981), the Financial Times (1980) and The Observer (1980). He was the first recipient of the Liberty Medal, on 4 July 1989 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and that same year received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is the only Pole to have addressed a joint meeting of the United States Congress (15 November 1989).
On 8 February 2002, Wałęsa represented Europe, carrying the Olympic flag at the opening ceremonies of the XIX Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, in company with Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Africa), John Glenn (the Americas), Kazuyoshi Funaki (Asia), Cathy Freeman (Oceania), Jean-Michel Cousteau (Environment), Jean-Claude Killy (Sport), and Steven Spielberg (Culture). Two years later, on 10 May 2004, Gdańsk International Airport was officially renamed Gdańsk Lech Wałęsa Airport to commemorate a famous Gdańsk citizen, and his signature was incorporated into the airport's logo.
A month later, in June 2004, Wałęsa represented Poland at the state funeral of Ronald Reagan. On 11 October 2006, Wałęsa was keynote speaker at the launch of "International Human Solidarity Day," proclaimed in 2005 by the United Nations General Assembly. In January 2007 Wałęsa spoke at a Taiwan event, "Towards a Global Forum on New Democracies," in support of peace and democracy, along with other prominent world leaders and Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian.
On 25 April 2007, Wałęsa represented the Polish government at the funeral of Boris Yeltsin, former President of the Russian Federation. On 23 October 2009, he spoke at a conference in Gdańsk of presidents of all European senates, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the first free parliamentary elections in a former communist country – the 1989 elections to the Polish Senate.
Wałęsa has written three books: Droga nadziei (The Road of Hope, 1987), Droga do wolności (The Road to Freedom, 1991), and Wszystko, co robię, robię dla Polski (All That I Do, I Do for Poland, 1995).
In popular culture
Wałęsa has been portrayed in numerous works of popular culture. In Volker Schlöndorff's film Strike, a character based on Wałęsa was played by Polish actor Andrzej Chyra. He was portrayed by Bernard Hill in the 1984 TV production of Tom Stoppard's Squaring the Circle. Wałęsa played himself in Andrzej Wajda's 1981 Golden Palm-winning film about Solidarity, Man of Iron. While this was perhaps his best-known movie appearance, he has played himself in some 20 other productions.
In the 1990s two satirical Polish songs, "Nie wierzcie elektrykom" ("Don't Trust Electricians") by Big Cyc, and "Wałęsa, gdzie moje 100 000 000" ("Wałęsa, Where's My 100,000,000 [złotych]?") by Kazik Staszewski, were major hits in Poland, and another song about Wałęsa was composed in 2009 by Holy Smoke. He also inspired U2's song "New Year's Day" on their War album. Coincidentally the Polish authorities lifted martial law on 1 January 1983, the very day that this single came out. Patrick Dailly's Solidarity, starring Kristen Brown as Wałęsa, was premiered by the San Francisco Cabaret Opera in Berkeley and Oakland, California, in September and October 2009.
On 1 December 2011, Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrzej Wajda began shooting the biographical film Walesa. Man of Hope. The off-Broadway playwright Janusz Głowacki wrote the screenplay. Robert Więckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska star as Lech Wałęsa and his wife Danuta Wałęsa. The film was released in September 2012.
The documentary film Lech Wałęsa, Twenty Years Later (2003) by director Adam Kinaszewski shows the life and career path of Wałęsa.
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- "Communists fabricated documents against Walesa". CTV. The Associated Press. 22 December 2011. Retrieved 17 September 2012.
- Szporer, Michael (2012). Solidarity: The Great Workers Strike of 1980. Lexington Books. p. 150. ISBN 9780739174876.
- Former Polish president: I would have resigned the presidency rather than legalize abortion. Catholic News Agency, 21 May 2009.
- "World Report". Windy City Times. Retrieved 26 March 2013.
- "Wałęsa: gdyby mój syn był homoseksualistą, modliłbym się, aby zszedł ze złej drogi". Wprost. 5 July 2012.
- Rybus, Jarosław (20 February 2006). "Wywiad z Lechem Wałęsą (Interview with Lech Wałęsa)" (in Polish). GG Network S.A. Retrieved 19 August 2007.
- Macheta, Ł (20 January 2006). "Nowy numer GG dla Wałęsy (New GG number for Wałęsa)" (in Polish). Mediarun Sp. z o.o. Retrieved 10 January 2010.
- Marcin Maj. "Wałęsa na Skype". Dziennik Internautów. Retrieved 10 January 2010.
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- Maureen Dowd, Envoy; BUSH GIVE WALESA MEDAL OF FREEDOM, New York Times, 14 November 1989.
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- Strajk – Die Heldin von Danzig (2006), IMDb.
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- Signing of the Gdańsk Agreement
- Presidential Inauguration
- Speech at the National Press Club on Nov.16 1989, from C-SPAN video archive
- Official blog
- Lech Wałęsa Institute
- Stephen Engelberg (11 December 1990). "Man in the News; The Grandmaster of Polish Politics: Lech Wałęsa". The New York Times.
- Stefan Chwin, God must have parachuted him to Earth originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny, December 2008
- New Statesman interview with Lech Wałęsa by Mark Seddon
- Wałęsa speech (MP3)
- Lech Wałęsa – Nobel Lecture
- BBC interview with Lech Wałęsa on the 25th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity
- Interview on WTTW
- The Shaming of Lech Wałęsa: Why the defeater of communism finds himself defeated by ex-communists—and why he and the American public haven't noticed Agnieszka Tennant, Books & Culture magazine, 2002
- Lech Wałęsa, NNDB.com
- International Support Freedom Collection interview
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