Lech Wałęsa (Polish: [ˈlɛx vaˈwɛ̃sa] ( listen), English: /ˌlɛk vəˈwɛnsə/ or /wɔːˈlɛnsə/; born 29 September 1943) is a Polish politician, trade-union organizer, 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 between 1990 and 1995.
Wałęsa was an electrician by trade. Soon after beginning work at the Gdańsk (then, “Lenin”) Shipyards, 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 1990 he successfully ran for the 1989-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 was 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 thrown into the 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. His 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, 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 the Gdańsk Shipyard, Stocznia Gdańska, as an electrician on 12 July 1967.
On 8 December 1969 he married Danuta Gołoś. The couple have eight children: Bogdan, Sławomir, Przemysław, Jarosław, Magdalena, Anna, Maria-Wiktoria, Brygida.
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 (the Polish 1970 protests) 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 worker 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.
Since the end of his presidency, Wałęsa has 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 2011 Wałęsa wrote an article claiming that only communism is a viable temporary solution for the poor African countries in 21st century. He also voiced support of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Over the years, Wałesa has been accused of having been an informer 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 have admitted that he and his family were threatened by security agents. At times he has said that he has 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 has 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 fałszywkas 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 4 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..