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Lech Walesa and the making of modern Poland

Leader of Polish trade union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) Lech Walesa at the Gdansk docks. - Credit: Sygma via Getty Images

Lech Walesa helped create modern Poland. Thirty years after he came to power, MICK O’HARE reports on a complex character and his even more complex legacy

When Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party was re-elected in October 2019 under prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki it was on a ticket of more of the same. More right-wing populism of the type now fashionable across large swathes of the world – more anti-immigration rhetoric, more low-grade Euro-scepticism, more undermining of minority rights, more attacks on the independent judiciary and media, and more Trumpesque Poland-first. “Let’s just say we don’t want to belong to a migrant-loving group of friends,” said Morawiecki in 2018.

Ironically, it’s an ideology that could not be further removed from that of the man who arguably did most to bring democracy to Poland. The same democracy that now allows voters to put Law and Justice in power.

It’s 30 years since Lech Walesa became the first freely elected Polish president on December 9, 1990. The former shipyard electrician who, as chairman of Polish trade union Solidarity, became the international face of peaceful resistance to the communist government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, has always made clear his opposition to authoritarianism of whatever hue.

Unsurprisingly Walesa is critical of the incumbent ruling party. And when his contemporary successor, president Andrzej Duda re-elected earlier this year – ostensibly neutral but originally a Law and Justice MP – began courting Chinese investment in Poland, Walesa’s disdain grew.

At the same time Walesa, from his base in the shipyards of Gdansk was campaigning to free his nation from state communism, the Chinese Communist Party was murdering protestors in Tiananmen Square. The two struggles were closely linked meaning Duda’s enthusiasm for the Chinese renminbi was unlikely to sit comfortably with the former president.

The wave of egalitarianism that Walesa harnessed as communist regimes toppled throughout 1989 was never going to be a happy bedfellow to a government willing to embrace the human rights-abusing Chinese state, nor Morawieki’s adoption of tactics popularised by nativist Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, with whom the Polish government is closely allied through the Visegrád Group.

But does anybody care what 77-year-old Walesa thinks? He’s retired from political life. Do his opinions count for much today? More than anyone spearheading the domino-like fall of single-party rule throughout Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, Walesa had the widest appeal, the biggest profile, certainly in lands beyond Poland’s borders.

Of all the politicians whose nations’ futures were forged as socialism tumbled – Miklós Németh in Hungary, Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia and most notably Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union – perhaps Walesa is the one whose reputation has stood the test of time in his native land. Which is not to say it remains untarnished (he was a politician after all) but perhaps his compatriots are more forgiving.

Documents and witnesses had long-alleged that Walesa had been an informer for the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa (the Polish secret police) even as he led Solidarity’s opposition. A 2008 book by historians from the Institute of National Remembrance contained damning material. Alongside evidence suggesting Walesa had been paid for his collaboration with the secret services, it maintained that he had also attempted to destroy incriminating documents after becoming president.

Strike at Gdansk shipyards – Credit: Sygma via Getty Images

For his part Walesa argued that anybody opposing the government as he did would be taken in for interrogation and forced to sign documents they might not otherwise have chosen to. And by agreeing to his interlocutors’ terms he could feed them information of little use but allow him to discover where their interests lay. Signing documents did not mean he acted on them, ran his defence.

But despite other allegations of unpaid taxes and endless arguments with former colleagues in Solidarity, plus rumours that he was too uneducated, rude and undignified for the office of president, Walesa was still seen as the man whom Poles had rallied around in defiance of their autocratic rulers.

So although the book sold in huge numbers, his popularity was maintained, not least because he was trusted more than those – many from the former communist regime – who appeared keen to discredit him. “People wanted to destroy him because he ruined things for them. He upset their cosy existence,” says Anna Tokarczuk, a former healthworker in Kraków who accepts that Walesa worked for the SB but is more concerned with the changes he wrought. “This is the man who freed us,” she says. “He did what he had to do.”

Walesa’s treatment is in notable contrast to the likes of Havel – long blamed by Czechs for the painful transition to a market economy among other gripes (a charge Walesa has avoided despite introducing similar reforms) and most obviously Gorbachev, the inadvertent architect of the 1989 revolutions, a man still admired outside Russia but widely loathed at home.

That Walesa avoided the fall from grace of his fellow reforming leaders, despite his political career ending in ignominious defeat at the 2000 presidential election, is best understood by the fact that he rose to prominence amid those fighting the same cause.

By contrast Németh was a party apparatchik turned pragmatist, Havel a middle class playwright, Gorbachev a career politician who took away the perceived pride of an entire nation. But Walesa, despite his failings, became the face of a country free for the first time in its history.

He was committed to non-violent protest (“we can effectively oppose violence only if we ourselves do not resort to it”) and was a firm believer in humanity, in both meanings of the noun. “My parents told me that although violence was committed against those in Solidarity, Walesa argued we shouldn’t fight back, other than with words and ideas,” says Zofia Kowalska, the daughter of a docker who worked in Gdansk in the 1980s. “It’s something Poles should not forget. We should listen to Walesa now.”

But back to the Poland of today, the one in which the Law and Justice party frequently tops polls and remains popular on its economic policy and family-values messaging, but the one in which much of what drove Walesa’s political ambitions – his belief in freedom of expression and the democratic institutions of state – seems under threat. President Duda has promised “reform of the justice system” while Morawiecki vows a crackdown on “anti-Polish sentiments expressed in the media” – all straight out of the Donald Trump playbook.

Walesa has shown his disapproval, although some argue it’s because he fears the government’s plans to root out more stories from the nation’s communist past. He resigned from Solidarity years ago because of its tacit support for Law and Justice, and the rise to power of its founders, the twins Lech (the former president of Poland who died in an air crash in 2010) and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, both of whom once worked with Walesa in his fight against the communist government. And while Walesa himself is innately socially conservative and religious, opposing some of the more liberal reforms introduced by recent governments, such as same-sex marriage – a stance he has since renounced – he says his opposition is to any form of oppressive government which seeks to restrict its population and deny it freedom of thought.

Solidarity union leader Lech Walesa exits a bus, raising his right hand. The front windshield of the bus bears an inscription that reads: “Solidarnosc” (Solidarity). – Credit: Sygma via Getty Images

With the current administration seemingly headed well down that track, from this distance three decades on it’s difficult to see much residue from the Walesa-inspired revolution. Jakub Mierzwa, a postal worker and Law and Justice party supporter, says “Poland had no sense of future under Soldarity and Walesa. Sure they put an end to communism but we still had no direction. Now there is a strong government standing up for Poland, no longer being pushed around by the EU or Germany.”

With Mierzwa’s favoured reactionaries showing no sign of being voted out any time soon, one is left to wonder how Poland travelled from euphoria at the shipyard gates of Gdansk to a population, at least in part, in thrall to a nationalistic, socially-divisive clique. But maybe there should be no surprise. In simplistic terms it’s rather easy to draw a line from 1990 to 2020. Poland always was a conservative country. Policies promoting traditional families, rolling back abortion and gay rights, and putting limits on migrants were always going to be popular with a significant swathe of voters. And the Catholic church still holds significant dominion. The 1989 revolution was not only driven by unions and citizens’ organisations but also by vocal opposition from the first Polish pope John Paul II.

The ostensibly atheist government of Jaruzelski had merely kept this innate conservatism under wraps, in the guise of a socialist republic. By overturning the state behemoth Walesa gave freedom not only to the people but also their innate conservatism and, consequently, their ability to elect those who might uphold it, culminating in his own downfall and the slow but inexorable rise of Polish right-wing populism, fired by similar movements throughout Eastern Europe and beyond.

Yet still the man who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1983 – money he donated to the Solidarity cause – and who Time magazine selected as Person of the Year in 1981, remains something of a national hero, even to many voting for Law and Justice.

In 2004, Gdansk airport was named after him and beyond Poland he is still admired by those who remember his bravery in the face of apparently insurmountable odds – a touchstone for those heady days. “I don’t think, whatever happens to Poland in the next 50 years, people will forget how we got where we are today,” says Kowalska.

Of course Walesa’s personal legacy should not be tarnished by whatever governments the Polish people choose to elect. He united fragments of society – workers, students, intelligentsia, the church, liberals – at a time when they needed it most, facing down an oppressive government and its Soviet Union backers. They were always likely to splinter when the cause was won.

It is ever the way with democracy – the result of every plebiscite will disappoint someone. But eventually the pendulum swings back. Like it or not, the Law and Justice party was elected by the voters of Poland, the very people Walesa fought to emancipate. And, whatever his personal convictions or indeed personal failings, on that measure alone, his legacy is assured and his voice still heard.