Lech Walesa


Sandwiched between Germany and Russia, Poland is under constant threat of invasion from the time of its formation in the middle of the 10th Century. The country's borders expand and contract dramatically over the centuries as territory is either annexed by or won back from its neighbours. Following the First World War, Poland achieves an uneasy and short-lived independence that is shattered when Germany invades on 1 September 1939, starting the Second World War.

At the end of the war, Poland falls behind the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain. The country becomes, in effect, a one-party, communist state, led by the pro-Soviet Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza - PZPR). Opposition to the government mounts as the Polish economy starts to falter. When the Soviet Union begins to break apart, the Polish people seize the opportunity to again achieve their independence. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 29 September 1943 in Popowo, a village about 140 km northwest of Warsaw. His family are working class.

1961 - After receiving a primary education and training as an electrician in a local agricultural machinery college, Walesa works as a farm machinery mechanic for four years then serves in the army for two.

1966 - Walesa is employed as an electrician at the huge Lenin shipyard in Gdansk. He marries Miroslawa Danuta Golos in 1969. The couple have eight children, four daughters and four sons.

1970 - When the ruling Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza - PZPR) decides to increase food prices, riots break out. On 17 December, 44 shipyard workers are killed and 1,000 injured, 200 seriously, when soldiers fire on protesters in the cities of Gdynia, Gdansk, Szczecin and Elblag. The incident leads to a reorganisation of the PZPR. The price rises are withdrawn. Walesa emerges as one of the leaders of the shipyard workers and is briefly detained.

The new-look PZPR attempts to revive the economy by borrowing heavily from the West to upgrade Poland's capacity to produce export goods. The program pays short-term dividends but saddles the country with enormous foreign debts. By the mid-1970s Poland's economy is in terminal decline.

During 1970, the state security services attempt to recruit Walesa as a paid informant. Walesa later admits he did have discussions with the security services and did sign a document agreeing to provide information but denies he ever followed through. According to Walesa, any association he did have with the security services was completely severed in 1976.

Allegations that he collaborated with the security services during the 1970s haunt Walesa for decades, despite a ruling by a Polish court in 2000 that he was never a security services agent.

Speaking to 'The Guardian' newspaper in 2016, Walesa says, "At the time I had two choices. One was not to talk, not to try to solve anything and therefore ignore the Bezpieka (secret services). The second path, which I chose, was to talk, discuss, convince, and lead the route to victory."

Walesa tells 'The Guardian' he had his contacts with the secret services to "spare courageous people, temper the risk-takers (in Solidarity) and create a team that would eventually destroy the (Communist) party. I wanted to find out what kind of people the Bezpieka were; why they were acting against Poland; why they wanted to take people's freedom away."

1976 - Fresh protests break out when the PZPR again attempts to raise the price of food. Walesa helps organise the demonstrations by the Gdansk shipyard workers. He loses his job as a result and is forced to earn his living by taking temporary work. However, the protests succeed and the price rises are again withdrawn.

During the year, the workers receive additional backing when a group of intellectuals form the Committee for Defence of Workers. Students form the Committee for Student Solidarity. Together the committees intensify pressure on the PZPR for liberal reform. The Roman Catholic Church also begins to speak out more stridently against the regime.

1978 - Working with other activists, Walesa begins to organise independent trade unions and takes part in many union actions on the Baltic Sea coast. He is kept under surveillance by the state security services and frequently detained.

The role of the Catholic Church in the struggle for social reform is further raised when the archbishop of Kraków, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, is made Pope, taking the name John Paul II. When he visits Poland the following year, the authority of the Church is raised further still.

1980 - In July further increases in food prices and the imposition of wage controls spark another round of protests and strikes. This time the workers occupy the factories where they are employed. On 14 August Walesa climbs the fence of the Lenin shipyard to join the workers inside. The workers take control of the yard and elect Walesa head of a strike committee to negotiate with management.

The strikers' demands are met three days later but the men stay out in solidarity with workers elsewhere in Gdansk. Walesa is put in charge of the Interfactory Strike Committee, which links 500,000 workers from the Baltic coast to the coal-mining centre of Silesia. The committee calls for the right for workers to strike and form independent trade unions. The protest by the shipyard workers is extended to a general strike.

As the strike wears on, the list of demands expands into "the 21 postulates". Written out by hand and hung from the shipyard gates on two wooden boards, the list now includes demands for freedom of speech, the release of political prisoners, an end to censorship, and religious freedom.

The government buckles on 31 August and signs the Gdansk Agreement giving workers the right to strike and to organise freely and independently. When 10 million workers and farmers, or about a quarter of the population, join semiautonomous unions in response, the Interfactory Strike Committee is transformed into a national federation of unions and named Solidarnosc (Solidarity).

Solidarity is officially formed in September and recognised by the government in October, becoming the country's first legally recognised independent trade union since the end of the Second World War. The standing of Solidarity is further enhanced when, with the encouragement of the Pope, it receives the backing of the Catholic Church.

An easing of censorship by the government creates a renaissance of free speech. Solidarity's weekly newspaper reaches a nationwide circulation of 500,000. Previously banned authors are published again. Political films and television programs are produced and screened. New passport laws allow greater freedom of movement. Walesa subsequently travels to Italy, Japan, Sweden, France and Switzerland as guest of the International Labour Organisation.

Despite the Gdansk Agreement, the government does all it can to restrict Solidarity's autonomy, leading to numerous showdowns and further strikes. The stakes are raised higher with the formation of Rural Solidarity, which calls on the regime to recognise the contribution of private farmers.

Walesa councils moderation and spends much time travelling the country to argue his case directly with workers. He advocates cooperation with the government and the gradual introduction of reforms that will not antagonise the Soviet Union, a position that puts him at odds with Solidarity's militant wing.

"Why did we do all of it?" Walesa later says of Solidarity's defiance of the government. "To launch a new epoch, one without divisions. Without one shot, our generation was able to do it."

1981 - General Wojciech Jaruzelski, commander in chief of the Polish armed forces, is made head of the government on 9 February.

Solidarity holds its first national congress in September at Gdansk. Walesa is elected as the movement's chairman and chief spokesman, although he does not escape criticism for his willingness to compromise with the government without consulting the rank and file. The congress calls for a more active role for Solidarity in the reform process.

General Jaruzelski becomes leader of the PZPR on 18 October. He is now head of the party, the government and the army. Jaruzelski offers of open negotiations with Solidarity on a wide range of social issues but then buckles under pressure from political colleagues and the Soviet Union and breaks off all dialogue.

Radicals in Solidarity respond by calling for a national referendum on the future of the communist government and a reappraisal of Poland's military alliance with the Soviet Union. Jaruzelski reacts by imposing martial law.

Troops are deployed around the country on 13 December. Soldiers and police put down any resistance from the workforce. Civil liberties are restricted and universities are closed. Solidarity is outlawed. Thousands of its members and most of its leaders are arrested. Walesa is taken from his apartment in Gdansk in the early hours of the morning and transported to a government "guesthouse" south of Warsaw. He is detained for nearly a year.

Meanwhile, Walesa is named 'Time' magazine's person of the year. "Lech Walesa is a man of emotion, not of logic or analysis," the magazine says. "So was the movement which he all but lost control of in the end, guided more by hope and passion than by rationality. That was the crusade's strength - and its weakness. What had begun as Poland's year of liberty ended dramatically in violence, bloodshed and repression."

1982 - Walesa is released in November and reinstated at the Gdansk shipyards, although he remains under surveillance. He is described by the regime as the "former leader of a former union". Solidarity continues to function underground, but begins to split into factions. Radicals in the movement form Fighting Solidarity. The moderates group around Walesa and form the Citizens' Committee.

1983 - Martial law is lifted in July, although many restrictions continue.

In October it is announced that Walesa will receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution towards establishing "universal freedom of organisation in all countries". The presentation ceremony is held in Oslo on 10 December. Walesa fears he will not be readmitted to Poland if he travels to Norway to receive the award in person. His wife, Danuta, makes the trip and accepts the prize on his behalf.

Presenting the award, the chairman of the Nobel Committee says, "Lech Walesa has made the name 'Solidarity' more than an expression of the unity of a group campaigning for special interests. Solidarity has come to represent the determination to resolve conflicts and obliterate disagreement through peaceful negotiation, where all involved meet with a mutual respect for one another's integrity. ...

"It is the Committee's opinion that he stands as an inspiration and a shining example to all those who, under different conditions, fight for freedom and humanity. ... Lech Walesa has made humanity bigger and more inviolable. ... The presentation of the Peace Prize to him today is a homage to the power of victory which abides in one person's belief, in his vision and in his courage to follow his call."

Full copy of the presentation speech.

The Polish Government criticises the granting of the award, saying it is politically motivated.

1985 - Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the leader of the Soviet Union. His reform polices of "glasnost" and "perestroika" remove the threat of armed Soviet intervention in the affairs of the Eastern European satellite states and eventually lead to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Poland is now free to follow its own path of reform. Political prisoners are released, opposition groups are formed, and Solidarity, though still illegal, begins to operate openly.

1988 - Economic conditions in Poland continue to deteriorate. A new wave of labour unrest forces the government to negotiate with Walesa and other Solidarity leaders.

1989 - "Roundtable talks" between the PZPR, Solidarity's Citizens' Committee, and other opposition groups begin in February. Walesa acts as the chairman of the opposition delegation. After 59 days the delegates agree to a compromise.

Solidarity is legalised. A senate with the power to veto decisions by the Sejm (lower house) is reintroduced to the parliament. The office of president of Poland is created. Solidarity is allowed to run candidates in free elections for a limited number of parliamentary seats. However, 65% of the seats will remain with the PZPR and its minority partners.

At elections held in June, Solidarity wins all of the 161 lower house seats it has been allowed to contest and 99 of the 100 upper house seats. When Walesa refuses to allow Solidarity to become the minor party in a coalition with the communists, the parliament is forced to accept a Solidarity-led government committed to dismantling the communist system and replacing it with a Western-style democracy and a free-market economy.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a longtime Solidarity adviser, becomes the first noncommunist Polish prime minister since 1944. On 19 July the parliament elects General Jaruzelski as the first president of the new Poland.

Walesa stays out of government, remaining as leader of Solidarity, but contests the presidency the following year. In November he becomes the third person in history to address a joint session of the United States Congress.

1990 - The PZPR is formally dissolved in January. Solidarity is declared an official political party.

Walesa is reelected Solidarity chairman at the movement's second national congress held in April, receiving 77.5% of the votes. However, by the time of the local elections in May, Solidarity has splintered. The fractures widen when Walesa begins to criticise the Mazowiecki administration, calling for a quickening of reform and the purging of former communist appointees in the government.

Supporters of Walesa group into the Centre Alliance. The pro-Mazowiecki faction forms the Citizens' Movement for Democratic Action. The two groups come head to head when Jaruzelski announces his early retirement as president and both Walesa and Mazowiecki decide to contest the subsequent direct election for the post.

Walesa wins the presidency in the second round of a general election held on 10 December. He has won 75% of the vote in the first truly free and fair election held in Poland since the start the Second World War.

In his first address as president elect he pledges that the new Poland will offer work to everyone. "An economically developed Poland will be a pillar of peace in Europe," he says, "But a poor Poland will face a wall of resentment at all its borders."

Walesa offers the post of prime minister to Jan Bielecki, the leader of a small reformist party, on the condition that he will have the right to oversee the selection of the cabinet. This and other interventions in the running of the parliament begin to raise concerns about the breath of Walesa's powers. His popularity is further hit when the Bielecki administration proves unable to speed economic reform and improve government services.

By the middle of the year, the parliament has ceased to function as an effective legislator. Walesa calls for elections in the first half of 1991 but is forced by the parliament to accept a later date and a proportional representation voting system that will do nothing to alleviate parliamentary factionalism.

1991 - Poland holds its first free parliamentary elections in October. However, only 43% of the electorate vote. Twenty-nine parties win seats in the new parliament, but none receives more than 14% of the votes cast. The resultant coalition government is inherently unstable and lasts only until June 1992.

1992 - A new but incomplete constitution, the so-called Little Constitution is ratified in October. The Little Constitution defines the roles of the president and parliament and aims to focus political activity away from factional bickering and towards reform and development of the Polish economy.

1993 - When the government is toppled by a parliamentary no-confidence vote in the middle of the year, Walesa dissolves the parliament and calls a new election. The subsequent vote sees the Polish electorate repudiate reformist parties and opt for those linked to the former communist regime, including the Alliance of the Democratic Left (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej - SLD).

Walesa, who had pushed market reform, loses much of his influence following the poor showing of the parties born from the Solidarity movement. However, he is still able to pressure the SLD into forming a coalition government with the Polish Peasant Party.

1995 - Walesa seeks reelection as president in November but is narrowly defeated by the former communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, head of the SLD.

"I built democracy and then I handed it all over to democracy," Walesa later says of the defeat. "I had my proposals, but the nation gave six percent to my proposals and chose Kwasniewski."

In December Walesa establishes the Foundation Lech Walesa Institute. The institute seeks to consolidate democracy and the free-market economy in Poland and permanently integrate Poland into European structures.

1995 - Walesa creates and leads a new political party, Christian Democracy of the 3rd Polish Republic.

2000 - He again runs for the presidency but receives less than one per cent of the vote.

2003 - In August the "21 postulates", the handwritten list of demands pasted to wooden boards and hung from the Gdansk shipyard gates during the strike of 1980, are registered as historic documents in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's "memory of the world" catalogue. The boards with their list are reported to be still hanging from the gates.

2005 - Celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity are held in Poland at the end of August. During the celebrations, Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski pays tribute to Walesa.

"We all live in a free Poland, and there would be no free Poland without you," Kwasniewski says. "Twenty-five years ago, I did not stand on the same side together with you, but today I have no doubts that it was your vision of Poland which led us in the right direction."

German President Horst Koehler says the success of the Solidarity movement "led to the unification of Europe, led to a united Germany. ... Poles freed not just themselves - they launched a process which radiates until today."

The celebrations are marked by Walesa's announcement of his resignation from Solidarity, which now functions mainly as a trade union. "From a logical point of view there is no room for me here," he says.

"I work outside of Poland's borders. ... Solidarity has its new leader and I have not been an electrician for 25 years. ... Today I only try to share my experience, pass it on and do something good for the world."

Also during the celebrations, Walesa and other leaders sign the founding act for the European Solidarity Centre, an institute in Gdansk that will work to promote democracy, monitor human rights in the world and commemorate Solidarity's legacy.


Lech Walesa is a rough diamond. Often described as blunt and domineering, his passion and determination caught the imagination of the Polish people in the 1970s and 80s and saw him become the fulcrum of their struggle for independence. His single-minded abrasiveness saw him fall out of favour once the fight was won. He was a man for his time, but time has since passed Walesa by.

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