Lech Walesa

Lech  Walesa
Nationality
Polish
Birth Place
Popowo
Date of Birth
29 September 1943

Biography

Walesa was born into the family of a carpenter. He attended primary and vocational school before working as a car mechanic. He spent two years in the army and rose to the rank of corporal. In 1967 he joined the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland as an electrical engineer.

He was a member of the illegal strike committee in the shipyards during the 1970 demonstrations against the government's decision to increase food prices. The strike ended violently with a number of strikers killed by the riot police. Walesa was arrested and spent a year in prison. He lost his job in 1976 due to his protests against the Polish government’s attempts to raise food prices and attempts to raise a memorial to those killed in 1970.

Now branded as an anti-government union activist he found it impossible to get work. He turned to illegal underground movements. He was arrested several times for “anti-state” activities. The courts however failed to find him guilty, and in 1980 he re-entered the Gdansk shipyard.

In July 1980, the Polish government was once again forced to raise food prices, and by mid-August more than 100,000 workers were on strike. The Gdansk shipyards were once again at the centre of the protest. On 14 August 1980, the shipyard workers seized control of the yard and demanded the reinstatement of Lech Walesa. He scaled the shipyard fence to join the workers inside. He quickly became their leader. With other strikes breaking out throughout the country the authorities were forced to capitulate and to negotiate with Walesa. The result was the Gdansk Agreement of 31 August 1980 which gave the workers the right to strike and to organise their own independent union.

In September, Solidarity was officially formed in Gdansk by representatives of various workers groups throughout the country, and Walesa was elected chair of the new organization. The Catholic Church supported the movement, and in January 1981 Walesa was cordially received by Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.

General Jaruzelski came under increasing pressure in 1981 from other Warsaw Pact nations and with the possible threat of military intervention imposed martial law, "suspended" Solidarity and arrested many of its leaders. Walesa was arrested and then interned in south-eastern Poland near the Soviet border in a country house.

For the next seven years he was either under arrest or closely watched by secret police. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 but arranged for his wife to collect it fearing the Polish authorities might not let him return if he left Poland.

Martial law was lifted in July 1983 but many restrictions remained. The Jaruzelski regime became increasingly unpopular as the economy stagnated and conditions worsened and by December 1988 it was clear that things could not continue without some radical change. The Polish Communist Party was finally forced to invite the still-illegal and large opposition Solidarity movement to join in talks beginning in February 1989. These talks, which became known as the "roundtable talks," lasted for 59 days, with 13 working groups in 94 sessions and resulted in the holding of parliamentary elections which, although limited, led to the establishment of a non-communist government. Under Gorbachev the Soviet Union was no longer prepared to use military force to keep communist parties in satellite states in power.

After elections in June 1989, Solidarity captured all the seats it had been allowed to fight for. Walesa, while technically still just the Chairman of the Solidarity Trade Union, was a key figure throughout the campaign. He did not run for office but afterwards he participated in many facets of the new government.

In 1989, he decided that he wanted to be president of Poland. He won by a landslide. As president he led the country through industrial privatization, Poland's first set of totally free parliamentary elections in 1991, and international relations with the newly emerging states of Central and Eastern Europe as well as the well-established Western powers.

In 1995 he lost his re-election campaign to Alexander Kwasniewski, the head of the Democratic Left Alliance. Walesa remains influential and active in Polish politics, although he no longer holds a government office.

Quotes

He who puts out his hand to stop the wheel of history will have his fingers crushed.

The supply of words in the world market is plentiful but the demand is falling. Let deeds follow words now.

The thing that lies at the foundation of positive change, the way I se it, is service to a fellow human being.

You have riches and freedom here but I feel no sense of faith or direction. You have so many computers, why don't you use them in the search for love?

Deep faith eliminates fear.

“It all came from there,” he said, pointing to a TV when a reporter asked him why communism fell.

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