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Lech Walesa 1943

Polish trade unionist who spearheaded the Opposition forces against the communist regime

Lech Walesa

Lech Walesa

Lech Walesa was born in Popowo, north of Warsaw, in Pomerania. He attended a technical college for electricians and from 1967 to 1976 worked as an electrician at the Lenin shipyards in Danzig. He was among the leaders of the strikes held on 14 December 1970, at the end of which he represented the workers during negotiations with the new secretary of the PZPR, Edward Gierek. In 1976 he was sacked for criticizing the official trade unions and shipyard management. In 1978 he joined the Independent Trade Unions of the Baltic Coast (WZZ). In 1979 he worked in close partnership with the KOR, and especially with Bogdan Borusewicz, Jacek Kuron and Jan Litynski. He distributed underground literature among the workers and organized WZZ groups. In 1979 he was signatory to the “Charter of workers’ rights”, which contained the programme for a free trade union movement. He was detained by the police on numerous occasions and was frequently forced to change his job. At another strike in the Lenin shipyards in Danzig on 14 August 1980, he headed the workers, despite no longer being a shipyard employee; in fact one of the workers’ demands was that Walesa should be reinstated in his job. He was elected chairman of the Inter-company Strike Committee. He appointed the Commission of Experts chaired by Tadeusz Mazowiecki and led the negotiations with the government delegation. On 31 August he signed the agreement in which the government accepted the workers’ 21 demands. He was elected president of the Solidarnosc Independent Trade Union. A highly charismatic figure, in the autumn of 1980 he toured the country gaining huge popularity; deeply religious and a skilful negotiator, he combined a pragmatic and flexible approach with absolute faith in the values of the trade union. His charisma also enabled him to keep the various spirits of Solidarnosc together, and especially to mitigate the most radical of them. In 1981 he travelled extensively abroad and was received in the Vatican by John Paul II. In October he was re-elected president of Solidarnosc at the end of the trade union’s first congress.
In the night between 12 and 13 December 1981, during the coup d’état headed by general Jaruzelski, Lech Walesa was arrested and interned. The authorities were relying on his cooperation to form a Solidarnosc controlled by Warsaw, but, despite not being averse to mediation, he rejected any such compromise, just as he rejected a high-ranking state job a year later. The authorities made several attempts to discredit him in the eyes of public opinion both as an opponent of the regime, and as an individual. On 14 November 1982 he was released and placed under surveillance, as if he were under house arrest. He refused to go underground though without giving up the ideals of Solidarnosc. As he himself was to write “at that time I lived half-way between social isolation, inactivity and prison”. As soon as he was able, he was back on the move, touring the country to meet the trade union’s underground activists and taking part in the political process. In April 1983 he returned to work in the Lenin shipyard and on 5 October he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1987 he met US vice president George Bush in Warsaw and in June, during the Pope’s pilgrimage to Poland, he was give a private audience with John Paul II, who publicly appealed to the nation to “pick up the great inheritance of Solidarnosc”. In 1989 worsening social tension forced the authorities to seek Walesa’s intervention. This opened the way to the Round Table talks that were to lead to the definitive legalization of Solidarnosc and to the semi-free elections of June 1989, the first step towards the collapse of the communist regime.
From 1990 to 1995 Lech Walesa was president of the Polish Republic. In 1995 he set up the “Lech Walesa Institute”.

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Dissidents of totalitarianism

in Central Europe's communist regimes

The so called "dissent" in the communist regimes of Eastern Europe cannot be just reduced to the simple notion of an "opposition" as its definition would suggest, but it should be above all considered as an attempt to build a "parallel polis" based on the responsibility of every citizen and aimed at occupying the spaces where cultural, social and human freedom are allowed, as wrenched from the totalitarian rule over the social fabric. Members of Charter 77 and Solidarnosc, such as Vaclav Havel, Radim Palous, Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik, have always underlined that “the power of the powerless” consists in winning over fear through the empowerment made possible through a collective assumption of responsibility, witnessed by the exhortation to "live the truth" within a society based on lie. Ver often their "dissent" consisted in a way to claim the enforcement of laws, such as the ones about freedom of conscience, or the international agreements subscribed by their countries, such as the Helsinki Accords. This was the origin of a broad movement that was able to condition the behaviour and mentality of the public opinion, up to the point in which, letting aside Romania, the totalitarian rule was overthrown in a peaceful way, without shedding blood, with the rise of a new leading class recognized by the majority of the population and ready to take on government responsibilities.