Lech Walesa

decline and fall of communism in Poland      


by Logan Heberg

Junior Division, NHD 2015



Lech Walesa, a labor organizer, and a worker of humble origin, a leader of the 1980 strikes and eventually of the Solidarity movement (Biskupski, 156). Lech Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 shortly after being released from jail. The Communist Party which controlled the Polish Peoples Republic, tried in vain to break him; Lech Walesa was the symbol of revolt against the Communist Party’s monopoly on power not just in Poland but all over Eastern Europe (“Lech Walesa - Facts."). Leading a revolt against communist rule, he became an international symbol of struggle for freedom and dignity, and the triumphs of his solidarity labor movement lit fires of hope throughout Eastern Europe that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet empire in the early 1990’s (“Great People of the 20th Century”). His Legacy is still evident throughout the world as nations continue to show anti-communist support.

On September 29, 1943 in Popowo, Poland Lech Walesa was born into poverty. Little did anyone know this child would grow up to be one of the most important political figures of the twentieth century, changing the course of history forever. Walesa’s father, Boleslaw, was a carpenter who was arrested by the Nazis before Walesa was born and put in a concentration camp at Mlyniec (Lisa Vicente). He returned home after World War II, but lived only two months before succumbing to illness and dying at only 34 years old. His mother Feliksa Walesa was an inspiration for Lech and has been credited with shaping her son's beliefs, stubbornness and tenacity (“Great People of the 20th Century”). Lech and his brother Stanislaw had to look for work early in their lives because of the family’s poverty (Lisa Vicente). By the age of eighteen. He graduated from primary and vocational school as an electrician. The new industrialization program in Poland created by the communist regime gave him the chance of attending a technology college because of his good math and science scores. After graduating he was a car mechanic, then he was drafted into the army and began his mandatory two year term of military service. Early on, he showed leadership, then acquired the rank of corporal. Ultimately he decided not to carry on with his military profession. At the age of 24 in 1967 he became an electrician for Gdansk Shipyard.

Being a born leader he persuaded a crowd of 2,000 workers at the Gdansk Shipyard not to attack a nearby prison. The police force came in with open fire and at the end of the protest thirty workers were dead, now known as “bloody Thursday” (Lisa Vicente). Within that nightmarish day Walesa’s best dream was born, solidarity. In Walesa’s early years he was not the most reliable employee.  Unfortunately his passion to free Poland from the grip of communism and for his continued involvement in illegal unions unfortunately led to his termination at the Gdansk shipyards in June of 1976. Over the next few years, he was arrested several times for participating in rebellious activities.

The 1980 strikes at the Gdansk shipyard were arguably the most important historical events that ever happened to Poland and to Walesa’s legacy. There workers were protesting because of Poland's 'shortage economy' that put stress on the lives of everyday people who were unable to purchase daily necessities, such as bread or toilet paper. The shipyard workers were unified by the additional outrage of Anna Walentynowicz's firing. The dismissal of Anna Walentynowicz, a popular crane, operator and activist, combined with the previous firing of Lech Walesa, galvanized the workers into taking action. Of course Walesa could not pass up a good anti-communist rally, he hopped the shipyard fence and started striking. A strike began on August 14th, led by Walesa, who gave voice to the workers' demands for the galvanization of independent labor unions, the raising of a monument to the workers brutally murdered in a 1970 labor dispute in Gdansk, and the rehiring of both Walesa and Walentynowicz ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”).

“The fall of the Berlin Wall makes for nice pictures. But it all started in the shipyards.” Said Walesa ("Lech Walesa Quotes."). This quote shows exactly how important that day at shipyard was. For all the people that were suffering from the tight grasp of communism, his leadership gave them hope, it gave them a chance, and most importantly something to believe in. This made the people feel that they could get a victory over communism! That one day at the Gdansk shipyards kick-started a revolution that ultimately led to the end of communism across Europe. As communism fell in Russia, the Iron Curtain that had surrounded the Soviet Union Satellite nations began to drop. As a result revolution erupted. Across Europe, nations sought the freedom and independence that had eluded them for so long.

Solidarity's cohesion and initial success, was not created overnight, Solidarity was a movement that spread non-communist ideas throughout the world. It was the savior of almost all of Europe, without it, Poland could have still been a communist country. Despite nation-wide censorship and the severance of all phone connections between Gdansk and the rest of the country, several underground presses succeeded in covering the story and spreading the shipyard workers' message throughout Poland and the Eastern Bloc ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”).

Soon other shipyards joined and within days, most of Poland was affected by factory shutdowns. With the situation in Gdansk gaining international support and media coverage, Poland's Soviet government conceded and signed an agreement ratifying many of the workers' demands (“Great People of the 20th Century”). This agreement, was the first step in dismantling Soviet power across. With this upsurge of momentum in the wake of their success, workers' formed a national labor union. On September 17th 1980 Solidarity was born, and Lech Walesa was elected as its chairman ("Lech Walesa.").

The first independent labor union in the Soviet Bloc, Solidarity's existence was remarkable to people the world over who had previously thought such an organization could never exist under communism ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”). Millions rallied around the union, and joined Solidarity. A quarter of the country's population bravely became members of solidarity ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”).

With the country behind them, Solidarity slowly transformed from a trade union to a full-on revolutionary movement, using strikes and other acts of protest to force change in government policies. The movement was careful, however, never to use violence, for fear of encouraging and validating harsh reprimands from the government ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”). This was an important legacy for other non-violent anti-communist movement.

In response Moscow stepped up pressure on its Polish government, declaring martial law and arresting some 5,000 Solidarity members ripped from their homes in the middle of the night imprisoning them and Walesa. He was kept in isolation and detention centers for eleven months ("Lech Walesa."). Censorship was expanded and strikes were taking place throughout the country were put down harshly by riot police. By October of 1982, Solidarity was banned (Lisa Vicente).

Solidarity managed to persevere throughout the mid-80s as an underground movement, garnering extensive international support which condemned soviet actions ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”). US President Ronald Reagan imposed sanctions on Poland, which would eventually force the government to soften its policies ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”). The Polish people still supported what remained of the movement.

In November of 1982, Walesa was released from prison, and returned to the Gdansk Shipyards. Martial law was eventually lifted, yet many restrictions on civil liberties and political life remained ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”). On October 5th 1983, Lech Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, despite the Polish government's attempts to defame him and their refusal to allow him to leave the country to accept the award (“Nobel Lecture*”).

When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed control over the Soviet Union in 1985 and was inspired by Walesa, he was forced to initiate a series of reforms due to the worsening economic situation across the entire Eastern Bloc ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”). Yet Poland's economic situation was worse than ever due to foreign sanctions and the government's refusal to introduce more reforms ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”).

A new wave of strikes swept the country after food costs were increased by 40%, Lech Walesa was again the leader of protests in the Gdansk shipyards. Finally the government announced it was ready to negotiate with Solidarity and met with Walesa. This conference, which took place in Warsaw from February 6th to April 4th, 1989, came to be known as the “Polish Roundtable Talks.” Though the members of Solidarity had no expectation of major changes, the Roundtable Talks would irreversibly alter the political landscape and Polish society.

On April 17, 1989, Solidarity was again legalized and the party was allowed to field candidates in upcoming elections ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”). Solidarity managed to push forward a campaign that surprised everyone, including themselves. The party won every contested seat in the Sejm, the polish equivalent to America’s House of Representatives, and 99 of 100 Senatorial seats. The communist candidate for prime minister could not rally enough support to form a government. The Sejm elected Solidarity representative Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Prime Minister of Poland, because of Solidarity’s domination over the government. Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-communist prime minister in Poland since 1945 and the first anywhere in Eastern Europe for 40 years (Biskupski, 162). A Solidarity-led government was formed, communism had collapsed in Poland and within months the famous Wall in Berlin would do the same.

The fall of communism in Poland thrust Solidarity into a role it was never prepared for, and in its life as a political party, it saw much infighting and a decline in popularity ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland”). Walesa decided to resign from his Solidarity post and announced his intent to run for president in the upcoming elections. In December 1990, after a power struggle with Mazowiecki, Walesa was elected president of Poland and became the first Polish president ever elected by popular vote (Biskupski) (On This Day: Lech Walesa Becomes Poland's First Popularly Elected Leader newspaper article”). With Solidarity, he presented intelligence and resource, however after being elected as the first president of Poland his term was controversial because of Walesa’s stubbornness ("Solidarity Gdansk Poland.")

The 1990 elections in Poland set-off a string of peaceful anti-communist revolutions throughout Central and Eastern Europe which led to the fall of communism is these regions. In the Baltics people were joining hands in solidarity, and the cry for freedom could be heard in the Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia (Biskupski, 164). The legacy of Solidarity had emboldened the oppressed peoples of the entire Eastern Bloc to stand together and demand their independence. By Christmas of 1991, the USSR had ceased to exist, and all the former communist territories across Eurasia became sovereign entities once again.

Today Solidarity's role in Polish politics is limited and the organization has again reverted back toward the role of a more traditional trade union with a membership that currently exceeds 1.1 million. However, in modern Poland communist have a minimal impact on political and economic life. Summer 2015 marks the 35th anniversary of the historic Solidarity movement, remembering the hardships of its humble beginnings and celebrating the changes those hardships inspired across the continent.

Lech Walesa inspired national and world admiration. Solidarity not only united the Polish but the men of every culture and race who believed in freedom and democracy, in free trade and freedom of speech, in religious freedom and personal prosperity, in life lived to the fullest. Lech Walesa divined, “A man is judged not by his words but by the fruit of his works” 

Bibliography: primary sources

Lech Walesa: The Shipyard. Dir. Errol Morris. Perf. Lech Walesa. Www.youtube.com direct interview. Errol Morris, 09 Oct. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.                                                                                                                                  

        This video helped me understand Poland's circumstances better. It gave me a visual to what was actually happening in Poland.

Lech Wałęsa Addressing Striking Workers. 1988. Gdańsk, Poland, Gdańsk, Poland.

        This picture helped me understand the scale of the strikes in the Gdansk shipyards and it gave me an idea of Lech Walesa in action.

Solidarity March. 1989. Poland, Warsaw, Poland.

        This picture gave me an idea of how happy people in Poland were when Solidarity was legalized

Solidarity Poster Featuring Lech Walesa. 1988. N.p.

        This picture showed me how important Lech Walesa was in the Solidarity movement.

"On This Day: Lech Walesa Becomes Poland's First Popularly Elected Leader." On This Day: Lech Walesa Becomes Poland's First Popularly Elected Leader. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

        This was a newspaper article about how Lech Walesa was elected as Poland’s first president.

"Nobel Lecture*." Lech Walesa. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

        This was Walesa's Nobel Peace Prize speech, it showed me how much it meant to him.

Bibliography: Secondary sources

“Lech Walesa - Facts." Lech Walesa - Facts. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.                                                             

        This website showed me what Lech Walesa did to win the Nobel peace prize in 1983.

(. By: Lisa Vicente 2012 (all Ar T Work Drawn by the Author) (n.d.): n. pag. Web.                                                                                                                                                                                       

This website was a biography on Lech Walesa's life. I learned a lot about him and how he became the man he is today.

Burleigh, Michael. Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

In reading this book I learned about all the important rallies and strike that Lech Walesa lead. It also showed me the big role he played in the solidarity movement.


Biskupski, Mieczysław B. The History of Poland. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. Print.

        This book helped me learn about the past of Poland and what it was before Lech Walesa changed it. It also talked about how it fell under communism.

Great People of the 20th Century. New York: Time, 1996. Print.

        This book was helpful because it had all of Lech Walesa's great life-time achievements in it.

"Solidarity Gdansk Poland." Solidarity Gdansk Poland. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2015.

        This website gave me a lot of information about the solidarity movement. It also helped me understand it better.

"Lech Walesa Quotes." BrainyQuote. Xplore, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2015.

        This webite gave me many great qoutes from Lech Walesa, that I used throughout my essay.

"Lech Walesa." Lech Walesa. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2015.

        This website gave me infromation regarding his life and his political term.