Childhood & Early Life
Lech Walesa was born on 29 September 1943 in Popowo, a village located in the Lipno County in the north-central part of Poland. At that time, the country was under German occupation, which made life tough for the citizens.
His father, Bolesław Walesa, was a carpenter. He was rounded up by the German occupying forces before Lech was born and interned in a forced labour camp at Młyniec for more than two years. After the World War II, he returned home exhausted and ill, and died shortly thereafter.
Lech was mostly brought up by his mother, Feliksa Walesa née Kamieńska, who later married her former brother-in-law, Stanisław Walesa. She is believed to have had a tremendous influence on the development of Lech’s mental tenacity and beliefs.
He was the youngest of his parents’ three children, having a sister named Izabela and a brother named Edward. In addition, he had three half-brothers named Tadeusz, Zygmunt, and Wojciech from his mother’s second marriage to his uncle Stanislaw.
Lech had his schooling in the nearby village of Chalin. Although a good student, he was forced to abandon his studies at the age of sixteen due to financial constraint, and thereafter moved to the nearby city of Lipno for his vocational training.
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In 1961, Lech Walesa graduated from his vocational school as a qualified electrician. In the same year, he began his career as an electro-mechanic in Lochocin, continuing with the job until 1965, when he was enlisted in the army for the two-year obligatory military service.
In 1967, on his release from the army, Walesa moved to the city of Gdańsk, located on the Baltic Coast, in search of work. Subsequently on July 12, he joined Stocznia Gdańska im. Lenina (Lenin Shipyard), as an electrician. The shipyard has since been renamed as Stocznia Gdańska (Gdańsk Shipyard).
A born leader, he soon began to yield great influence on his colleagues. When the students’ unrest erupted in March 1968, he discouraged them from attending official rallies that condemned it.
In 1970, as the government promulgated a decree, which led to a sudden rise of prices of day-to-day items including food articles, protests erupted everywhere. Walesa was among the organizers of such protest in Gdańsk, becoming the Chairman of the protest committee.
Very quickly, the movement gained momentum, leading to the death of more than thirty workers. On January 15, 1971, Walesa, along with few other leaders, negotiated with Edward Gierek, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, on workers' demands.
He now began to feel the necessity of a change and started organizing a workers’ union. Although it was deemed illegal by the authority, Walesa continued his association with it, organizing strikes and commemorating those who died in police firing in 1970.
In February 1976, Walesa was elected a delegate to the meeting of the Shipyard Works' Council. In his speech, he criticized the authorities for going back on concessions agreed upon in the 1971 negotiations. It led to his dismissal from his job of shop steward at the shipyard.
In May 1976, he found employment with a construction machinery manufacturer. For the next few years, he would be forced to maintain his family by doing odd jobs. Yet, he did not give up trade unionism, working closely with Workers’ Defense Committee to help other workers who also lost their job.
On April 29, 1978, Walesa along with other activists drew up a Charter of Workers' Rights; later forming the unofficial Baltic Committee of Independent Trade Unions, the first non-communist trade union in Poland. Its aim was to defend the economic, legal, and human rights of the workers.
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Along with organizing underground unions, Walesa was also a member of the government-controlled official trade unions. In late 1978, as a delegate to its election, he became vociferous about the rampant election manipulation taking place, something that did not please the authorities.
Also in December 1978, Walesa organized an unofficial memorial services for the 45 workers killed in the 1970 food strike at Gate Number Two of the Lenin Shipyard. It led to his second dismissal.
In May 1979, Walesa joined an engineering enterprise called Elektromontaz. Here, he was soon recognized as an outstanding electrician. In December 1979, he gave a call for the formation of independent trade unions and self defense groups at an unauthorized mass demonstrations organized by the Baltic Committee, under his leadership.
The mass demonstration led to numerous arrests. In January 1980, Walesa was dismissed from his job for the third time. Although he himself was unemployed, he defended his coworkers, who also lost their jobs. For such activities, he was regularly detained for forty-eight hours.
Leader of Solidarity
In July 1980, the Polish government tried to increase the meat prices stealthily, triggering numerous strikes across Gdańsk. On August 14, 1980, Walesa entered the Lenin Shipyard by climbing its twelve-foot high fence, taking control of the strike. He also headed the Inter-Plant Strike Committee, coordinating the striking workers of twenty other plants.
After a three-day negotiation, as the authorities agreed to most of his demands, he suddenly reversed his stand. Instead of calling off the strike, he began a solidarity strike on behalf of strikers from other factories excluded from the settlement.
On August 23, 1980, Walesa entered into a negotiation with Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Jagielski with twenty-one demands in hand. After a weeklong hard negotiation, the government was forced to accept non-governmental trade unions and also the right to strike.
On August 31, 1980, the two parties signed the last phase of the Gdansk Agreement, thus ending the strike. On September 17, 1980, they formed a nationwide labour union called ‘Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy’(NSZZ) or ‘Solidarność’ (Solidarity). It was the first independent labour union in the communist world.
In 1980-81, Lech Walesa travelled to Italy, Japan, Sweden, France and Switzerland as guest of the International Labour Organisation. In January 1981, he also met Pope John Paul II, who received him very cordially.
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Solidarity’s first national congress was held from September 5 to September 10, 1981 and again from September 26 to October 7, 1981. During this congress, Lech Walesa was elected the Chairman of the Solidarity. Very soon, the membership of the Solidarity reached 10 million. But the victory was short-lived.
On 13 December 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland and Walesa was put under arrest until November 14, 1982. Meanwhile on October 8, 1982, Solidarity was declared illegal.
From August 1983, he started working at the Lenin Shipyard as an electrician. Although he was under surveillance and subject to severe harassment, he managed to work for Solidarity, which had by then gone underground; playing a key role in practical politics.
President of Poland
By 1988, the economic condition of Poland was all time low, resulting in agitation all over the country. Finally in the beginning of 1989, the government agreed to enter into round table negotiations, which was attended by Walesa as a leader of non-governmental party.
As a result of the round table negotiations, signed on April 4, 1989, the ban on Solidarity was revoked, restoring its legal status. Moreover, free elections for all the seats in the upper house and 35% of the seats in the lower house were sanctioned.
In the election, held in June 1989, Solidarity won an overwhelming majority of those free seats without obtaining a clear majority. While many of his colleagues were ready to form a coalition government with the Communists, Walesa remained adamant. Ultimately, the parliament was forced to accept a Solidarity-led government.
After the 1989 election, Lech Walesa nominated Tadeusz Mazowiecki for the post of the premier of the government. In the following year, he ran for the post of president on the slogan of “I don’t want to, but I have to’, winning Poland’s first direct presidential election on December 9, 1990.
Lech Walesa served as the President of the Republic of Poland from 1990 to 1995. During this period, he oversaw the implementation of Balcerowicz Plan, adopted in 1989, leading to the country’s transition to free market economy and also the country’s first completely free parliamentary election, held in 1991.
In 1993, he successfully negotiated the removal of the Soviet troops, stationed in Poland since 1945. He also worked for Poland’s entry into NATO. However, as he could not meet the people’s somewhat unrealistic expectations, he soon lost his popularity.
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In 1995, Walesa lost the Presidential election and decided to go into political retirement. In the same year, he founded Lech Walesa Institute with the mission "to popularize the achievements of Polish Solidarity, educate young generations, promote democracy, and build civil society in Poland and around the world".
In 2000, he once again contested in the Presidential election, but polled only 1.01% votes, securing the seventh place. This time, he decided to retire permanently from the politics and pay more attention to Lech Wales Institute.
He also started traveling around the world, giving lectures at various places, reminding the world about Poland’s non-violent struggle to end communism. Although he later lost his popularity at home, he remains much sought after in other countries, where his appearance fees is said to be £50,000 ($70,000).
Awards & Achievements
In 1983, Lech Walesa was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign for the freedom of organizing trade unions in Poland. Since he was afraid of leaving Poland, lest he was not allowed to return home, his wife accepted the prize on his behalf.
He has received 30 state prizes and 50 awards from 30 different countries which include ‘Order of the Bath’ from UK, ‘Order of Merit’ from Germany, ‘Legion of Honor’ from France, ‘Medal of Freedom’ from the United States, ‘Award of Free World’ from Norway and the ‘European Human Rights Prize’ from EU.
He has received 45 honorary degrees from various universities including the ‘Harvard University’ and the ‘University of Paris’.
He is an honorary citizen of more than 30 cities around the world including London.
Personal Life & Legacy
Lech Walesa married Danuta Golos in 1969. He has eight children named Bogdan, Slawomir, Przemyslaw, Jaroslaw, Magdalena, Anna Maria, Wiktoria and Brygida.
In 2004 the ‘Gdansk International Airport’ was officially named ‘Gdansk Lech Walesa Airport’.
A college hall of the Chicago Northeastern Illinois University, six streets and five schools in Poland, France, Canada, and Sweden are named after him.
A special court in 2000 cleared Walesa of the charges of being an undercover agent for the Polish security services from 1970 to 1976. But a book published in 2008 raised the issue for the second time. It was raised again for the third time in 2016 by the ‘Institute of National Remembrance’, responsible for investigating the Nazi and communist eras, which claimed that they had documents to prove it.
Walesa had a stent replacement in the coronary artery and a cardiac pacemaker implantation at the at the Houston Methodist hospital, Houston, Texas in 2008.