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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
Lech Wałęsa

Lech Wałęsa is known for scaling walls, from the wall of the Gdańsk shipyard on August 14, 1980 to head the largest strike in history, to the Berlin wall, which he helped to topple. He is widely remembered around the world as the mustached working class hero, the leader of ten million strong Solidarity Union.

Reflecting on his long career, first as a champion of human rights, and later as Poland’s first non-communist president, Wałęsa has acknowledged the personal qualities that have made others follow him, while, at the same time, admitting that his life was a string of fortunate accidents. He was born in the Kujawy village of Popowo on September 29, 1943.

Wałęsa became an instant international celebrity when he headed the MKS [Inter-factory Strike Committee] of the Lenin shipyard, which after the signing of the Gdańsk Accords with the regime on August 31, 1981 became the first free trade union in the Communist Bloc. The 1980 Solidarity strike was a major setback for Communism, breaking the back of the totalitarian ideology and demonstrating to the world that captive minds cannot be held captive forever, not by threats, not even by force of arms. Wałęsa made the critical decisions that made Poland free and independent.

An electrician at W4 section of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, which in its heyday employed 17,000 people, Wałęsa began his career in the opposition as a twenty seven-year old leader during the bloody December 1970 strikes in the Gdańsk region, when he was a member of the Steering Committee of the striking workers. In his autobiography, A Way of Hope, Wałęsa admits “I didn’t leave with my hands entirely clean” after his arrest and interrogation [75]. Secret police forced him to cooperate, apparently without much success, breaking off contact in 1976.

Employed in the Lenin shipyard since 1967, Wałęsa acted as a safety and hygiene inspector and was fired in 1976, ostensibly for arguing with representatives of the regime-sanctioned union and administration. From 1976-79, he worked as an electrician for ZAREMB, a restoration and construction firm, and was fired from the shipyard in 1979 for taking part in a protest rally and forming a “workers council” to protect labor rights.

During the hunger strike in solidarity with the imprisoned dissident Błażej Wyszkowski in 1978, Wałęsa joined the Free Trade Union of the Coast [WZZ], the cradle of Solidarity, and a year later member of the editorial board of the WZZ publication Robotnik Wybrzeża [Coastal Worker].
Even before the Big Strike, Wałęsa was recognized as a moving speaker who grasps the gist of a point, and is able to convey it from the heart. In ordinary conversation, without having to reflect on words, his “gift of gab” can be disarming. He quickly became the people’s tribune capable of communicating the plight of the ordinary worker in simple words that demand respect and recognition.

It was natural for Wałęsa to emerge as the leader of the Gdańsk Shipyard Strike, which turned into a nation-wide solidarity strike involving more than a million workers by the time it ended on August 31, 1980. Solidarity was widely perceived as the legitimate government in Poland by acclamation. Like another great Pole, Pope John Paul II, Walęsa was able to shake a nation of thirty seven million out of its stupor by knowing exactly the right thing to say.

Just before the declaration of martial law, he met twice with General Wojciech Jaruzelski; and throughout the eight years that followed until communism’s dramatic collapse, he was the chief negotiator for the opposition. Even though Solidarity was outlawed after 1981, Wałęsa remained the symbolic head of the opposition and his stature as the advocate for human rights grew after he received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1983 for his “commitment to workers’ rights.”

In the transition to democracy stage, Wałęsa was the moral authority behind the Round Table discussions and a picture with him was a stamp of approval and assurance of success in the election of June 4, 1989, a triumph for Solidarity. On November 15, 1989, Wałęsa became the first worker and non-head of state since Lafayette to speak before the joint session of the United States Congress, beginning simply but memorably, “We the People . . .” to a standing ovation. On July 4, 1989, he became the first recipient of the Liberty Medal awarded by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

In 1990, Wałęsa was elected president of Poland and served until 1995. He has been honored internationally, including the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

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Poland
Location:  Eastern Europe
Capital:  Warsaw
Communist Rule:  1944-1989
Status:  Abolished - 19.07.89
Victims of Communism:
2 million