Lech Walesa: Overcoming Fear

Source: The Freedom Collection www.freedomcollection.org /

Lech Walesa was born on September 29, 1943, in Popowo, Poland. After primary and vocational education, he pursued a career as an electrician and was employed at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, on the Baltic coast of Poland. As a shipyard worker, he became increasingly active in labor matters and committed himself to promoting workers’ rights. In the 1970s, he became a leader of the effort to establish independent trade unions, which were forbidden in communist Poland. Walesa organized shipyard workers, distributed underground leaflets, and educated workers on their rights.

Walesa was a principal organizer of the Lenin Shipyard Strike in August 1980 and as spokesman for the workers, he quickly became the public face of the independent labor movement. His tenacious negotiations with communist authorities and steadfast support of workers’ rights inspired Poles and resulted in the establishment of the Solidarity trade union, the first independent labor union in the communist world. Solidarity soon expanded its reach beyond labor issues and became the hub for the country’s dissident activity, uniting democratic forces across Poland.

The communist regime attempted to crush Solidarity’s influence and popularity by declaring martial law on December 13, 1981. As the movement’s leader, Walesa was among the first to be arrested and imprisoned. During this time, Poland’s communist government banned Solidarity, but Walesa wouldn’t surrender. He remained a symbol and spokesman for the ideals embodied by Solidarity as the movement continued its activities underground. Walesa’s struggle was recognized by the international community when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.

As popular dissatisfaction grew against the regime in the late 1980s, Walesa led negotiations with the government to ease tensions. The negotiations resulted in elections on June 4, 1989, that saw the establishment of the first non-communist government within the Warsaw Pact. With the acquiescence of the Soviet Union and inspired by the moral leadership of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, Poland began its transformation to democracy and free markets.

On December 22, 1990, Lech Walesa became the first democratically elected president of Poland. While in office, Walesa was a driving force in Poland’s European integration, laying the groundwork for Poland’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. After leaving office in 1995, he founded The Lech Walesa Institute, an organization committed to supporting democracy throughout the world.

You know, the thing with fear, it is like hardening yourself – at the beginning everyone´s afraid, and of numerous things, but with the passage of time you are able to defeat fear. At a certain point, this was my case; I realized that fear was not going to help me. That regardless of what I would do, the opposing side would pretty much be able to do anything to me, and so I completely stopped being afraid, the only thing I was full of was the fear of God.

Of course, I took care not to be blindsided, not to let myself become too easy a target, and so I did not bang my head against the wall. I was looking for methods which were effective, but knowing full well that the opponent is also in it to win it, just like the opposition was. In Poland we had never actually given up the struggle.

The various banner actions which were publicized and had their visible manifestations, and this was 1956, this was ‘70, ‘76, [referring to various anti-communist uprisings in Poland] but these are just the events that are widely known to the public because they led to some strikes or maybe some street demonstrations. So this is why I kept struggling for, seizing opportunities that could lead us to victory.

On the other hand, was my thinking that forward back in 1980? No, it was not. My thinking was that we would need to have yet another bout against Communism, at least one more time. So already then, in the 1980s, at the beginning of the 80s, when we were already organizing and if it turned out that Poland’s Solidarity was defeated, [I wanted] to mount a fight as a Solidarity of East Central Europe with [Vaclav] Havel [Czech dissident and former Czech President], with other activists of our neighboring countries. We held consultations and talked with an eye to maybe mounting another more powerful struggle through organizing East Central Europe.

The Vaclav Havel Center