Lech Walesa at the 70th Venice Film Festival in September 2013.

Lech Wałęsa: a walking paradox

The legendary Solidarity leader who contributed to the fall of communism in central and eastern Europe has turned 70. The release of a new film in Poland by director Andrzej Wajda underlines that he remains a controversial figure in his country.

Published on 4 October 2013 at 14:30
Lech Walesa at the 70th Venice Film Festival in September 2013.

“A hundred years from now there will be a Lech Wałęsa memorial in every town and city in this country,” the former President of Poland and Solidarity leader once famously remarked. As a megalomaniac, he has virtually no match. [Polish dramatist] Witold Gombrowicz with his “Monday – me. Tuesday – me. Wednesday – me” pales in comparison. But ever since he became a public figure, Wałęsa has seen no shortage of flatterers.

He has been extremely controversial in his native Poland. His opponents, like [Adam] Michnik [an anti-communist opposition leader and editor-in-chief of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper] and his camp at one time and Jarosław Kaczyński [of the Law and Justice opposition party] and the rest of the Polish right today, have spoken of him in harshest terms. He has been described as a devilish figure, a bogeyman but also as an embodiment of mediocrity. As if the ex-president were not a human being. Well, he is. And a full-blooded one: with plenty of vices but also with achievements that will have earned him a place in Polish history. In many respects, though, he is just an average guy, like millions of others.

Yet all those who speak ill of Wałęsa today or did so in the past hardly do credit to their leaders on the right and left. Why is that? Because for years they have been but his background. He didn’t care about them, using them only when he needed them, like a master builder needs his apprentices.

‘A braggart supreme’

It is Wałęsa who personally took key decisions, from the August 1980 strike at Gdańsk Shipyard to the final game with the communists in the late 1980s, culminating in the roundtable talks that led to the dissolution of communism.

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With his “turkey cock demeanour”, Lech Wałęsa certainly does not invite balanced judgements. He is a braggart supreme. And of course, many people find it hard to accept his boasting that he conquered communism virtually alone and played the greatest role in liberating central and eastern Europe from Soviet rule. But would it not be better to leave Wałęsa alone with all that presumptuousness? Perhaps we should finally acknowledge that there was no mass-scale organised opposition anywhere in the Soviet bloc, while in Poland itself in the late 1980s active anti-communists numbered perhaps 0.01 per cent of the population – one person in 10,000. Communism in Europe collapsed because it had to.

It isn’t easy to understand how a 37-year-old no-name electrician of hardly a striking appearance and often struggling to express himself in his native tongue, became the leader first of the shipyard strike and then of Solidarity, a union that at its peak had nearly 10 million members. But whoever remembers the 1980-1981 period has to admit that Wałęsa was the undisputed leader for the vast majority of the public. [[In captivating the crowd he was what Lionel Messi is to football or Krystian Zimerman is to playing the piano]]. In this regard, he outdid everyone else, be it Solidarity activists and advisors, or Party apparatchiks like Stanisław Kania and Wojciech Jaruzelski.

On November 30, 1988 at 8pm, Poland seemed to have come to a standstill. A subsequent poll found that eight out of 10 respondents in Warsaw had watched the televised debate between Wałęsa and his opponent, Alfred Miodowicz, head of the pro-regime unions. In nationwide terms this may have meant an audience of 20 million.

And the debate marked a turning point. The Solidarity leader poured hope into many of his compatriots’ hearts and minds. He had returned in great style. People felt a bond with him. He was great from the first moment when he looked the audience straight in the eye and said, “Good evening. It is nice to meet you. And thanks to those who haven’t lost hope over the last seven years”, [a reference to December 13, 1981 when the military introduced martial law, banning Solidarity and interning Wałęsa and thousands of others.] When Miodowicz started listing Poland’s achievements under the communists, Wałęsa riposted, “You are walking towards modernity step by step while the rest of the world rides on. If you continue like that, the effects will come in two or three hundred years.” Bull’s eye! Wałęsa the superstar was born.

Brief but influential political career

And power was something he wanted. When you read news clippings for the period between the television debate and the formation of the first non-communist cabinet headed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, it is obvious that Wałęsa was something of a dictator for the Solidarity side. The joke went – and not without grounds – that if “Lechu” was photographed with a dog during the campaign for the memorable June 4, 1989 elections [just as he was photographed with each of the Solidarity candidates], the canine would win a seat too.

But he could not get over the fact that the new superstar, the first non-communist head of government in Poland in half a century, PM Mazowiecki and his advisers wanted to marginalise his role. Wałęsa quickly reassembled a fighting team, with Jarosław Kaczyński as one of the key “strikers”, joined the 1990 presidential race and won. During the campaign, he was not above populism, promising everyone 100 million zlotys [a non-returnable investment credit worth] roughly €2,500 in today’s terms] and tripling the amount when fighting for re-election in 1995.

[[Wałęsa seems the only person who views his 1990-1995 presidency as a success. Yet there is no denying the fact that he was instrumental to the successful negotiation of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Polish soil in 1993]]. He had also poured enough vodka into Russian President Boris Yeltsin to get him to sign a protocol that said Russia did not object to Poland’s plans to join the Nato, even though the matter was not even on the agenda.

Lech Wałęsa is a walking paradox. On the one hand, he appears full of acrimony, virulence, egotism, but on the other, he demonstrates shrewdness and persistence in striving towards his objectives. He was a major risk-taker and also a time-serving opportunist. He is proud of his intuition, for it served him well on many occasions, but eventually there came a time when it failed him. At 52 years of age, a man in his prime, he became a political retiree, after only 15 years on the political scene, with at most 10 of these at the top level. He also had the gift of fascinating the crowds, but this also ended.

Wałęsa may have his advocates and eulogists today but the last time he was a charismatic leader was about 20 years ago.


Legend restored

“With this film, [Andrzej] Wajda comes to Wałęsa’s aid. Charged with various allegations and guilty of spoiling his own image, Wałęsa has now been given his legend back – and no nation’s history can exist without a legend,” writes Gazeta Wyborcza’s about Wałęsa. Man of Hope.

The biopic about the former Solidarity leader, by Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, was released [in Polish cinemas on October 4] and may not be the director’s greatest achievement, but still “stands out with one great performance.” The daily suggests that,

Lech Wałęsa should send Robert Więckiewicz [who plays him in the film] a case of champagne, possibly Dom Pérignon.


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