Lecture Presented at Salisbury University:
Democracy: The Never Ending Battle" - delivered March 30, 2006
Lech Walesa was born on September 29, 1943 in Popowo, Poland. As a young man he served in the army for two years, rose to the rank of corporal, and in 1967 was employed in the Gdansk shipyards as an electrician. In 1969 he married Danuta Golos and they have eight children.
He was one of the leaders of shipyard workers during the clash in December 1970 between the workers and the government; as a result he was briefly detained. In 1976, however, as a result of his activities as a shop steward, he was fired and to resort to taking temporary jobs to support his family.
In 1978 with other activists he began to organize free non-communist trade unions and took part in many actions on the sea coast. He was kept under surveillance by the state security service and was frequently detained for his activities.
In August 1980 he led the Gdansk shipyard strike which gave rise to a wave of strikes throughout the country. His fellow countrymen viewed Walesa as an inspiration leader. The primary demands of the strikers were for workers' rights. Eventually the authorities were forced to capitulate and negotiated the Gdansk Agreement of August 31, 1980, which gave the workers the right to strike and to organize their own independent union.
The Catholic Church openly supported this movement, and in January 1981 Walesa was cordially received by Pope John Paul II in the Vatican. In the years 1980-81 Walesa traveled throughout the world as guest of the International Labour Organisation. In September 1981 he was elected Solidarity Chairman at the First National Solidarity Congress in Gdansk.
The country's brief enjoyment their newly acquired freedom ended in December 1981, when General Jaruzelski, fearing armed intervention by the Soviets, imposed martial law, "suspended" Solidarity, and arrested many of its leaders including Walesa who was interned in a remote country house.
In November 1982 Walesa was released and reinstated at the Gdansk shipyards. Despite being under constant surveillance, he managed to maintain contact with Solidarity leaders who were forced underground. Martial law was ‘officially’ lifted in July 1983; however it was larger ceremonial as many of the restrictions were simply integrated into the civil code. In October 1983 the announcement of Walesa's Nobel Laureate raised the spirits of the underground movement, but the award was attacked by the government press.
The Jaruzelski regime became even more unpopular as economic conditions worsened, as a result the regime was forced to negotiate with Walesa and his Solidarity colleagues. The result was the holding of parliamentary elections which, although limited, led to the establishment of a non-communist government. Under Mikhail Gorbachev the Soviet Union was no longer prepared to use military force to keep communist parties in satellite states in power.
Walesa, now head of the revived Solidarity labour union, began a series of meetings with world leaders. In November 1989 he became the third person in history to address a joint session of the United States Congress.
In April 1990 at Solidarity's second national congress, Walesa was elected chairman. In December 1990 in a general ballot he was elected President of the Republic of Poland. He served until defeated in the election of November 1995.
Walesa has been granted many honorary degrees from universities, including Harvard University and the University Notre Dame. Other honors include the Medal of Freedom (Philadelphia, U.S.A.); the Award of Free World (Norway); Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, and the European Award of Human Rights.