Lech Wałęsa speaking at an event to mark the thirtieth anniversary of free elections in Poland, Gdańsk, June 4, 2019 | Omar Marques/Getty Images
Interviewers are not always keen to sit down with Lech Wałęsa. His answers are not always clear, his line of thought can be difficult to follow, and his self-assurance is sometimes offputting. Yet there remains something truly fascinating about this man, so full of contradictions. The simple worker with a very basic education who rose to lead the biggest social movement in the Communist bloc; the charismatic leader who attracted the leading intellectuals of his time but always considers himself the smartest person in the room.
Born in the Polish countryside and educated at a vocational school, Wałęsa quickly became a leader of workers in the Gdańsk shipyard. His initial rise stalled in 1970 at a tragic moment in Polish history, when the military brutally repressed strikes across the country, killing forty-one workers. For ten years, Wałęsa bided his time, continuing to organize workers, first at the shipyard, then elsewhere, only to return to Gdańsk to assume leadership of the next shipyard strike, in 1980. This time, the workers inspired strikes all over Poland in every industry, with Wałęsa taking the helm not only in Gdańsk, but of the entire, national protest movement. His leading part in the 1980 strikes and after showcased a range of talents: public speaking, strategic thinking, and the ability to attract major intellectuals as his advisers. And yet, even then, his faults were on display, too: a mistrust of colleagues and partners that verged on the pathological, a paradoxical anti-intellectualism, and his egotism.
The strike at the Gdańsk shipyard in 1980 turned out to be a huge success: the government agreed to many of the workers’ demands, of which the call for legal status for the independent trade union, Solidarność (Solidarity), would prove the most consequential. The workers largely skirted the thorny issues of political reform or even regime change. Instead, they concentrated on bread-and-butter issues—wages and deteriorating living conditions.