‘A Dictatorship Is Being Created’: An Interview with Lech Wałęsa

Omar Marques/Getty Images. Lech Wałęsa speaking at an event to mark the thirtieth anniversary of free elections in Poland, Gdańsk, June 4, 2019
Omar Marques/Getty Images. Lech Wałęsa speaking at an event to mark the thirtieth anniversary of free elections in Poland, Gdańsk, June 4, 2019

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.

Soon, though, Solidarność became a major force standing against the Communist regime in Poland, a legal opposition unique in the Eastern bloc. At its peak, Solidarność rallied 10 million people from all possible walks of life, including Communist party members. During its first sixteen months, Solidarność was entirely legal, a period known as the Solidarity Carnival and a time of nation-wide awakening against the regime. And Wałęsa’s place as the movement’s figurehead was cemented when he was interviewed by the celebrated Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci (an interview later featured in Andrzej Wajda’s 2013 biopic Wałęsa: Man of Hope).

Then, in December 1981, Poland’s leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski—under intense pressure from Moscow—introduced martial law in Poland, criminalizing the Solidarność movement, and arrested its leaders, including Wałęsa. For a time, Poland’s democratic opposition was crushed, but Wałęsa managed to retain his position, as well as his underground organization. Following his release from prison, in November 1982, he continued to be a crucial figure and a national symbol of the resistance to the regime; and the following year, he became an international symbol of the fight for freedom when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1988, he again led major strikes and, with the winds of change blowing from Gorbachev’s Moscow, Solidarność steadily wore down the Polish regime, an effort culminating in the so-called Roundtable Talks of early 1989 that led to the collapse of communism in Poland and the transition to democracy. That same year, he spoke before the US Congress, where he famously started his speech with the words “We, the people.”

In 1990, Wałęsa became president of Poland, elected in the first free national elections for decades. It was a post for which he was scarcely prepared, yet he did oversee groundbreaking economic and political reforms, negotiate the exit of Russian troops, and pave the way for Polish membership in NATO and the European Union. Still, numerous conflicts plagued his presidency, which he relinquished in 1995 to a young post-Communist politician named Aleksander Kwaśniewski.

Much of Wałęsa’s life following 1989 has been overshadowed by the accusation that he had cooperated with the Communist secret services in the 1970s. There is some evidence that he may, indeed, have signed some kind of agreement with the regime, but historians agree that at the end of the 1970s, and during the critical period after that, he was not actively collaborating with it. However, the question of his guilt was promoted by the brothers Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński, leading conservative politicians—the former of whom later became president, before his death in a plane crash; the latter of whom remains the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party—and the charge is often used to undermine the legitimacy of the 1989 democratic movement, to suggest that it was, in fact, steered by Communists. This has now become a quasi-official narrative of the current government, even if a majority of Poles do not share it.

In recent years, a new aspect of Wałęsa’s life has come to the fore—his relationship with his wife, Danuta. In 2011, she published an autobiography in which she described the challenges of being married to the great Lech Wałęsa. The book went some way to restoring a more sympathetic view of a couple who could never have imagined, on their wedding day, how their lives would pan out—he, a simple shipyard worker, and she, a shop assistant in a florist’s (where they met when he went in to change money one day).

A few weeks before the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Solidarność, on August 31, I spoke to Wałęsa at the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk, an impressive modern multimedia museum built on the premises of the shipyard. Wałęsa’s official office as former president is located there. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Michał Matlak: When you look back after forty years at the legacy of the movement you led, do you feel it was a success in spite of everything that has happened since?

Lech Wałęsa: The ways of fighting against communism and Soviet domination differed over time. First, just after the war, the fight was with guns. Then, it was students on the streets. Finally, we concluded that a single social movement against the monopoly of power must be built. But this alone was not enough. Europe, then the United States and Canada, had to be involved in this fight, and it was only the global bloc that won, side by side with Solidarność.

You have to understand that we were all united in the fight against communism and the Soviet Union. The ideas of Solidarność were diverse. For example, there were socialists among us, and people who thought that the fall of communism was simply in their interests. The common denominator was the fight for freedom.

When we finally won in 1989, the question arose as to whether Solidarność should build a monopoly, a single political force under democratic conditions, or whether we were building pluralism. Since we rejected the idea of a monopoly, I, too, had to lose. I could not be the head of every party and win every election. I agreed to this. And soon after that, I lost [the presidency].

Do you think that the 10 million who signed up for Solidarność had any inkling that this movement would bring down the regime?

Whoever leads a great movement must be like a good coach. They cannot start by lifting 500kg, because no one will come the day after the first training session. That is why I schooled our younger generations and spun them the story that I needed to. It was not a lie, but a tactic. Most of the members of Solidarność did not know in 1980 that we were fighting for freedom.

Did the failure of the December 1970 protests, when some forty people were killed, form you as a leader? Already, then, you were a member of the strike committee at the Gdansk shipyard.

Yes, I really lost then; and after that, I asked God: “Let me come back here again, I already know how to make this work.” I prepared myself well—and ten years later, I already knew how to do it.

Your leadership methods in Solidarność were contested.

As a leader, I was no democrat, so I found I had problems with Andrzej Gwiazda [the vice-president of Solidarność in its first phase] and Anna Walentynowicz [the union activist whose firing in August 1980 triggered the Gdansk shipyard strike]. But how was I supposed to be a democrat, when we had a state monolith on the other side? They would have swallowed us whole without strong leadership.

Do you feel angry at them, as they were protesting your leadership at the time?

No, I would not have supported me either, had I been them! But I was so good that I managed it all.
What was crucial to the collapse of the system?

It took years until the Communists themselves understood that the system had to collapse. If they had not come to that realization, the fight would have been much harder. They simply stopped believing in [the system].

Do you ever think that the costs of transformation were too high? There are many voices who claim that today’s crisis of democracy in Poland has its origins in the “shock therapy” transformation of the period that you openly lent your name to.

If anyone thinks as much, they could have spoken up about it in 1989, when the state and the economy collapsed. And anyone who says so is himself culpable for letting Wałęsa and others run the country so badly. To get the market economy going, we had to shock the system and break the state monopoly, often at fire sale prices.

Look, these were hard decisions, but the action we took is why the economy took off and the transformation became a success.

In retrospect, how do you assess the part played by post-Communist politicians in Poland’s transformation?

If the most important Communists had not studied in the West, they would have defended communism more. They saw the weakness of communism well. There was a moment when communism could have made a positive impression on people—namely, when the proletariat found itself so badly oppressed—but that was long ago. At the end, the Communists lacked the confidence of their convictions, so they were not ready to defend the system. But they wanted to be players in the democratic game and that is why the Roundtable Talks could start. In this way, we regained our freedom.

When you became president, your popularity soon waned…

My project was to take Poles to the “Freedom stop” on the long national rail journey. I believed in democracy a little too much; I thought it would manage on its own. When freedom came, we had no idea what to do next. So I thought I could save us by running for president. In the end, I really did not want to run. But as a country, we had no program, no structures, no people. I thought that by becoming president, I could push the reforms through and organize power anew. I wanted a presidential system, decrees, so that I could govern more efficiently. My enemies ensured that I was unable to implement the second part of this program.

Was it difficult for you to come to terms with your defeat in the 1995 elections? How do you see the post-presidential period of your life?

As president, I set two directions—NATO and the European Union—but I did not manage to complete them. After the presidency, I continued to persuade our partners from the US to push for Poland to become a full member of the West. For example, I lobbied Clinton at our meeting in Prague [in 1997].

Did you feel disappointed that Poland was not welcomed into these organizations with open arms?

No, they [the West] were guided at the time by their interests; that is normal. If someone wants to jump in [to an established group], one must look the part. They said that we were not prepared, we had no resources. At the same time, aid for Russia, for Gorbachev, was at 95 percent, while for us it was around 5 percent.

That is why I came up with crazy concepts like “NATO-bis” and “EU-bis” [pre-accession groupings of former Warsaw Pact states]—that is, “waiting rooms,” where we would be placed while we worked to meet the conditions for full membership. It was a terrible struggle.

Did private relationships like those you had with Boris Yeltsin or Bill Clinton help you in politics?

I am a simple boy from a village; I did not make natural friends in politics. It was just business. Of course, others followed me—[the economist and politician Leszek] Balcerowicz and others who were going in the direction I set out. But it was I who opened all the doors.

You had no friends in politics?

No. I had ideas, and I was choosing people to execute them. That must have been my mistake. But it was like that. That is how I am. What we needed changed, and people had to be replaced.

The Kaczyński brothers were also your people for a short time.

Yes, and they were good, as long as they listened to me. When they started to become independent, I threw them out.

How do you account for the Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s political effectiveness?

The Kaczyński brothers were very intelligent, read many books. But they were also people with concepts from the past. And life is constantly changing, posing new challenges, and they always brought old answers. I was also disturbed by the [recalcitrance of] state courts and tribunals, but I tried to reform them, not eliminate them. Now, he [Jarosław Kaczyński] wants to liquidate what does not suit him. And after he takes care of the courts, for example, then he notices that not everything is perfect, and that something else does not suit him, so he must conquer other institutions. That way, a dictatorship is being created. As a leader, Kaczyński is dangerous. As a colleague, he could be useful.

And where does his difficulty in accepting your historical role come from?

Because he knows that I will never support what he proposes, and he continues to act toward me in the same way the Communist secret service did. They did not want me to be an agent, but they wanted people to believe that I was an agent. Kaczyński went along with these Communist papers [documents purportedly backing conspiracy theories to discredit Wałęsa’s leadership of Solidarność] because some people believed them. That is how they undermined me.

Will we come out of the democratic crisis we find ourselves in?

We find ourselves in a rather uncomfortable situation; we are between epochs. The political reality, of which the basic formula involved countries grouped together in blocs, is a thing of the past. Technological development—especially the Internet, handheld devices, as well as the availability of air transport—have changed the world. Democracy must adapt to this. An era of intellectual property, information, and globalization is emerging. It requires new infrastructure. Usually, societies develop slowly, but sometimes there is a leap. We live in such a moment. We are witnessing the fall of an era and the emergence of a new one.

You, for instance, are wearing a mask. In my opinion, the coronavirus pandemic is a sign that we have not adapted our institutions to our technology. Providence is telling us: sit down at the table and make a list of issues that do not fit into the nation-state. We need to rethink the right and proper competencies of countries and [multinational] blocs, and what should be established on a global level.

What, for example, should be changed?

One of the fundamental problems to think about is the low turnout in many elections. If this tendency gets worse, only the candidates and their families will go to the polls. So people need to be reoriented to new ways of thinking, to increase participation in democratic processes. Without that, democracy will certainly collapse.

Does the European Union fit into the new era you are talking about?

There must be an organization that coordinates the action and conduct of states. Whether it is the EU or something else, is a question I am less interested in.

But the EU is such a coordinating institution.

There are two possibilities. Either we renovate the union, or we let it fall—and five minutes later, we establish a new body with a more solid foundation, with clear rights and responsibilities for all member states, without exception. This is something that is lacking in today’s union. Then everyone could join it—but only after accepting the rules. It is simple, isn’t it?

So you are not attached to the EU as such?

I believe it has played a positive role and will perhaps continue to do so—if it is reformed. Life hates unnecessary organisms. If something is unnecessary, sooner or later it dies.

A hardline nationalist turn in politics—like that of Law and Justice in Poland or Viktor Orbán in Hungary—is gaining ground in many countries. Is this temporary, or does it mark a permanent shift?

We gave the field to demagogues and populists because their simple slogans met the needs of people tired of how complicated and beguiling this new world that is emerging is. This is a world they do not understand.

The populist moment will end when we successfully respond to three problems. First, what is the foundation for the future? Each country has its own identity and religion. But globalization demands new foundations. Once we have established these foundations, and have written them down as a kind of constitution, we must answer the second question: What economic system will we build? Surely, the answer cannot be communism or socialism because this is not an efficient system. But neither is the capitalism that we have today. We cannot accept the rat race between states that is beginning to re-emerge. The third problem: How to deal with demagoguery and the deception of politicians on a scale that transcends borders.

What should we take from the old world to the new, besides democracy?

The triple division of power. Authorities must have checks, otherwise they tend to abuse their power.

You talk about the triple division of power, but many people have accused you of bending the system. We remember your aversion to the Constitutional Tribunal, for example.

I was also disturbed by the Constitutional Tribunal, but I did not seek to destroy it. I wanted to change the country and its political structure, but without breaking the rules and democracy.

What is your attitude to national monuments, many of which are being reconsidered both here and in other countries, with the US at the forefront?

We challenged the role of God in our lives, and now people are looking for a redefinition of their values. Therefore, the masses want to venerate heroes from the past. If we want to build something bigger, we must overthrow the bandits and find new heroes to believe in.

But there is also another way that old Wałęsa can suggest—not to drop these monuments, but to use them to remember how much evil happened, how much blood and banditry it cost to come to what we have today.

Does a growing public awareness of problems inside the Polish Church disappoint you?

It is a disappointment, but I will remain a Catholic until I die. During the communist era, during the struggle, all the dirt was swept under the carpet, because talking about it in public would have weakened us in the struggle. Now is the time of great cleansing. We must pray and put our faith on the right track.

Today, Belarus is spoken of as somewhere that might repeat what happened in Poland during the era of Solidarność. Will the people succeed there?

I helped the Belarusians and I will help them again. But we must not forget that what is happening there is a part of the Russian structure. That is why this fight will be successful only if the EU and the West find an alternative for Belarus. I am afraid of what will happen in winter, when Russia may turn off the gas supply, and then Belarus will be left standing against a wall. I am afraid that Europe is still too weak to take over as Belarus’s main partner. The key, in my opinion, is to keep up the momentum of the present revolution going until the winter.

What of the prospects for Ukraine?

There, the dependence on Russia is somewhat less, so the chances for success are a little higher.

Is China a threat to the Western world?

Already, twenty years ago, I said that European countries must build a United States of Europe, which in turn must create a bloc with the United States of America as soon as possible. Then we would be ready to negotiate with China in a globalizing world. Since Europe’s alliance with America has failed to consolidate, China wants to lead the world. And this threatens conflict.

Who should China talk to in Europe? There is no single voice or actor. If we make a joint decision, Poland will implement it, but Germany, for example, may not. China need not heed the US either, because, soon enough, the Chinese will manage to become even richer without American cooperation or assistance. But if Europe and the US create a unified bloc, China will have to treat us as equals.

And how do you see what is happening to LGBT people in Poland?

I have always been in favor of freedom, including for LGBT people. But we need to sort this out. I am old-fashioned but I understand that [the struggle for LGBT rights], and I am not fighting it. I found myself in their bad books once, because I am a fan of proportionality, and I said that if they constitute about 10 percent of the population, they should have about that much influence on our affairs. But I would say the same of other minority groups.

LGBT rights, however, are non-negotiable.

Yesterday, I talked to the writer Olga Tokarczuk and asked her, as one of the two living Polish Nobel Prize winners alongside yourself, what she would ask you if she could. She said she was curious to know your advice on how to cope with the life-changing event of being awarded of the Nobel Prize.

It is very simple. You must do your bit, and not worry about what others say or comment as they scrutinize you. Pay them no mind. Just do your bit.

Michał Matlak holds a PhD from the European University in Florence, works at the European Parliament, and is a regular contributor to the Polish magazine Liberal Culture. (May 2019)

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