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Lech Walesa

Biography: Lech Walesa
Nobel Prize for Peace

Lech Walesa Date of birth: September 29, 1943

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Lech Walesa was born in Popowo, Poland. His father died shortly after World War II; he and his brothers and sisters were raised by their mother, aunt and uncle. The Soviet Union occupied Poland after the war, and the Soviet-imposed communist government controlled almost every aspect of life in Poland, except for the Catholic Church.

Walesa trained as an electrician and mechanic, and as a young man went to work at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. Walesa was an outspoken critic of the shipyard management and of the communist regime. He was involved in the shipyard strike of 1970, and throughout the next decade played a role in organizing the shipyard protests. In 1976 he was fired for his political activities. Although he was only sporadically employed for the next four years, he persisted in his organizing.

In 1980 the shipyard workers were ready to strike again, and Walesa emerged as a leading spokesman of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Eastern Bloc. A series of strikes spread throughout the country, forcing the government's recognition of Solidarity, but this victory was short-lived. When Solidarity called for free elections, the government outlawed the union. Fearing Russian military intervention, Poland's puppet government declared martial law in December 1981. Walesa was arrested and held for months without trial. When he was finally released in September 1982, he remained under government surveillance.

Lech Walesa Biography Photo
The outside world recognized Walesa's courage, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1983. The encouragement of the Polish-born Pope John Paul II kept Solidarity's hope alive underground, and the ascension of reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union presented another opportunity for the Polish dissidents to press their case.

By 1989 Gorbachev had made it clear that he would not intervene to prop up communist governments in Eastern Europe. Nationwide protests at last forced the communist regime to hold free elections and Solidarity quickly formed a new coalition government. Walesa traveled to the United States, accepting a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan, and became the first non-head of state to address a joint session of the United States Congress.

In 1990, Lech Walesa was elected to a five-year term as President of Poland. His autobiography, The Struggle and the Triumph, first appeared in English in 1992. Walesa supported the policy of "shock treatment" to convert Poland's socialist economy to a Western capitalist model. A devout Catholic, he followed the Church's teachings on matters of social policy, and opposed legalized abortion.

Lech Walesa Biography Photo
Walesa lost his bid for re-election to the presidency in 1995. The following year he founded a think-tank, the Lech Walesa Institute, to support the development of local governments in Poland and of democracy throughout the world. In 1997, he supported the victorious Solidarity candidate list in the parliamentary elections; the same year, he helped organize a new political party, Christian Democracy of the Third Polish Republic. He ran for the presidency a third time in 2000, but captured only one percent of the vote. While this was effectively the end of his political career, he remains a highly visible figure in Polish public life and lectures around the world on Central European history and politics.




This page last revised on Nov 09, 2010 17:14 EST