Eastern European political leaders don’t often make headlines in the U.S. Recently, however, a good deal of attention has been focused on former Polish President Lech Walesa; I think it’s worth taking a look at his inspiring story. Especially in these trying times, it’s important to remember that ordinary people can beat the odds and do incredible things. Who would have believed that an electrician with no political experience could help bring freedom to millions?
Poland is a country that has suffered more than almost any other. It faced cruel oppression at the hands of Tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany before falling to Soviet domination after World War II. In the following decades, Poland’s communist rulers denied Poles the most basic of human rights. Democracy and freedom of speech were out, of course, as was freedom of religion – hugely important in this devoutly Catholic country. It was a socially backward system that exploited the weakest for the benefit of a tiny clique of leftist leaders who lived a life of relative luxury.
A worker’s paradise it was not. Unlike their counterparts in the capitalist West, Polish workers had almost no rights at all – another reminder of the huge contradictions between the promise of socialism in theory and the misery of socialism in practice. These contradictions grated on many Poles, and they inflamed one man in particular.
Lech Walesa came from humble beginnings. He accepted a job as an electrician in the shipyards in 1967 in order to support himself. But he soon became involved in activism when his colleagues rose against the government in the 1970s. Walesa joined the strikers and eventually became one of their leaders. Officials harassed Walesa, but they were unable to dissuade him from his struggle.
In 1980, Walesa helped found and lead Solidarity, a non-communist union that attracted millions of members. He organized a wave of demonstrations that eventually provoked the authorities into outlawing Solidarity and locking up Walesa and his allies. Undeterred, Walesa continued to agitate against the communists after his release. He gained increasing domestic and international sympathy, winning the support of Pope John Paul II and Western leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In 1983, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Thanks to Walesa’s relentless efforts, the communists were eventually forced to allow semi-free parliamentary elections in 1989. Solidarity backed a slate of anti-communist candidates who campaigned with posters featuring the iconic American cowboy movie star Gary Cooper and the simple slogan W samo południe, or High Noon. The message was clear: Poland faced a stark choice, with one road leading to freedom and the other to further misery. Solidarity-backed candidates went on to humiliate the communists, winning about 99 percent of available seats. The Eastern Bloc’s first non-communist government was soon formed, and socialist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe toppled in the face of similar democratic demands from their citizens.
Today, Poland is a completely different country. Poles are free to speak, worship, and work as they please. They can demonstrate and vote for the candidates of their choice. And they have done more than just join the West; they have become leaders in the Western world – in NATO, in Europe, and beyond – and their economy has rocketed ahead of struggling neighbors with some of the fastest growth rates in the European Union.
Walesa, who served as Poland’s president from 1990 to 1995, must be proud of how far his country has come. He famously said that turning Poland communist was like transforming an aquarium into fish soup, but that turning it back into a democracy was like the seemingly impossible task of converting that soup back to an aquarium. The Polish people proved that task was not an impossible one after all, just as Walesa showed them that it was possible for one man to alter the course of history. “We hold our heads high, despite the price we have paid,” he once said. “Because freedom is priceless.”
Walesa’s story is an important reminder of why we should never be afraid to fight for what we believe is right – especially when it involves our freedom. With persistence and the right attitude, anything is possible.