['lɛx va'wɛ̃ŋsa], born September 29, 1943, Popowo, Poland) is a Polish
politician, former trade union and human rights activist, also former
He co-founded Solidarity (Solidarność), the Soviet bloc's first
independent trade union, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and served as
President of Poland from 1990 to 1995 (succeeded by Aleksander Kwaśniewski).
Lech Wałęsa was born on September 29, 1943 in Popowo, Poland, to a carpenter
and his wife. He attended primary and vocational school, before entering Lenin
Shipyard in Gdańsk (Stocznia Gdańska im. Lenina, now Stocznia Gdańska)
as an electrical technician in 1967. In 1969 he married Danuta Gołoś, and the
couple now have eight children.
He was a member of the illegal strike committee in Gdańsk Shipyard in 1970.
After the bloody end of the strike, resulting in over 80 workers killed by the
riot police, Wałęsa was arrested and convicted of "anti-social behaviour",
spending one year in prison.
In 1976 Wałęsa lost his job in Gdańsk Shipyard for collecting signatures for
a petition to build a memorial for the killed workers. Due to his being on an
informal blacklist, he couldn't find another job and lived at the time thanks to
his friends' personal help.
In 1978, together with Andrzej Gwiazda and Aleksander Hall, he organized the
illegal underground Free Trade Union of Pommerania (Wolne Związki
Zawodowe Wybrzeża). He was arrested several times in 1979 for organizing an
"anti-state" organization, but not found guilty in court and released at the
beginning of 1980, after which he re-entered the Gdańsk shipyard.
In August 14, 1980, after the beginning of an occupational strike in the
Gdańsk Shipyard, Wałęsa illegally scaled the wall of the Shipyard and became the
leader of this strike. The strike was spontaneously followed by similar strikes
across Poland. Several days later he stopped workers who wanted to leave Gdańsk
Shipyard, and persuaded them to organize the Strike Coordination Committee (Międzyzakładowy
Komitet Strajkowy) to lead and support the naturally occurred general strike
In September of that year, the Communist government signed an agreement with
the Strike Coordination Committee to allow legal organization, but not actual
free trade unions. The Strike Coordination Committee legalized itself into
National Coordination Committee of Solidarność Free Trade Union, and Wałęsa was
chosen as a chairman of this Committee.
Wałęsa kept this position until December 1981, when Prime Minister Wojciech
Jaruzelski declared a state of martial law. He was interned for 11 months in
south-eastern Poland near the Soviet border until November 14, 1982.
In 1983 he applied to come back to Gdańsk Shipyard to his former position as
a simple electrician. While formally treated as a "simple worker", he was
practically under house arrest until 1987. 1983 also saw Wałęsa being awarded
the Nobel Peace Prize. He was unable to receive the prize himself, fearing that
the government would not let him back in, so his wife Danuta Wałęsowa received
the prize in his place. Wałęsa donated the prize money to the Solidarity
movement's temporary headquarters in exile (in Brussels).
From 1987 to 1990 Wałęsa organized and led the "half-illegal" Temporary
Executive Committee of Solidarity Trade Union.
In 1988 Wałęsa organized an occupational strike in Gdańsk Shipyard, demanding
only the re-legalisation of the Solidarity Trade Union. After eighty days the
government agreed to enter into round-table talks in September. Wałęsa was an
informal leader of the "non-governmental" side during the talks. During the
talks the government signed an agreement to re-establish the Solidarity Trade
Union and to organize "half-free" elections to Polish parliament.
In 1989 Wałęsa organized and led the Citizenship Committee of the Chairman of
Solidarity Trade Union. Formally it was just an advisory body, but practically
it was a kind of a political party, which won parliament elections in 1989
(Opposition took 48% of seats in the Sejm out of 49% that were subject of free
elections and all but one seats in the newly re-established senate; the
remaining 51% of seats were given automatically to Communist Party according to
the Round Table agreements).
While technically just a Chairman of Solidarity Trade Union at the time
Wałęsa played a key role in Polish politics. At the end of 1989 he persuaded
leaders from formally communist ally parties to form a non-communist coalition
government, which was the first non-communist government in the Soviet Bloc.
After that agreement, to the big surprise of the Communist Party, the parliament
chose Tadeusz Mazowiecki for prime minister of Poland. Poland, while still a
communist country in theory, started to change its economy to the free market
On December 9, 1990 Wałęsa won the presidential election to become president
of Poland for the next five years. During his presidency he started so called
"war at the top" which practically meant changing the government annually. His
style of presidency was however strongly criticized by most of the political
parties, and he lost most of the initial public support by the end of 1995.
However, during his presidency Poland was completely changed, from an oppressive
communist country under strict Soviet control and with a weak economy to an
independent and democratic country with a fast growing free-market economy.
Wałęsa lost the 1995 presidential election. After that he claimed to go to
"political retirement", but he was still active, trying to establish his own
political party. In 1997 Wałęsa supported and helped to organize a new party
called "Solidarity Electoral Action" (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność) which
won the parliamentary elections. However, his support was of minor significance
and Wałęsa held a very low position in this party. The real leader of the party
and its main organizer was a new Solidarity Trade Union leader, Marian
Wałęsa again stood for the presidential election in 2000, but he received
less than 1% of votes. After that Wałęsa again claimed his political retirement.
From that time on he has been lecturing on the history and politics of Central
Europe at various foreign universities.
In May 10, 2004, the Gdańsk international airport has been officially renamed
to Gdańsk Lech Wałęsa Airport to commemorate the famous Gdańsk citizen. His
signature has been incorporated into the airport's logo. There was some
controversy as the name should be spelled Lech Walesa (without
diacritics, but better recognizable in the world) or Lech Wałęsa (with
Polish letters, but difficult to write and pronounce for foreigners). A month
later, Wałęsa went to the U.S., representing Poland at the state funeral of
Ronald Reagan, who, like Wałęsa, played a significant role in dissolving the
Apart from his Nobel Prize, Wałęsa received several other international
prizes. He has been awarded the title of doctor honoris causa from several US
and European Universities.