Nobel Laureate, Back in the Limelight - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Nobel Laureate, Back in the Limelight

Nobel Laureate, Back in the Limelight

By Emily Cadei

Former Polish President and Solidarity founding leader Lech Walesa (L) speaks to workers during a strike at the Gdansk shipyard in this August 8, 1980 file photo. Two decades after the birth of Solidarity, the Soviet blocs first free trade union, many young Poles need textbook lessons on communism to learn about tank-controlled streets or empty shelves in grocery stores. Solidarity's sweeping victory in the partially free vote in 1989 paved the way to the dismantling of communism in eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the bloody removal of Romanian leader Ceausescu.


Because a new generation of activists can learn from Lech Walesa’s success in parting the Iron Curtain for organized labor, and from his failures in post-Communist Poland.

By Emily Cadei

Well before President Ronald Reagan famously demanded that Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall” in Berlin in 1987, 36-year-old labor organizer Lech Walesa climbed over a wall at a shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, starting a chain reaction of events that would culminate in the collapse of the Berlin Wall and, with it, the Soviet Union.

It was August 1980 and Walesa, a burly, mustachioed electrician and activist, was participating in a strike of shipyard workers in the port city, Poland’s largest on the Baltic Sea, defying the local Communist government. In the midst of a standoff with the shipyard’s managers, Walesa, who had been fired for his organizing four years before and arrested multiple times, climbed the wall and joined fellow strikers. A movement was born.

Our efforts and harsh experiences have revealed to the world the value of human solidarity.

The Communist government in Poland ultimately gave in to the strikers’ demands and signed what became known as the Gdansk Agreement, allowing workers to form the first independent labor union in the Soviet bloc, known as the Solidarity union. Walesa was named its leader. And in 1983, he was recognized for his activism with the Nobel Peace Prize.

In accepting the award in Oslo, Norway, thirty years ago this day, Walesa spoke of the decades of violence and repression the Polish nation suffered over the course of the 20th century. “Our efforts and harsh experiences have revealed to the world the value of human solidarity,” he said. “Accepting this honorable distinction I am thinking of those with whom I am linked by the spirit of solidarity.”

Walesa went on to be elected president of newly-independent Poland in 1990, but he had trouble making the transition from revolutionary leader to head of state. Domestic political clashes, allegations of past cooperation with the Polish secret police and his controversial views on homosexuality and other social issues have dogged him since.

Now a film from noted Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda has triggered a new wave of nostalgia for the Nobel laureate’s early heroics. Poland’s official entry for the best foreign film Academy Award, Lech Walesa: Man of Hope, retells the story of Walesa’s rise from blue-collar everyman to Communist scourge.

Walesa was the guest of honor at a screening in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. last week. Displaying the same fiery personality and combative streak, even at 70, he recounted how Gorbachev had attempted and failed to reform Communism before the Soviet Union collapsed.

“Why do I tell you about the failures? I tell you about them because in the course of reforms … you will also come across certain failures,” he told the audience. “I tell you to not to be discouraged by failures because even failures can win you a Nobel Prize.”

“He got it for failure,” Walesa continued, “I got it for victory!”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories