Lech Walesa turns 70
He conquered communism in Poland. Now, the 70-year-old can look back at a life as a labor union leader that helped to change the world.
Rebel, Nobel Prize winner, retired president
He brought Poland's communism to its knees and changed the world. Former Polish labor union leader and later President Lech Walesa has received countless awards for his political achievements. September 29 marks his 70th birthday.
A spike in meat prices triggered strikes across Poland in summer 1980. Walesa, who had been working as an electrician at a Gdansk shipyard since 1967 and had already spent time in prison due to his activities in the illegal free labor movement, was under observation. Still, on August 14, he became leader of the Solidarity movement at what was then called the Lenin Shipyards.
After the occupation of the Gdansk shipyards, workers across Poland tried the same tactic. Walesa was the one to negotiate with the government for the newly founded "Solidarnosc" union. The unparalleled anti-communist labor movement quickly evolved into an independent organization of 10 million members.
Blessings from the church
Even after decades of communist rule, a majority of Poles still kept their faith in the Catholic Church, and resisted atheism as propagated by the state. Poland's influential church also supported the dock workers from the start. Bishop Henryk Jankowski often stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Walesa, who was also raised Catholic.
A long struggle
An agreement between the labor committee and a government commission ended the mass strikes on August 31, 1980 - with the assurance of the legal right to strike, the founding of an independent union, improvements in the social system, and the release of political prisoners. In November, a Warsaw court decision ultimately legalized the Solidarnosc movement.
From leader to prisoner
Walesa remained chairperson of the National Coordinating Committee of Solidarnosc until December 1981. When the communist party leader, general and Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law that month, Walesa was incarcerated in a prison near the Soviet Union for nearly a year.
1983: The Nobel Peace Prize
"Time" magazine declared Walesa "Man of the Year" in 1982. A number of honors followed. When Walesa was announced winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, he feared the communist government would not permit him back into the country if he were to attend the award ceremony. His wife, Danuta, and his 13-year-old son, Bogdan, thus accepted the certificate and medal on his behalf in Oslo.
Donated prize money
Hundreds of believers looked on as Walesa dedicated his Nobel Prize to the Black Madonna in the southern Polish city of Czestochowska, one of the Catholic Church's most significant pilgrimage sites. Walesa would later donate the prize money to a fund to help economically strapped Poles.
As early as 1983, Walesa requested permission to return to the shipyards in Gdansk, but the labor leader remained under house arrest until 1987. Solidarnosc continued to organize strikes among mine, shipyard and transportation workers from 1981 to 1988.
The mass strikes forced a roundtable discussion between Walesa and representatives of the communist government. In semi-democratic parliamentary elections, the opposition celebrated a huge victory. Lech Walesa took his oath as president before the Polish National Assembly on December 22, 1990.
The pope and constitution
Walesa met Polish Pope John Paul II for the first time in June 1983 during a papal visit to his home country. Eight years later, Walesa could kiss the pope's hand as Poland's first post-communist president - while holding the first edition of Poland's 200-year-old constitution in his left hand.
Retreating in dignity
At the end of 1995, Walesa had lost the support of the Polish people and was not reelected as president. But he still enjoyed appreciation from around the world - including from the Dalai Lama, who bowed to the man who brought about such significant change in Poland.
In Germany, Walesa is considered as having paved the way for reunification - even if he was not always a supporter of German reunification. But he stood as a living symbol of German-Polish reconciliation at the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall on November 9, 2009.
Nowadays, Lech Walesa is viewed critically - including for having made discriminatory remarks regarding homosexuals. A film by director Andrzej Wajda, screened this year at the Venice Film Festival, does not depict his former associate as flawless. Robert Wieckiewicz starred in "Walesa: Man of Hope" - a film that did not appeal to the real-life figure.
Lech Walesa has come a long, long way - from a small-time electrician to Nobel Prize winner and president. Now, with a slew of honorary doctorates and awards under his belt, he can look back at over three decades in which he helped lead people fighting for political change in Poland.