Lech Wałęsa

(b. 1943) Polish trade unionist and statesman, President 1990–5.

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(b. 19 Sept. 1943).

President of Poland 1990–5

Trade union leader

Born in Popovo, he became an electrician and worked at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk (Danzig). He became the leader of the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement in September 1980, and was imprisoned following the imposition of martial law on 13 December 1981. Released in November 1982, he remained the symbol of popular opposition to Communist rule, and in 1983 received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Communist Party was finally forced to legalize the outlawed Solidarność in 1989, whose membership grew rapidly to become ten million strong. Increasing quarrels with his erstwhile protégé, Tadeusz Mazoviecki (b. 1927), who was elected Prime Minister on 24 August 1989, split the movement when WaVęsa decided to stand for the presidency against him.


The first freely elected President of Poland for fifty years, in his controversial term of office he sought to strengthen the presidency at the expense of parliament and thus personally brought down at least two of the six Prime Ministers who served under him. A devout Catholic, he also aimed to safeguard the role of the Roman Catholic Church in state and society. Uneducated and inarticulate (by his own admission), his recovery from an approval rate of just 5 per cent in 1994 was not sufficient to ensure his re‐election against the ex‐Communist Kwasniewski in 1995. He stood again in 2000, but performed dismally in the polls. He was described by his former ally, A. Michnik, thus: ‘His power lies in his ability to destroy. His tragedy lies in his inability to build.’ He was responsible more than any other person for the collapse of Polish Communism. As President he encouraged economic liberalization and market reforms, though he failed to bring stability to Poland's young democracy.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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