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The ConversationThe Conversation

The Conversation

Convivium editor-in-chief Father Raymond J. de Souza sits down with Poland's Lech Walesa on the 25th anniversary of the collapse of communism

Lech Wałęsa
Raymond J. de Souza
15 minute read

Convivium: Twenty-five years ago, the "roundtable negotiations" led to the first free elections in Poland, which Solidarity won. In those elections, Solidarity candidates won all available seats, and that August the first non-communist prime minister was appointed. Why did the Polish people turn so completely to Solidarity in 1989?

Lech Walesa: The year 1989 is an important date on the road to freedom, but it was not the beginning, nor was it the end. There were stages on this road. At first, when we were occupied by the Soviets after the Second World War, we fought militarily. That was the 1940s and the 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, we had strikes and we went out into the streets. That led to bloody defeats, but learning from our mistakes, we learned how to fight and how to win. There was a whole chain of events, and one link in that chain was the elections in 1989—elections that were limited but free.

We did not stop fighting for one minute in Poland. Communism was imposed upon us and we did not accept it. Even Stalin laughed, saying that imposing communism on the Polish people was like putting a saddle on a cow! Poles are proud, they have their honour, and they are a democratic people. We joke that if there are two Poles, you have three political parties; and under communism, we were given only one choice. So we could not accept it.

C: In the 1989 election campaign, Solidarity candidates campaigned as "Walesa's team." It was clearly a moment when you and the Polish nation were entirely in union. Do you think that you were uniquely positioned for 1989—the man Poland needed in the 1980s?

LW: I don't know. I would not have chosen myself for this role. It was fate—it was the people who put me in this position. I had the support of the masses. They were behind me. The elites in society were not as supportive, but I did not trust the elites at that time.

I knew that we could not overturn communism all at once; we had to proceed by several stages. The parliamentary elections of 1989 were a stage, but only one stage. We still had to get rid of the communist president to have full freedom. I did not want to be president, but I had to run in the presidential elections of 1990 as that was the only way to finish communism. No one else could do it at that time; no one had the position that I had. But at the time, I could not say all this openly. I had simply to run for president.

In the end, Solidarity won the parliamentary elections in 1989 and I won the presidential election in 1990. We got freedom; we got democracy. But we were not ready for it. At that time, it was too much all at once—we wanted everything, and all at once. We were not experienced with democracy. We did not know how to organize properly, as communism had not made that possible.

I was in a difficult position. I had led the people to freedom—it was as if I had given each citizen 100 kilograms of gold! When it fell to the ground, they said it was Walesa's fault that we lost it!

C: Poland was not even on the map of Europe for more than 100 years, divided between the Prussian, Russian and Hapsburg empires in 1795, a division that lasted until the end of the Great War. For most of the 20th century Poland lived under foreign domination. Why did Poland survive not only the 20th century, to become free in 1989, but the long years since 1795?

LW: There are many interpretations, but there was in fact a simple system of survival in reality. They partitioned Poland in 1795, but the people—especially the common people—did not know foreign languages, so they kept up their Polish language. They went to church and prayed in that language. So for more than 100 years, they persevered in their language—not learning the languages of the foreign powers—and in their faith. When we had the chance, then, to regain freedom, we were able to take it.

As a man of faith—I am a practising Catholic—I believe that God helped us. It is true that we survived as a nation because of our faith, even after 120 years of not being on the map of Europe. The same is true of the last victory, the one of Solidarity, as we approached the end of the second millennium of Christianity.

C: Why, then, were Poles ready to regain their freedom in the 1980s?

LW: When I asked presidents, prime ministers and kings of that time whether there was a chance for freedom in Poland, they all said that there was no chance—only a nuclear war could change the reality of that world. Then see what happened!

As the second millennium of Christianity was approaching, a Pole became pope. He did not fight communism alone—he was not the leader of the fight, but he opened approaches built on values. He said, "Be not afraid—change the face of the world!" He unveiled the lies of the communist propaganda, because the communists were saying about those who opposed the system, "There are not many of them; they have no influence." The Pope gathered us in 1979 and on other visits, and then we saw how many of us there were. It was not true that we were alone. Even the police and military forces were at the gatherings with the Pope, and they learned how to make the Sign of the Cross! They did not say the words, but they made the gesture. We knew many of those people, and we saw what they were doing. So we stopped being afraid of them. We began to think of them as "radishes"—red only on the outside; but on the inside, white.

The Pope inspired us, and our organization went from prayer meetings and religious meetings to greater opposition groups. Before John Paul II became pope, I had spent 20 years trying to gather people to fight; and I had gathered 10 people. After John Paul II, I had 10 million, and I was not any smarter or richer.

Yet we have to be careful not to overestimate the role of the Pope because John Paul II also visited Cuba, and where is it now? There they did not have the second factor—the capacity of the people to take the Pope's inspiration and lead the fight. In Poland, the two things came together—John Paul II gave the word, and the word became flesh!

C: As president, you negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Polish soil. What is your view of the current situation in Ukraine, where Russian troops have seized Crimea and are now on the border with Ukraine?

LW: I have been warning about this scenario from the very beginning. And when the fighting began in Ukraine, I said that they were fighting the wrong way and they would lose. So at the moment, it seems Ukraine has lost something, and this also affects us in Poland. But in the long run, Vladimir Putin has no chance of winning. In the 21st century, the way of force is not the way. Look at us in Europe; we are getting rid of borders and making one country—not because we really want to, but because the world of communications and technology means that we no longer "fit" in small countries. This is both for good and for ill. In times when countries were less developed, you could frighten people with guns and tanks. But in this era of the intellect, of communication, of globalization, those methods of pure force are no longer possible. So Putin will lose, but he will shed blood before he is defeated. If Ukrainians want their freedom to come more quickly, then they have lessons from the path of Solidarity here.

About Ukraine, I have said that 20 leaders should gather at the UN and make a list of 15 things that would finish Putin off. And then go to each state and ask them to take up one of the options, for example, not to trade—not to buy this or not to sell this. There are different options. And if one country cannot take any particular option, it can always send money quietly—money is always useful! And in such a way, Putin can be defeated.

The world needs Russia, it is true. It is a rich country with many resources. But Russia also needs the world. Today states are like Lego blocks. If you have the right size and shape, everything can work together. But if you have the wrong size and shape, if it cannot fit in with the other blocks, then the children just throw them away.

C: You were very critical of the American decision to withdraw from Polish missile defence in 2009. Do you think that has had any effect on events today in Ukraine?

LW: We have enough nuclear weapons in the world to destroy everything 10 times over. So there are enough weapons. This is our world, and these missiles exist around us. Poland wants the Americans to be here, to guard us. They have better equipment than we do, so it is better for us.

C: As Solidarity leader and as President, you always wore an image of Our Lady of Czestochowa on the lapel of your jacket.

LW: I am wearing it right now!

C: Yes. Why do you do that?

LW: I would never have had the courage to put the image on myself, and I would never have done it on my own. Since I was a little boy, I have worn a Cross [Walesa here opens his shirt button to show the Cross he wears on a chain], but underneath my clothes.

The image of Our Lady of Czestochowa has its own story. In 1980, we were fighting, and we were afraid that the Soviets would destroy us. We have the tradition of pilgrimages to the shrine of Czestochowa. A woman who had been on the Gdansk pilgrimage to Czestochowa asked the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, to bless this image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. She then gave the image to me. She had not told me about this nor asked me whether she should do it. But we had a prayer meeting at the shipyard, and before the cameras of the world, she ran up to me and put the image on my jacket. As a religious man, I was pleased. So I publicly said that I would always wear it while I was working for society. I said I would do it, so I did.

After I lost the presidential election in 1995, I wanted to take it off. I was no longer working for the people; the people had decided otherwise. To lose the presidency while wearing the Mother of God on my jacket—this seemed to me somehow not right. Then I was in a meeting with Pope John Paul II, and he must have sensed that I wanted to take it off. So he said simply to me, "It is good that you still wear the image of the Mother of God." He just said it without any questions from me or any discussion. He simply said, "It is good that you still wear it." So then I decided that I should still wear it, even if I had lost the election. So I wear it still—the original one did not last all these years, but I have replaced it when necessary.

C: This year John Paul II was canonized. You have spoken about his role in Poland's liberation. What, though, was your personal relationship with him?

LW: I am a sinner, but I am a faithful son of the Church. So in relation to Pope John Paul II, there are some things that I did not think about a great deal but simply lived. He was the Peter for our times, and so I was fully subject to him in matters of the faith. We had a similar life story, so many things I did not have to say to him. He understood without words. He knew what I was thinking.

We had many meetings, but this was not my wish. I was taking up his time! And there was not really a need for these meetings because I did not have to convince him of anything, and he did not have to convince me. He had so many difficulties to deal with, and here I am taking up his time. But if I had not met him, there would have been cries that I was being unfaithful or betraying him. Or that John Paul II did not want to have anything to do with me. This is the way that things are often understood; so we had to have our meetings, even if I thought perhaps it was not a good use of his time.

There were some personal moments. They came to know me in Rome very well, and once, when I was in St. Peter's Square for Mass, someone from security saw me and took me up to receive Communion from the Holy Father. Then after Mass, the Pope said, "So you are here. Very well, then, come for lunch."

We had very good relations. He was very well informed, so there was no need for me to tell him anything. Our meetings could be amusing. One time, the Holy Father greeted me and then began to talk for some time. He noticed that I was shifting in my chair, and so he stopped talking. Then I began to talk and talk, and after a while, he began to shift in his chair uncomfortably, so I stopped talking! So in this way, we were together and it was very beautiful.

C: So I should sit still, so you keep talking?

LW: This method does not always work, but it did work for John Paul II and myself!

C: Pope John Paul II met frequently with world leaders. On December 1, 1989, only weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, Mikhail Gorbachev went to see the Pope at the Vatican. It was a historic meeting, and one that capped an extraordinary year beginning with the "round-table discussions" in Poland that led to free elections. What do you think of Gorbachev's role in all that we remember from 1989?

LW: I have met Gorbachev many times. We are horses from the same stable, as it were, both of us ex-presidents. So we are invited to speak at functions, to give lectures all over the world. We have been together several times. One time, at a dinner on one of these occasions, I said to him, "I am not a president now; you are not a president. We can speak honestly. So tell me: Did you betray communism or not?"

"No, I did not," he told me.

"So answer my second question, then," I asked him. "You are an intelligent man. Did you really think that you could reform communism?"

This made him angry. He was red in the face. So we remained without saying anything for 15 minutes. He was either naive or he did betray communism. I think he really believed that he could reform communism. In this, he failed. He did not save communism. He did not save the Soviet Union. He did not save the Warsaw Pact. In all this, he failed. All defeats. But because of these defeats, he got the Nobel Peace Prize. The world was happy that he failed. He is a decent man but very naive in believing that he could reform communism. It was unbelievable that it could be done, and I never believed it. So when he became the leader, I cheered for his reforms, because I knew as one element or the other changed, the whole system would fall. This is what happened.

It was good that we had Gorbachev. It was safer for us. The others before him—Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko—maintained the communist system, which meant that it was possible for us to defeat the system because it was broken. When Gorbachev came, he was driving the truck of Russia, a truck to conquer capitalism, but we Poles had taken out the engine from this truck so it could no longer be driven. It is good that when the truck failed, Gorbachev did not crash it, and for this we have to be grateful.

He did fight in Lithuania, and tried to use violence, but he saw that the opposition was even greater. When he became General Secretary of the Communist Party, he would have had to kill between one and 10 million people to stop what we were doing. Even if he managed to do that, he would still lose, and in the process he would destroy Russia. Russia is a collection of about 60 nations. If he tried to stop us in Poland by killing so many, the nations that make up Russia would have rebelled, too, and demanded their freedom. By allowing us to go without violence, Gorbachev saved Russia.

Now I am not sure whether this was the right thing. I really wanted to break Russia into pieces. But the United States told me that they did not want this, so we could not do it.

C: Another anniversary falls this year. In October we will mark the 30th anniversary of the killing of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko of Warsaw. You attended his funeral and spoke even though you were under government restrictions at the time. What was your experience of those days?

LW: He was a saint. A simple man linked to us, the working people. He was a man of Solidarity. At the funeral, I added some words to my speech without asking for approval from the censors: "Solidarity will be victorious because you gave your life for it!"

I think the killing of Father Jerzy was a mistake, not a direct order. He was very active. He was going all around Poland and speaking against communism. So I think the leadership wanted him to be silenced, wanted something to be done about him. So the secret police did do something, but I think they wanted to scare him not kill him. Yet those who tried to silence him went too far and killed him. That's what I think, but I don't know with certainty whether it is true.

C: Were you afraid, then, that Poland's future might be one of increasing violence? Did you fear for your own life after Father Jerzy was killed?

LW: No, I was not afraid. I was trusting. I thought, "You can kill me, but you cannot defeat me." I was not afraid then.

I am not afraid of death. I am afraid of Hell. I am afraid of Hell because in Hell there is also a hierarchy. Lenin and Stalin will have the highest places, and after all the trouble I caused for their project, they would certainly torture me if I were to be there! So I don't fear death, but I don't want to go to Hell. So I did as much as I could to resolve problems without violence.

C: The religious landscape in Europe is marked by increasing secularization and declining Christian practice, combined with an increasing Muslim presence at the same time. Europe had a Christian past— will it have a Christian future?

LW: Even to the end of the 20th century, we often called upon our religions when we fought. In Europe, there has been a sea of blood over the centuries. But now we are taking down our borders. It will be more difficult to use religion for violence, so religion can return to its proper role. In an age of intelligence, we should know that we have only one God, even if we use different names. It is true that those who teach about this God are sometimes bad teachers.

We are in a secular time, but I think that intelligent people will realize that, without faith, we cannot live. That is my view.

C: On December 8 this year, you will be married 45 years. What have you learned about having a happy marriage despite the many pressures of public life? What advice would you give young couples today?

LW: Ah, it has been many years, and I have been blessed with a wonderful family. It is difficult to advise young couples because our own experience had so many changes. At the beginning of our marriage, it was a very traditional way of life. I was the breadwinner for the house, but in the house, the mother was in charge of everything. It worked well for us. Now the children have grown up and set up their own homes. There is less work to do and we have more money now. So my wife has decided to become more independent—no longer under my administration! She is right about this, even if it means a change for me. She used to do everything for me—I couldn't even make tea for myself! Now she has her own activities and travels. I not only have to make tea but even cook for myself. So I don't like that, even though it is right. My wife likes it!

I have a very blessed life. We have had to change as the circumstances of our life changed. We always kept close to the Church. I never missed Sunday Mass, no matter where I was. The priority was always to have Mass on Sundays and holy days. For my wife, it was the same. So even if we live differently now than at the beginning, we live according to the same principles and the same faith.

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