Lech Walesa is probably the most famous of all the thousands — actually millions — who struggled against the oppression of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The only person with a similar level of fame is Vaclav Havel in what was then Czechoslovakia. Walesa was the leader of the Solidarity trade union which, according to the legend, grew from ten members to ten million in a single year, fundamentally challenging the totalitarian rule of the Communist party. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. He was imprisoned multiple times. But eventually, Solidarity forced the government to allow other parties to compete for office, and this led to the fall of the Communist regime in Poland and contributed to the collapse of Communist rule throughout Eastern Europe. People of my generation remember the TV pictures of the dynamic, good-looking man he once was, addressing shipyard workers. For us, Lech Walesa is a hero.
Meeting him now, he has become a more rotund figure with a slightly puffy face. Apparently he has not been well, and I was fortunate to get an interview. But it proved a little trickier than I had expected. I asked him about the first time he was arrested. ‘I don’t want to talk about the past,’ he declared.
He said he couldn’t remember the past anyway, and it was more important to talk about the future. My heart sank. I had come all the way to Gdansk on the Baltic Sea. I tried reasoning with him. I said young people in Britain know practically nothing about what happened under Communism and if people do not know such things, they will repeat the same mistakes. He conceded the point but countered that this could be left to historians.
He seemed to enjoy being uncooperative and it got worse. Realising I am British, he announced that Britain had betrayed Poland in 1939. We had promised to help Poland if it was attacked by Germany but we had not done so. Britain and America had again betrayed Poland in 1944. We had let the Russians take over.
As a last resort, I argued that Britain was in no position to fight in 1939. We had not got the armaments or the trained men. We were barely in a position to defend ourselves, let alone Poland. As I got quite animated about it, Anastazja put her head in her hands but stoically continued to translate my words. It was a high-risk approach but thank goodness, it worked. Suddenly everything became calm. Perhaps he’d had his fun. ‘Now,’ he said. ‘I will answer your question.’
I asked how he had approached the many interrogations he had faced. He said that he would say to the interrogator things like ‘You are really gifted but this system is keeping you down. You ought to join us!’ and ‘In my Poland, your life would be much better and you could make more money’. He told me how his wife, Danuta, had torn a strip off the secret police when, from time to time, they came to arrest him. She bashed and pulled at them furiously.
He said he was never tortured. By the 1980s, belief in the Communist system was not as fierce and sincere as it had been previously. Everybody knew perfectly well that Poland was doing badly compared to the West. He said that by then many Poles were ‘radishes’ — only red on the outside.
This is an important point. In the early days, the Soviet–dominated Communist regime was brutal. Witold Pilecki, for example, an astonishingly brave man, resisted both the Nazis and the Communists. The Communists tortured him horribly over a long period before executing him in 1948. Later on, resistance was more likely to mean not getting a job and maybe a spell in prison. It was nasty and career-destroying but not as horrible.
Walesa explained that the strategy of Solidarity was to get ‘freedom through bread’. He and his fellow organisers knew that if they demanded freedom itself, they would be knocked back, since Communism does not promise freedom. But it promised bread — and bread, let alone luxuries like meat or oranges, was in short supply. Food was rationed, and there were queues for even the meagre amounts provided. So he and his colleagues campaigned about their inability to feed their families and, through that, were able to take on Communism according to its own claims and ideals.
While Walesa is a hero to most of my generation, his reputation in Poland is under attack. Some opponents claim he signed a document agreeing to be an informer for the secret police. They say his codename was ‘Bolek’. My posting on social media about the interview soon attracted the response that he was actually ‘Agent Bolek’.
It is impossible for an outsider like me to know the whole truth. But I was struck by a comment by Jacek Taylor, a genial former legal adviser to Solidarity in its glory days. He said that during early strikes in 1970, before Solidarity existed, when 30 strikers had been shot in the street, those who were arrested were often beaten, and some were even beaten to death. It was so terrifying that every-body arrested signed a form agreeing to inform with a single exception. (That exceptional man said later that he had expected to die because of his refusal.) But here is the key point: a great difference exists between signing a form and giving information that damages your comrades.
If Lech Walesa was a Communist agent, he was surely the most spectacularly unsuccessful one of all time — what with leading a trade union that overturned a Communist regime. Taylor, who was there at the time, certainly regards him as having been a major asset to the movement because of his oratory and leadership.
A common view, I suspect, was given to me by the daughter of a man who was shot by the Soviets in the Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and other members of the elite in 1940. She said ‘Walesa is a simple man but a brave one. I thank God for giving him to us.’
James Bartholomew is director of the Museum of Communist Terror. The museum is hosting an event in London on 27 November at which the historian Roger Moorhouse will talk about the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.