Who is Lech Wałęsa?

Polish flag by Kirsten Lim

A traitor? A leader? A misunderstood man? To me, he is a national hero and a Nobel Peace prize winner whom we, Poles, should be proud of.

Late 20th century Polish history was doubtlessly shaped by our struggles with the previous, unwanted Communist system that was forced upon us after the Battle of Berlin. It had many bad sides, but above everything else it promoted mediocrity and uniformity among the people fiercely battling everyone who tried to stand out or criticize the system. In order to enforce public order, Communists created a Stasi-like security force called SB which terrorized and invigilated the population. They created an atmosphere of fear by organizing a network of paid informants and omnipresent spies.

Poles have this interesting passion in talking about history and politics, especially when it revolves around parts of our national pride, say, of uprisings. Not unlike my fellow Poles, I reached out to my dad and uncle to ask about those dark times which coincided with the prime time of their youth: college. According to them, the situation then was not as black and white as it seems presently to some people. It was definitely not easy for young people who could be blacklisted after a short donos (an anonymous tip) ruining their careers at the very start.

It is hard for Millennials to imagine how tremendous of a blow a disciplinary lay-off for expressing their own opinion may be to a young, optimistic, and troubled soul. My uncle studied medicine in college in the mid-1980s.He was deaned a few times for talking down the communist system and almost got expelled for it. Close to his graduation, he was also drafted to the army, as all doctors were at that time in case of the apparently imminent war with the imperialist NATO. He completed the training, but refused to take vows to the People’s Republic of Poland. Had it happened a few years earlier when the communist system was still solid, it would have resulted in him being mercilessly blacklisted and forbidden from working as a surgeon. Luckily for him, the system was falling apart in the late 1980s, allowing his dad to prevent his blacklisting through other means instead of having his dreams brutally crushed.

It has been more than 25 years ago since the SB’s archives were opened, and one would have thought that these ghosts from the past would have been resolved by now. Believe it or not, quite the contrary situation is happening. Every once in a while someone uncovers a new skeleton from Poland’s most recent history’s closet. A few days ago, the widow of the late SB general Kiszczak returned previously unpublished documents on the secret informant Bolek, apparently belonging to Lech Wałęsa. There has been a recent trend in Polish media to reveal those disgraceful facts, publicly shaming our national hero.

I was born in 1992, shortly after the Soviet block’s collapse and, frankly speaking, cannot relate to anything that happened before then be it WWII, Stalinism, or the People’s Republic of Poland. My opinion is solely based on personal recounts of my relatives and other public figures, although the latter is harder to judge given deep political divisions. For example, I find it hard to believe that the leader of the currently ruling party, which is most vocal in the current media campaign, did not mind supporting Lech Wałęsa in the Presidential elections back in the 1990s.

“We know ourselves only to the extent we have been tested…”

These wise words of Polish literature Noble Laureate, Wisława Szymborska, point out a very important truth about human nature often neglected by many: It is very easy to judge others’ actions without recognizing their context fully. We as humans trick ourselves into thinking that we understand the circumstances of someone else’s decision making, whereas in fact we know nothing about it.

Nowadays it is easy and popular to play down Lech Wałęsa’s role by calling him a traitor, an informant, and perhaps even going as far as to claim that he made a deal with Communists to peacefully transition power and let the privileged retain their influence. Sure, I am not the one to judge whether he did or did not collaborate with SB in early 1970s, nor am I the one to approve of him handling these allegations. Even if he had a temporary low moment, he repaid it 100 fold by leading the Solidarity movement to a final victory through protests and martial law. It is simply pathetic that some of his most vocal critics these days were either not born yet or simply did not want to risk their lives and jobs.

These days the political debate in Poland has reached its low with a lack of constructive discussion and highly irrelevant arguments. The issue of improving the quality of Polish public discourse needs to be addressed; however it would be good if we did not burn symbols of our national pride in the meantime. After all, it takes little to damage things but a lot more to rebuild them. In the past few days, I am glad to see thousands of Poles showing their support to our national hero, Lech Wałęsa.