Ann Arbor, MI

Lech Walesa: The Last Cold Warrior Comes to Ann Arbor

Joseph Serwach

 Walesa to America: ‘This your fate: a God-given role to lead the world’
Lech Walesa, the electrician-turned-revolutionary who became the first freely elected president of post-communist Poland.Image via the the University of Michigan.

Lech Walesa is the last leading Cold Warrior history recalls vividly, a living symbol of the Polish gear that broke the mighty machine of communism in the 1980s. 

The public policy students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor greeted him like a wise rock star they seemed anxious to learn from, especially with a new war raging in Ukraine.

Four decades ago, the world watched this fired electrician jump into a 1980 strike in Gdansk, Poland, that started the Solidarity avalanche. Walesa secured an agreement, and within weeks, 10 million Poles joined his union, demanding rights communism denied them. The Russians grew angry.

By December 1981, Solidarity was barred by martial law, and Walesa was under house arrest, but the fire kept simmering. By June 1989, Solidarity swept the first free elections in a communist state, the domino that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and a collapse of communism, 

He came to the University of Michigan on September 13, promising to pose for a photo with each public policy student who attended his talk “because you are the rising stars and I am the falling star.”

Walesa shared his candid take on current events: 

  • War in Ukraine. Walesa warned, “Even if Ukraine conquers Russia and wins, Russia will rise up again, and there will be another (Joseph) Stalin or (Vladimir) Putin.”
  • The World Order is crumbling. “Everything else looks like traffic would look if we removed all the traffic signs,” Walesa lamented. “One system has fallen down, but the other has not yet been created. So we still don’t know what the role of the future order should look like.”
  • Communism has proven why it can’t work, “so let’s not toy with it, just throw it out.”
  • Capitalism is “a rat race among nations.”
  • Christian Democrats in Europe “yell and scream we’re Christian parties, but there isn’t a single believer among them. So the only thing that works now for them is the traffic rules.”
  • He asked Gorbachev, “do you feel you betrayed communism?” After both were out of office, he asked Gorbachev, “You’re a smart guy, but you believed it was possible to reform communism?” Gorbachev “did believe in communism till the end.” When Walesa told him it was impossible to reform a corrupt system, “Then he would not talk to me for a while.”
  • Bill Clinton deserves more credit. “People often choose not to mention President Clinton, but I remember he was the one who made the ultimate decision that Poland and Hungary were allowed to join NATO. Jimmy Carter and others spoke nice things but never made a decision.” 

Fight the system, not the people: What Walesa learned from squaring off with communists

Walesa notes Capitalism was rooted in Christianity, but most modern capitalists and political leaders rarely think like Christians. Communism, which is tied to atheism, is “inherently corrupt.” 

“I was fighting against the system,” Walesa said. “I told them, ‘You guys are such criminals because the system allows you to be.’ I was afraid of two things: God, a little bit, and my wife.”

Loving the sinner but hating the sin, Walesa stressed he always “told them: You’re not bad. The system is bad. That’s why I have more friends on that side than on my side because they, too, wanted to change the system, but they didn’t think it was possible.”

In contrast, Walesa said people rooted in their Establishment never thought change was possible: “The smarter the Americans I talked to were, the more likely they were to say the Soviets will never let you do it. So it is necessary to believe and strive. If I had your capabilities, education, and dollars, I would have 10 Nobel prizes.”

After communism, “we managed to introduce the right kind of system in Poland. Not perfect, not ideal, but a good one. Today my fight is against the people trying to destroy that system.”

As president, he said he was “trying to work to have Poland, Ukraine, and Belarussia work together to join European Union together in my second term. So we’ll join together — and then I lost the elections.”

“The Russian people are really nice people. I really like them a lot,” he added. “But they have a really awful system that allows criminals like Putin to do what they do. I will never attack anybody, but I will not let anyone attack me.”

What will the new world order look like? 

What will the role of the future new world order look like?

“Somebody has to prepare it all, and somebody has to lead,” Walesa said. “This your fate: a God-given role to lead the world. Until the coffin is closed, I will be at your beckoning. I’m not going to be late for my own funeral.”

He told the American students, “I encourage you to lead or to say: We give up. We don’t want to lead — and then just give your capabilities to Poland — we’ll know what to do with them.”

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