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Lech Wałęsa: “I want to be the last revolutionary!”

 Strassenfeger (Germany) 27 June 2019

Lech Wałęsa is famous for co-founding the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union, Solidarity, and for presiding over Poland's transformation from a communist to a post-communist state. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. In this exclusive interview he talks about his admiration for Pope John Paul II and the future of Europe. (1414 Words) - By Iwona Lompart

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Former president of Poland and longtime leader of the labour union, Lech Wałęsa. Photo: Iwona Lompart.

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Former president of Poland and longtime leader of the labour union, Lech Wałęsa.Photo: Iwona Lompart.

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Former president of Poland and longtime leader of the labour union, Lech Wałęsa.Photo: Iwona Lompart.

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Former president of Poland and longtime leader of the labour union, Lech Wałęsa.Photo: Iwona Lompart.

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Former president of Poland and longtime leader of the labour union, Lech Wałęsa.Photo: Iwona Lompart.

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Former president of Poland and longtime leader of the labour union, Lech Wałęsa.Photo: Iwona Lompart.


How do you feel when you look back on the events which changed Europe at the end of the 1980s, and those which you personally contributed to?

Lech Wałęsa: I wouldn't like to talk about the past. Instead I'd like to talk about the present and the future. You know, I'm a born revolutionary, because I grew up in a small village where simple rules prevailed. When, later, I confronted my upbringing with reality I felt something wasn't right.

I talked to many politicians at the end of the 1980s and they always told me that it wasn't time for change yet. During his visit to Warsaw at the end of September 1989, for example, the German Foreign Minister, Genscher, said he was still not prepared for the fall of the Berlin Wall. And one month later, on November 9 1989, the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had to interrupt his visit to Poland because the wall was actually brought down on that day.

Could the story have been any different at that time?

LW: All I can say is: I like Mr. Gorbachev a lot. But when we were together in the new Czechoslovakia I asked him directly: "My dear friend, you just want to 'renovate' Communism, don't you? And if you don't succeed at that, what then? Then there wouldn't be a reunification of Germany!" Thanks to what happened in Poland in June 1989 the Berlin Wall no longer stood in November. Gorbachev therefore didn't succeed with his 'renovation', thank God.

I had the opportunity to see you at the festivities of the beatification of Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II) in the Vatican. What does John Paul II mean to you?

LW: Without the Holy Father there would be no freedom for us! Communism had a simple philosophy: it did not allow us to organise ourselves independently. We were, however, always of the opinion that that had to change.

Today, as new challenges stand before Europe, we should remember what happened when a Polish man was unexpectedly made Pope. What has the Holy Father really done? He organised prayers for us: not so that we could fight Communism with them, but he helped us see how numerous we were and that our Communists were not so dangerous.

At the same time, he woke us up. Without the Holy Father we would never have become unified, we would have remained permanently divided and wouldn't be able to join in mass demonstrations or to speak with one voice. He said to us: "You have won the fight with my blessing and a unified and peaceful Europe will now be established from that".

When the Holy Father was dying I could not come to terms with what was happening. It was very difficult for me. I prayed: "God, do not take him away from us, we need him so much!" But at the end of my prayers I understood that everything he said remained with us and signifies our victory. He was a gift to us and nobody can dispute that. Our task is to understand this message.

Is his message still relevant?

LW: Of course! That is why I speak so much about it, because we are currently on the brink of a historical change in Europe: a chance of permanent peace, unity and prosperity. In order to take this chance we are not allowed to forget where it comes from. We are not allowed to ignore spiritual values, even when God is understood in different ways by different religions. Everything is within reach because we share wisdom and strength which makes us intelligent and strong.

Recently you were invited to Tunisia to help with the development of democracy, after the January Revolution. How was your experience there?

LW: I want to be the last revolutionary! To do that, we must find joint answers to three fundamental questions. First and foremost: "How should the economy of a united Europe look like?" The current variant is not an optimal solution. I know the masses, I was a worker for 25 years, and therefore I know how the story will continue: labour unions and workers will demand justice and solidarity. In two or three years populists and demagogues will have their say and promise to level inequalities. That can even be met with approval in the beginning, but with what results? Every initiative will be blighted, which we must all pay for later. And this is happening currently in Northen Africa.

In Tunisia they told me they felt the situation was similar to Poland's Solidarność movement. I think their aims are indeed similar but we had an external enemy at that time: the Soviets and Soviet Communism. I say therefore: "Your problems in Northen Africa resemble the European problems and not those from the time of the first Solidarność movement". I have advised them to invest based on one of the approved social contracts in workplaces and educational programmes.

You mentioned another two questions which must be solved urgently. What are they?

LW: The second question relates to the caricature we have made of democracy. There are almost no politicians with vision, but too many are on television! Until now democracy had given us rights, but we often forget that responsibilities are tied into that. We have to understand what must be done so that our democracy can be both serious and effective. And the third question, which should really be at the forefront: "What foundation does the European Union has? What are our common values?" At meetings with leftist groups they try to convince me that it all revolves around the freedom of assembly, the freedom of the individual and a free market, and that everybody should have their own God and their own moral values. Others say the opposite: "That is not the right way, because we do have unity in Europe, but a unity which is shaky and not always serious, a unity which does not guarantee us a good future."

Poland and Germany are neighbours. Can that be an opportunity for a special relationship within the EU?

LW: Germany is the leading country in Europe. It has experience and also the suitable capabilities to carry out this role. But it cannot forget its responsibilities. It is Germany's duty to share its wisdom with Poland. So many generations waited for this chance, which we have now been given. Let's not ruin it!

Masses flock to meetings with you and not just in Poland. You are unabatedly popular and well respected. What about the other authorities that spoke with one voice 20 or 30 years ago, so that they were heard and respected by everyone? Don't we need them any more?

LW: It is not about our own plans, our own ideas, any more. We have to acquire other ideas, internationally. And now new heroes are emerging, who herald new concepts. In this situation we can no longer talk with one voice; sometimes we are also in conflict with one another. That is why one must not be offended. Great tasks stand before us. We need to realise that we need a discussion, which will sometimes turn into an argument, into a necessary argument. This is not a time in which unanimous and numerous authorities can thrive.

What must be done about this huge wave of emigration from Poland?

LW: We must look at that from an absolutely supranational perspective. Poland is part of the united Europe, Poland's chance lies in this. Therefore we must make a departure from national thinking and look towards European thinking. It is not important in which country Poles work; the important thing is that they are useful for Europe. If our labour market is not big enough, we can register in other countries: to our benefit and to the benefit of the whole Union. It is therefore important that we detach ourselves from thinking in national categories.

 

Original article translated from Polish by Urszula Usakowska-Wolff

Translated from German into English by Amy Fox

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