David Alton’s speech
Vice Chancellor, members of the university’s academic faculties, distinguished guests; it is my honour to bring before you Mr. Lech Walesa for admission as an honorary fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.
Born on September 29th 1943, it was in 1980 that Lech Walesa became the charismatic leader of millions of Polish worker.
The birth of Solidarity – Solidarnosc – Poland’s first independent trades union, became the catalyst for extraordinary and historic change. The cataclysmic events which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the peaceful re-emergence of a free Poland, the re-unification of Germany, and the freeing of the other Eastern European nations, also led to the honouring of Lech Walesa for the historic role which he had played.
In 1983 he became the first Pole to be awarded the prize founded by Alfred Nobel to recognise those whose endeavours peacefully bring the nations of the world closer together. In 1990 the Polish people elected him as their President.
Leader of Solidarity, Nobel Laureate, and President of Poland: for so many of us, Lech Walesa’s name became synonymous with our deepest yearnings and longings for true freedom and an end to tyranny.
Many of us gathered here in this Metropolitan Cathedral are of a generation whose parents and their relatives served in the armed forces or gave their lives in a conflict precipitated in 1939 by the Nazi invasion of Poland; and, poignantly, there are still among us a gallant few who participated in those terrible events.
Like so much of your beloved Poland, sir, this City of Liverpool sustained huge aerial bombardment and loss of civilian life during enemy raids. Merseyside’s shipyards and docks – crucial to the Battle of the Atlantic and our survival – were remorselessly pounded but never submitted. Liverpool’s narrative and its people’s characteristics will be celebrated next year on the 800th anniversary of the granting of our City’s charter. There is much in its story and its history, much in its tenacity and grit, much in its fortitude and faith, that will remind you of the suffering and endurance of your beloved Poles and especially of the workers of Gdansk.
There are many links between Poland and Liverpool. A quarter of a century ago many of us gathered in this great basilica to greet your countryman, Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. That visit is celebrated by the great tapestry which is part of the backdrop today. He famously said: “Whenever men exploit the weak; whenever the rich take advantage of the poor; whenever great powers seek to dominate and impose ideologies, there the work of making peace is undone; there the cathedral of peace is destroyed.”
It is not difficult to see how these same teachings inspired and shaped so much of your own outlook.
Today, in the aftermath of Poland’s accession to the European Union, our links are being further deepened. In addition to the ex-patriot Poles who stayed and settled here in the aftermath of World War Two, there is a flourishing community of Polish workers bringing their know-how and skills to our region. There are also Polish students among our 25,000-strong student body at Liverpool John Moores University. Their commitment to their studies and their determination to create a successful future is a credit to them and their families.
Physically, our commercial, social, and cultural links with your country are deepening daily. There is now a direct air link between Warsaw and Liverpool and between Liverpool and Gdansk – whose airport was re-named in 2004 in honour of Lech Walesa. At the time he quipped: “When I first heard of the idea, I asked myself shouldn’t I die first?” Happily, that was not considered a necessary requirement.
Along with our air links our maritime links are considerable. Gdansk is the Polish maritime capital and its origins date from AD 980. Liverpool’s maritime history is well known and is celebrated in our city’s claim to be “the whole world in one city”. Gdansk is a similarly cultural melting pot celebrating diversity and internationalism.
In 2008, Liverpool will celebrate its most recent achievement of being designated European Capital of Culture. I know that Liverpool people like George and Gosia McKane – who have their own marital British-Polish alliance – will, through their Yellow House project – be seeking to further strengthen our cultural links. We are indebted to them for facilitating our initial contact with you.
This historic visit will further entrench that relationship and as they study your life and the turbulent times in which you have lived I do not doubt that many will be inspired to become more active citizens. In every generation there are dragons: seemingly daunting tasks to perform, impossible odds to overcome. Your story should be a spur to those who feel powerless or excluded, trampled on or forgotten. That is one of the deep impulses of our university’s Foundation for Citizenship and represented a few minutes ago by the children who received the good citizenship awards which you presented. It’s about learning how to take a stand; how to make a difference.
Our students should be inspired by your personal story.
The son of a carpenter Lech Walesa was brought up in Popowa. As he has himself observed: “My youth passed at the time of the country’s reconstruction from the ruins and ashes of the war in which my nation never bowed to the enemy paying the highest price in the struggle…These were years of many wrongs, degradations and lost illusions. I was barely 13 years old when, in June 1956, the desperate struggle of the workers of Poznan for bread and freedom was suppressed in blood….The memory of my fellow workers who then lost their lives, the bitter memory of violence and despair has become for me a lesson never to be forgotten.”
After graduating from a vocational technical school – very much a part of the traditions of this university – Lech Walesa worked as a car mechanic before serving for two years in the army. In 1967 he went to work in the Gdansk shipyards as an electrician before, two years later, marrying Danuta Galos.
As early as 1970, in the years when Poland had exchanged Nazism for Soviet totalitarianism, he was detained following a clash between the workers and the communist government. Inscribed on the monument erected at the entrance to the Gdansk Shipyard in memory of those who
Were killed in December 1970 are the words of the Psalm: “The Lord will give His people the blessing of peace”. It would take an epic struggle of biblical proportions for those blessings to become manifest. Lech Walesa never wavered although he must have often wondered what trials awaited him.
In 1976, because of his activities as a shop steward, he was arbitrarily dismissed and the family was plunged into penury as he sought one temporary job after another.
In 1978 Lech Walesa began to work with others in organising the country’s first free non-communist trades union. He became increasingly involved in direct action and protests and the notorious secret services kept him under continuous surveillance and regularly detained him.
Then on August 14th, 1980, the 37-year-old electrician took a series of actions which would change history. Lech Walesa first scaled a wall of the Lenin Shipyard a began a strike. Within days this would lead to the closure of factories all over Poland and would ultimately lead to the end of the Cold War, lead to the liberation of millions of people well beyond the borders of the Polish state, and lead to the re-configuration of European and global political dynamics.
During that period I led a number of human rights missions to Eastern Europe. A favourite sentiment of many of those who wanted to see change was scrawled in the memorable graffiti slogan: “If not now, when? If not us who?” It took real courage to answer those questions in the affirmative: to believe you were the man or woman and that this was the favoured time.
Many paid a terrible price; some, like Lech Walesa’s countryman, Jerzy Popieluszko, the ultimate one. Popieluszko had presided over many public masses during the rise of Solidarity. Consistently he urged his listeners – Solidarity’s numbers were approaching some 10 million people by the peak – to refuse to be goaded into violence. He said:
“Do not struggle with violence. Violence is a sign of weakness. All those who cannot win through the heart try to conquer through violence. The most wonderful and durable struggles in history have been carried on by human thought. The most ignoble fights and most ephemeral successes are those of violence. An idea which needs rifles to survive dies of its own accord. An idea which is imposed by violence collapses under it. An idea capable of life wins without effort and is then followed by millions of people.”
Popieluszko was appointed by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski as chaplain to the steel worker in Warsaw and became a central spiritual advisor to many who followed Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement. The price he paid was brutal murder. 400,000 Poles attended his funeral in 1984.
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall the stories of those who suffered the real heat of persecution for their political or religious beliefs became known. We called it a Cold War but for men like Lech Walesa or Alexander Ogorodnikov – a Russian dissident who spent 8 years in prison and whose moving testimony some of you will have heard at a meeting I chaired in the Crypt of this Cathedral some 15 years ago; or Martha and Vladimir Slepak, two Russian Jews whom I was able to bring to Greenbank Synagogue after their release from the Soviet Union – it was not a Cold War but one in which they suffered in the furnaces.
In “The Gulag Archipelago” Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes the corrupt and evil nature of the edifice which Stalin and his cohorts had constructed. He says of this society: “There is – only a wall. And its bricks are laid on a mortar of lies…There is no law. The same treacherous secrecy, the same fog of injustice, still hangs in our air, worse than the smoke of city chimneys. For half a century and more the enormous state has towered over us, girded with hoops of steel. The hoops are still there. There is no law.”
During the dark days of the 1980s – the drama of which many of us followed in our newspapers on a daily basis – ordinary people began to unpick the bricks on which that edifice of lies had been constructed. And they paid a price.
In their defence of Solidarity, some lost their freedom; some were sentenced to prison terms or were held for months without trial; some paid the highest price: the price of life.
During those bleak times the name Lech Walesa became synonymous with the deepest human desires for freedom. As the Strike Coordination Committee evolved into Solidarnosc we waited with baited breath to see whether, like the uprising in Hungary in 1956 or the Prague Spring of 1968, Russian tanks would once again roll and Solidarity’s flickering light would be snuffed out.
Driven into an underground existence by the totalitarian regime of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the movement resisted the attempts to crush it. A new strike and the 1988 occupation of the Gdansk shipyard forced the Polish Government to give Solidarity legal status and to permit the first limited free elections. The Warsaw Pact would never recover.
Walesa said of those years: “During the 15 months of Solidarity’s legal existence nobody was killed or wounded as a result of its activities. Our movement expanded by leaps and bounds…Solidarity grew into a powerful movement for social and moral liberation.” He went on to quote his friend, John Paul II: “The working man is not a mere tool of production, but he is the subject which throughout the process of production takes precedence over the capital. He is ready for sacrifices if he feels that he is a real partner and has a say in the just division of what has been produced by common effort.” But Walesa lamented: “It is, however, precisely this feeling that we lack.”
For those of privileged to travel in Poland at that time there was a fevered atmosphere of endless activity, of brinkmanship, of steely courage and nerve. As Vaclaw Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic, correctly observed, when Solidarity was born 26-years ago, “The events in Poland had a definite influence on future changes here and in other countries from the Communist bloc.”
Solidarity’s final victory, in 1989, was not the end of the struggle.
In 1942, after the Battle of El Alamein, Winston Churchill said of our own nation’s fight against tyranny:
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the election of a free Polish Government, the subsequent game of grandmother’s footsteps played out across Europe and which led all the way to Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin, was also the end of the beginning. It was greatly to Gorbachev’s credit that he was no longer prepared to military force to keep communist parties in satellite states in power but it was to Walesa’s and Solidarity’s credit that the Kremlin had become convinced that the military solution was no longer an option.
Think for a moment about the genocide in the former Yugoslavia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, or the continuing dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s Moscow-backed dictator, and you will quickly appreciate that the transformation and renewal of Europe has not been without suffering and is by no means complete even now.
In the face of tyranny it is worth recalling Lech Walesa’s own words when he received the Nobel Peace Prize:“We desire peace – and that is why we have never resorted to physical force. We crave for justice – and that is why we are so persistent in the struggle for our rights. We seek freedom of convictions – and that is why we have never attempted to enslave man’s conscience nor shall we ever attempt to do so… We respect the dignity and the rights of every nation.”
Lech Walesa has continued to be honoured by those who understand his central significance in these momentous events.
In 1989 he became the third person in history, after the Marquis de Lafayette and Winston Churchill, to address a joint session of the United States Congress. In December 1990 he was elected for five years as President of Poland. He has been honoured with honorary degrees by many universities, including Harvard and the University of Paris. He is the recipient of the European Award of Human Rights and the Italian Grand Order of Merit. He is a Knight of the Order of the Polish White Eagle and he was raised to the status of Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath by Her Majesty the Queen. He is a recipient of the French Grand Cross of the Legion d’Honneur and many other decorations.
Among his publications are “A Path of Hope”, “The Road to Freedom”, “The Struggle and the Triumph”, and “Everything I do, I do for Poland.” Ten years ago he established the Lech Walesa Institute Foundation which seeks to safeguard Polish national heritage and the tradition of independence and solidarity as well as consolidating democracy and the free market economy in Poland, as well as permanently integrating Poland into European structures.
And what more might we briefly say about Lech Walesa – the man?
Among his interests are crossword puzzles and a love of fishing – although I doubt that very often you would have seen the words “Gone Fishing” on the door of his frenetically busy office. In between all of his other activities he and Danuta have found time to rear four daughters and four sons.
A man who has lived though such turbulent times might be indelibly scarred by those experiences. Lech Walesa has emerged with integrity and even humour in tact.
During Margaret Thatcher’s visit to Gdansk in 1988 the Prime Minister met with Lech Walesa and asked him how he intended to convey Solidarity’s thinking to the Polish Government: Walesa laughed, pointed to the ceiling, and replied: “There’s no trouble. They have got this meeting bugged.”
Last year he joked with his successor as Polish President – a former communist – “We can forge a trade union for former presidents of Poland.”
“I’m in favour” Mr Kwasniewski replied: “but I think I know who is going to be chairman.”
Vice Chancellor, Lech Walesa has said that he will be an active citizen, taking part in public affairs “until they nail down the lid of my coffin.” We hope that day is far off and doubtless there will be many chairs to fill before then.
It is with great pleasure that I present him to you for the conferment of an honorary fellowship.
18th January 2023. House of Lords. Lord Alton of...