Former President of Poland, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
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Lech Wałęsa, Former President of Poland, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Lech Wałęsa was born in Poland on September 29, 1943. He started his professional career by working as an electrician in the shipyards of Gdansk. Due to poor working conditions, he began to become politically active in 1970 and, after illegal engagements, was a member of the illegal strike committee at the Gdansk shipyard in 1980. After the bloody suppression of the strike, in which over 80 workers were killed, he was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for "anti-social behavior." After further imprisonments and even more illegal engagements, he was blacklisted, lost his job, found himself under house arrest on a recurring basis, and had to live on allowances from his friends.
After occupying the Gdansk shipyard, Wałęsa scaled the shipyard wall in August 1980, was appointed strike leader, and managed to get workers all over Poland to spontaneously follow the Gdansk example and stop working. In the same year, he was elected president of Solidarność, a trade union that was initially illegal. He kept this post until December 1981, until Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law and Wałęsa was interned near the Russian border until November 1982.
The U.S. magazine Time named him Man of the Year in 1982, finally bringing developments in Poland to worldwide media attention, and the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter and the Danish newspaper Politiken dedicated their Freedom Award, worth 50,000 Swedish crowns, to Wałęsa for his commitment to democracy.
In 1983, Wałęsa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which his wife had to accept and whose prize money of 1.5 million Swedish crowns he donated to the Polish Bishops' Conference. After further imprisonments, he founded the illegal "Solidarność Executive Committee" in 1987, and in the following years organized repeated strikes that swept the whole country in several waves. In live televised discussions with the chairman of the state trade union confederation, Wałęsa won with jokes and quick-wittedness, paving the way for the "Round Table Agreement" in 1989 as a precursor to the later government.
After the collapse of the regime and the fall of the Iron Curtain, Lech Wałęsa was elected president of a democratic Poland from 1990 to 1995, paving the way for a country shaped by the principles of a market economy, where he has since acted as a dedicated admonisher, guardian and fighter for freedom and the rule of law.