By 1984, Lech Walesa was an icon. A Polish shipyard electrician with modest farming roots, he had come from nowhere to inspire a workers’ revolt that brought communism to its knees. He was discussed by statesmen in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing. He had demonstrated the power of religious faith, and had privately met with Pope John Paul II. The way he cut his mustache had become fashionable. The blood-soaked logo of his Solidarity trade union sold T-shirts in Paris, Tokyo, and Los Angeles. Western publications had named him “Man of the Year.” The rock band U2 had dedicated a song to him. He had played himself in a movie made by Poland’s greatest director, Andrzej Wajda. He had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He had served an 11-month jail term for his fight for freedom. On release, he had turned down a cynical attempt by the regime to co-opt him into their dictatorship. Instead, he had returned to his children and to his wife, to his church and to his humble day job. He was an everyman and yet he was a superman. He was the salt of the earth and yet he had changed the world.
That same year, at his little flat in Gdansk, Walesa shared a bear hug and a celebratory bottle of champagne with a visitor many people today will find surprising. It was none other than the openly bisexual pop star and gay-rights campaigner (now Sir) Elton John. Nearly two decades later, Walesa’s once impregnable reputation outside of Poland is in ruins, because of his comments about gay people.
“They have to know that they are a minority and must adjust to smaller things. And not rise to the greatest heights, the greatest hours, the greatest provocations, spoiling things for the others and taking from the majority,” he said in a recent television interview. He argued that gay people do not have the right to sit on the most prominent seats in Parliament and, if represented at all, should sit “closer to the wall or even behind the wall.”
“A minority should not impose itself on the majority,” Walesa added. “I don’t want this minority—with whom I don’t agree, but tolerate and understand—to demonstrate in the streets and twist the heads of my children and grandchildren.”
Though Poland is steeped in Catholic tradition, it is also going through spectacular social change, which appears to have left Walesa in the 20th century. Openly gay celebrities appear on television every day, gay nightclubs are a feature of every big city, and in 2010 Poland was the first country in eastern Europe to host the Europride demonstration (for days after, gay couples walked hand in hand through central Warsaw). In 2011, Poles elected their first openly gay M.P., Robert Biedrón, who was previously a gay-rights campaigner. In the same election, Poland became the first country in European history to elect a transsexual M.P., Anna Grodzka (previously known as Krzysztof Begowski). Walesa’s remarks were made in the context of a failed civil partnerships bill.
They might have gone unnoticed if they had been said in the more conservative Poland of the 1990s. But this month, condemnation from Polish public figures has been immediate and fierce. Walesa “disgraced the Nobel prize,” said Monika Olejnik, one of Poland’s most prominent journalists. A pressure group filed a complaint with prosecutors in Walesa’s hometown of Gdansk, alleging “propaganda of hate against a sexual minority.” Biedrón, the M.P., asked: “If we accept the rules proposed by Lech Walesa, then where would blacks sit? They are also a minority.” (Poles have elected two African-born M.P.s out of their black community of just 5,000.) A public-opinion survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose Walesa’s position. In Parliament, in pointed defiance of Walesa, lawmakers with front-row seats gave up their places for Grodzka and Biedrón.
One of Walesa’s eight children, Jaroslaw, is a representative at the European Parliament in Brussels, and spoke about his father in an interview with Newsweek. He said he had a long conversation with Walesa on March 9. “I told my father, with respect, that what he said was wrong, and we’ve agreed to disagree on this subject,” he said.
The controversy has gone global, as have demands for an apology. But Walesa is defiant. “I will not apologize to anyone,” he said in an interview quoted by CNN. “All I said [was] that minorities, which I respect, should not have the right to impose their views on the majority. I think most of Poland is behind me.” He also stated that he does not “feel homophobic.”
It would be easy to assume that Walesa might be losing his judgment because of old age (he is 69). But the incident illustrates a profound truth about Walesa’s personality that was there from the start. He is a man driven by impulse more than by reason. He reacts with his heart, not with his head. This is the key to his greatness—and also to his notoriety. If he had been a more thoughtful man, he never would have scaled the fence of the Gdansk shipyard in 1980. The risk he took could easily have led to his own death. Instead, it led to nationwide strikes, free trade unions, and eventually Poland’s negotiated overthrow of communism at the “roundtable” talks of 1989.
Walesa is a man driven by impulse more than reason. He reacts with his heart, not with his head. This is the key to his greatness—and also to his notoriety.
Adam Zamoyski, the New York-born Polish historian, told Newsweek: “What gave Walesa the courage and conviction that won him the sympathy and support of every worker in Poland and millions worldwide, and by the same token terrified the Soviet apparat, was that he was an uneducated worker who spoke his mind. To expect of him Madison Avenue sophistication is plain silly.”
Outsiders are often surprised to hear that Walesa already lost his unblemished, heroic status in Poland around 20 years ago. Shortly after he was elected president in 1990, Walesa demonstrated the behavior of a man whose previously vital self-confidence had become self-defeating. He used his authority as president to initiate frequent changes of government (Poland is a parliamentary democracy in which executive power is held in the legislative assembly and checked by the head of state). In what became known as Walesa’s “war at the top,” he set representatives against each other and oversaw the changeover of five prime ministers in five years. All the while he made little attempt to appear presidential, and he spoke in public like a caricature of a bullying trade union representative. Personal attacks and public humiliation were standard. He referred to himself in the third person.
It is no coincidence that he did all this with the knowledge that he entered office as the politician who had secured the most votes. According to simple arithmetic, he was the majority. So he felt justified in pushing around parliamentarians in small parties, each one of which was clearly in a minority. After all, it had been Walesa who had motivated the people, the majority, to overthrow the dictatorship—a minority.
Konstanty Gebert, a Solidarity veteran and Jewish activist who was with Walesa at the historic roundtable talks, told Newsweek that he witnessed the man’s iconic status disintegrating as early as 1990. “I remember drinking vodka shots with a group of workers in Warsaw, and wanting us to see the TV because President Walesa was on,” he told Newsweek in an interview. “They told me to shut up and drink. They were already ashamed of him, he was still one of them but they felt his behavior was showing them up.”
Gebert characterized Walesa as a man who has never taken words seriously, but for understandable reasons. First, the communist Poland Walesa grew up in was a place where words did not make sense: official words were lies, while lying was a method ordinary people used for survival. Second, Walesa “had a conviction that he stood up for freedom with his actions and not his words—he can say, ‘Look at what I did and not what I said’ and he’d be right.”
“What he said about gay people is wholly unacceptable, and he deserves every kick in the ass that he gets for this,” Gebert said. “He’s not evil and he might even not be deeply homophobic, but he needs to be shown that words have consequences, and one needs to be responsible for them.”
The first big knock to Walesa’s global reputation came in the early days of Polish democracy, when he remarked that Jewish politicians should disclose their identity. It gave the impression that he thought Jews must have something to hide. “I’m rather sure he didn’t actually think that, but it didn’t stop him from making that comment, for domestic political convenience,” Gebert said.
At the time, Walesa pointed to his record of friendliness with the Jewish community and tried to explain that he had made the comment to encourage a minority to display more pride about its identity in public. He said: “The worst possible thing is to hide. The society and the masses react in the worst possible way to hiding.”
In Gebert’s view, Walesa’s problem is that he was right, too many times, consecutively. He did not make a single major blunder during the opposition years of the 1980s, after which he went straight into office. For years he had followed his gut instincts, sometimes ignoring the intellectuals around him, and every time he was proven to have done right. “So that became a habit, and it carried on after the world changed in 1989,” Gebert said. “He became someone who is willing to say whatever comes into his head and then sticks to it, even if he knows it’s wrong.”
It was during his stormy presidency that Walesa fell out with several close allies, including the twins Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski (Walesa fired them both in 1992). Unluckily for Walesa, they became prime minister and president, respectively, in the 2000s. Their apparent grudge against him is said to be behind Walesa’s biggest reputational burden to date—the reoccurring allegation that he worked as an agent for Poland’s secret police in the 1970s.
In 2008, Polish historians Slawomir Cenckiewicz and Piotr Gontarczyk published a book containing what they said was evidence of his collaboration in the years 1970 to 1976, as an informant with the codename of “Bolek.” The book included minutes from police interviews, registration cards, and notes provided by the informant. The authors argued that there are reasons to believe the files were not forged, and that Bolek caused real damage to 20 of his colleagues. The authors also said that during Walesa’s presidency, he accessed classified secret police files on his past and left a date and signature with the note: “I have borrowed this file.” The historians say that officers in Poland’s new intelligence agency recorded that some of the documents were returned incomplete.
Walesa has always disputed these allegations, and that he was agent Bolek. He agrees that he did have meetings with the secret police (given that Walesa was an activist for workers’ rights, it would be strange if they hadn’t interrogated him). He denies, however, that he ever gave the regime what it wanted.
In turn, the credibility of the historians has been questioned because of their alleged ties with the Kaczynski twins. The book was published during the presidency of Lech Kaczynski, who supported its thesis. In 2009, Walesa sued Kaczynski for damages—but five months later the president was killed in the Smolensk air crash.
Whatever the truth, it is difficult to question Walesa’s integrity after 1976, when he brazenly stood up against the regime time and time again. He also declined an offer to front a puppet trade union after his release from prison in November 1982. It is important to remember that the major turning point in Walesa’s life came in 1970, when at least 42 of his shipyard-worker colleagues were shot dead by the authorities at strikes protesting rises in food prices. Walesa had been one of the organizers of the protests, and saw the bloodshed firsthand. It is hard to see why he would have then helped the regime that nearly killed him.
Walesa’s reputation remains so contentious that Wajda, the director, decided to make a biopic to set the record straight (postproduction keeps getting extended; it is currently due for release this autumn). The film’s Polish-American screenwriter, Janusz Glowacki, told Newsweek in an interview: “We tried to show the phenomenon of how it’s possible that a simple man who, completely unprepared, in three days became one of the most known people in the world.”
Glowacki said that this is a character full of paradoxes and contradictions. For him, Walesa is simple and stubborn as well as brave and charismatic. “Being stubborn and brave was priceless during the fight to overthrow communism, but now it’s sometimes a problem,” Glowacki commented. “He fought for freedom and democracy, without fully understanding what it means. That the heart of democracy is equal rights for everyone.”
On Walesa’s most recent gaffe, Glowacki commented: “It seems that Walesa listens too much to those Catholic priests who still believe that homosexuals are evil and will be fried by devils in hell.”
Walesa’s son, Jaroslaw, told Newsweek that his father’s views on homosexuality are more nuanced. The main objection, it seems, is that tolerance parades in Poland have been revealing more naked flesh than he would like children to be exposed to. He said his father also cannot accept campaigns for minority rights dominating public discourse because they distract from broader concerns, like the health of the economy.
“He does not care about other people’s sexuality. It doesn’t bother him. He believes gay people are entitled to rights. My father has gay friends,” he said. Walesa’s son recalled his childhood memory of the visit by Elton John to the family’s home, and that it was an entirely friendly occasion.
He also accepted that his father’s reputation is as paradoxical and ironic as ever: “I’m full of pride that what my father achieved in the fight to end communism directly led to the incomparably more tolerant Poland that we have today. Whether he likes it or not, Lech Walesa enabled minority rights to flourish in a free and democratic Poland.”
From our April 12, 2013, issue; A Polish Icon’s Ugly Fall.