The speaker was a friend of Lech Walesa, someone who had worked with the fiery patriarch of Solidarity through the heady days in which the 38-year-old former electrician forged the free trade union movement in Poland. After the Dec. 13 government crackdown, the words were inarguable: Walesa's fellow union leaders were interned, channels of communication were cut off, and martial law prevailed throughout Poland. The newly established Military Council for National Salvation, headed by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, had sequestered Walesa himself at a Warsaw rest house for "talks" with the government.
The charismatic but unlettered Walesa (who by his own admission has never read a book) has survived by his wits before. But the world wondered whether the movement he inspired could endure. In 16 months, by alternating confrontation and compromise, Walesa had wrung startling concessions from the Communist government, liberalizing nearly all aspects of life in Poland. Throughout the tense haggling, the Soviets stood ready to intervene.
Walesa emerged in August 1980 when strikes for an independent labor union shut down the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. Unemployed and viewed as a troublemaker by the Communists (he says he was arrested 100 times for labor agitation), Walesa scaled a fence one day in time to hear a boss urging 2,000 workers to return to their jobs. Walesa elbowed his way through the crowd and, as he recounts the incident, floored the speaker with one quick punch. "I became their leader," he told Oriana Fallaci in an insightful interview last spring, "and I still am."
Before Walesa, labor unrest was mostly a series of spontaneous strikes protesting the scarcity and high price of food. With spellbinding oratory and natural savvy, Walesa molded that rage into a powerful mass movement encompassing nearly 10 million Poles. "This moment needs a guy like me," Walesa exclaimed, but he apparently seeks no political power. "In myself I am nothing," he has noted. "It all comes from God and the Virgin Mary." A devout Catholic, he wears a likeness of Poland's patron, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, in his lapel and seldom misses morning Mass. In fact, he has his own chaplain who travels with him and serves as an adviser.
Calling himself "uncouth" and "less than an intellectual," Walesa is a master politician, though he disdains political parties and has no more comprehensive ideology than unionism. "I refuse to express myself with their words, their labels—left and right, socialism and capitalism," he told Fallaci. "I say, if it serves the people, it is good; if it doesn't serve the people, it is bad." Walesa is a master of the gesture that speaks volumes—like signing the agreement that ended the Gdansk strike on Aug. 31, 1980 with a giant souvenir pen from the Vatican. But until now his greatest ability—and the one that saved Solidarity so many times—was his instinct for stopping just short of going too far. "Freedom must be gained step by step, slowly," he observed. "Freedom is a food which must be carefully administered when people are too hungry for it."
Throughout the summer, as Poland's economic plight worsened, Walesa struggled to keep Solidarity's extremists from enraging the government, once even threatening to resign in the face of an insurrection of hotheaded union leaders. Still, despite his moderating influence, Walesa surely knew that the day of reckoning between Solidarity and the government was inevitable, even before the events of December. He understood that jousting with a totalitarian government is a dangerous business. "People always ask me, 'Lech, aren't you afraid of being killed?' " Walesa told Fallaci. "And as an answer I shrug my shoulders.... They killed my best friend, they might kill me. I'm a fatalist. If it must happen, it will happen. And I will go to paradise."