Documents hidden in the home of Poland’s last communist-era interior minister seem to indicate that in the 1970s, before he became the beguiling and charismatic leader of a mass movement that would eventually topple communism in his country, Lech Walesa was an informant for the communist security services. While assertions concerning Walesa’s alleged collaboration with the secret police have circulated in Poland for years, a note found among the documents strongly suggests their authenticity—in it, the late police general writes that he was hiding evidence in order to protect the reputation of the Polish democracy icon. Walesa, however, continues to vociferously insist the papers are forgeries.
Walesa’s fall from grace, though preceded by his largely ineffective 1990s-era presidency, has sent shockwaves through Poland and grabbed front-page headlines. Outside Poland, the news has done damage to the country’s international image as one that emerged from the ruins of authoritarianism thanks to a noble group of authentic heroes, Walesa among them. And along with the ascendance of a new, right-wing government, it has exposed Polish politics for what, in truth, it has been since the fall of communism: less a black-and-white contest between communist immorality and heroic virtue, and more a typical democratic system led by flawed individuals rendered in shades of gray.
Let it be said that there is nothing in the evidence to suggest Walesa was acting as an agent of the communist state during the period in which he gained his heroic reputation. The documents include a note allegedly signed by Walesa in which he promises not to divulge his cooperation with the secret police. But they purport only to confirm that, at what was presumably a moment of weakness, Walesa succumbed to police threats and blackmail, and from 1970 to 1976, informed on worker activists in Poland’s then-underground democratic opposition movement.
But it wasn’t until August 1980, after an outbreak of strikes against food-price hikes, that Walesa took his famous leap over the wall surrounding the Gdansk shipbuilding plant to lead a strike of the workers inside. After that, and with great skill, he led a labor union that became something more: the symbol of the national will that united 10 million Poles and was a voice for Poland’s aspirations for cultural, economic, and political freedom. In short, Walesa became the pivotal figure in the events that shook the entire Soviet bloc.
In those days, Walesa exhibited leadership, wit, and the capacity to work with a diverse team of advisors—characteristics that would decay as his arrogance grew during his five years as president, from 1990 to 1995, when he fell out with most of his former union colleagues.
But in 1980 and 1981, his shrewd instinct and willingness to enlist Poland’s best minds in the cause of freedom served the country well. Without Walesa as a unifying leader, Poland’s Solidarity might not have developed from a trade union into the mass phenomenon that could foster nearly a decade of fierce resistance and lead to the collapse of Poland’s one-party communist state. The Solidarity revolution was led largely by educated and skilled workers in alliance with intellectuals. But its bedrock was the lathe workers, the stevedores, the miners, and the railwaymen who could shut down the self-declared workers’ state. And it was Walesa, an electrician with a common touch, who could communicate with them in plainspoken Polish. It was Walesa who could give them focus. It was Walesa who commanded their loyalty and confidence. For these reasons, his historic role cannot be challenged.
I observed his skills and his occasional flights of unique thinking at close range as assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO trade union confederation, which provided crucial support to the Solidarity union. In 1981, I attended Solidarity’s first national conferences and tracked the movement’s growth. Then I watched its near-destruction when the communist government cracked down on the movement in December of that year, arresting many of its leaders, including Walesa, and ultimately banning Solidarity entirely. After that, I worked with a handful of Polish union leaders who were outside the country when martial law was declared—and thereby became unwilling temporary exiles—to build a network of assistance for the burgeoning underground movement.
After a decade of persistent mass protests and industrial strikes; a dramatic visit to his homeland by the first Polish pope, John Paul II; and because of the effect of Western sanctions on the communist government, Solidarity had by 1989 broken the back of the very Polish security state that Walesa had briefly and secretly served. In November of 1989, I had the privilege of arranging his triumphant U.S. visit and witnessing his stirring speech to a joint session of Congress. In D.C. and Chicago, to the pique of the Bush I White House, Walesa spent most of his time in the company of members of the U.S. labor movement, which had seen in him the hope of organized labor: a worker committed to democracy. A blue-collar hero.
This is why it is painful to witness his fall, to see him stand naked before the court of harsh judgment, diminished as much by his unconvincing denials as by his actual, fundamentally modest, betrayals.
Still, Walesa’s struggle is a less a personal tragedy than an important cultural event: a reminder that Poland has been blessed by nearly three decades of what looked like good news. Now the country’s image is slowly regressing to the mean. A heroic people are revealing themselves as an ordinary, flawed nation, in thrall to material pursuits, fearful of a wave of immigrants, anxious about their place in the economic firmament.
In truth, Poland’s fall from grace came early. Walesa’s presidency saw him alienate many of his best advisors and replace them with his card-playing, incompetent sidekicks. The economic difficulties inherent in the transition from a statist economy contributed to a loss of faith in the worker-leader, shattering the solidarity (lower-case) of the unified democratic opposition, and allowing the representatives of the old communist order to come back into power in 1993.
It was this expulsion from Eden by Poland’s voters in the aftermath of radical economic changes that led Adam Michnik, the Polish journalist and intellectual turned reluctant media mogul, to argue that “Gray is Beautiful,” that moral ambiguity and moral compromise are part of the give and take of democracy. At the time, his article was an apologia for the comeback of the ex-communists, a result that few could foresee in 1989 when Poland’s democratic forces swept to power in democratic elections. Still Michnik was fundamentally right. The country had unwittingly entered the gray world, with an ex-communist president, Aleksandr Kwasniewski, upholding democratic values and guiding Poland into NATO.
Michnik’s celebration of gray applies, as well, to the current Walesa scandal as to contemporary Polish politics. It makes clear that the glare of a free and often skeptical, if not cynical, media, and the emergence of unfiltered truth that is a characteristic of democracy, is often unkind to politicians, who, like all of us, are sinners.
Still, it has been hard for Poland and the democratic world to rid themselves of the myth of the Polish nation’s pure resistance to communism and of a pure politics rooted in the values of that movement. After all, Poland’s Solidarity “was against violence. It was anti-utopian when it came to political ends. And it was geopolitically realistic, aware of where Poland is on the map,” as Michnik told a group of analysts in 2010. Truly Poles had, with pure intentions, created a noble movement that used nonviolent means to defeat a monstrous regime, and they had constructed a dynamic and free society. They entered mature European institutions, showed restraint in politics, and experienced impressive economic growth. There was heft to the myth.
But Poland has experienced numerous blows in recent years, with a ruling liberal elite that represented sweeping modernization and Europeanization becoming caught up in scandal and corruption before being ejected from government by the right-wing Law and Justice Party in November 2015. Poland’s new government moved quickly to replace liberal news anchors and talk-show hosts on state media with conservative voices. At the same time, the new leadership also replaced five justices on the Constitutional Court, who they argued had been illegally appointed by the previous parliament in its waning days in office.
It is important to remember, however, that the lesson in gray applies not only in the case of Walesa, but also to the overheated reaction that has accompanied these changes, which have been painted in black as fundamental assaults on freedom and democracy. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, for example, warned that “events in Poland have taken a very ugly turn,” and asserted that the country’s new leadership “appears to be bringing back Soviet-style censorship.” The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl has sounded similar alarms, devoting a column to “Poland’s disturbing tilt to the right” in which he warned: “Watch Warsaw.”
The reality is that the changes in Poland introduced by the current ruling party are part of the same gray palette that has colored the Polish scene for decades. While in Warsaw recently, I got a less harsh read of events when I participated in an off-the-record colloquy of around a dozen leaders of Poland’s most respected think tanks. The message was clear: The actions of the Law and Justice government in the realm of state media are not fundamentally different from that of past liberal governments to staff TV and radio with their adherents and allies. The recent tumult in Poland’s Constitutional Court, too, must been seen as much as a reaction to the last government’s attempt to pack the court as any effort to erode judicial powers. Above all, the message from the vast majority of the think tankers to EU bureaucrats and U.S. diplomats was this: “This is Poland’s internal discourse. We Poles have the means to handle it ourselves.” It was a reminder that Polish democracy is resilient, in part because of Solidarity’s tradition of protest and self-organization.
Poland, then, is gray not only because it is diminished, if only slightly, by Lech Walesa’s partial downfall. It is gray because no movement in a democracy can claim a monopoly on virtue or the truth. It is gray because of the back and forth of democratic discourse, which is not the black and white of repression versus freedom. And this, in the end, is a healthy gray.
Let Poles, then, think in gray, and let outsiders not look for avatars of perfection in its politicians. Those viewing Poland from the outside should remember that even when these avatars have fallen, what remains in their place is a remarkable set of men and women across the political spectrum, who were once part of a vast movement that changed the world and made it possible for us to think in shades of ambiguity and ambivalence.