A Path of Hope: Walesa by Lech Walesa (Collins Harvill £12.95)
THE Polish people's recent referendum vote of no confidence in the Jaruzelski government's promises of economic and political reform appeared to confirm that the free trade union movement, Solidarity — brutally suppressed by martial law six years ago — is by no means a spent force. The ideals, if not the structures of the movement survive — pulsing away beneath the surface calm of life in Poland today. If nothing is done to satisfy the basic needs and aspirations of the people, says Lech Welesa, Solidarity's chairman, in his concluding chapter, Solidarity will be reborn — "whether it's in a day or in ten years".
However, even Walesa can't be sure whether the Soviets would have invaded if, instead of declaring martial law on December 12, 1981, General Jaruzelski had opted instead for a real dialogue with the leaders of Solidarity and the Church and a
genuine move to implement the blueprint for reform agreed by government and people at Gdansk in August 1980. On his way to internment that was to last a year, Walesa was briefly among the Generals in Warsaw, just after the coup took place. He found them apologetic and embarassed. "We had no choice," they said. "You know what it's like." But failing access to the Kremlin archives, we may never know.
If it solves no mysteries, Walesa's book — smuggled out and published first in French — is still a fascinating human document, offering not only a moving insight into the mind and heart of a man who, literally, had "greatness thrust upon him", but also telling us much about the Polish national psyche. In 40 years of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, there has been nobody quite like Walesa — electrician extraordinary — and leader of a nationwide, peaceful protest movement which, in 500 days above ground, set in motion an alternative society beyond the range of guns and tanks.
"The people had tasted freedom, Walesa writes, "the cornerstone of Polish hopes had been laid; now we had to bide our time." Solidarity was neither willing nor able to fight force with force, which is why, in Walesa's view, its final triumph is assured. It also helps to explain the failure of the regime's attempts to break its leader's spirit, to discredit him by smear campaigns and turn him into a non-person.
He still commands a loyal following and the authorities' grudging respect, however much they harass him. To this day, we see him on our TV screens at the window of his flat, his eighth child cradled in his left arm and the right upraised to make a V-sign. He also continues to speak his mind.
Without pretention or flamboyance, he depicts his childhood and youth, tracing the growth of a social conscience, fired by the appalling conditions in the Gdansk shipyards, the bloody suppression of the Christmas 1970 riots and the shabby make-believe of Gierek's Poland in the 1970s. It was what he describes as "the disaster" of 1970, when Poles opened fire on
Poles, together with his own harsh initiation into the trials of leadership, which impelled him to join with others in seeking a totally new approach to the problem of how to give Poles a real voice in their own affairs.
Political realism, caution and moderation were the keynotes of his style — sustained by a robust faith in God and himself. He admits to being a "loner" and occasionally arrogant. For some of his more radical colleagues he was "too human, too conciliatory, too ready for compromise. "The broad masses of the workers, however, responded to his exuberant charisma, knowing him at heart to be one of themselves.
He seems instinctively to have understood and emulated the strategy of the Church in Poland, in struggling to preserve a position of independent authority. As a result, he sometimes found himself, as he says, between the hammer and the anvil, attempting to mediate between government and workers. With typical modesty, he allows others to comment frankly on the highlights of his personal drama, so laying bare his weaknesses as well as strengths. Some of the most revealing of these "asides" are by his courageous and astounding wife, Danuta — the one-time flower-seller — whose personality transcends all crises — whether she is defying the secret police, representing her husband at the Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, or reflecting, half-fearfully, on how their happy homelife may suffer, as the good and unassuming man she married is borne away from her in the embrace of ecstatic crowds.
Yet she remains humbly thankful for their "one-way ticket to history." Altogether, this is a memorable portrayal of how it feels (era man and his wife and a nation to stand up and be counted in circumstances difficult for a Westerner to visualise.
The reviewer is a former BBC correspondent in Eastern Europe