By Rafal Brzeski and Robert Eringer.
This book is quite unique as it was written at the time that events (the strikes which created the Polish Solidarity union in 1980) were happening and from an outside perspective. Most importantly it was created without the benefit of grand hindsight with which history is framed. Well, a very slight hindsight of months rather than years.
Wałęsa is not admired by many in Poland nowadays: his lack of formal education, the gaffes and that it has been widely reported by the largely hostile media that he was in league with the communists. An ongoing investigation by the National Remembrance Institute reported late last year that documents were fabricated by the communist government in the 80s. Of course this is the kind of stuff that can stick regardless of the truth.
It seems the qualities that made Wałęsa an effective mouthpiece are now those which are held against him. He was a working man and had not been taught the niceties of politics as all our politicians seem to know now. He was a maverick and had no fear, could think outside the box and was a talented improvisor. The communist authorities simply didn’t know what to do – they couldn’t control him, he didn’t fit into their framework. While, in the short term, the Polish people didn’t change the system immediately, through the auspices of solidarity, these first steps gave confidence.
Back to the book: this is well written and it gave me a more complete picture of Wałęsa. Perhaps I will look for a full biography. There are many great quotes ascribed to him. Two of the best are:
I must tell you that the supply of words on the world market is plentiful, but the demand is falling.
I’m lazy. But it’s the lazy people who invented the wheel and the bicycle because they didn’t like walking or carrying things.
I found this really worthwhile. It gave me a real insight into both Solidarity and Wałęsa. One really big misconception that appears to be propagated by the media is that Wałęsa was fighting for freedom as was therefore a capitalist – but no! Wałęsa was socialist – he believed in socialism as the leader of the Solidarity trade union. After reading this I am really interested to see what he has to say about the way things are now in Poland. Perhaps he has written something – but probably not, he seems to be a man of action and improvisation in the grand tradition of Mickiewicz. The structure of the book is well done; it builds up a groundswell until at last in the last interview it is Wałęsa himself. He seems very quick and quite amusing and able to respond with dexterity to the difficult questions asked. The interview with Wajda is also good as are the statements by random people who sent letters.
The book is also intriguing because it seems that it was published maybe a year after the August 1980 Solidarity victory in Gdansk where Solidarity won the right to be an independent trade union. However in December 1981 Jaruzelski cracked down on Solidarity and the leaders were all arrested. During the eighties there was ferment but it wasn’t until 1989 that things changed and the old Party leadership stepped down. So these reminiscences date from the time where they thought change was about to happen and not in the way that it eventually did but though a socialist system where the people did have control. I enjoyed reading this. It’s not going to be to everyones taste quite simply because not everyone is interested in Polish politics. However, I would say that that a knowledge of Poland and the other central states is the key to understanding Europe as whole.