Elmhurst College presented the Niebuhr Medal to Lech Walesa on March 11, 2000. The first democratically elected president of Poland, Walesa won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1983.
A carpenter’s son, Walesa began his career as an electrician in the port city of Gdansk. Long active in his country’s underground labor movement, Walesa burst onto the world scene in 1980 when he delivered a momentous speech to strikers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. That speech led to the strike’s spread to factories across Poland, and ultimately to the founding of Solidarity, the social movement that dealt Communism in Poland a fatal blow.
Over the next year, relations between the Communist government and the insurgent reform movement worsened. In December 1981 the government arrested thousands of Solidarity members, including Walesa, who remained under house arrest for 11 months.
Even under house arrest, Walesa continued to lead Solidarity as an underground movement. Its growing popular strength compelled the government to recognize the movement’s legitimacy and ultimately to hold free elections. On December 9, 1990, Walesa was elected president of Poland, winning 74 percent of the vote. His five-year term made Poland a model of economic and political reform in Eastern Europe and paved the way for Poland’s entry into an expanded NATO.
The former president now leads the Lech Walesa Institute, advancing democracy and free-market reform in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.