Lech Walesa

Nobel Lecture


Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1983


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Addressing you, as the winner of the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize, is a Polish worker from the Gdansk Shipyard, one of the founders of the independent trade union movement in Poland. It would be the simplest thing for me to say that I am not worthy of that great distinction. Yet, when I recall the hour when the news of the prize has spread throughout my country, the hour of rising emotions and universal joy of the people who felt that they have a moral and spiritual share in the award, I am obligated to say that I regard it as a sign of recognition that the movement to which I gave all my strength has served well the community of men.

I accept the award with my deepest respects for its meaning and significance, and, at the same time, I am conscious that the honor is bestowed not on me personally, but upon “Solidarity”, upon the people and the ideas for which we have fought and shall continue to do so in the spirit of peace and justice. And there is nothing I desire more than that the granting of the award should help the cause of peace and justice in my country and the world over.

My first words which I address to you, and through you to all people, are those which I have known since my childhood days: Peace to men of goodwill – all and everywhere, in the North and South, East and West.

I belong to a nation which over the past centuries has experienced many hardships and reverses. The world reacted with silence or with mere sympathy when Polish frontiers were crossed by invading armies and the sovereign state had to succumb to brutal force. Our national history has so often filled us with bitterness and the feeling of helplessness. But this was, above all, a great lesson in hope. Thanking you for the award I would like, first of all, to express my gratitude and my belief that it serves to enhance the Polish hope. The hope of the nation which throughout the nineteenth century had not for a moment reconciled itself with the loss of independence, and fighting for its own freedom, fought at the same time for the freedom of other nations. The hope whose elations and downfalls during the past forty years – i.e. the span of my own life – have been marked by the memorable and dramatic dates: 1944, 1956, 1970, 1976, 1980.

And if I permit myself at this juncture and on this occasion to mention my own life, it is because I believe that the prize has been granted to me as to one of many.

My youth passed at the time of the country’s reconstruction from the ruins and ashes of the war in which my nation never bowed to the enemy paying the highest price in the struggle. I belong to the generation of workers who, born in the villages and hamlets of rural Poland, had the opportunity to acquire education and find employment in industry, becoming in the course conscious of their rights and importance in society. Those were the years of awakening aspirations of workers and peasants, but also years of many wrongs, degradations and lost illusions. I was barely 13 years old when, in June 1956, the desperate struggle of the workers of Poznan for bread and freedom was suppressed in blood. Thirteen also was the boy – Romek Strzalkowski – who was killed in the struggle. It was the “Solidarity” union which 25 years later demanded that tribute be paid to his memory. In December 1970 when workers’ protest demonstrations engulfed the towns of the Baltic coast, I was a worker in the Gdansk Shipyard and one of the organizers of the strikes. The memory of my fellow workers who then lost their lives, the bitter memory of violence and despair has become for me a lesson never to be forgotten.

Few years later, in June 1976, the strike of the workers at Ursus and Radom was a new experience which not only strengthened my belief in the justness of the working people’s demands and aspirations, but has also indicated the urgent need for their solidarity. This conviction brought me, in the summer of 1978, to the Free Trade Unions – formed by a group of courageous and dedicated people who came out in the defense of the workers’ rights and dignity. In July and August of 1980 a wave of strikes swept throughout Poland. The issue at stake was then something much bigger than only material conditions of existence. My road of life has, at the time of the struggle, brought me back to the shipyard in Gdansk. The whole country has joined forces with the workers of Gdansk and Szczecin. The agreements of Gdansk, Szczecin and Jastrzebie were eventually signed and the “Solidarity” union has thus come into being.

The great Polish strikes, of which I have just spoken, were events of a special nature. Their character was determined on the one hand by the menacing circumstances in which they were held and, on the other, by their objectives. The Polish workers who participated in the strike actions, in fact represented the nation.

When I recall my own path of life I cannot but speak of the violence, hatred and lies. A lesson drawn from such experiences, however, was that we can effectively oppose violence only if we ourselves do not resort to it.

In the brief history of those eventful years, the Gdansk Agreement stands out as a great charter of the rights of the working people which nothing can ever destroy. Lying at the root of the social agreements of 1980 are the courage, sense of responsibility, and the solidarity of the working people. Both sides have then recognized that an accord must be reached if bloodshed is to be prevented. The agreement then signed has been and shall remain the model and the only method to follow, the only one that gives a chance of finding a middle course between the use of force and a hopeless struggle. Our firm conviction that ours is a just cause and that we must find a peaceful way to attain our goals gave us the strength and the awareness of the limits beyond which we must not go. What until then seemed impossible to achieve has become a fact of life. We have won the right to association in trade unions independent from the authorities, founded and shaped by the working people themselves.

Our union – the “Solidarity” – has grown into a powerful movement for social and moral liberation. The people freed from the bondage of fear and apathy, called for reforms and improvements. We fought a difficult struggle for our existence. That was and still is a great opportunity for the whole country. I think that it marked also the road to be taken by the authorities, if they thought of a state governed in cooperation and participation of all citizens. “Solidarity”, as a trade union movement, did not reach for power, nor did it turn against the established constitutional order. During the 15 months of “Solidarity’s” legal existence nobody was killed or wounded as a result of its activities. Our movement expanded by leaps and bounds. But we were compelled to conduct an uninterrupted struggle for our rights and freedom of activity while at the same time imposing upon ourselves the unavoidable self-limitations. The program of our movement stems from the fundamental moral laws and order. The sole and basic source of our strength is the solidarity of workers, peasants and the intelligentsia, the solidarity of the nation, the solidarity of people who seek to live in dignity, truth, and in harmony with their conscience.

Let the veil of silence fall presently over what happened afterwards. Silence, too, can speak out.

One thing, however, must be said here and now on this solemn occasion: the Polish people have not been subjugated nor have they chosen the road of violence and fratricidal bloodshed.

We shall not yield to violence. We shall not be deprived of union freedoms. We shall never agree with sending people to prison for their convictions. The gates of prisons must be thrown open and persons sentenced for defending union and civic rights must be set free. The announced trials of eleven leading members of our movement must never be held. All those already sentenced or still awaiting trials for their union activities or their convictions – should return to their homes and be allowed to live and work in their country.

The defense of our rights and our dignity, as well as efforts never to let ourselves to be overcome by the feeling of hatred – this is the road we have chosen.

The Polish experience, which the Nobel Peace Prize has put into limelight, has been a difficult, a dramatic one. Yet, I believe that it looks to the future. The things that have taken place in human conscience and re-shaped human attitudes cannot be obliterated or destroyed. They exist and will remain.

We are the heirs of those national aspirations thanks to which our people could never be made into an inert mass with no will of their own. We want to live with the belief that law means law and justice means justice, that our toil has a meaning and is not wasted, that our culture grows and develops in freedom.

As a nation we have the right to decide our own affairs, to mould our own future. This does not pose any danger to anybody. Our nation is fully aware of the responsibility for its own fate in the complicated situation of the contemporary world.

Despite everything that has been going on in my country during the past two years, I am still convinced that we have no alternative but to come to an agreement, and that the difficult problems which Poland is now facing can be resolved only through a real dialogue between state authorities and the people.

During his latest visit to the land of his fathers, Pope John Paul II had this to say on this point:

“Why do the working people in Poland – and everywhere else for that matter – have the right to such a dialogue? It is because the working man is not a mere tool of production, but he is the subject which throughout the process of production takes precedence over the capital. By the fact of his labor, the man becomes the true master of his workshop, of the process of labor, of the fruits of his toil and of their distribution. He is also ready for sacrifices if he feels that he is a real partner and has a say in the just division of what has been produced by common effort”.

It is, however, precisely this feeling that we lack. It is hardly possible to build anything if frustration, bitterness and a mood of helplessness prevail. He who once became aware of the power of solidarity and who breathed the air of freedom will not be crushed. The dialogue is possible and we have the right to it. The wall raised by the course of events must not become an insurmountable obstacle. My most ardent desire is that my country will recapture its historic opportunity for a peaceful evolution and that Poland will prove to the world that even the most complex situations can be solved by a dialogue and not by force.

We are ready for the dialogue. We are also prepared, at any time, to put our reasons and demands to the judgement of the people. We have no doubts as to what verdict would be returned.

I think that all nations of the world have the right to life in dignity. I believe that, sooner or later, the rights of individuals, of families, and of entire communities will be respected in every corner of the world. Respect for civic and human rights in Poland and for our national identity is in the best interest of all Europe. For, in the interest of Europe is a peaceful Poland, and the Polish aspirations to freedom will never be stifled. The dialogue in Poland is the only way to achieving internal peace and that is why it is also an indispensable element of peace in Europe.

I realize that the strivings of the Polish people gave rise, and still do so, to the feelings of understanding and solidarity all over the world. Allow me from this place to express my most profound thanks to all those who help Poland and the Poles. May I also voice my desire that our wish for the dialogue and for respect of human rights in Poland should be strengthened by a positive thought. My country is in the grips of a major economic crisis. This is causing dramatic consequences for the very existence of Polish families. A permanent economic crisis in Poland may also have serious repercussions for Europe. Thus, Poland ought to be helped and deserves help.

I am looking at the present-day world with the eyes of a worker – a worker who belongs to a nation so tragically experienced by the war. I most sincerely wish that the world in which we live be free from the threat of a nuclear holocaust and from the ruinous arms race. It is my cherished desire that peace be not separated from freedom which is the right of every nation. This I desire and for this I pray.

May I repeat that the fundamental necessity in Poland is now understanding and dialogue. I think that the same applies to the whole world: we should go on talking, we must not close any doors or do anything that would block the road to an understanding. And we must remember that only peace built on the foundations of justice and moral order can be a lasting one.

In many parts of the world the people are searching for a solution which would link the two basic values: peace and justice. The two are like bread and salt for mankind. Every nation and every community have the inalienable right to these values. No conflicts can be resolved without doing everything possible to follow that road. Our times require that these aspirations which exist the world over must be recognized.

Our efforts and harsh experiences have revealed to the world the value of human solidarity. Accepting this honorable distinction I am thinking of those with whom I am linked by the spirit of solidarity:

first of all, of those who in the struggle for the workers’ and civic rights in my country paid the highest price – the price of life;

of my friends who paid for the defense of “Solidarity” with the loss of freedom, who were sentenced to prison terms or are awaiting trial;

of my countrymen who saw in the “Solidarity” movement the fulfillment of their aspirations as workers and citizens, who are subjected to humiliations and ready for sacrifices, who have learnt to link courage with wisdom and who persist in loyalty to the cause we have embarked upon;

of all those who are struggling throughout the world for the workers’ and union rights, for the dignity of a working man, for human rights.

Inscribed on the monument erected at the entrance to the Gdansk Shipyard in memory of those who died in December 1970 are the words of the Psalm:

“The Lord will give power to His people;
The Lord will give His people the blessing of peace”.

Let these words be our message of brotherhood and hope.



* Read by Bogdan Cywinski.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1983

To cite this section
MLA style: Lech Walesa – Nobel Lecture*. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Mon. 25 Sep 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1983/walesa/lecture/>

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