No one of my generation can walk round the glorious port of Gdansk without thinking of Lech Walesa. The heroic, moustached electrician and activist was the darling of the British media in the eighties. We rooted for him, and for the wider Solidarity movement.
Walesa was that rare thing, a true socialist, demanding the return of workers’ rights from the bloated communist elite, and lighting the spark that eventually resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the dockyard cranes he spoke, incomprehensible and urgent in the Baltic sunlight, demanding justice. An inspirational Pole.
Behind the docks is the magesterial new Museum of World War Two, and to view it is a harrowing experience, like visiting a concentration camp. I spent four hours there, and was reduced to tears. The Polish perspective on WW2 is vital. For Poland was destroyed twice: once by the bastard Nazis, and then again by the rapists of the Red Army. Being a refugee, a migrant, a traveller and survivor by necessity, is at the core of the Polish experience.
The Gdansk old town was completely obliterated. So the medieval crane and bright gables of today’s dock front – indeed all the central streets and buildings – are modern replicas, rebuilt to the original specifications. St Mary’s church, the largest brick built cathedral on earth, was pieced together again brick by brick; such is the devotion of the Gdansk faithful. Every European should see this magnificent town now.
But the realities of Lech Walesa’s later political career are more difficult to chart. Some allege that he colluded with the Communist secret service. The older Walesa has proved to be small c conservative in the nasty way, and seems pretty narrowly nationalistic in his outlook. Other aspects of Poland emerge. Gay visitors, a guide book points out, should remember they are not in Soho any more. And the backward Right are on the march in Poland’s city squares, perverters of their own history. It seems to me that the Poles – of all people – should know exactly what it means to be persecuted, to be refugees.