The overreacher

November 27, 1995|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The tragedy of Lech Walesa is not only that he failed to understand his limits, but that he failed to understand his triumph. George Steiner's splendid book on the absence of tragedy in modern drama, ''The Death of Tragedy,'' notes that tragedy is an affair of injustice. There is no Biblical tragedy because God's dealings with man are ultimately rational, and the purpose of those dealings is justice. Even Job, who is tormented, is in the end recompensed. God recognizes his fidelity, and gives him back ''twice over all that he had lost.''

Tragedy recognizes neither rationality nor justice. It deals with the flaws in humans by which ''we inflict irreparable outrage upon ourselves and those we love.'' It is an affair of the incomprehensible workings of destiny.

Lech Walesa, the electrician from the Gdansk shipyards who assumed leadership of the strike that broke out there in 1980, led the shipyard workers to a victory over the Communist regime which proved the beginning of the end for communism not only in Poland but in Europe.

He had support and advice from figures in the intellectual resistance -- Bronislaw Geremek, Adam Michnik and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, among others -- but he was himself inspired. He had an extraordinary and instinctive talent for communication, tactics and the right thing to say at the right moment to ordinary people and to his opponents.

The great adventure of Solidarity, the movement he led and symbolized, survived everything the regime could do to halt it, including martial law, banning, jailings, beatings, lies, attempted subversion and subornation, and constant hostile propaganda.

By 1989 it had won; the regime had to yield and negotiate, and hold free elections. Solidarity achieved a majority in both houses of Poland's parliament. By 1990 the reign of Bolshevism in all Europe, begun with the Russian Revolution in 1918, was finished, the Soviet Union itself in ruins.

After the triumph

With a triumph of this magnitude the game changes; history shifts scenes. The moment of Solidarity's victory was Lech Walesa's triumph. He failed to recognize this. Had he retired then he would have fixed his claim to be one of the most remarkable figures in contemporary European history, and one of the great men in Poland's history.

Instead, he chose, understandably but fatefully, to make himself president. Not content with the limited constitutional role of the presidency, he attempted to augment his power at the expense of his prime minister, his former ally in Solidarity, Mr. Mazowiecki.

Each of Mr. Mazowiecki's successors was given the same treatment, subjected to the same harassment and undermining. The president attempted to block or reduce the power of parliament. He allowed persons in his private entourage occult influence. He had murky dealings with elements in the army.

Had all of this been a struggle to impose some particular moral vision on Polish society, as his great ally, the Roman Catholic Church, was doing, it would have made some sense. The church had a vision of a pious and integrally Catholic Poland. This in the event proved impossible and unwanted, once Poland was thrown open to the blasts of global communications, the global marketplace and the intellectual forces of the ''postmodern'' world.

The church had for too long been the vehicle not only of Polish identity but of Polish nationalism, during the century of Poland's partition and political non-existence -- which began in 1795 and only ended in 1918 -- and then, beginning in 1940, in the underground struggle against a genocidal Nazi occupation, and during the postwar decades of Soviet domination. This experience distorted its understanding of what followed communism's collapse.

It nonetheless possessed a coherent view of society. Mr. Walesa did not. His consistent principles were his anti-communism and his personal devotion. Otherwise his struggle during his presidency was an affair of private ambition and power. He eventually alienated all of his allies from the Solidarity period. He sometimes seemed to want to become ''another Pilsudski'' -- the man who re-established Polish independence in 1918, but later ruled as a virtual dictator.

He ended last week by delivering Poland's highest office to a polished, tanned and telegenic ''new'' Communist, who presents himself as a social democrat, Alexander Kwasniewski. This was the worst defeat possible for Lech Walesa. He has handed back his country to the inheritors of the Polish communism he defeated in 1989 -- and the blame is in very considerable measure his own.

He failed out of hubris, which means not only excessive pride, but violation -- the source of that irreparable outrage of which Mr. Steiner writes. He tried to overreach his destiny, and the penalty has not only been failure but his humiliation, diminishing all that he accomplished in the past, making himself, today, a figure of ridicule to many of his countrymen.

Mr. Kwasniewski, needless to say, understands the parameters of politics and economics in Poland and Central Europe today. He can be expected to govern pragmatically. That is one reason he was able to win this presidential election. The symbolism of Mr. Walesa's delivering of Poland to ''neo-communism'' is undoubtedly more damaging than the experience will prove to be. Lech Walesa was a bad president as well as a foolish one, to bring about this outcome. However, he has been a great man -- struck down by the flaw within him.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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