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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Meeting Lech Wałęsa - a British Diplomat's Real-Time Polish Adventure

Nigel Thorpe was British Ambassador in friendly Budapest from 1998 – 2003. But that was not how it all started: he began his overseas diplomatic career in grim, war-damaged, food-short and rather unfriendly Warsaw in May 1970. This is his story.

Photo: A fresh-faced Nigel Thorpe stands outside the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London in 1969, where he began his diplomatic career as third secretary responsible for Soviet external affairs. Nigel read history at University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (now Cardiff University) graduating with a first class degree - the only one in his year - in 1967. Photographed by his father.

Background, by Kester Eddy

Poland is not one of 'my countries'. I have been there, first in September 1975 on what was my first (and last) organised tour, visiting the northern cities of Warsaw, Gdansk, Stettin and Pozanan. But I didn't fit in well with organised tours. A photographer needs to be up an out before dawn. On the tour, we were generally boarding the bus at 09.00, with the sun well up. I counted the week as rather wasted.

I went a second time in 1992, spending a few days in Elbląg (near Gdansk) on a conference trip. But I've never reported on Poland, and can't claim to know much of the country - though of course anyone alive in the 1980s and in tune with European news could not fail to know of Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity and their daily struggle with the communist authorities.

It is thus with much gratitude that I can publish this guest post by Nigel Thorpe, which sheds such fascinating light on this northern country of Central Europe.

This, and part 2, have been abstracted from a longer article entitled “Behind the Iron Curtain in Poland – A Personal Memoir”, originally published by Diplomacy & Statecraft in June, 2020.


Nigel Thorpe arrived in Poland to serve as Third Secretary in Chancery in the British embassy in Warsaw in May, 1970. He was, by his own admission, a “very young man who had hardly been abroad”, and only knew the developed west.

The job comprised essentially trying to understand what was happening in communist Poland. “We were part of a very small Western community and very isolated from Polish society. Poles were suspicious of us and careful about their contacts with us, indeed in general only those authorised to meet us could do so. Anyone else took a risk.”

All this meant western diplomats had a terrible time just getting basic information about the country, let alone significant news events, such as of riots - and subsequent brutal crack-down by the authorities - in the northern cities that broke out in his first winter in the country.

Warsaw, he says, “was grey on the sunniest day and a place where life always seemed on edge and tense”.

Thorpe left Poland for new pastures in November 1972. He returned, older and wiser, as Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission, in May 1985.

The following extract is his word-by-word account of his time there, as originally published in Diplomacy & Statecraft.

Meeting Lech Wałęsa

​I came back to a country visibly and sensibly changed. Warsaw had expanded hugely, with many new blocks of flats and there were many more cars on the road. Although Solidarity remained illegal, and Zbiszek Bujak, one of its leaders, still remained uncaptured and in hiding, I felt there was no doubting the lighter atmosphere of society, even if there was no more in the shops. The Western community was larger and we had much more contact with Poles than in the early 1970’s. I was able to meet almost anyone I wanted and the fear of contact with Westerners that I had seen in the 1970’s seemed to have gone. So often in the 1970’s our contacts had been mainly with journalists, but now we even penetrated the Polish United Worker’s Party Secretariat, the fulcrum of communist party policy.

I think that in a way the Poles we were meeting felt freer and more liberated because they had and were taking a stand against a regime they loathed and detested. There had been some important changes. There was a vigorous underground press, where writers could publish works that the regime would not permit. I still have the copy of Kazimerz Orłos’s Pustynia Gobi (the Gobi Desert) which he gave me, the size of a small diary and printed by cyclostyling on poor paper. There was the Tygodnik Mazowsze, the Solidarity weekly for the Warsaw area, which gave news of underground activity by Solidarity groups in the area. These were alive and well. I began to collect Solidarity stamps which were issued underground to show protest, and to assert Solidarity’s wellbeing.

One of the first things I did in my new role was to make contact with Janusz Onyszkiewicz, the Solidarity spokesman, who lived not far from the Embassy. He became a good friend. In time I knew nearly all the senior figures in Solidarity and saw them regularly. They came to my house for parties, though I quickly learned that one could never mix regime figures, even a journalist, and the Solidarity team.

This was a time of hope, but uncertainty. None of us could see the end of the Communist regime in Poland, like those elsewhere in the region, underpinned by the threat of Soviet military intervention if things went wrong. Like the Soviet Union they seemed to be fixtures of the political firmament. I know of no-one who felt differently at that time. The arrival of Gorbachev in Moscow had yet to sink in.

But the Foreign Office was thinking about policy in the region. Geoffrey Howe, Foreign Secretary [ie the British foreign minister] had visited widely in Central Europe and felt there was room to show our support for those who were struggling for a better future. Against this background we decided to make contact with Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa in Gdansk. British officials had had no contact with him since December 1981, so this was a big step.

Ambassador John Morgan asked me to arrange this as discreetly as possible. Wałęsa was still the leader of an illegal movement. The authorities would not approve of our move. Accordingly, I made contact with Father Jankowski, priest and close confidant of Wałęsa, when he was visiting Warsaw on other business. We agreed on a date and place (Jankowski’s house in Gdansk, next to St. Brygida’s Church). No other people were involved in our arrangements. On the day in question, we (John Morgan and his wife and I and mine) drove in my car (which Morgan thought less conspicuous than the official Jaguar he normally used, with its Union Jack) to the Grand Hotel in Sopot (pre-war, a German casino- history was never far away) where we were to spend the night.

Later that day, in the rain and dark, we set off to meet Wałęsa. Inevitably, I got lost. I had stopped to study the map when a car drew up alongside. The driver wound down his window. I did the same. “Follow me” he said. It was the Polish secret police who obviously knew exactly what was going on. I did so and we arrived a little late to find Wałęsa waiting anxiously outside, peering for us in the gloom.

We then had a long and contorted discussion in Polish, which I attempted to interpret. We were joined halfway through the evening by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Catholic intellectual and adviser to Wałęsa, whom Wałęsa greeted by saying: Here is Pan Tadeusz, a reference to the famous poem by Mickiewicz. I don’t think anything of importance was said. The significance lay in the fact of the meeting, which was an expression of support and interest by the British Government.

After this we instituted a steady programme of contact with Solidarity at every level and not only in Warsaw or Gdansk. A dinner with a factory committee in Olsztyn was especially memorable. Prominent Solidarity figures like Onyszkiewicz, Jacek Kuron and Bronisław Geremek were immensely helpful in this, introducing us to interesting, clever and brave men and women. These were all people who had made the choice to oppose, not just in their minds but in action, so risking their livelihoods, and their welfare and that of their families.

I learnt how chancy were their lives. One very good friend, Zofia Kuratowska, a distinguished doctor, was called in for questioning, an ordeal she bravely endured. Others were beaten when interrogated. Zbiszek Bujak, the underground leader in hiding, was caught and imprisoned. He was later released and I got to know him. He told me of life on the run. A different flat every night, and after a while he knew where he was no longer welcome.

His troubles were not over. In 1988 there was a further wave of strikes and he and many other prominent figures were arrested, including Janusz Onyszkiewicz. I got into the habit of popping round to see Janusz’s wife, Joassia, to support her and encourage her. One day I had just arrived at the main entrance to the block where they lived and, in the distance, I saw Janusz and Zbiszek walking towards me. They had just been released. We greeted each other and went up to the flat where we had a beer and talked through what had happened. To be continued: Part II – Autumn 1988, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seeks to visit to Poland – but only if she can meet Lech Wałęsa - will follow next week.

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