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GDANSK - Pope John Paul II's guidance was decisive in giving Poles the courage to take on the communist regime and sped the demise of the Soviet bloc, says Lech Walesa, Poland's Solidarity legend.
"He woke us up," the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate told AFP as he prepared to travel to the Vatican for the late Polish pope's May 1 beatification.
"He said 'be not afraid, change the face of the Earth'. Our nation woke up, other nations were woken up," he added, referring to a landmark sermon delivered behind the Iron Curtain by the freshly elected pontiff during his first trip home in June 1979.
In his office in the Polish Baltic Sea port city of Gdansk where in 1980 the Soviet bloc saw the rise of its first free trade union at the local shipyard, Walesa recalls that before Karol Wojtyla's 1978 election as the first-ever Polish pope, few dared challenge Poland's Soviet-backed regime.
"We were maybe 50 people in the shipyard out of 17,000 workers there -- not even 50! And after the Holy Father was elected almost everyone joined us when we got organised in Solidarity," Walesa recalled of the union which rattled the Soviet bloc to its very core.
Within months of its legalisation, Solidarnosc attracted 10 million out of Poland's total population of 36 million, but this proved too great a success for the regime.
In December 1981, Poland's communist leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed a brutal martial law crackdown on Solidarity, jailing dissidents and driving the movement underground.
Now 67, Walesa went on to become Poland's first democratically elected president in 1990 after he led negotiations with the communist party that brought a bloodless end to communism in 1989, making his country the first to shed totalitarianism in the Soviet bloc.
He has no qualms about pointing out his own role in history.
In Cuba, which the Polish pontiff visited in 1998, nothing happened "because there was no group that could organise the opposition and lead the Cuban nation," Walesa observes.
"It could have been the same thing here in Poland if ... there would have been no one who was able to transform this into a successful movement," he insists.
"The Holy Father gave us 'the word', and we transformed it into flesh," he told AFP.
This notion of a pope who helped topple the first domino in the process which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, is also shared by General Jaruzelski, Poland's last communist leader.
"As a Pole, I would be very tempted to admit that everything began with Solidarity, even if I was on the other side of the barricade," the 87-year-old general, now battling lymphatic cancer, told AFP in August 2005.
"But the general situation had to be ripe too. The arrival of a Polish pope in 1978 played a role then which it wouldn't have had, if he had been elected twenty years earlier," Jaruzelski said.
During his 1983 trip back to Poland, John Paul II insisted Jaruzelski let him meet Walesa, by then the country's most famous dissident kept under constant surveillance by the secret police.
A "private meeting" between the pontiff and "the simple citizen Walesa" accompanied by his family was set up in a remote mountain lodge in the heart of Poland's southern Tatra mountains, one of John Paul II's beloved holiday spots.
"The communists didn't want this meeting. They did their best to stop it. But the Holy Father was resolute and in this way he helped me and Solidarity," Walesa recalled.
Chatting with the pope and all the while aware the secret police was listening in, Walesa told John Paul II the communists "had already lost the battle."
"The Holy Father was surprised by what I said. Then later, when it was becoming obvious the communists were losing, the Holy Father began telling people 'Listen to Walesa -- He knows what he's talking about'."