Bronislaw Geremek: Polish and European liberal

Adam Szostkiewicz
15 July 2008

He was never the president or prime minister of Poland, though he could have been. Yet when he left Poland's ruling United Workers' Party in 1968 to protest the Warsaw Pact invasion of Alexander Dubcek's Czechoslovakia, there was little he might have hoped for. To drop the party card meant to exit from official public life.

Adam Szostkiewicz writes for the Polityka weekly news magazine in Warsaw. Also by Adam Szostkiewicz in openDemocracy:

"The Polish lifeboat" (22 September 2005)

"The Polish autumn"(26 October 2005)

"Poland's past and future pope" (13 April 2006)

"Poland marches: the people sound the alarm" (12 October 2006)Bronislaw Geremek, born in 1932, was a Jewish child who lived through the Warsaw ghetto, lost his father to the Nazi genocide and was saved by an "Aryan" Polish family. He studied history at Warsaw University during the Stalinist era of the early 1950s, and was then able to take advantage of the post-1956 political thaw under Wladyslaw Gomulka to continue with postgraduate studies in France. His scholarly interests were the medieval beggars of Paris, the excluded of the middle ages, rather than Polish politics.

What then made him a democratic dissident? If there was probably a mixture of reasons, one of them was the deep and bitter disappointment with the regime again turning hardline: the moment of 1968 was followed by the party bosses' brutal crushing of shipyard workers' riots against food-price rises and repressive rule in 1970.

Geremek's contacts abroad, his sharp analytical skills, and moral determination meant a lot to the emerging Polish democratic opposition movement. But the crucial moment both for Poland, and for Geremek came when the shipyards on the Polish Baltic went on strike again in August 1980. He joined the young strikers in Gdansk as an adviser.

The communist propaganda of the time tried to discredit Geremek and other intellectuals as members of a CIA-inspired conspiracy against socialist Poland. In vain, and to the fury of the government of what officially was a country of workers, farmers and working intelligentsia, the strikers - an elite within the working class of the day - trusted the urban highbrows rather than the leaders of the Polish Workers' Party.

Thus Geremek became one of the most influential architects of Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement for social justice, democracy, human dignity, civil liberties, and genuine national sovereignty. After the crushing of Solidarity by Polish communist generals in December 1981 he was interned for almost a year, but continued to support the underground Solidarity after his release. The fact that he was always a man of principles as well as of sound workable compromise continued to make him a target of Poland's monopolistic regime, and he was again arrested in the mid-1980s on the false accusation of spying for western powers.

Also in openDemocracy on Poland's modern political experience:

Neal Ascherson, "The victory and defeat of Solidarnosc" (6 September 2005)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's new Ostpolitik: a Polish echo" (21 December 2006)

Wiktor Osiatynski, "Ryszard Kapuscinski: the interpreter" (30 January 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "The Polish dictionary" (22 August 2007)

Neal Ascherson, "The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968" (1 February 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Poland's generational shift" (I November 2007) A tie, a beard, a pipe. These were the trademarks of Professor Geremek in every new chapter of Polish politics whose spiritus movens he became for more than three decades. Alongside Lech Walesa, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Zbigniew Bujak, Władysław Frasyniuk and other leaders of Solidarity he led the opposition in the historic "round-table" talks with the communist government in 1989.

The Solidarity leadership was not totally convinced that the talks would lead to a breakthrough, opening up the possibility that the movement could be re-established. Geremek, still a very close collaborator of Walesa, used his authority to persuade some of the sceptics to take the risk. When finally the agreement was reached, he defended it as a correct outcome both morally and politically. His was the way of a consensus-seeking unifier not a polarising divider.

It was therefore quite a task for him, when in 1990 he supported Tadeusz Mazowiecki against Lech Walesa in their first-ever bid for Polish presidency. In my role as a press spokesman for the Mazowiecki campaign, I still remember Geremek worrying whether the Poles could really understand and accept that the legendary leaders of Solidarity were now in conflict, and how the effects of their bitter political antagonism would redefine Polish politics for the worse.

To people like the writer, myself a Solidarity activist in the 1980s, Geremek's position was so high precisely because of his moderate and well-informed politics. He would never preach hatred and extremism as a means of political mobilisation. Instead, he would call for the church bells to toll and the Te Deum religious anthem to be sung nationwide after the fall of the communist regime.

In the new Poland, the third republic, Geremek was to continue as a political pioneer. His general idea was that Poland's freshly regained place in the family of democracies should be reconfirmed by its gaining membership of two international bodies: the European Union (as a spur to economic growth and modernisation) and Nato (as an instrument of national security). Despite the attacks on him from Polish adherents of nationalistic isolationism, he never ceded any ground on his geopolitical vision, and succeeded both aims. In 1999, as Poland's foreign secretary, he signed the country's accession to Nato in Washington.

It seemed at the time that this was the apogee of his service to Poland. He saw his main goal achieved - Poland fully readmitted to the European and transatlantic community of values and interests. At the same time, in domestic terms things went not so well for him and his political milieu. After the completion of crucial political, social and economic reforms in the early 1990s, the importance of democrats like Bronislaw Geremek began to decline. New political forces were entering the scene. They tried to sell themselves to the electorate as more "patriotic'' than the "cosmopolitan-minded'' Geremek and his associates.

And yet, as late as 2004, after Poland had been admitted to the European Union, Geremek made it into the European parliament, crushing rightwing electoral rivals along the way. In a final showdown, the then ruling populist-nationalist Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law & Justice / PiS) party activists staged an aggressive campaign against Professor Geremek after he declined to sign a self-vetting statement that he never had anything to do with communist special services - on the grounds that he had done that before several times and believed the renewed pressure to be unacceptable and humiliating. That was Geremek pure and total: when pushed on behalf of unfair agendas, never retreat.

The death of Bronislaw Geremek is a great loss to Polish and European modern liberalism.

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