Christian Caryl

Eulogy for a Quiet Revolutionary

What today’s activists can learn from the life and times of the heroic Polish politician who passed away earlier this week.


I remember seeing Tadeusz Mazowiecki for the first time in Warsaw that remarkable summer of 1989. Back then, Mazowiecki — who died earlier this week at age 86 — was a middle-aged man with hunched shoulders. He wore an ill-fitting jacket and he had the long, sad eyes of a basset hound. You could tell that he wasn’t the kind of man to run around proclaiming utopian visions. His whole being seemed to demonstrate that the escape from communism and the journey toward democracy was destined to be a long, hard slog. He was grounded, sober, and decidedly un-emphatic. But I can’t help thinking that it was his rejection of heroism that made him uniquely heroic.

On August 24, 1989, he became the first freely elected prime minister in Poland since World War II. (The photo above shows him celebrating the election of his cabinet a few weeks later.)  No one quite realized it at the time, but his assumption of office marked the beginning of the end of the postwar Stalinist order in Central Europe. Nor did anyone forecast the series of events that soon followed, in accelerating succession: the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist dictatorships in East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Later came the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.

Mazowiecki could have rightfully claimed a starring role in this story: as one of Poland’s most prominent Catholic thinkers and longtime oppositionists, he had all the credentials. In an initial period of idealism shared by many other Polish intellectuals after the war, he tried to work with the Soviet-dominated communist government by joining a pro-regime Catholic party and serving for a time in parliament. Increasingly disillusioned, he resigned his seat in 1955, and later went on to found a leading Catholic journal of ideas that soon became required reading even for non-believers.

An enthusiastic supporter of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978, Mazowiecki later played a critical role in the rise of the independent Solidarity trade union in 1980, which represented the first serious organizational challenge to communist hegemony and prepared the way for the annus mirablis nine years later. As the British historian Timothy Garton Ash memorably put it: "Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism." Mazowiecki was there at every decisive waypoint.

And yet his name remains unfamiliar to many students of politics and history outside of Central Europe. After his death this week, most of the English-language papers ran dutiful biographies, many of them from the news agencies. Few conveyed anything of the extraordinary drama encompassed by this life, or the courage he showed along the way. (When the Polish communists reacted to the Solidarity challenge by declaring martial law in 1981, Mazowiecki was one of the first activists they made sure to arrest — and among the last to be released a year later.)

It would be a shame if we were to neglect Mazowiecki’s remarkable career of dissent — especially since his experiences offer valuable lessons to countries that are still struggling to find their way toward democracy today.

He was a man of revolutionary insights who looked and acted nothing like a traditional revolutionary. Like many of his compatriots, Mazowiecki lived through both Nazism (his older brother died in a German concentration camp) and Stalinism, and the experience inoculated him against all-encompassing ideological designs and the violence they usually entailed. It was this rejection of radical social engineering that formed the basis for the "self-limiting revolution" of Solidarity, which explicitly embraced peaceful but principled resistance to totalitarianism.

His greatest talent, perhaps, was his capacity to acknowledge the humanity of his opponents even when they were at their most inhumane. His extraordinary patience and modesty played a crucial role in that delicate summer of 1989, when the time finally came for him and his Solidarity colleagues to confront their former jailers in a counterintuitive spirit of compromise. The union’s leadership had been caught somewhat off guard the year before, when its rank-and-file members responded to the accelerating collapse of Poland’s economy with a series of wildcat strikes that shook the communist government to its core. That forced the communists to consider legalizing Solidarity, which they had so bitterly resisted doing for so long. But the union was only prepared to cooperate if the Communist Party made concessions.

Mazowiecki was one of the architects of the negotiating process, known as the Round Table Talks, that the two sides devised to resolve the impasse. It ultimately resulted in Solidarity’s legalization as a political movement, a substantial revision of the Stalinist constitution, and the establishment of ground rules for Poland’s first competitive elections since the 1920s. The elections weren’t entirely free yet, though: in order to allay the fears of their communist opponents, who didn’t want to be swept out of power, Mazowiecki and other Solidarity leaders agreed to a formula designed to reserve a controlling majority for the Communists in the newly created parliament.

In June 1989, two rounds of elections took place — and delivered a smashing victory for the opposition movement. Altogether Solidarity won 160 of the 161 seats available in the election. Though the communists still retained formal control of the parliament, their hold on power was doomed — as became clear when several of their non-communist coalition partners deserted them for a new alliance with Solidarity. It was that shift that enabled Mazowiecki’s election as prime minister.

It was an office he retained only for a year and a half, but that was enough to launch Poland on its trajectory towards a stable parliamentary democracy. Communist hegemony crumbled. The constitution was revised in 1992, and then again in 1997. In 2004, Poland became a member of the European Union. (Mazowiecki himself later served as an EU emissary to the Balkans during the Bosnian War.)

It’s worth noting that there are a lot of Poles who don’t like Mazowiecki much. Many of them, like the former Solidarity activist Andrzej Gwiazda, are right-wingers who believe that the whole Round Table process was a conspiracy designed to prevent a proper reckoning with the communists’ crimes during their four decades in power. This, of course, completely ignores how utterly unprepared Party leaders were for the thumping they received in the 1989 vote. (The scale of Solidarity’s victory shocked many of its activists, too.)

There’s another reason why the view of the conspiracy theorists misses the point. Retaliating against the communists for their past misdeeds entailed the possibility of serious social unrest (perhaps even Romania-style violence) in a country where millions of people had been members of the Party at one time or another. This was precisely why Prime Minister Mazowiecki announced in 1990 that it was time to draw a "thick line" between the new democratic era and the Stalinist past, by which he meant that Poles should look ahead to a new future in which all could participate as citizens. I strongly believe he made the right choice.

Other countries have tried to learn from Poland’s example — most notably Burma, where the erstwhile ruling military junta seems to have looked to the 1989 parliamentary compromise as a model. Last year they chose a similar path when they allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers to participate in a tightly circumscribed election that gave them seats, and a corresponding say, in the legislature. It’s a pity that the Arab Spring countries don’t seem to have paid much attention. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, would have been well-advised to study the Polish scenario of a cautious, "self-limiting" transition.

Considering the scale of Mazowiecki’s achievement, it’s no wonder that his passing has elicited some noteworthy praise. The World Jewish Congress called the Catholic Mazowiecki "one of the architects of the modern, democratic Poland and as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people." German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of his "unforgettable contribution to overcoming authority and injustice and also to unifying Europe," and praised him for helping to topple the Berlin Wall and promote German unification. And current Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk described Mazowiecki "one of the most prominent Polish politicians of the twentieth century."

I think they’re all right.

 Twitter: @ccaryl