Archive for November 10th, 2013

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, father of Poland’s democracy: “listen to other people, even if you don’t agree with them”

Sunday, November 10th, 2013
jane curry


Robert Wessling introduced me to Jane Leftwich Curry at a Stanford Christmas party several years ago.  He thought we’d have a lot to talk about, although it wasn’t apparently obvious when I met the tall (6’+), lanky scholar with a lingering Texas drawl.  But he was right, and we’ve been talking ever since.  She’s one of the leading scholars on Poland and a professor at Santa Clara University, author of Poland’s Journalists: Professionalism and Politics, The Black Book of Polish Censorship. and the forthcoming Together We Are Strong: The Story of the People in the People’s Revolutions (I wrote about her at the Vaclav Havel celebration here). When it comes to Polish public life, she seems to know everyone.

So I was interested and pleased to see that she wrote a a thoughtful retrospective on Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the former prime minister of Poland who has been called the father of Polish democracy over at America Magazine here.  He died October 28 at 86. Janey says that he left a democratic Poland with one of Europe’s most vibrant economies and a model for political leadership in times of change. But more importantly, she traces the internal dynamics of the man.

“Mazowiecki was not dramatic or charismatic,” she writes.  “With sagging face and slumped shoulders, he always looked like a rumpled academic with worn jacket and coat. His words came slowly as he thought and smoked yet another cigarette. He stood his ground but he also heard the other side whether he was having a one-on-one meeting in 1989 with Mikhail Gorbachev, whose staff had to hunt for an ashtray for him, or sitting folded on the floor of the Gdansk Shipyards with striking workers talking about what they wanted to demand and how.”


“words came slowly as he thought and smoked yet another cigarette”

A few excerpts about the unassuming man who “talked, listened and worked with all sides, even when that was not popular”:

… as his grandchildren noted in their eulogy to him, what he taught them and those who worked with him—in the anti-communist opposition, in the Roundtable negotiations over sharing power in 1989, as Prime Minister, and when he headed the UN delegation to report on human rights abuses in Bosnia—was to “listen to the other people, even if you don’t agree with them. Really hearing leads to compromises.” …

In spite of being held in internment for more than a year [during martial law], longer than most others, he was not silenced or bitter. He returned to editing his monthly journal. Then, seven years later, the unimaginable happened: the government sought out negotiations with the very men they had interned and shunned. Mazowiecki stepped in and negotiated with, among others, General Jaruzielski, who imposed martial law, and the head of the Security Services.

With the Catholic leadership as a mediator, he drew others in but took the lead, without seeming to, in both secret and not-so-secret preparations for the historic Roundtable Accords that changed history: elections that led to a Solidarity rout of the communists, the first democratic government since 1920 for Poland, and, ultimately, the fall of the Berlin Wall and communist rule in Europe.


(Photo: Creative Commons)

In the negotiations, he was clear that the change had to be real. Solidarity had to be legalized. There had to be more authentic elections. And Solidarity and the rest of the opposition had to be central in deciding how to change the system. He also listened and helped find compromises; after all, Soviet troops were still stationed in Poland, the country was making changes not even mentionable in the rest of the Bloc initially, and Communists had run the government and the economy for more than forty years. …

Mazowiecki did not gloat. In his first speech as Poland’s Prime Minister and in all his retrospectives, he was clear that victory was not about doing to others what they had done to you. It was about bringing all sides together and doing what was right. He committed himself then to “drawing a thick line” between the past and present and going on, without looking back and settling accounts with the past. …

As prime minister, he continued to work with with President Jaruzielski. Was this forced Catholic-Communist collaboration difficult? “Well, what was hard was, every time I met him, he apologized for martial law and interning me. I kept telling him it was not important now.” Vintage Mazowiecki.

Read the whole thing here.