Posts Tagged ‘Jane Leftwich Curry’

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.

“The ultimate power is the power of the powerless”: Václav Havel’s legacy

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

"He assumed good and humanity in everyone."

My friend Jane Leftwich Curry organized an evening at Santa Clara University, where she is a professor of political science, to honor the playwright, dissident, and first president of the Czech Republic (and last president of Czechoslovakia), Václav Havel, who died in December.

The Wednesday event served as my introduction to Havel’s plays as well as to the university itself – despite its proximity, I had never seen SCU, which has the old Santa Clara Mission at its heart.

During the evening, a few of the university’s alumni performed staged readings from 1965’s The Memorandum and the much later 2007 Leaving.

The first was distinctly edgier – at least in the excerpted version.  A deputy manager introduces a new “official” made-up language in the office, “Ptydepe.”  Of course it’s all part of a bureaucratic coup d’état, and the managing director finds himself being edged out.  In the second, a chancellor is leaving office – but does he have to leave the state villa, which has been his extended family’s home for years?  The play was made into a movie in 2010, marking Havel’s debut as a director.

“We, here in Silicon Valley, do not live in an authoritarian society,” said Janey, who is author of six books on the politics of Central and Eastern Europe. “But we have much to learn from this man who had spent his years as a dissident and a writer and overnight took over as president not because he wanted power but because, as he said, ‘You cannot spend your whole life criticizing something and then, when you have a chance to do it better, refuse to go near it.'”

She gave a few examples of his ingenuity from his life as a dissident:

“He was creative not only in outsmarting the police when he could but also in living his life well in spite of all the pressures on him. There are thousands of stories of this … one that comes to mind here in this setting, is that, when he was in prison with the Archbishop of Prague, he organized chess tournaments – not, as the archbishop said at his state funeral, because Havel really liked chess, but because it provided a cover for Archbishop Duka to say mass under the ruse that the prisoners were just playing chess.

Author Curry

“Havel also laughingly told a s story of skiing up the high Tatra mountains – a struggle as he was both a heavy smoker and a non-athlete. He did it so he could meet at the top, on the border, with Polish dissidents like Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik – neither of whom were any better skiers or athletes than he was and both of whom could match him as smokers. They came to share ideas and enjoy each other in the only place they could, a ski hut smack on the border of their two nations at the top of the Tatra mountains.”  It was a good gamble – “the Czech and Polish secret police were too lazy to ski up the mountains to catch dissidents.”

When he was sworn in as president to replace the man who had imprisoned him, some asked what he would say to departing president Gustáv Husák at the cocktail party that followed the ceremony.  “He thought about it and said he supposed they could talk about prison conditions as they had both served time in the same prison – Husak during World War II for being a communist, and he, under communism, for being a dissident. And so they did.”

The incident also illustrated a big theme in Havel’s life and leadership: inclusion, even extending to those who had harmed him.  “He assumed good and humanity in everyone, even though most Czechs and Slovaks kept silent rather than lose their peaceful lives.”

After the fall of communism, when questions arose about the controversial policies of  “lustration,” a government process to reintegrate former Communist into post-communist public life, “he reminded the nation that each and every one of them, himself included, had been part of making the communist system work. That the fault was shared by all and that each person had to account to himself for what he had done or not done. For Havel, then, the ultimate power was the power of the powerless.”

Steven Boyd Saum, editor of Santa Clara Magazine, also spoke – Saum is also attaché to the Honorary Consul General of the Czech Republic in San Francisco/Silicon Valley.

Saum hailed Havel as a man of “compassion and conscience.” He was “a bourgeois child” who, when denied a higher education under communism, became a lab assistant, a soldier, and a stagehand.  “Havel, the man, was a hero.” Arthur Miller called him “the first surrealist president.”

Saum compared him to Thomas Jefferson, in his understanding that loyalties work best when they are to neighbors and communities, rather than monolithic states.

Nice venue

Change occurred so fast in Czechoslovokia that dissidents like Havel quickly found themselves catapulted to power. The skills of a dissident didn’t always translate into the skills of a politician.  Havel believed firmly that when you change the system, people will change. He had respect even for the people who had betrayed him and his colleagues, or who had been silent during their persecution – “he stuck up for them.”

His first biographer Eda Kriseova wrote rather a hagiography. “The world needs heroes,” she said. “I am giving you one.”

(Another biographer, John Keane, author of Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, answers questions here.)