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Tadeusz Mazowiecki: First leader of democratic Poland


The world remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 as the symbol of the end of the division of Europe. But the real grave-diggers of the Soviet imperium were further east, in Poland, where the first democratically elected government in the communist world had been busy establishing freedom since June 1989, when it took office.

Its prime minister was Tadeusz Mazowiecki who has died at the age of 86. One by one, the political giants whose intellect was behind the voice of Lech Walesa and the last great eruption of a European working class, have gone: Jacek Kuron, Bronislaw Geremek, and now, Mazowiecki.

Mazowiecki was that rare European intellectual and political animal who was incapable of making an enemy. The affection and respect that were naturally afforded him proved of historic worth, first when he helped set up Solidarnosc (Solidarity) in August 1980, and then when he negotiated a peaceful transition of power with Poland's communist elder General Wojciech Jaruzelski in the spring of 1989. He had no side– and plenty of time to talk with anyone who was interested in the ideas that gripped him all his life: democracy, the right of Poland to be Poland under democratic rule, and a European union of nations where the values by which he lived would be sustained.

Mazowiecki was born into one of Poland's innumerable minor noble families. He combined Catholicism with a commitment to social justice – the view that markets must have moral purpose, and not merely exploit human beings for the greed of shareholders and executives. So he never entered the lists of strident anti-communism encouraged by the McCarthy era politics of the early Cold War. He denounced those in the Second World War who were ready to work with the Nazis in the cause of anti-Sovietism, and as a journalist in the 1950s and 1960s he cooperated with communist rule in order to create a space for alternative thinking and writing.

The crushing of the Gdansk shipyard workers strike in 1970 with the killing of strike leaders changed his mind about the possibility of a so-called workers' state ever doing much for workers. He insisted that those responsible should be held to account, and worked with other intellectuals to set up committees to expose how the communist state was betraying the working class.

Thus he had the confidence of Lech Walesa and other strike leaders in Gdansk in August 1980. He drafted the famous manifesto of 64 intellectuals in support of workers – "In this struggle the place of the entire progressive intelligentsia is on their side" – and provided the words that helped persuade the communist government to allow Solidarnosc to come into legal existence for the 16 months that changed modern Europe.

After Solidarity was shut down in December 1981, Mazowiecki spent a year in prison. He edited the underground union publications that were supported by trade unions from West Europe and the democratic world. In 1982, I was arrested in Warsaw, briefly imprisoned and appeared in front of a workers' courts to be found guilty of running money to the underground printing operation.

At the time it looked as if communism had won. But Polish workers and intellectuals such as Mazowiecki, choosing the trade union form to represent their resistance, did not give up. With Walesa he organised huge strikes in Poland in 1988; a tired Jaruzelski, now with a reform-ready Gorbachev in Moscow, agreed to round-table negotiations that led to the first democratic elections in the communist world.

The imprisoned trade union editor became Poland's first democratically elected prime minister. He governed for a brief 18 months, but that was long enough to write a constitution that conformed to classic European liberal parliamentary democracy and to establish a Polish republic, thus returning Poland to full democratic self-governance after an interlude of two centuries. The interwar Polish state had paid the merest lip service to democracy and was riddled with anti-Semitism.

Thereafter he returned to his writing, supporting Poland's entry into the European Union which had taken place in 2004. A decade before, he had been named UN envoy to Bosnia, but he resigned in disgust at the cowardice of John Major's government and others who refused to lift a finger to stop the massacre carried out by Serbs at Srebrenica.

His drooping eyes, long face and a lock of white hair he would push away were familiar to all who visited him in a small office in Warsaw where he tried – without much success – to shape his Democratic Party into a bigger political force. Nevertheless, he became a key figure in the Poland that has now established itself as a leading European nation. Unlike other former leaders who go off to make money or who crave status and recognition, Mazowiecki was content to be a European intellectual committed to liberal values, market economics tempered by social justice with the curiosity of a journalist to know what was going on.

Mazowiecki resisted any witch hunt or retribution against previous communist rulers insisting in 1989 that a "thick line" should be drawn under the past. The peaceful transition to democracy he helped engineer was studied in South Africa and remains a model for moving from authoritarianism to democracy without violence or revenge.

Denis MacShane

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, politician: born 18 April 1927; married Krystyna (died), Ewa (died; three sons); died 28 October 2013.