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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
people
Life and Style
techApp to start sending headlines, TV clips and ads to your phone
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Asset Finance Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - ASSET FINANCE - An outstanding...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Assistant Marketing & PR Manager

£16 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

Project Manager (App development, SAP, interfacing)

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum + excellent company benefits: Clearwater People Solu...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment