Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the Catholic activist and intellectual who ushered Poland out of communism, died October 28 at 86. In his wake, he left a democratic Poland with one of Europe’s most vibrant economies and a model for political leadership in times of change—one he based on his Catholic faith.
He did not rule and dictate. He was unassuming. He talked, listened and worked with all sides, even when that was not popular. He forgave and “drew a thick line” rather than look back. Power was far less important to him than doing what was right for others. When I asked why he took risks and stood up for what he thought was just, his answer was simply: “Because of my faith. I have a responsibility to do what I can for others.”
Mazowiecki was not dramatic or charismatic. 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.
Indeed, 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.”
His melding of faith and political action to do what could be done peacefully was formed by the traumas of Poland from the destruction and slaughter of World War II and, when the Communists took over the government, the repression of anyone who questioned Stalinism or openly supported the Catholic Church. He supported and was a part of a seemingly never ending dance of rebellions, repression and concessions that marked Polish communism and allowed the church to be a powerful player in Polish politics under communist rule.
When I first talked to him in the mid-seventies, I wanted to know what he did as an editor of a tiny Catholic monthly. He was, as usual, curved over a table piled with papers and ringed with cigarette smoke in the midst of a room filled with people gossiping and arguing. He had already been one of the few Catholic deputies in the postwar parliament in the sixties, only to be ousted for demanding inquiries into attacks on demonstrators in 1970 and standing against revisions to the Polish constitution.
What I remember most vividly was the animation in his eyes as he explained how the Catholic Intellectual Club he started and its monthly, Wiez or The Link, managed to get around the government censors to create a haven for discussions of morality and politics and of speaking truth. Then, as always, he presented himself humbly as one of many trying to make change, connecting me with others who “saw things differently” or “might have more to tell.”
What I did not know then was that he had helped create the strongest opposition in the Soviet Bloc by encouraging the Catholic hierarchy to support not only Catholic intellectuals but also the devoutly secular dissident groups that advocated for human rights, no matter what their faith—or nonfaith.
When striking workers were attacked and arrested in 1976, these links were critical to the work of KOR, the Committee to Defend the Workers, that formed to advocate for and provide legal and financial aid for arrested workers and their families. KOR then moved on to be a base for the publication of illegal books and journals; for a flying university that held sessions with blacklisted writers and academics on topics that were forbidden in apartments and church halls; and ultimately KOR worked with the striking workers in Gdansk in 1980.
When strikes broke out in the shipyards that year, Mazowiecki was one of the first of the Warsaw activists to wend his way around police blockades to be with the workers. He came not just to see what was happening (since the press reported nothing), but also prepared to do what he could to help. He stayed, sleeping on the floor with the workers and helping them negotiate the historic Gdansk Accords that made Solidarity a legal trade union in what was supposed to be a workers' state. In the 13 months that followed, he served as one of Lech Walesa’s chief advisors and the editor of the momentarily legal Solidarity weekly, only to be interned December 13 when martial law was imposed.
In spite of being held in internment for more than a year, 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.
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.
When Solidarity won the first free elections months later, Lech Walesa named him as Solidarity’s choice for prime minister. General Jaruzielski had been made president through the Roundtable Accords, so he had final say; he picked Mazowiecki for prime minister, too. It was time for a valedictory.
He made it clear that these were new days. His first telephone call was not to the Soviet leaders, as had always been the case, but to the Vatican. And, much to his surprise, his old friend and collaborator, Pope John Paul II, came on the line to congratulate him and promise his support. True to form, his first foreign visit was also to the Vatican.
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.
Although he continued to go to Mass daily and work with Catholic leaders, he also tried to temper changes the church wanted. When the Church pressed for an immediate addition of religious education in public schools (after all, the communists had their ideology in the old curriculum), Mazowiecki pushed back. There was, he said, no time to get good catechists and train them for all the schools in Poland. He lost that battle, but he made sure that there were provisions that allowed those who were not Catholic to opt out.
He created a multifaceted cabinet instead of assembling one of Solidarity ministers: the old communists and their former supporters were given critical seats at the table, including control of the military and security services; and he included diverse former oppositionists who, in the past, had only agreed in their opposition to communist rule. His agenda was to give everyone a voice. Cabinet meetings began in the afternoon and often lasted into the night so that all sides could be heard.
He supported his economic team’s plan to jumpstart the Polish economy, knowing that it would hurt initially but was necessary to cure the almost terminal ills of what was left of the economy. When the results were far worse for the very men and women who had backed Solidarity, he supported Jacek Kuron, the Minister of Labor and Social Policy, in his protests and unorthodox methods helping the poor: by creating soup kitchens, auctioning off his own family antiques and publicly criticizing the whole economic reform.
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.
The dramatic price increases and drops in the value of most people’s wages impoverished many. Turmoil ensued. His old ally Lech Walesa started what was known as “the war at the top,” attacking Mazowiecki for the economic failures and for protecting communists and their agents through the drawing of the thick line. In the next election, Mazowiecki ran, reluctantly, against Walesa. He lost.
He took on one more cause and protest, after serving as the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur for Bosnia for three years. As he had done in Poland, he went to hear all sides, to sit and hear the stories, and to press for human rights. He publically resigned in protest of the UN’s weakness. This was, he felt, the only way the world to show the world how the horrors of the fighting in Bosnia and the inability of the UN to take action.
To the end of his life, he met with new leaders and with those who wanted to change their societies, always encouraging them to find their own way—but, along with telling them to have the courage to stand for what they thought was right, he counseled them to include others and to judge no one but themselves. The story in Warsaw is that he left from his office as an advisor for Poland’s current president to go to the hospital.
Jane Leftwich Curry, a professor of political science at Santa Clara University, is author of a number of books on Eastern Europe, including three on Poland.