Friday, July 25, 2008

Geremek obituary

Bronislaw Geremek
Jul 24th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Bronislaw Geremek, a Polish historian and politician, died on July 13th, aged 76

HAD he been in the West, Bronislaw Geremek said, he would have stayed out of politics. Safe in his enclosing study, with the lovingly filled and refilled pipe and the esoteric books, his fame would have centred round investigations of vagabonds in medieval Europe. Instead, because he was in Poland, he chose struggle. “The intellectual must be engaged,” he insisted. “We are fighting for the very right to think.”

His life mirrored his country’s story, of disaster, reconstruction, freedom and frustration. And he shaped it. Without cultured supporters like Mr Geremek, the communist regime in Poland in the 1950s and 1960s would have been even less credible than it was. Without its wily mastermind, Poland’s opposition in the 1980s would have found it far harder to outwit its oppressors. Without “Bronek”, as his friends knew him, polyglot, tweed-clad and cosmopolitan, Poland’s return to the European family of nations would have been slower and less certain.

It took him some years to become one of the “grains of sand” that clogged the machinery of totalitarian rule. First he abandoned the Communist party, in 1968 after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; later he taught in Poland’s flourishing intellectual underground. But his moment of glory came in August 1980 when, in his Volvo, he drove to Gdansk to deliver the Warsaw intellectuals’ message of support to the striking workers at the Lenin shipyard. He had been chosen mostly for his car; it was the most reliable motor the eggheads had.

He forged an unlikely but effective alliance with Lech Walesa, the earthy, mercurial leader of the nascent Solidarity trade union. “The most honest, truthful and intelligent person I ever knew,” Mr Walesa said of him, forgetting the anti-intellectual gibes he had chucked at him. Geremekian guile helped win a temporary victory: a few precious months of semi-freedom when Poles could speak, meet and publish, before the military crackdown in December 1981. Mr Geremek was interned, released and arrested again; in prison, he shovelled coal. The authorities confiscated his passport, booted him out of his university job, and prevented him publishing even purely academic work. “There’s one word in the book that they object to,” he told an interviewer. “It’s ‘Geremek’.”

The winds of history

That name was not the one he had been born with. He was the son of Borys Lewertow, a Jewish businessman and teacher, in a world that was soon destroyed by the Nazis. He referred to those years as a “closed chapter”, an experience that meant he could never be a writer as he intended, for he would never understand the horrors he had seen. “I saw my world go up in flames before my eyes…the little world of family continuity…of values, principles and rules.” He escaped from the Warsaw ghetto through a hole in the wall; his father died in the camps.

Sheltered by a Catholic Pole who later married his mother, the renamed Bronislaw Geremek survived the war. In 1950, at the height of the Stalinist terror in Poland, he joined the Communist party. He was 18. As a trusted party member (and talented historian), he was allowed to travel to the Sorbonne to study, a rare privilege. When critics later attacked him for this, he said he had been “seduced” by the socialist ideal.

And he more than made up for it. Released from jail in 1983 as communist rule in Europe neared its end, Mr Geremek devoted himself to hastening the regime’s downfall. Other Polish opposition figures could be waffly or provincial; it was hard to see them running the country. Not he. Urbane, brainy and funny, he seemed the embodiment of Poland’s hoped-for future. All that was necessary for the downfall of communism, he used to say, was for the barriers of fear and passivity to fall.

At the “round-table” talks in the spring of 1989, it was Mr Geremek who devised the terms for the communist surrender. The key was elections, free enough for the Solidarity-backed candidates to have a chance of winning. In fact, the result was a rout; and once Poland, the biggest country in eastern Europe, was free, the fall of the Berlin Wall was only a matter of time. The winds of history, Mr Geremek knew, would do the rest.

The country’s position in 1990 still seemed perilous. Would the economy survive the shock of transition? Would Poland ever be ready join the EU, let alone NATO? Mr Geremek was sanguine. And as a senior member of parliament and, from 1997 to 2000, foreign minister, he made things sure, signing the agreement in 1999 that brought Poland into NATO—“anchored for centuries” in Europe, as he hoped. His last job was as a member of the European Parliament, a distinguished and passionate member of an often undistinguished institution. “We have created Europe,” he said. “Now we have to create Europeans.”

His critics saw it all differently. The round-table deal was a canny fix, in which weak-willed opposition figures allowed the cronies of the old regime to maintain their power. That approach prompted the demand in 2006 for all public figures to admit any past collaboration with the communist authorities. Mr Geremek responded, echoing Dreyfus, “Je refuse”. The answer of an historian, a European, and a man of moral courage.

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