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Tadeusz Mazowiecki 1927-2013

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-Communist prime minister in post-war Eastern Europe, has passed away at the age of 86.

October 29, 2013 - Filip Mazurczak - Articles and Commentary



While Lech Wałęsa is a familiar name to anyone interested in recent European history, the somewhat overshadowed former prime minister played a crucial role in Poland’s peaceful transition to a parliamentary democracy in 1989, an event without which the other revolutions of 1989, inspired by the events in Warsaw, that followed – Hungary’s Round Table negotiations between the government and opposition, the reunification of Germany, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, and the overthrow of Ceaușescu in Romania – would have been impossible.

Dissident intellectual

Mazowiecki’s critics like to point out that he began his career as a journalist at PAX, a collaborationist group of pro-Communist regime Catholics. Between 1961 and 1972, he served in Poland’s parliament as a member of the largely pro-regime Znak Catholic association. In 1953, the Bishop of Kielce, Czesław Kaczmarek, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in a Stalinist show trial under confabulated charges that he was a spy of the United States and the Vatican. At the time, Mazowiecki wrote an article for the pro-regime Wroclaw Catholic Weekly magazine criticising Kaczmarek and writing that “American imperialism… desires, by means of a new war and thus the deaths of millions of people, impose upon countries that have embarked on a new historical path its system of exploitation and social harm.” Such language is classic Marxist-Leninist babble.

However, Mazowiecki increasingly distanced himself from Poland’s communist regime and his later heroism exonerated him. In December 1970, when protests erupted in Gdynia on Poland’s Baltic coast as a protest against a rise in meat prices, Poland’s communist police and military killed about 40 and wounded over 1,000 protesting workers to pacify the unrest. Mazowiecki then insisted on forming a parliamentary committee devoted to finding and punishing those responsible for the slaughter.

However, by 1976 – when the communist government had crushed workers’ riots in Radom and the Ursus tractor factory in Warsaw – Mazowiecki ultimately defected to the opposition. When Solidarity was formed in 1980, Mazowiecki – along with Jacek Kuroń, Adam Michnik, Wiesław Chrzanowski, Bronisław Geremek, and others – became one of the intellectuals who were Lech Wałęsa’s political advisors and served as a liaison between Wałęsa and the West. For his dissident activities, Mazowiecki was imprisoned under martial law (1981-1983).

A Catholic of compromise

Mazowiecki was a close friend and confidant of Pope John Paul II, who before his election to the papacy was a regular contributor to Krakow’s Catholic weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny, which was deeply anti-Communist. Yet, Mazowiecki increasingly distanced himself from the regime and began to share Tygodnik’s perspective. Mazowiecki’s deep Catholic faith was his moral compass, and his commitment to Christian values gave him the decency that won him the affection of many Poles.

His government (1989-1991) had to deal with issues related to church-state relations that would have been unthinkable under Communism. Critics point out that the Mazowiecki government reintroduced religious education classes into Polish public schools without consulting the issue with greater Polish society. However, Mazowiecki did try to reach compromises with non-believers and the political left on other issues such as abortion. Mazowiecki worked to adopt Poland’s current abortion legislation, presented by Mazowiecki as a compromise, which bans the procedure on demand yet allows for rare exceptions such as rape or the life of the health of the mother. Naturally, both pro-lifers and pro-choicers were unhappy with the legislation, but the fact that it is an effective compromise can be attested by public opinion polls, which show that Poles overwhelmingly accept the current legislation on the controversial matter and are against either a total ban on abortion or permissive legislation which is present in most Western countries.

The former prime minister’s compromising approach to such difficult issues is one that is lacking in Poland today. Polish society is more polarised than ever on questions related to the Church’s role in the public square. On the one hand, there is a growing number of Catholics – such as those from Radio Maryja or Fronda – who want Polish civil law to completely conform to canon law. On the other, there is a growing number of Poles – such as those who voted for the anti-clerical Palikot’s Movement party or those who write for radically anti-religious websites such as Racjonalista.pl – who take a condescending, even offensive attitude towards Catholicism. At times of such acrimony within Poland on such sensitive issues as civil unions, the legal regulation of IVF treatment, or the possibility of including religion as a subject in the matura exam, there seems to be a lack of centre between the expanding radical right and extremist left. In this regard, Mazowiecki’s conciliatory Catholicism and respect for those who disagreed with him will be missed.

Wasted potential

Tadeusz Mazowiecki ran in Poland’s first democratic post-war presidential elections in 1990. Given his eloquence, intelligence, conciliatory manner and education, as well as his experience as a lawyer and journalist, he would have been an excellent choice. However, he fell pray to Lech Wałęsa’s famous megalomania. Wałęsa – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the leader of Solidarity, and the embodiment of Eastern Europe’s breaking away from Moscow’s hegemony – seemed like a natural symbolic choice to lead Poland. However, Wałęsa insisted he must be Solidarity’s presidential candidate, despite the fact that many of his key advisors believed Mazowiecki was better qualified.

Throughout the 1980s, Poles of different backgrounds – physical workers, farmers and intellectuals; conservatives, non-Communist socialists, and classical liberals steeped in Hayek and Friedman; Catholics, Jews, and agnostic freemasons – struggled together against the regime, overcoming their differences. Yet the solidarity within Solidarity began to crack in democratic Poland as a result of the “War on Top”.

To be fair, Wałęsa himself fell victim to the “War on Top”. The first strike in August 1980 that ignited Solidarity was in protest over the firing of Anna Walentynowicz, a 51-year-old crane operator who was three months away from retirement (under Communism, retirement at a young age was widespread among manual labourers), for distributing anti-Communist leaflets. Walentynowicz – who was once a close friend of Wałęsa, and even the godmother of one of his daughters – became jealous that Wałęsa, not she (after all, the first strike erupted because of her) became the head of Solidarity. Thus for the next 30 years, she consistently pursued an obsessive strategy of character assassination against Wałęsa.

Nonetheless, Mazowiecki’s failure to win the Polish presidency in 1990 due to Wałęsa’s insistence on running (Mazowiecki lost to Wałęsa and Stan Tyminski, an eccentric Polish émigré who had returned from long stays in Peru and Canada to run in these polls, in the first round of the elections), was a sad example of wasted potential.

No serious student of history can dispute Lech Wałęsa’s courage, charisma and indisputable role in the collapse of Communism. However, his presidency was largely a failure, due to his audacious, brash, rude style. When visiting Great Britain, Wałęsa told Her Majesty the Queen of England herself that his bed in Buckingham Palace was so big, that he couldn’t find his wife (although inappropriate, many Britons found the comment amusing). Meanwhile, during his presidential debate with post-Communist Aleksander Kwaśniewski in 1995, Wałęsa declined to shake his opponent’s hand, saying that, in the best case scenario, he might as well give him his leg to shake (one can contrast this with the much higher standards of American politics: when Mitt Romney lost the presidential election last year, he didn’t insult his opponent but rather wished him well and ensured him of his prayers). Kwaśniewski won by a tiny margin, and many political analysts believe that Wałęsa’s crude remark made the difference. It goes without question that Mazowiecki would have been too refined to commit such a shameful faux pas.

A reformer and true European statesman

If Mazowiecki was unable to serve as Poland’s head of state, he at least headed the first post-Communist government east of the Elbe after 1945. And, given the hardships of such a daunting task, he succeeded. In addition to orienting Poland towards the West and convincing the United States under the George H. W. Bush administration to help rebuild Poland economically, Mazowiecki’s government undertook difficult, yet necessary economic reforms. Critics have argued that the “shock therapy” liberalisation programs of Leszek Balcerowicz, Mazowiecki’s finance minister, led to the growth of poverty and unemployment in post-Communist Poland. However, while Balcerowicz’s reforms were imperfect, they were successful. He ended the spectre of hyperinflation, and thanks to his reforms Poland became the first post-Communist country to return to its pre-1989 level of GDP and had the fastest-growing economy of all Eastern European states during the 1990s.

It is worth noting that Tadeusz Mazowiecki was not only a great Polish statesman; he was above all a great European. His orientation as prime minister was firmly pro-Western; he made accession into NATO and the European Union priorities of his foreign policy. This distinguished Poland from, say, the anti-European, nationalist rhetoric of Slovakia’s Vladimir Meciar.

Yet his biggest contribution to Europe in the broader sense after 1989 was his appointment by the United Nations as Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia. However, Mazowiecki – having documented horrific human rights abuses in the Balkans – stepped down in 1995 as a sign of protest against the UN’s insufficient response to Srebrenica and other atrocities. While it is obvious that the UN and other international organisations did not do enough to stop the horrific events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, few other political figures had the courage to say this so loudly.

And, perhaps, such a stance in itself is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Filip Mazurczak studied history and Spanish literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University. He has interned at The United States Congress and The American Enterprise Institute, and his articles have appeared in publications such as First ThingsTygodnik Powszechny, and Katolicki Miesięcznik “LIST”.

To read a review of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s recently publish memoir visit: https://www.neweasterneurope.eu/node/1001

To read an interview with Tadeusz Mazowiecki visit: https://www.neweasterneurope.eu/node/1000

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