Obituary: Bronislaw Geremek

This obituary of the Solidarnosc leader was published in the Independent on 15 July 2008

Bronislaw Geremek 1932-2008: leading figure in the Polish Solidarity movement
15 July 2008

Bronislaw Geremek was Poland's most prominent European figurehead at a time when Poland's store of statesmen is low. He first became well known internationally as one of the key advisers to the Gdansk electrician Lech Walesa, when the Polish shipyard workers went on strike and occupied their workplaces 28 years ago. The movement and the union they founded, NSZZ Solidarnosc (Solidarity), rang the tocsin for European Communism.
Geremek's importance was that he brought a sense of Europe, a sense of social democracy, and a sense of history to the National Catholic excitement of the Poles as the world watched to see if Russian tanks would smash through the giant metal gates of the Lenin shipyard to restore socialist "order" as they had done in Prague in 1968 or Budapest in 1956.
Geremek, along with other intellectuals such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki or the younger journalist Adam Michnik, an activist in the 1968 movement at Warsaw University, developed the concept of a self-limiting revolution. In negotiation with Communist officials, Geremek and his fellow intellectuals helped fashion the wordy texts of the Gdansk accords. These allowed the Warsaw régime enough face to sign a deal with the workers. Poland thus escaped the fate that from Kronstadt to Tiananmen has been the stock response of Communist governments to any protest by their workers.
Geremek brought a unique quality as a French-trained historian. He had been born to Jewish parents in 1932 and during the Second World War was rescued by a Polish family from a Nazi Selektion which saw others sent to Treblinka's gas chambers. He was typical of the generation of Poles who lived abroad to escape the stifling lack of freedom of thought and expression. Unlike the Polish Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz, and many others, however, he always returned to Poland.
Exile creates its own passions, well caught in Storm Jameson's jewel of a novel A Ulysses Too Many, about exiled Poles in France in the 1950s dreaming of overthrowing Communism and restoring the unhappy Polish politics of the pre-war period. Instead, Geremek studied history in Paris and taught at the Sorbonne in the 1960s. He specialised in medieval social history, writing about those marginalised by the power-holders of the day.
With his elegant French, Geremek was a link between Poland and France as strong as Chopin created in the 19th century. He had good English and with the manners and politeness that is in the Polish DNA, he charmed everyone he met, both by his interest in what they had to say and a desire to have an intellectually rigorous political conversation, rare amongst the solipsism of most political animals. He loved stories, jokes and gossip, and had an incomparable network of European friends and admirers.
Geremek became a European ambassador for Solidarity but was always called to Lech Walesa's side as Solidarity continued its rocky existence between August 1980 and its suppression in December 1981. The source of the Polish democratic revolution remained Polish. Geremek, like the Polish Pope, as well as a network of younger, politically savvy Poles who had sought refuge in London and Paris after the crackdown and anti-Semitic purges which followed the 1968 protests, allowed the Polish movement to internationalise itself.
They won the support of the democratic left and the trade unions, which embarrassed those who claimed Communism represented the workers' interests. Geremek was imprisoned for a year in 1982 at a time when I was briefly put in prison in Warsaw for running money to the underground Solidarity operation. He was re-arrested in 1983, but with the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev, it was soon to be game over for European Communism.
In a sense, Geremek's greater service to his nation and the cause of European freedom came in 1989, when he helped launch the so-called round-table process with Michnik. This allowed the Jaruzelski regime to sit down with Walesa and other representatives of Poland's civil society and paved the way for the first free elections to the Sejm (the Polish parliament). The famous Polish call that Poles "fight for our freedom and yours" was turned into reality as other East and Central European nations followed the Geremek-fashioned model of a peaceful transition from Communism to democracy.
Revolutions notoriously devour their children and Walesa became a sad figure. By contrast, Geremek grew in stature and became Poland's best-known global politician during the 1990s as the architect of Poland adopting a European destiny and seeking membership of the European Union as well as joining Nato.
Geremek was a liberal, tolerant social democrat, but he supported the tough economic reforms of the early 1990s as he understood from history that the statist, corporatist economics inherited from Communism needed not tinkering repairs but a complete uprooting. He chaired the Sejm's committee on foreign affairs from 1989 until 1997 and then was foreign minister until 2000. He worked closely with Tony Blair and Robin Cook to prepare Poland's entry into the EU. As Europe Minister in 2002, I found myself sitting in the British seat at the European Council when Poland's prime minister made the formal entry speech. Although Geremek was out of office it was clear to anyone who knew Polish and European history that he had been one of the main influences in bringing Poland into the heart of Europe.
He became an MEP in 2004. Many thought he should have been chosen as President of the European Parliament but, to their shame, socialist and conservative MEPs stuck to their "Buggins' turn" scheme that keeps European Parliament jobs safe for time-servers. Geremek became president of the Lausanne-based Robert Monnet Foundation and remained an idealist about European integration.
On the day Geremek died, Poland's President, Lech Kaczynski, assured European leaders in Paris for the EU Mediterranean conference that Poland would sign the Lisbon Treaty. It is a fitting tribute to one of Poland's greatest sons and one of the most important European political forces of the last three decades.

Bronislaw Geremek, historian and politician: born Warsaw 6 March 1932; Lecturer, Sorbonne 1962-65; Assistant Professor, Polish Academy of Sciences 1972-89, Professor 1989-2008; member of the Sejm 1989-2001; Foreign Minister 1997-2000; MEP 2004-08; married (two sons); died Lubien, Poland 13 July 2008.