Monday, 28 October 2013

Sadness at death of Tadeusz Mazowiecki

It was an anticlimactic moment. Journalists and foreign guests (including me) in the offices of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's first non-communist national daily newspaper of the post-Stalin period, gathered around a loudspeaker to hear the results of voting in the Polish parliament. Tadeusz Mazowiecki had just been voted the first non-communist premier of Poland (indeed of any Central and Eastern European country) since Stalin's day. A group of turbaned Indian visitors clapped and cheered; the Poles around me displayed sang-froid - thus was it meant to be, no surprises, much hardship ahead...

Gazeta Wyborcza had only been publishing for three and half months, and was based in a former kindergarten on ul. Iwicka, just one street across from the gigantic corporate HQ the paper currently resides in. It was the crucible of the thinking that would shape today's Poland.

That day was 24 August 1989, the aftermath of the elections of 4 June that year that determined the end of communism in Poland. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who died today at the age of 86, was to be Poland's prime minister for less than a year and half - but it would be those 17 months that would determine the country's current course. A sudden shock therapy, a disconnection of the command-and-control economy to be replaced by a free market, and a policy (gruba kreska) of drawing a thick line between the old regime and the new reality that made a peaceful transition possible, though bringing with it a sense of injustice. Injustice that old communists were still walking the streets, rather than being made to atone for their 45 years of crimes against the nation - injustice that the end of communism meant the end of guaranteed jobs.

Later that year (or early 1990), I was at a political meeting in the theatre of POSK (Polish social and cultural club) in Hammersmith. Some dissident from Poland was on stage. He was winning the emigre audience with anti-communist slogans, when suddenly he turned on premier Mazowiecki. Consternation in the audience. "Hang on a second - isn't is supposed to be about them (the evil communists) and us (the democratically elected government and its democratically elected prime minister)? Now here's some petty troublemaker trying to insert a wedge into the Forces of Good... Here was the genesis of today's split between PO and PiS.

In November 1990, I volunteered to observe Poland's first ever direct presidential elections, on behalf of the Polish Government-in-Exile. We visited polling stations in Legnica and Wrocław, then, after the defeat in the first round of Tadeusz Mazowiecki (he came third, behind Lech Wałęsa and the populist-from-nowhere, Stan Tyminski), we took part in a meeting of Mazowiecki supporters at Kraków's Jagiellonian University, at which a reluctant majority voted to back Wałęsa in the second round to stop Tymiński (to this day an unexplained phenomenon).

Mazowiecki was more the philosopher than a premier. An earnest, religious, cerebral lawyer, Mazowiecki did not have that rough-and-tumble dirtiness necessary to be a political animal. But he has won his place in the pantheon of the Polish nation, as providing the balance required to ensure that the transition from communism to free-market democracy would be orderly and bloodless.

He was born in Płock in 1927 (the same year as my mother) and schooled at the city's Malachowianka (along with other significant alumni). After the war, he was active as within Catholic organisations tolerated by the communist regime (PAX and Znak), indeed even becoming a member of the communist parliament from 1961 to 1972, before joining the anti-communist opposition in 1976. It was his pre-opposition past that made him an unpopular figure with PiSites. However, I believe that he put his past behind him and carried out a vast amount of good work within the Solidarity movement, suffering imprisonment during martial law, and played an active role in preparing the Round Table Agreement of April 1989 which paved the way for the June elections and the eventual demise of the communist system.

I last saw him about four years ago at a Sunday mass at the Dominican abbey in Służew, alone, tall and contemplative, a thoroughly decent man.

This time two years ago:
More hipster mounts (Warsaw fixieism)

This time three years ago:
Welcome to Warsaw

This time four years ago:
Just like the old days

1 comment:

Paddy said...

I also met Tadeusz Mazowieckie in a church once a couple of years and shook his hand. A sad day (but a very interesting blogpost).