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A life of solidarity

THE PROPHET / The Polish historian, author and Solidarity man Karol Modzelewski was written off as a hopeless romantic in his protests against welfare cuts and the privatization of the industry. As we see the evolution of political change in recent years, his warnings seem prophetic.


Rarely, the passing of an individual marks the end of an era. Karol Modzelewski's death was one such case. The historian and one of the founders of the Polish trade union Solidarity died 28. April at a hospital in Warsaw. Unfortunately, he leaves a country ruled by a populist government that could have been prevented if Modzelewski's warnings had been followed.

Modzelewski was what philosopher Hannah Arendt would have called an actor – both a "doer" and a "sufferer" – in many of the central political movements of the last 80 years. His life could have filled at least one chapter in any book on European history.

He was born as Kirill Budniewicz in Moscow during Stalin's purge campaign, which claimed the lives of both grandfather and grandfather. His Jewish-Russian mother later married Polish communist Zygmunt Modzelewski, whom she had fought with in World War II while little Kirill was in cover with other children. In 1945 he was taken to Poland, where he was given a new name, a new alphabet and a new culture. Although a newcomer to the country, he was not an outcast in a time of mass migration in Europe. By the age of nine, he had become a Polish.

Only ten years later, he got the first real taste of political activism during the Stalinization period. In addition to being charismatic and highly intelligent, he mastered the art of speech and captivated the audience on countless political patterns. After taking part in the mass demonstrations against Poland's communist government in 1956, he was disillusioned by the subsequent political downturn. In 1964, he teamed up with another young leader, Jacek Kuroń, and wrote an "open letter to the party" criticizing the system from his point of view on the left. This put them both in jail.

The release by Modzelewski and Kuron in 1967 came just in time to lead the student demonstrations in Poland that year. Once again they were imprisoned, but now their open letter was read by many in the West. When one of the leaders of the student revolt in France in May 1968, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, was asked to identify himself to a Paris judge, he replied: "Kuron-Modzelewski."

During Modzelewski's second term in prison, he resumed history studies, and after his release in 1971 he devoted himself fully to the field. He established himself as an authority in the field of medieval Europe, and has written a number of books that Russian, French and Italian historians regard as classics.

But the history of the 1900th century was not finished with Modzelewski, and in August 1980 his academic work was interrupted by the mass strikes of the labor movement. Once again in the role of both executive and compassionate actor, Modzelewski gave the burgeoning movement Solidarity its name. But as always, Modzelewski's main political affair was similar, and it wasn't long before he was marginalized within the movement. After the Polish government cracked down on the protests and declared the state of emergency in December 1981, he ended up in prison again.

The partially independent elections in June 1989 marked the beginning of the end for the Communist regime in Poland and Eastern Europe. Modzelewski was still a dedicated historian, but the political moment was far too exciting for him to stay away. He was elected senator in the new parliament, where he supported parties on the left. Poland's post-communist political leaders therefore regarded him as a remnant of the past, and they had no patience for humanist intellectuals. The political landscape of Central and Eastern Europe was rapidly changing, and in Poland Western Europe and the United States were used as a new model. Private property was highlighted as the cornerstone of freedom, and inequality was seen as a necessary price to pay.

Then Modzelewski protesting against welfare cuts, the privatization of industry and the general contempt of the capitalist political class against those left behind, he was written off as a hopeless romantic. As we see developments in the political shift in recent years, his warnings seem prophetic. The chauvinist nationalism that is now on the rise in Poland, the United States and other Western democracies is the result of a political era that prioritized a free market over a free people.

Modzelewski was a public intellectual of the old school who devoted himself to thinking and to political practice in the form of social justice. If I give the impression of being sympathetic to this point of view, it is because I learned it from Modzelewski himself. I was among the students waiting in anticipation for his and Kuron's release from prison in 1967. We felt called to revolt, but we needed leaders who were prominent public figures, rather than professional politicians. Activist Kuron and thinker Modzelewski made a perfect team of mentors.

The long stays in prison marked the health of both men. Curon died in 2004, and now the world has also lost Modzelewski. Last spring I was lucky enough to spend a few days with Modzelewski and his wife in Turin, where we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1968 uprising. We discussed his outstanding autobiography, and I remember thinking that this was a man who had nothing to be ashamed of in life. It was an honorable life, and I think he passed away when he died.
Gross is the author of Golden Harvest, among others, and is currently working on a biography of Alexander Weissberg-Cybulski. © Project Syndicate 2019

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