Remarks at Memorial Service for Bronislaw GeremekPaula J. Dobriansky,
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
National Endowment for Democracy
September 11, 2008
Thank you, Carl, for organizing today’s memorial service for a great man and a good friend to us all, Bronislaw Geremek. It is clear by looking at those who join us today to remember him that his legacy, like his friendship, transcended borders. Importantly for Poland, it also transcended a single moment in time. By a tragedy this summer, his life was cut too short.
I met Bronislaw in the mid-1980s, in Warsaw, at a time when Solidarity, to which he was a key strategic advisor, was still gathering momentum. We met at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in a historic planning session of Solidarity leaders ranging from Walesa, Geremek, Michnik, Kuron, and Onyszkiewicz among many others – all strategizing on their next steps with then Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead. It was truly a time of solidarity.
In my office, I proudly display Poland’s Highest Medal of Merit which I had the distinct honor of receiving from Foreign Minister Geremek in 2002 at a ceremony at the Polish embassy in Washington. I will never forget this moment. The breadth of change between these two events is truly astounding, and Bronislaw Geremek was a driving force throughout.
At the time of our first meeting, I was struck by his erudite bearing and the thoughtfulness he exuded. But there was more than intellectual depth to Bronislaw—there was also evident courage and conviction. With men like this driving the tempo of change in Poland, we all felt confident that things would go in the right direction. Leaders of Solidarity certainly recognized something essential in the character of Geremek’s wisdom.
Minister Geremek was an intellectual whose understandings and beliefs were forged by experience. He lost his parents in the Holocaust, but escaped the Warsaw Ghetto. In history, he found some respite from the cruelty of one totalitarian regime, and applied the lessons learned in dissembling another.
“If I were in the West, I would probably never be involved in politics because it is simply an exercise for power,” he reflected, “ but here in Poland, an intellectual must be engaged because we’re fighting for the very right to think.
And his thinking was evolutionary. In explaining his decision to join the Communist Party as a young man, he said “I allowed myself to be seduced by the socialist ideal,” but then he renounced party membership in 1968 when he witnessed the brutality of Communist reality as Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. To be non-doctrinaire alone was an act of courage in those days. But Bronislaw’s courage went deeper still, and time after time he paid for his convictions with deprivation, incarceration, and criticism.
It is difficult to say what Geremek’s greatest contribution to modern Poland is, because there are many, many significant accomplishments which, taken by themselves, could easily distinguish a life. But I’d like to mention a few that impacted the lives of millions.
His skillful negotiations in 1989 helped bring forward democratic change in Poland without bloodshed. His cultivation of civil society in the preceding years mightily helped foster the movement for change. As a founding father of the Community of Democracies, he believed in the power of an alliance of more established democracies to nurture the transitions of younger ones.
And as Foreign Minister and representative to the European Parliament, he brought Poland into Europe and many of its institutions, which will have an enduring benefit on his country’s future for decades to come. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called him “a European of exceptional greatness.”
On a day that -- in our country -- has come to be emblematic both of tragedy and perseverance, we say good-bye to a dear old friend, renew our commitment to persevere in the goal of liberty, and hope that others of his caliber will walk in his footsteps.