Farewell to Tadeusz Mazowiecki

Tadeusz Mazowiecki died yesterday at the age of 86; the Reuters article is here, and coverage from The Economist here. He was a dissident in the communist era, Poland’s first post-communist prime minster, later the U.N.’s special emissary on human rights for Yugoslavia, and a widely-respected elder statesman in Polish politics.

He was also one of the first political figures I ever came to respect and appreciate on more than just a functional plane.* Mazowiecki, Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Vaclav Havel, Laszlo Tokes, Joachim Gauck; these were the first people in a political context who ever meant something to me.**

I encountered them as a freshman in college, in a political science course on Eastern Europe taught by a delightfully understated, wry, occasionally discombobulated Czech professor in what, at my small liberal arts institution, passed for a somewhat imposing semi-circular lecture hall. It was a course I had been ecstatic to see available in the catalogue, and certainly the setting lent it an added air of gravitas, credibility, that sort of compelling college-ness one might also associate with dark paneled libraries and leather-bound books. So who knows, maybe the guys who worked on international calling standards (or something equally boring) would have been just as captivating in the same environment.

But for whatever reason, these men, their stories, and their work, made a powerful impression. I’d like to think I was relatively politically aware at the time, but I think I also took a fairly instrumental view of politicians. The great thinkers and shapers of the world were all dead, and today’s replacements faced the fairly technocratic and uninspiring task of managing the end of history. I knew plenty about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Warsaw Pact and the Eastern Bloc, but these were all things or events (albeit ones in which I was deeply interested). Essentially (and admittedly there’s a fair amount of guesswork going on here; it’s been a few years), for me as a freshman in college, the events I cared about had no people, and the only living people I knew about were boring, uninspiring.

These (mainly Czech and Polish) dissidents changed that. They were intellectuals, thinkers, and politicians who were important as people who had mattered in my lifetime, and mattered because of their ideas, their moral standing, their vision for the world. It is impossible to avoid, but easy to tune out the (I would argue, often stale) rhetoric of freedom that permeates political speech in the United States. It was only by seeing those same words deployed by people for whom they were so clearly (and at times, almost laughably) aspirational that their actual meaning came through. I can’t watch this¬†without tearing up (cut to 4:45 if you’re pressed for time), but without Charter 77, without Solidarity, without KOR, it’s meaningless, just a nice moment at an enormous concert.

Now this generation of dissidents/politicians/thinkers is starting to die, and it’s sad. The world will be the worse for their departure. But (and with the almost guarantee of sounding enormously trite), perhaps the best tribute for any of that generation is exactly that world from which they are departing. Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, the formerly East German bits of Germany; despite whatever problems may exist, these are all normal places, with boring, venal, normal politics. People vote, politicians sometimes do politician-y things, and the papers shout and yell their vociferous criticism. Coming up on 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that’s a legacy anyone should be glad to have left behind.

*In all honesty this post really should have come when Vaclav Havel died in December 2011, but I didn’t have a blog then
**Kuron had already died by the time I learned about him, but I felt bad leaving him out