Geremek on Solidarity’s Strategy of Restraint in the Spring of 1989
A medieval historian by training, Bronisław Geremek had emerged by the 1980s as one of the Solidarity movement’s leading strategists. At the Round Table talks between Solidarity and the Communist leadership and in the critical months that followed, he was arguably Lech Wałęsa’s most influential advisor. In this interview, published in 1990, a young Solidarity-affiliated journalist asks Geremek to explain why Solidarity leaders remained so cautious after the Round Table talks, seeming to prefer negotiations with the regime to mobilization of its members.
This source is a part of the Solidarity Comes to Power in Poland, 1989 teaching module.
Geremek on Solidarity’s Strategy of Restraint in the Spring of 1989
Żakowski: Didn’t the rejection of triumphalism, which certainly could find its justification in Solidarity’s
return to public life, represent a fundamental element of your program at that time? Even today, for
people who formed the Solidarity elite, the word “success” only passes their lips with difficulty.
Furthermore, it seems to me that this moderation is contagious, that society shares it.
Geremek: This touches on a very essential issue, especially for the entire period from the Round Table
talks to our electoral victory. I had the feeling that triumphalism would mean losing touch with reality. . . .
After all, our success was unusually fragile. I realized that the scale and the fragility of our success went
handinhand. At no time could we provoke the other side, which, while disposing of all of the
instruments of violence, agreed to give up so much.
Żakowski: Didn’t it seem to you that social mobilization could become an element strengthening the
Geremek: Let us speak the language of facts. Social mobilization was no doubt necessary, but here we
were not talking about mobilization, but about a national uprising.
Żakowski: . . . It still seems to me that at least since the mid1980s, insurrectionary sentiment in Poland
hasn’t existed. I was thinking of a kind of social consumption of the success of the Round Table. It seems
to me that this was absent. I have the impression that neither the acceptance by the government of talks
with representatives of the opposition nor the signing of the Round Table agreement nor the registration
of Solidarity were morally or psychologically processed by society or by the political elite. All of these
facts slipped somewhere into the mists of everyday Polish reality.
Geremek: I completely agree with you. The conspiratorial elites were hugely distrustful and did not know
how to place themselves in the new situation. It demanded changes in their way of life, their mentality,
their style of thinking. It was necessary to put forward a philosophy of normalization, of acceptance of
compromise; the language of struggle had to give way to the language of politics.
It was an unusually difficult process and it had to continue. Especially because beyond the numerous
negotiating teams—well, numerous in the sense of dozens of people, not hundreds of thousands—we
were not able to create the hinterlands through which we could spread our experience to society.
Something broke in the gears between society and the groups of representatives who spoke with the
government. Nonetheless, all of our strength at the Round Table rested precisely on the fact that we spoke
the language of society and acted as its representatives. Western means of transferring information, which
in 1980 and 1981 played a huge role, this time did not work so clearly to our advantage. Eight years earlier
[Westerners] were fascinated by the massive social movement that Solidarity represented. At the time of
the Round Table, Western correspondents were fascinated by the behindthescenes maneuverings, about
which they necessarily knew less and which by their nature do not arouse great enthusiasm. We were
therefore to a great degree deprived of that unusually important translator between us and Polish public
opinion. We could not create any other. Żakowski: Do you not think that Wałęsa’s “politics of
keeping the lid on” played an essential role in restraining the venting of emotion in society? I remember
one of his press conferences at the time of the Second Party Conference. Both he and Jaruzelski issued
quite powerful statements directed against opponents working in their own camps. Jaruzelski criticized
the party base, and Wałęsa criticized participants in demonstrations and skirmishes with the police. Both
sides tried to pull in their own wings, keep emotions to a minimum, keep control of passions.
Geremek: You can only keep a lid on a pot when the water stops boiling. Otherwise, it will explode. The
main problem of both sides was therefore replacing an ethos of struggle and animosity with an ethos of
civilized politics. . . .
Perhaps it was also caused by the delay in the deliberations, which lasted two months, as the longer they
took, the weaker public interest became. In the end, it led to an ambivalent attitude. There was a quite
universal consciousness of the weight of what was going on, but doubts also arose as to whether what was
achieved on paper would became reality. Who could responsibly say that a new December 13 did not
await us and that everything would not start over from the beginning—but in a significantly worse
situation. . . .
Zakowski: Did you also have these doubts?
Geremek: Yes, the whole time. I knew well that these games involved scraps of paper, that were, in the
end, as defenseless as we were. They could be swept up and thrown in the trash. I fought over what should
be written on those scraps of paper, but I never lost my sense of realism. They would not, after all, have
been the first scraps of paper in history to be torn up, nor the first ones to be torn up by the communists. I
understood the attitude of many people and groups coming out against the Round Table, but I had a
different point of view. . . . The strangest irony of history is that the current advocates of the most extreme
political programs, the apostles of acceleration and radicalization to a great extent come from those
groups that were decisively against our path toward winning Polish independence—the path that allowed
us to win that independence very quickly and bloodlessly.
Zakowski: I see there a certain logic based on the belief in the effectiveness, or even the superiority, of
Geremek: I would call that Bolshevik logic, because the Bolsheviks most hated precisely those who
wanted to achieve goals similar to theirs in a peaceful and democratic way
Source: Bronisław Geremek, Rok 1989 Geremek odpowiada, Jacek Zakowski pyta (Warsaw: Plejada
1990), trans. James E. Bjork.
Bronisław Geremek, Rok 1989 -- Geremek odpowiada, Jacek Zakowski pyta (Warsaw: Plejada 1990), trans. James E. Bjork.