Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first democratic prime minister of Poland, elected after decades of Communist rule, died on October 28.

In a widely popular weekly satirical puppet TV show, The Polish Zoo, which aired in Poland at the beginning of the 1990s, Mazowiecki was a turtle: sluggish and wise. (Among other central political figures were Lech Wałęsa, the president of Poland, as the lion, and a key post-Communist figure, Leszek Miller, as the spider.) Easily recognizable for his slow manner of speaking, Mazowiecki quickly became the symbol of peaceful, and rapid, democratic change.

He was “our” prime minister when in 1989 the president, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, was still “theirs,” a member of the Communist Party. Although in consequence of conflicts within the Solidarity camp, Mazowiecki lost in the first democratic presidential race to Lech Wałęsa in 1991, along with the workers’ union leader, Mazowiecki has become the symbol of Poland’s democratic change. What’s more, he has become recognized for being the face of careful deliberation and moral standards in politics, unattainable to most.

In his first speech as the prime minister, he formulated the concept of the “thick line,” which was to separate the Communist past from the democratic present. A believer in Christian forgiveness, in politics, too, Mazowiecki felt that dealing with the urgent issues of the state undergoing fundamental transition was more important than settling accounts with the Communist past. As a policy, it allowed the newly elected democratic government to begin major reforms. However, by the end of the 1990s, it became clearly visible that Poles, and right-wing politicians stemming from the Solidarity movement in particular, wanted historical justice.

Adam Michnik and Tadeusz Mazowiecki in 2004. © Mariusz Kubik | Wikimedia Commons
Adam Michnik and Tadeusz Mazowiecki in 2004. © Mariusz Kubik | Wikimedia Commons

Born in 1927, Mazowiecki was a devout Catholic, leftist thinker, believer in European values, and political dissident. At the end of the 1950s, he was one of the founders of the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia, a major intellectual and Catholic organization in Poland. In the same period, he co-created the influential Catholic magazine, Więź, which he later headed. From 1980 onwards, Mazowiecki was the adviser for the Solidarity movement, and a negotiator during the Round Table talks that began in 1988 and resulted in the first semi-free parliamentary elections the following year, a key moment marking the beginning of the end of Communism in Poland and more generally the end of the Soviet Empire.

Because of conflicts in the parliament, Mazowiecki had to give up his post of the prime minster two years later, in 1991, only to become one of the leader of the newly created Democratic Union. It was a center-left party formed by intellectuals, and for over a decade it played the significant role of a thoughtful stabilizer on the Polish political scene. During that time, Mazowiecki took part in writing Poland’s new Constitution, which was ratified in 1997. Thanks to his efforts, it famously included a preamble with reference to God. Also from the beginning of the 1990s, he was the special rapporteur for the United Nations on the situation of human rights in former Yugoslavia. He gave up the post in 1995 in protest to the international community’s insufficient reaction to the atrocities taking place in the region during the war.

A recipient of numerous awards, including the oldest and most prestigious Polish Order of the White Eagle, and the French Légion d’honneur, he also served as adviser to the current president of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski. Mazowiecki was positive icon of Poland’s recent history, because he combined respect for the state and its laws, for the Catholic religion, European values, as well as moral discipline. He is also a rare example of an active political figure left largely untarnished in the brutal political fights on the Polish political scene. In the end, Mazowiecki is a symbol of what a politics could be if, instead of focusing on personal animosities and group interests, politicians focused on concern for the common good.

To view Tadeusz Mazowiecki as a turtle and Donald Tusk (the current prime minister) as Donald Duck on Polskie Zoo in 1991, play video below and advance to 10:26.