There are very few people whose death can mark the end of an era. Karol Modzelewski was one of them. A historian and founding member of the Polish trade union Solidarity, Modzelewski died on April 28 in a Warsaw hospital. Sadly, he leaves behind a country in the grips of a populist government whose accession to power might have been averted if his own earlier warnings had been heeded.
Modzelewski was what the philosopher Hannah Arendt would call an actor—both a “doer” and a “sufferer”—in many of the key political movements of the last 80 years. His life could fill at least one chapter in any European history textbook.
He was born as Kirill Budniewicz in Moscow at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge, which took both his maternal grandfather and father. His Jewish-Russian mother later married the Polish communist Zygmunt Modzelewski, whom she fought alongside in World War II while little Kirill sheltered with other children.
In 1945, Modzelewski was brought to Poland, where he received his new name, along with a new alphabet and culture. Though a transplant, he was not out of place in a time of mass migration. By the time he was nine, he had become a Pole.
He got his first real taste of political activism just 10 years later, during the de-Stalinisation period. Charismatic, handsome, and extremely intelligent, he was also a great orator, and commanded the stage at rally after rally. After participating in the mass protests against Poland’s communist government in 1956, he was disillusioned by the subsequent lack of change. In 1964, he joined another young leader, Jacek Kuron, in publishing an “Open Letter to the Party,” criticising the system from the left. The move immediately landed both men in prison.
The release of Modzelewski and Kuron in 1967 came just in time for them to lead the mass student demonstrations in Poland that year. That got them sent back to prison, but by this time, their “Open Letter” had been read widely in the West. When asked to identify himself before a Paris judge, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the French student activist leaders of les evenements de mai 1968, replied: “Kuron-Modzelewski.”
During his second imprisonment, Modzelewski returned to studying history, and devoted himself fully to the discipline after his release in 1971. He became an established authority on medieval Europe, and the author of books that Russian, French, and Italian historians regard as classics.
But twentieth-century history wasn’t through with Modzelewski. His academic work was soon interrupted by the mass labour strikes of August 1980. Playing the role of doer and sufferer once again, Modzelewski furnished the incipient Solidarity movement with its name. Yet, as always, his main political concern was with egalitarianism, and he was soon marginalised within the movement. After the Polish government cracked down and declared martial law in December 1981, he found himself in prison once again.
The partly free election in June 1989 marked the beginning of the end of communist rule in Poland—and in Eastern Europe generally. Modzelewski was still doggedly pursuing his study of history, but so exhilarating was the political moment that he could not stay away. He was elected as a senator in the new parliament, where he supported left-wing parties. That made him a relic of the past for Poland’s post-communist political leaders, who had no time for humanistic intellectuals. With Central and Eastern Europe’s political landscape undergoing rapid change, they looked to Western Europe and the United States for a new model. Private property would become the guarantor of freedom, and inequality would be tolerated as a necessary price to pay.
When Modzelewski spoke out against the liquidation of the industrial labour force, cuts to the welfare state, and the general disdain of the capitalist political class for those left behind, he was dismissed as a hopeless romantic. His warnings now seem prescient, given the changing political mood of the past few years. The chauvinistic nationalism now ascendant in Poland, the US, and other Western democracies is the collateral damage of a political era that prized free markets over free people.
Modzelewski was an old-fashioned public intellectual, devoted to the life of the mind and to practical politics in the name of social justice. If I sound sympathetic to that way of being in the world, it is because I learned it from Modzelewski himself. I was among the students waiting anxiously for his and Kuron’s release from prison in 1967. We felt called to rebel, but we needed leaders who were prominent public personae, rather than professional politicians. The activist Kuron and the intellectual Modzelewski made for a perfect team of mentors.
In the end, the long, periodic stints in prison wrought havoc on both men’s health. Kuron died in 2004, and now the world has lost Modzelewski, too. I was lucky enough to spend a few days with him and his wife last spring in Turin, where we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1968 revolts. I remember discussing his excellent autobiography and thinking, that in his life, there was nothing of which to be ashamed. It was an honourable life, and when he died, he must have been at ease.
Irena Grudzinska Gross, a 2018 Fellow at the Guggenheim Foundation, is the author of Golden Harvest (with Jan T Gross), Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets and The Scar of Revolution: Custine, Tocqueville, and the Romantic Imagination. She is working on a biography of Alexander Weissberg-Cybulski.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.
(Exclusive to The Daily Star)