Timothy Garton Ash laments the death of historian Bronislaw Geremek

Historians in the News

When a friend dies, a part of you dies too. When Bronislaw Geremek was killed in a car accident on Sunday, a part of Europe was lost as well. I remember him once turning to me in a corridor of the Polish parliament, which he had helped to make again a true parliament, stopping in his tracks, taking his ever-present professorial pipe from his mouth, touching his beard, and saying with sudden passion: "You know, for me Europe is a kind of Platonic essence."

Europe will not see his like again. A bright Jewish child saved from the Warsaw ghetto amid the apocalypse of Nazi occupation, educated in patriotism and poetry by Catholic pedagogues of the Marian Sodality; a wonderful historian of the poor in medieval France; a Communist party member; then, through his pivotal role in Solidarity, an architect of the peaceful transition from communism, not just in Poland but in all of central Europe; his country's foreign minister at the moment it joined Nato; a member of the European parliament after Poland joined the EU. So much of the history that has made our continent what it is today, the worst and the best, ran through his veins and into every fingertip. He wrote some of that history, especially of the 14th and 15th centuries, and he made some more of it.

He was one of the most multilayered people I have known. On a public stage he could be formal, statesmanlike, formidable even, like an older generation of Poles in public life. With friends he was quick, wry, a sharp observer of foibles, and a fountain of anecdote. One on one, you might go a little deeper: between the comic and the tragic, which, in his sense of life, were close as twins. Yet always there were levels, still deeper below ground, that I felt I had never plumbed. And now I never will.

What will historians see as his greatest achievement? From the moment he joined the strike in Gdansk's Lenin shipyard, in August 1980, he was the most astute political adviser for Lech Walesa. He understood both the mentality of the communist adversary and the international constellation. He saw the limits of the possible, but also when the politics of opposing a dictatorship has to be the art of the impossible. Obituarists rightly highlight his unique contribution to Poland's "return to Europe" - and to a larger west - after 1989. Even while being pilloried by nationalists at home, he was Poland's most eloquent advocate abroad. He demonstrated again and again what only narrower minds deny: there is no contradiction between being Polish, Jewish, and European.

In my view, his most important single contribution was to the "negotiated revolution" of 1989, achieved through round-table talks and semi-free elections. ...
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