- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2008


When Bronislaw Geremek was tragically killed in a car crash in Poland in mid-July, most Americans did not recognize his name. Geremek, who? Bronislaw, what? Oh yes, we do know where Poland is - more or less.

Yet, at a time when so many Americans are searching for “heroes,” I suspect that the urbane, meticulously bearded, pipe-smoking Mr. Geremek is as close to a truly unforgettable hero for our times as we are going to find.

Certainly, having met the former Polish foreign minister in 2000 in Warsaw, I am left with the sad, but enormously satisfying feeling that I have been privileged to embrace the best, not only for Poland, but for all of mankind.

The first thing we talked about that summer’s day when I climbed the stairs to his cozy office was, not surprisingly, Russia. Poland has had her give-and-take (almost exclusively, from Mother Russia’s part, “take”) with her big, obstreperous neighbor for centuries. But once communism fell in 1989, little, highly intellectualized Poland became, thanks to Mr. Geremek and his group of Polish patriot-reformers, a kind of mentor to grossly stubborn and rigidly ideologized historic “Rus.”

It was an incredible experience to sit with Mr. Geremek, who looked very much like a burgher from an old Dutch painting - a new man in an old framework - and hear a Pole, born Jewish but saved from the Nazi camps and raised by a Polish Catholic family, analyze Russia and its new relations with its former minions.

“The Russians cannot accept their independence,” he told me that day, speaking of the newly independent Ukraine and Belarus. “They will do everything possible to retain domination there. … The difference in the transition process today in Eastern Europe and in Russia is that Russia is the example of a blocked or failed transition. In Eastern Europe, it was difficult, but there is a real transition. In Russia, it is a failed process; in our countries, it is a realized one.”

And therein lay the complex greatness not only of Mr. Geremek, but indeed, an entire generation of transformational leaders and heroes from Eastern and Western Europe to the Orient. These are not flamboyantly heroic for waging wars but truly heroic for quietly and effectively transforming their countries from unhappy communist satellites to successful independent states.

Through the 1990s, for instance, while the headlines about Eastern Europe were rightly captured by the Solidarity free-trade unions and the continued repression of Moscow, Mr. Geremek and his group of patriot-reformers were quietly and unobtrusively studying the “countries that work” - Germany, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Chile - so they would be ready once the moment came. And thus they were.

Mr. Geremek’s close colleague, the economic genius of the group, Leszek Balcerowicz, told me how they did it. “For me, the direction was clear,” Mr. Balcerowicz said. “We had to set free the energies of the people and to liberalize enterprise. We had to establish a sound currency, pension reform and an independent central bank, and undertake a complete reform of public finances.” And they did, and it worked.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, they were ready, and they moved quickly, within three months, to transform Poland in one historic moment that could all-too-easily have been lost.

Indeed, it was Bronislaw Geremek who signed the historic NATO membership agreement for Poland and shared his joy with then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, daughter of a prominent Czech diplomat. I remembered my first visit to Poland, in 1982, and how surprised I was that three time zones east of Paris, Warsaw still ran on Paris time. With the NATO signing, Poland had come home to Europe, where in its eyes it had always belonged.

In that moment, thanks precisely to men like Mr. Geremek, the Eastern borders of Europe moved from Germany to Poland. By the time I interviewed Mr. Geremek, he was being invited by Moscow to come and lecture on this newest country that worked - his!

As Mr. Geremek, who was also a former political prisoner under the Russians, told me, with a slight smile filled with a distinct sense of the pleasing irony of this moment: “I go to Moscow and I am on TV, and I am asked why things are going so well in Poland and why not in Russia. My answer is that the Poles have a feeling of happiness and a feeling of liberty - and that the Russians could also feel that way.” Could, but didn’t.

How on earth had this small group of men and women centered around Mr. Geremek done it? How had they managed to escape communism and transform Poland into an independent “European” state? Perhaps ineffable Lech Walesa, once again demonstrating the special wisdom of the shipyard worker, had the best answer when I asked him those questions in 2004 in Warsaw. “There was this huge machine of communism,” he said. “And all the wheels were going leftward, and we were going rightward.”

He smiled. One little wheel that valiantly persisted in going its own way, one chorus of small voices that became ever louder and more insistent, one country that started to say “No” for many others as the machine, step by step, broke down. What a noble heritage!

That, indeed, is Mr. Geremek’s legacy - and that is the heritage of the many men and women who quietly and persistently are using economic principle, moral courage and political “smarts” to transform countries from Singapore to Tunisia to Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and so many more.

These are men and women who wage the quiet wars behind the scenes - and who end up with countries that are prosperous, independent and happy, countries that work. Above all, that is Bronislaw Geremek’s great gift, and we diminish him if we do not recognize him as one such new-style hero in our midst.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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