Karol Modzelewski: November 23rd, 1937 – April 28th, 2019
Enda O’Doherty writes: The activist, historian and sometime political prisoner Karol Modzelewski, who died aged eighty-one last Sunday in Warsaw, was one of the earliest of the wave of Polish dissidents that later came to world attention under the name of Solidarność or Solidarity. Born in Moscow in 1937 at the height of the Terror, Modzelewski was adopted by a Polish communist, Zygmunt Modzelewski, who married his mother after her first husband and Karol’s biological father, a Russian, was arrested in the purges. The new family returned to Poland in the wake of the Red Army after the Second World War and Zygmunt Modzelewski served on the central committee of the party (Polish United Workers Party – PZPR), on the Council of State and as a parliamentary deputy.
As a student Karol Modzelewski was a participant, along with his friend Jacek Kuroń, in the Krzywe Koło (KK ‑ Crooked Circle) discussion club and he became involved in political activism in the following year, around the time that Khrushchev’s “secret speech” appeared to be shaking the edifice of Stalinism. In 1964, along with Kuroń, he signed an “Open Letter to the Party”, which criticised the regime from a left-wing perspective, calling for a form of revolutionary communism in which the working class would rule directly through a democracy of workers’ councils. Modzelewski and Kuroń both lost their university jobs and were later sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
On his release Modzelewski became heavily involved once more in political agitation, with Kuroń and Adam Michnik (today editor-in-chief of the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza). Imprisoned again, he re-emerged in 1971 and immersed himself in academic research, securing his doctorate in medieval history from the university of Wrocław. The academic reprieve, however, turned out to be relatively shortlived. In 1975, again with Kuroń and others, he formed the Committee for Workers’ Defence (KOR), initially a small group of intellectuals committed to raising money for legal defence and family support for striking workers who had been imprisoned. KOR, which had a social democratic and constitutional perspective, gained in strength, as did the more nationalist and conservative ROPCiO (Movement for Defence of Human and Civic Rights) and a multiplicity of student-based groups. Of this period Neal Ascherson later wrote:
A flourishing industry of underground publication grew up. In April 1978, a Party meeting was told that some nineteen publications had been identified, producing a total of some 20,000 copies … The most important were KOR’s Information Bulletin and its periodical Robotnik, designed to be read by workers … The circulation of uncensored material was still very small, and the lack of duplicating or printing material meant that many periodicals were smudgy or almost illegible leaflets. Still, among other samizdat feats was the production of a sophisticated literary and intellectual review (Zapis) and the establishment of Nowa, an ‘uncensored publishing house’ which by 1980 claimed to have issued some fifty titles, including works by Polish authors no longer allowed official publication and translations of – among others – George Orwell, Günter Grass, Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky.
When, four years afterwards, representatives from strike committees from all over Poland met at the shipyards at Gdańsk, Karol Modzelewski, representing Wrocław, spoke in favour of creating a national general union. He also suggested a name for it, Solidarność. (The famous logo was designed by Jerzy Janiszewski.) He was to become the spokesman for the first free trade union to be active in the eastern bloc.
Martial law crushed Solidarity – temporarily – in 1981 and Modzelewski found himself behind bars again: in all he spent eight years in prison. When he lost his position at the Academy of Sciences his historian colleagues in other parts of Europe, including Jacques Le Goff and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in France, mobilised ‑ let us say in solidarity. After Solidarność’s electoral victory in 1989 he became for a time a senator, but, though he remained associated with the Polish left (in the small social democratic party Labour Union) and continued to comment on public affairs, being critical of both the ultraliberalism of the “shock therapy” years of the 1990s and the more recent turn towards nationalism and conservatism, he left active politics. He lectured for a time at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. And his book Barbarzyńska Europa (Barbarian Europe, 2004) has been translated into several languages.
Reflecting the “career path” of a large number of democratic activists in central and eastern Europe in the 1970s and ’80s, Modzelewski wrote: “My experience taught me that being imprisoned was an ennobling thing.”
Sources: “L’historien et dissident polonais Karol Modzelewski est mort”, by Sylvie Kauffmann, Le Monde, April 30th; Wikipedia entries on Karol Modzelewski, Zygmunt Modzelewski, Jacek Kuroń and Adam Michnik; The Polish August (1981), by Neal Ascherson.