a singular commitment
Bronislaw Geremek is a man of many facets. This distinguished
historian sealed the alliance in the Gdansk shipyards in August
1980 between intellectuals and striking workers who had joined
forces in the Solidarity trade union. He was imprisoned for
more than a year because of his political convictions and
later served at various times as adviser to Lech Walesa, as
Minister of Foreign Affairs and as president of the Organization
for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Currently
a member of the European Parliament and author of numerous
historical works, Bronislaw Geremek is also one of the ICRC’s
grew up in the Warsaw ghetto until your father’s
death at Auschwitz in 1943. What did you learn from
those war years?
It is hard to draw lessons from something that
is outside the bounds of normal human experience, by
which I mean the Holocaust, an event that was exceptional...
I remember that it was in the Warsaw ghetto that I first
encountered the Red Cross emblem. My father, who worked
for the Polish Red Cross, wore it on his arm. It was
this occupation in the service of others that helped
to spare his life, at least for a while...
You are best known as a politician and less
so as a historian: you focused in particular on social
issues and marginalization in the Middle Ages... Why
did you choose this neglected area of study?
I felt that suffering should be the object
of historical research and that we should not leave
in anonymity those without the right to history. For
too long, history has remained the preserve of the rich
and powerful. “The poor don’t have archives”,
it was said. In fact, there was a mass of documents
that historians had not combed, in particular hospital
and criminal records.
Is there any connection between
your interests as a social researcher and your political
My interest in the past and my view of current
events dovetail on several accounts. For example, I
am quite closely involved in the “ATD Fourth World”,
a movement for which poverty is a major challenge for
the world at large. In Strasbourg, I am part of a parliamentary
group which discusses the problems of poverty and exclusion.
Your involvement in Solidarity cost you a year
of imprisonment in 1982 during the state of war decreed
by General Jaruzelski. What impressions have you retained
of your captivity?
I don’t want to dwell too much on my
own misfortunes. That is not what really matters...
I who had studied the world of prisons never imagined
that I would one day find myself in one! In December
1981, I was interned along with thousands of others
arrested immediately after the military regime decided
to declare martial law. At the time, the status of political
prisoner was not recognized and I was considered a common-law
prisoner. I was held amongst real common-law prisoners.
We talked a lot, especially at night, and this heightened
my awareness of the specific problems in prisons. We
did not know then what our fate would be; anything could
have happened... Later, when I had political responsibilities,
I recalled the feeling of powerlessness and despair
that grips those who are in the absolute power of their
The ICRC visited you, along with
other detainees imprisoned for political reasons. What
memories do you have of these visits?
I did indeed benefit from such visits, initially
in my first place of detention near Warsaw and later
in other places in northern Poland. Like many other
prisoners in the same category, I felt a slight annoyance
that as an “intellectual” I was accorded
these privileges while other more anonymous prisoners
were not. If I recall rightly, I was quite aggressive
towards the ICRC delegation, firing questions at them
on the fate of other prisoners, especially the workers.
It also annoyed us that the ICRC representatives —
who by the way were generous and kind — were accompanied
by Polish Red Cross officials, whom we considered to
be agents of the regime, the regime that had put us
in prison. We were also suspicious of the interpreters.
Their presence inevitably created a degree of tension.
That said, aspects of our daily lives improved somewhat
after the ICRC’s visit and we were given toothpaste
and other useful items.
You are a member
of the Group of International Advisers of the ICRC...
What for you are the main concerns and challenges facing
The challenges confronting the ICRC are far
reaching. They affect both its philosophy of action
and the continuation of its immense ongoing work. The
changes in our environment — in particular the
appearance of international terrorism on the world scene
— must be considered as calling into question
the system of resolving conflicts. One can ask if, faced
with the phenomenon of international terrorism, which
flouts society’s most basic ethical norms, it
is still possible to apply rules of behaviour that are
part of our civilization’s heritage... It seems
to me that you cannot suspend the rules of behaviour
merely on the grounds that the adversary — even
an adversary with international scope — does not
respect them. If terrorists and governments cast doubt
on the institutions calling for the rule of law, then
the survival of humanity is at stake.
Faced with serious threats to a State or a part of
society, the international community can propose responses
that are not arbitrary. Our group of reflection in the
ICRC could go deeper into this question. We could also
examine the issue of the ICRC’s status: should
it remain outside the United Nations system or be placed
What are your views
on the reform of the United Nations?
It is easier to reform the composition of the
Security Council or other institutions than to rethink
the philosophy of the UN’s action, which is far
and away the most important thing. I think that in the
current debate on UN reform, it would be wiser for the
UN to make human rights the basis for its action rather
than to try to amend the UN Charter. It also needs to
ensure that there is a reference to international civil
society and that account is taken of institutions such
as the Red Cross and certain NGOs which are fighting
for the cause of human rights and humanitarian law,
a cause that States alone can not defend. The Red Cross’s
experience and commitment in putting into practice the
philosophy of human rights is a significant contribution
which deserves to be recognized.
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 have recently
been the subject of much heated debate. What is your
opinion of these rules?
What matters most of all is that the Geneva
Conventions are applied. I don’t see any good
reason to set aside rules of behaviour established as
universal by the international community. Nor do I think
the Geneva Conventions need to be amended, for some
could be tempted to suspend them in extraordinary circumstances.
I do believe, however, that we need to find new legal
responses to new situations... which would, of course,
require work at the political and intellectual levels,
taking into account the complexity of the international
Interview by Jean-François