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Bronislaw Geremek,
a singular commitment

Warsaw-born 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 International Advisers.

You 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 activities?
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 jailers...


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 organization?
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 within it?


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 situation.


Interview by Jean-François Berger


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