Ask any Pole about the Round Table and what you’ll hear, instead of the story of King Arthur, is one about the dozens of intellectuals and politicians—some Communist, some not—who met in Warsaw over the course of two months in 1989. Gathered around a massive (and memorably photographed) oak table, dissidents from the legendary Solidarity movement and their former jailers, the leadership of Poland’s Communist Party, hashed out a series of deals that set Central and Eastern Europe down the path of the peaceful revolution that delivered the region from Communism.
Yet today, Poles are split over the legacy of the Round Table. Invoking it may elicit whispers of respect for the founding fathers of Poland’s Third Republic, or generate expletive-filled tirades about the “traitors” responsible for the “fifth partition of Poland.” (The first three came in the late 1700s at the hands of Austria, Prussia, and Russia; the fourth refers to the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement of 1939 between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich.)
When Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the Round Table negotiator and later prime minister who shepherded Poland from Communism to liberal democracy, died in the fall of 2013, right-wing extremists wasted little time in reminding Poles of his reputed “Jewish” roots. As it happened, Mazowiecki was a Roman Catholic scion of the Polish gentry—not simply Catholic, but in fact one of the leading intellectuals of twentieth-century Polish Catholicism: friend to Pope John Paul II and longtime editor of one of the few religiously inspired journals (a monthly named Więź, or Bond) that flourished behind the Iron Curtain.
Whether or not Mazowiecki had a Jewish background is entirely beside the point. The impulse to impute Jewish heritage as a way of tarnishing a public figure’s image—resurrected from the 1930s, before the ovens of Auschwitz burned in Nazi-occupied Poland—has, since 1989, often targeted twentieth-century Poland’s counterparts to James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Many of the founding fathers of the Third Republic (dated from December 1989, when the country dropped the abused Communist term “people’s” from its name) had also been cofounders of Solidarity. In the 1980s, the movement had evolved from Communist Europe’s only independent labor union into a ready-made political opposition; along the way, its leadership endured jail and internment during a period of martial law from 1981 to 1983.
By 1989, having brought Poland to the brink of economic collapse, Communist leaders were looking for someone to share the blame for whatever might go wrong next. The choices were obvious: Mazowiecki, Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa, and others who had been willing to negotiate with the Communist regime in 1980 in order to create the independent trade union in the first place. Instead of finding themselves elevated to a hallowed pantheon, like the American federalists or the French lumières, these pioneering dissidents suffered a last revenge of the Communist system. In the historical memory of post-Communist Poland, they have come to be seen as traitors or, at best, as men who merely followed the unromantic path of compromise in the interest of the public good. “Compromise” can seem like a dirty word from a twenty-first-century Polish vantage point. But as early as the 1960s, Mazowiecki, one of Poland’s leading Catholic social thinkers, would put it differently: “No living social phenomenon, no meaningful intellectual current, can persist in isolation.” His watchword was already “dialogue.” In the 1980s, given the opportunity to remake the Polish social order in that spirit, he could not refuse.