Tributes have flowed for Bronislaw Geremek, a key figure in the overthrow of communism in Poland and in post-communist democratic politics, who died in a car accident on Sunday at the age of 76.

“He was a European of exceptional stature, a Pole of unwavering convictions. All his life he demonstrated political courage without compromise,” said José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, the current holder of the European Union presidency, described Geremek as an “exceptional man, a respected European parliamentarian who through his courage, his humility and his commitment without fail in the service of fundamental rights, embodied the founding values of the European ideal.” Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president, said he was “deeply saddened”.

A bearded, pipe-smoking, history professor, Geremek was a key adviser to Lech Walesa, the anti-communist Solidarity movement leader, and an architect of the 1989 round-table negotiations that brought a peaceful end to communist rule in Poland.

While the Polish round table lacked the drama of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it represented the first crack in communist hegemony and set a precedent for the non-violent transformation of communist states that was widely followed elsewhere in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

When Solidarity won Poland’s first partly-free elections in 1989, Geremek emerged as the movement’s parliamentary leader. Later he and others established the Freedom Union, a liberal party with a strong agenda of market-oriented economic reforms. But even though liberal ideas dominated policy-making, the party struggled to secure much political credit.

However, Geremek remained a statesman of the centre-right and a staunch supporter of integration with the west. As foreign minister in 1997-2000, he took Poland into Nato in 1999 and worked for its subsequent EU accession. In 2004, he was elected to the European parliament.

He took a pragmatic view of the need for compromise between ex-communists and former anti-communists. In 2005, he challenged efforts by Mr Kaczynski and his twin brother, Jaroslaw ­Kaczynski, to launch an anti-communist witch-hunt of public officials. He refused to bow to a Kaczynski-inspired vetting law and declined to declare whether or not he had ever collaborated with the communist secret services. The law was later struck down.

Born into a Jewish family, Geremek witnessed the Nazi Holocaust as a child and lost his father in Auschwitz. He survived after he was smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 and raised in a Catholic family.

Like many other young Polish intellectuals he was initially an enthusiastic communist, joining the party in 1950. But he quit in 1968 after the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1980, he joined the Solidarity movement.

In public, Geremek exuded an air of professorial gravity. But he was rarely short of a joke, often at his own expense. After one meeting with Marek Edelman, the last surviving Warsaw ghetto uprising leader, Geremek said: “I really don’t like talking to Marek Edelman. And that’s because what he can say in one sentence takes me 20 minutes.”

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