Leopold Labedz (1920-1993)

Issue Date October 1993
Volume 4
Issue 4
Page Numbers 141-42
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A memorial service was held on June 15 in Washington, D.C., to pay tribute to Leopold Labedz, who died on March 22 in London. A founding member of the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy, Labedz served as editor of the British journal Survey from 1962 to 1989. Speakers at the service, who extolled Labedz’s lifelong dedication to democracy and opposition to totalitarianism, included Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Conquest, Leszek Kolakowski (whose statement was read by Jan Nowak), Irving Kristol, Walter Laqueur, Richard Perle, Richard Pipes, Norman Podhoretz, Edward Shils, and Leonard Sussman. Statements in praise of Labedz were received from many others, including Abraham Brumberg, Jean-Claude Casanova, Melvin Lasky, Peter Reddaway, and Adam Ulam. Presiding over the ceremony was Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, which joined Freedom House in sponsoring the event. A short description of Labedz’s life and accomplishments, written by Carl Gershman for the memorial service program, appears below, followed by brief excerpts from some of the remarks made at the ceremony:

Leopold Labedz was one of the great champions of freedom in our time. Born in 1920 in Symbirsk and educated in Warsaw, he was a witness in his youth to the worst horrors of the twentieth century: the rise of fascism and communism, the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges, and the Second World War. He came to political maturity with an understanding of totalitarianism and devoted his life to opposing it: documenting its crimes, exposing its lies, defending its victims.

Leo’s career spanned the Cold War, the decisive struggle of his era and one in which he played a central role. For three decades, he edited Survey, the most distinguished journal of East and West studies, which published the writings of both major Western political thinkers and dissident intellectuals from the East. While Leo found his calling as an editor, he was much more: a scholar devoted to understanding history and politics; a fierce polemicist with a unique ability to dissect the lies and inconsistencies of his opponents; an activist who understood that the price of liberty is vigilance and struggle; and an intellectual who committed his life to defending the culture of freedom.

Leo lived to see the collapse of the Soviet Union and to receive a hero’s [End Page 141] welcome upon returning to a free Poland. He was an unlikely hero. He never rose to fame or power and certainly never considered himself heroic. Yet that is what he was: a model of courage and integrity, a valiant warrior in the fight against totalitarianism, a brilliant, relentless, often lonely but always powerful voice for freedom. A hero.

Leszek Kolakowski: His passion for knowledge was boundless, and it was a passion for details, for hard verifiable facts, rather than easy to concoct, malleable generalities. This was what made Survey—the journal he edited—so valuable . . . .

Of course, Leo’s decades-long contribution to the cause of freedom against communism was immense. But his anticommunism, based to some extent on his personal experience in the Soviet Union during the war, was not only a political commitment: it was rooted in his hatred of the lie. It was not simply terror (which, after all, had significantly abated in the pos-Stalinist era) that made the communist regime so repugnant to him, it was the all-pervading power of the lie. Leo was, if one may say so, an Orwell-man. He was extremely sensitive to ambiguities, evasiveness, and the distortions of language that were so lavishly employed in political or historical studies purporting to embellish the reality of communist regimes and their history.

Zbigniew Brzezinski: What was special about Leo was his totally uncomplicated attitude on the issue of modern totalitarianism. He despised it. He rejected it totally. He had not one iota of compassion for those who made the slightest excuse for the Soviet version of totalitarianism. He was particularly scathing in his contempt for those scholars whom he saw as making moral compromises in their attitude toward the Soviet system.

He was pure. There was nothing contrived about his passion. He was a very kind human being toward individuals. The bottom line is that one had the feeling that this was a man who truly believed in the distinction between good and bad, and in my book he was on the side of good.

Leo was a courageous person. From 1939 on he was always fighting against the odds, and he was never crushed. He was fundamentally a cheerful person. He would never compromise on what he thought was important. He had moral strength and therefore the courage of one who knows that his cause is right.

Edward Shils: We have assembled to honor Leopold as one of the brave, undeterrable cold warriors, who . . , saw the Soviet Union and communism in general as what they were. Through his ramified, tentacular influence, many enemies of liberal democracy among the Western intellectuals were made more hesitant to speak out on behalf of communism and the Soviet Union. His civil courage made him one of the great animators of the movement which has culminated in the discrediting of communism. [End Page 142]


Copyright © 1993 National Endowment for Democracy and the Johns Hopkins University Press