AIA Interview with Rafał Dutkiewicz, Mayor of Wroclaw (2002–2018)

Rafał Dutkiewicz is a politician, businessperson, academic lecturer, and activist. From 2002 to 2018, Dutkiewicz was mayor of the city of Wroclaw. During his presidency, Wroclaw has seen the highest number of public investments in its post-war history and has won numerous awards and distinctions in Polish, European and global rankings on a knowledge-based economy and implementation of a “smart city” model. Wroclaw has also become an international city with over 170,000 foreigners from 124 countries. Further, it was the European Capital of Culture in 2016 and co-hosted the 2012 UEFA Euro Football Championship. Prior to his presidency, Dutkiewicz gave lectures on logics and introduction to mathematics at several universities for more than 10 years. During the martial law period, he was an activist in the underground movement “Solidarity” (Solidarność) in Wroclaw. In the years 1989–1990, he was co-leader and then leader of the Civic Committee in Wroclaw, which, representing “Solidarity,” won the first partially free parliamentary elections in 1989 and the first democratic local elections in 1990. He holds a master’s degree in applied mathematics and a Ph.D. in formal logics. Rafał Dutkiewiczs received numerous awards and distinctions, among others: Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (Poland, 2015), Legion of Honor (France, 2013); Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Germany 2017), National Prize of Germany (2017), Honorary Membership Academia Europaea (2011).

  1. What factors shaped—or influenced—your vision for Wroclaw, which encompasses reconciliation with the past, as well as an open and tolerant perspective on the future?

I cannot really give you a direct answer to this question, but instead, I will try to present my point of view in response to subsequent questions. Back in the day, cities served the role of main centres for the exchange of goods. These days, they increasingly become centres for the exchange of ideas. I would like to use a certain metaphor to describe the role of universities, as well as the exchange of ideas and thoughts in this process—the metaphor of City—University. What does it entail? When a city is founded—as it happened in the past—it becomes a living place for a certain group of people. Despite building walls, the residents of the city also establish markets, where strangers are allowed to enter. The strangers—or the others—are welcome both there and in the inns. Often, the city also sends envoys to distant lands, who return with information about others and their ways of living. Thus, we can find centres for the exchange of ideas in cities, and this process is undertaken by the residents; however, as I already mentioned, it also occurs between the locals and the others.

Another feature of cities is houses, which are erected as domains of particular privacy—in their entirety or shared with other folk. However, even if we completely separate our property and our lives, we should be aware that we should remain open—in at least two senses of this word. First of all—we should let some guests in from time to time so that our children can learn good manners, as well as understand that the world is bigger than their immediate family as early in their lives as possible. Second—everybody knows that heating is probably the most important function of a home; however, proper heating also requires a functional ventilation system. Back in the day, it was ensured by cracking open a window, these days such systems are far more refined. If there is no such system in place, we become suffocated with our own vapours, so to speak—I do not know if that is a polite enough term for human flatulence.

Universities serve as shared spaces in cities; they serve the same role as heating and ventilation in homes. They ensure openness towards the community and enable the exchange of thoughts and ideas. This metaphor emphasises the role and importance of the Academy and open society, after Karl Popper in a sense. I believe that the subsequent part of our interview will include further justifications for the value and importance of an open and tolerant attitude.

  1. Why was reconciliation with the past important in the context of thinking about the future?

The words of Cardinal Kominek, written in the 1965 Pastoral letter of Polish bishops to their German brothers—“We forgive and ask for forgiveness”—carry a very important moral message (Wikipedia 2018). Let us recall that these words were written only two decades after the end of World War II, at a time when some war wounds had not yet been fully healed. However, Cardinal Kominek believed that we have to forgive and—given the complexity of Polish-German relations throughout history—also ask for forgiveness. John Paul II once said that he had built half of his teaching on Kominek’s words. There is something in these words that makes us human—a particular ability to “transcend” ourselves, to cross our own boundaries. After all, it is not easy to forgive or to ask for forgiveness. However, it is exactly this transcendence, this way of moving beyond our weaknesses that makes us human.

Regardless of the type of relations—both individual and collective—the unresolved issues from the past occupy our attention and pester our thoughts, thus becoming an intrusive subject of our dreams and reflections. Only leaving the past behind and reconciliation in truth—not in oblivion—frees our thinking, including social one, enabling us to focus on shaping the future in a much better, richer and more creative way. This is the meaning, the sense that I see in gestures and processes of reconciliation. This is why they are so important from the point of view of our future.

  1. Who influenced your vision? Intellectuals or citizens? And why? 

That is a tough question. Family home, especially my mum.

Books. I used to be an absolute bookworm back in the day. Authors like Graham Greene, who—I think—has been mostly forgotten these days. I loved reading his books as much as I loved American literature: William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, J.D. Salinger… However, the author I appreciated the most was John Steinbeck—recently, I decided to read his oeuvre in its entirety once again.

My travels around the world—this was one of the key factors.

My first stay in Germany—in 1990, when I was allowed to go abroad for the first time in the wake of political changes in Poland. Before that, I was forbidden from leaving the country.

I am a mathematician by education, I specialised in mathematical logic. However, I also studied philosophy. I was particularly impressed by neo-Thomism and personalism. I was an avid reader of Gilson’s works, I studied Maritain. Their thinking revolved around two issues:

Philosophy should remain within the field of whatever exists and focus on studying the real world, not the world of sheer opportunities

Every human person possesses a Godgiven dignity and no one has the power to deprive him/her of it.

Maritain has also addressed the topics, suggesting the need to create transnational relations. I also focused on my favourite passage from Kominek’s letter, which I already quoted here. As a side note, I think that Kominek attended Maritain’s lectures during his studies in Paris. We should also note that Wroclaw opened up towards its past in the decade of “Solidarity.” It was only then that the contemporary Vratislavians—first- and second-generation newcomers—finally felt sovereignty in their own city. The sense of sovereignty bred openness. In this sense, civic solidarity is one of the sources of my thoughts and perspective.

  1. What challenges did you face while you were making your vision a reality? How did you overcome them? If possible, I would like to ask you for a few examples of both simple and complex challenges.

I believe that the process of forming a narrative connected with the identity of Wroclaw as a city was not a particularly difficult process since it basically encompassed the history of our city. On the other hand, reality is subjected to strong political will. However, I cannot tell you the extent to which the imperatives of openness and tolerance imposed on reality will be sustainable from a social standpoint. I hope for the best. To date, for more than a decade now, we have been infusing the educational system in Wroclaw—primary and secondary schools—with these values. The cultural infrastructure of Wroclaw was expanded with three museums: the Wroclaw History Museum, which presents the 1000 years of history of our city, the Depot History Centre, which deals with the history of Wroclaw from the end of World War II to contemporary times, and the Pan Tadeusz museum, which cares for the manuscript of the Polish literary relic—the epic by Adam Mickiewicz, a Polish national poet. The two new entries to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, which we managed to achieve, have a concrete and symbolic dimension since they encompass the multicultural heritage of Silesia and Wroclaw—its capital. The first entry covers the Centennial Hall—a 1913 monument of architecture designed by Max Berg, who dubbed it a cathedral of democracy. The Hall is undoubtedly a part of Wroclaw’s history and present time, as well as an element of German culture. The second entry was devoted to the Book of Henryków (Wikipedia 2019)—a thirteenth-century journal written in Latin by a German monk, describing everyday life in the vicinity of his place of residence, a few dozen kilometres from Wroclaw. This journal also contains the first sentence written in Polish, spoken by a Czech settler to his Polish wife:

Openness towards the past, participating in the process of shaping democracy in Europe. European integration. Knowledge and the economy. Culture and innovation. Civil society. Education. The role of academia. Ecology.

These were major topics that we were trying to address. The academic field was one in which we probably achieved the least success, even despite the fact that we managed to bring Wroclaw’s universities closer to the city as a whole from an institutional standpoint. However, we have to remember that in the Polish educational system, public universities are state-owned and financed from the central budget—as a rule; they cooperate with the competent minister. We also managed to build a number of bridges between Wroclaw’s academia and businesses operating in the city.

What we have not succeeded with was carrying out two projects—we have not managed to get universities on board as partners in the debates about the city and let them set the pace and tone of the discussion. Our universities also have certain issues with reducing the distance that separates them from the best players in the world.

  1. Currently, we are seeing Richard Florida criticising his own approach based on 3T hubs, which also result in inequalities. How would you respond to Florida, given the privileged position of Wroclaw?

I have often spoken about Richard in Wroclaw; I also had the opportunity to meet him because he paid a visit to our city. Our approach to the 3xT triad envisioned expanding it with an “I”—Identity. In other words, we wanted to include shaping a strong local identity in the model. The reasons for implementing this approach are twofold: First of all, a strong local identity presupposes strong solidarity—and it is an open solidarity, as I always emphasised. Moreover, tolerance needs to be deeply rooted in order for it to be true and deep. It is best when it is rooted in—I will say it again—open identity. This is the first part of my answer.

The second part of my answer is based on the fact that I read Florida differently from his critics and from Florida himself since he claimed that his critics are right. I do not consider the 3xT approach as a postulate—personally; I believe that it is an observation that space which serves as a meeting place for these three Ts gains a certain developmental advantage over other spaces that do not have all three Ts in one place. That is all. Whether development has to be accompanied by the emergence of inequalities is another issue. If this was the case, these inequalities could be counteracted—and this is the role of public authorities.

  1. The city is a cultural and business metropolis; however, critics point out that culture is often commercialised and instrumentalised in these plans. How would you respond to that criticism?

First and foremost, continental Europe is characterised by public cultural patronage. Second, cultural institutions retain their freedom and artistic independence. My experience tells me that if these two conditions are met, the claims of commercialisation can be refuted. However, I would like to add that I see nothing wrong with commercial entertainment. This is a need that can and should be satisfied.

Yet what drives development in both personal and social terms is high culture, which, on the one hand, should be subsidised and, on the other, which I tend to emphasise, should remain free and independent. Freedom and independence of artistic expression are, therefore, an essential part of my answer to this question. Life, of course, brings all kinds of tension with it. The paradigm of artistic freedom is, however, a principle that must not be disregarded.

I have had an occasion to experience it strongly and let us say in a “vibrant” style annually on the 1st of May at Wroclaw Market Square when several thousand guitarists were performing together the Jimmy Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” piece. Recently, the number of guitarists performing on acoustic and electric instruments was almost 8,000. By the way, the student and youth culture are quite significant elements of the Wroclaw panorama. We are both young and academic city. Young people are both customers and creative participants of culture. Thus, the programme of the European Capital of Culture actively, please note: actively! involved several tens of thousands of pupils from Wroclaw schools.

  1. How is Wroclaw going to survive given the current Polish cultural policy, which does not seem to be very open?

The policy implemented by the Polish government is flawed and even harmful in many areas, including, among others, its anti-European dynamic, which involves invoking resentment. In addition, the said policy is very archaic in nature. One could even say that it is fit for the nineteenth century in a sense—however, that is a hardly positive assessment. It is both national and bilateral. It does not understand supranational trends and networking, which are far more important than bilateral relations. The historical and cultural policies pursued by the Polish government are backwards, often simply false or filled with lies.

If the political independence of local authorities is maintained, local cultural institutions will be able to enjoy autonomy and freedom. However, if the freedom of culture and freedom of participation in culture are infringed upon, we are going to protest. Everyone who infringes upon the aforementioned freedom of access to culture will ultimately fail and be punished. History has proven it already. Such a person or group can, however, cause a lot of harm and damage.

  1. Where do you see Wroclaw and Poland in 10 years?

I am not going to answer this question like a politician. I will answer with my dreams and desires instead. So, it may be somewhat wishful thinking, maybe a little utopian. First of all, I want to see Poland in the European Union, hoping for a deeper integration process. I also hope that the wave of populism and nationalism flooding the old continent over will dissipate. Nationalism is a terrible thing—it is the stinking, rancid sweat of society. Something that we should wash away and get rid of.

Here, I would like to point out that by attacking nationalism, I am not trying to stand in opposition against nations. The power of the associations of national ideas is so significant in human history that even left-wing philosophers such as Habermas inclined to say that if nation states had not emerged, they would have had to have been invented.  However, the community is constantly becoming more and more widespread. The nation is but a community stage in the development of humankind and humanity. The national needs the international, a nation can fulfil its contemporary and future role only in a supranational setting—in our case, within the framework of the European Community.

At the beginning of the 1980s, martial law was introduced in Poland. I was devastated. One of my friends, the extremely wise Professor Stomma, told me then that what we were witnessing were the “birth pangs of the new Europe.” He was right. I have a feeling that today we are experiencing something similar, the birth pangs of a new reality. Whatever is born out of them, however, should be healthy. This is our task, our mission. We should make every effort to make the nationalist and populist sentiments ravaging our continent a thing of the past. We generally grow up in our families, as well as in various communities. Among them, the national community holds particular importance. The national, however, must be perceived from a broader perspective, as something that serves us, something that serves all the people.

Secondly, I hope that we can restore the rule of law in Poland, as well as reinforce other elements of liberal democracy. Thirdly—and finally—I hope that the cities of the future will be places where culture meets nature. If we really make an effort, we can make our environment greener and bluer. We need to clean our air and water, while cities need to be freed from excessive noise. Poland and Wroclaw may find themselves in the world avant-garde of urban thinking about ecological problems, as well as solidary, European and global opposition to climate change.

doi: 10.18278/aia.4.2.4


Wikipedia. (2018) Letter of Reconciliation of the Polish Bishops to the German Bishops. <(> (Accessed 18 September 2019).

Wikpedia. (2019) Book of Henryków. <> (Accessed 18 September 2019).