The Moral Perils of Being Polish

Foreign Policy, 29.02.2016
Emily Tamkin
Lech Walesa, Poland’s legendary dissident, may have been a communist informant, but that makes him neither hero nor villain — only complicated, like his country.


Lech Walesa was the leader of Poland’s 1980s opposition movement, Solidarity (Solidarnosc), a national hero, and the country’s first post-socialist president. Until a few days ago, when he became a Soviet spy.

Earlier this month, accusations emerged that Walesa was a paid communist informant from 1970 to 1976 (four years before the emergence of the Solidarity party). This is not the first time such accusations have been made against Walesa, who was cleared of similar charges in 2000, and who has long maintained that the communists falsified such documents to besmirch his reputation. This time, however, the documents were taken from the home of a former communist interior minister and, according to Lukasz Kaminski, head of the Institute of National Remembrance, a government-affiliated research organization, appear authentic.

The news has shaken Poland — there has already been talk of renaming Gdansk’s Lech Walesa airport, and some have even called on Walesa to return his 1983 Nobel Peace Prize — and reverberations have been felt throughout the former Eastern Bloc (even the Russian media have joined in, saying Walesa worked for the KGB as well as the Polish secret police). The 279 pages of documents, released on Feb. 22 to a long line of journalists and historians, may or may not show that Walesa was indeed a paid informant; they seem to, though he has denied the charge. But they have already shown how those who shaped Poland’s political past and, in turn, its present and future were not pure and perfect souls, but imperfect humans.

To be sure, if true, Walesa could have been helping an organization ruin people’s lives. The Polish United Workers’ Party, via the secret police and the help of those who provided it with information, could censor and silence, blackmail and bribe, torture and tear families apart. Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak, from whose house the files were turned over to the Institute of National Remembrance, was one of its most feared operatives.

But the other reason the accusations are so serious is because of how central Walesa, and Solidarity in general, has become to the self-image of post-communist Polish society. Most opposition movements in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc were, up until the very end of the 1980s, composed of intellectuals (i.e., Russia) or small bands of patriots (e.g., the Baltic States). They may have had moments where they managed to tap into the power of the masses — in 1978, for instance, Georgian dissidents brought thousands of people to the streets to protest against changing the special status of the Georgian language in the constitution — but they were, for the most part, made up of a small, exceptional portion of the country’s population.

Solidarity was different, and it was special. It brought workers — the masses so scorned by dissident groups in other socialist countries — and intellectual activists together, and it did so almost a full decade before the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. It was inclusive, forward-looking, and impactful. It was the first trade union in a Warsaw Pact country not controlled by a communist party, and it went from staging strikes at the Gdansk shipyard to sitting at round-table talks with the communists and the Catholic Church. The talks helped to usher in partially free elections, from which Solidarity helped form a coalition government. Walesa led Solidarity from its earliest days in Gdansk to its time in government, which meant he was special, too.

It is because of Solidarity’s storied role in the history of the Cold War that the news has come as such a blow — and why it has been put to use so enthusiastically by Poland’s current far-right government, which would discredit those who came after communism and the pro-liberal, pro-Western path they chose for the country. Walesa, a source of Polish national pride for decades, was not, it seems, so unflinching, uncompromised, or special after all. If his legend is a lie, so, too, is the path he set Poles upon thereafter.

But amid all this, it is important to remember that the charges that Walesa was a paid informant to the communist regime, if true, are completely compatible with the role he played in Polish history.

These documents exist in the first place not despite Walesa’s long-standing opposition to communist rule, but because of it.

These documents exist in the first place not despite Walesa’s long-standing opposition to communist rule, but because of it. Those who were politically active — as Walesa was even in the 1970s — were more likely to be kept under surveillance, persecuted, and pressured to inform on fellow opposition activists than those who lived quiet lives according to communist strictures. This issue is not unique to Walesa, nor is it even unique to Poland: Czech dissident turned President Vaclav Havel’s name appeared in files released per lustration law as a candidate for recruitment by the secret police; Czech writer Milan Kundera was accused of having informed on a Western spy; Oscar-winning Hungarian director Istvan Szabo, whose work often deals with the pressures put on citizens in the communist period, admitted to having been an informer on his fellow students (allegedly to save a classmate who was involved in the 1956 uprising).

It is also important to remember these sorts of charges themselves have an ugly history: In the early 1990s, a lustration law in what was still Czechoslovakia was passed by the new democratic government to check whether current public officials once had ties to secret police. As Tony Judt wrote in Postwar, “The secret police lists soon found their way into the press published and publicized by politicians and parliamentary candidates hoping to discredit their opponents.” Further, Judt points out that, while potential informers were listed by name, the individuals who recruited them were not.

The timing of the accusations against Walesa is particularly convenient — Walesa has been an outspoken critic of the current government, which was elected last year and has since swiftly moved Poland toward conservative nationalism. But wielding the past as a political weapon is common throughout Central and Eastern European politics. A Georgian politician once told me in an interview, matter-of-factly, that a higher-up in an opposing party had been a communist informer. I have no way of knowing whether this statement was accurate. I do know that it was meant to discredit that man’s political past and present platform. And I also know that the man very well could have been both an informer and a dissident in Soviet times. Walesa could have been, too. The history of Poland, and Eastern Europe more broadly, is complicated enough to hold such contradictions.

There is a strain of thinking in and about Eastern Europe (one that was, to be fair, perpetuated by the Western countries that helped it “transition”) that there were good and bad actors under communism and that individuals and countries were either on the right or wrong side of history. (This idea is likely why the current Polish government is threatening to strip Polish and Jewish historian Jan Gross of his Order of Merit for making the historically substantiated claim that some Polish people were complicit in Nazi war crimes, as though honoring a country’s history is fundamentally incompatible with telling it completely.) The people and politicians of Poland lived through persecution, suppression, resistance, and transition. All of that has been brought into its civic life today. There are no angels and villains in civil society in Poland, because there are no such people anywhere, and particularly not in countries that have lived under political persecution and have gone through such intense periods of transition. The Polish people can’t afford to avoid reckoning with that truth, for even as the remaining public figures who lived under communism grow old and pass away and are replaced by those who merely remember them, their complicated personal histories are necessarily going to be a part of Poland’s political future.

After the news about the new Walesa files broke, I emailed a few friends of mine in Poland and asked for their thoughts. One, Maciej Grodzki of the National School of Public Administration, wrote back: “People who didn’t live in the Communist period or under any totalitarian system can’t imagine how they could have ruined his life and the life of his family [his unemployed wife and eight children]. And for many people (and our current authorities), everything is either black or white. They don’t take into consideration how complicated life at that time was and how intricate our Polish history is.” Or how complicated Poland’s political present therefore is. Or how intricate its future will almost certainly be.

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