Purging the Past in Poland

Self-confessed Communist collaborator Stanislaw Wielgus (left), seen here attending a mass with Cardinal Jozef Glemp, resigned from his newly appointed post of Archbishop of Warsaw on Jan. 7. (Photo: Janek Skarzynski / AFP-Getty Images)

The unseemly revelations regarding Poland's clergy smacks of revenge; it reeks of an orchestrated witch-hunt in fact. In a nutshell, several Polish clerics have resigned recently in the wake of public disclosures linking them to the state police as informers during the Communist era. Yet in a way, this is "old news."

In 1995, Polish Prime Minster Josef Oleksy (the first former Communist party official in post-Communist Poland to hold the post of prime minister) stepped down following public accusations that he was an informer and an agent for the Soviet and later the Russian secret service. However, it was assumed the whole affair had been orchestrated by defeated presidential candidate Lech Walesa. The "father" of the Solidarity movement saw it as a means of getting his revenge against the Communists (who, incidentally, were returned to power under the presidency of Alexander Kwasniewski in 1995).

This time the purge targeted not former Communists but their nemesis the Catholic Church. These charges appear to be designed to weaken and discredit an all-powerful institution in Polish society, one that often meddles in an intrusive manner into the affairs of state. It is hardly surprising that clerics have been tainted by accusations of collaboration with their erstwhile archenemies the former Communists. In 1984, the "dissident" priest Jerzy Popieluszko was murdered brutally in what turned out to be an operation run by the Communist secret police. Historians are bound to speculate whether a colleague in the church and a possible informer betrayed the young clergyman to his Communist assassins.

Today, it is no secret that the highly politicized Catholic clergy in Poland had close links to the Solidarity movement in the early 1980's. Based on those ties, one can presume that the S.B. (the initials for the Polish secret state police) had informers embedded within the clergy's ranks. As Walesa is an ardent Catholic, it is likely that the S.B. had informers within his entourage, within the Solidarity movement at large, as well as within the upper and lower echelons of the Catholic Church. Hence, obtaining the names of "revolutionary" rabble-rousing priests and other anti-Communist crusaders was crucial to the collection of intelligence about what was then considered the seditious and treasonous activists of both the Church and the Solidarity trade union.

Every time Poland's Communist past begins to fade from memory for most Poles it reappears with a vengeance. Why? Because unlike other post-Communist states in the region Poland did not have a full and honest look at its past. There was no real public reckoning with the evils of Communism. There was no truth and reconciliation commission to openly if somewhat awkwardly air the dirty laundry. Poland in that sense is more like Chile — constantly haunted by its authoritarian past.

Yet beneath the perceived moral perfidy of collaboration "with the enemy" is something just as abject: the unbearable stench of corruption that permeates the Polish body politic today. There is also a reactionary anti-European Union and at times even anti-Semitic side to polish politics, which fuels a nasty spirit of settling old scores and reopening old sores. Flaying closet Communists is a convenient populist ploy to win votes even if these tactics require tainting the sanctity of the Catholic Church.

The current situation seems at times to be a sensationalist media ploy fired up to distract the populace from the worsening socio-economic situation and its foreign affairs woes, among them Poland's disastrous involvement in the Iraq debacle, alongside its staunch American ally, and its "black sheep" reputation in Brussels. By that, I mean how Poland is seen almost as a reactionary theocracy run by anti-Abortionist anti-European Union "Brussels bashers" who blame everything bad in the country on the heathen and morally decadent supranational entity they joined in 2004.

Lustration Light

From a regional perspective, Poland did not make a "clean break" from its Communist past because in the early 1990's it gave priority to the rapid implementation of neoliberal economic policies. It decided to postpone the Communists' judgment day. It hastily buried the past. For a time, the transition to free market capitalism eclipsed the return of former Communist party officials to government as social democrats. Amid countless and pervasive corruption scandals, a "Lustration" law was passed in 1998 in which government officials were vetted for any possible Communist party affiliations. But this law came much too late and did little to address Poland's Communist past; the former Communists had been in power on and off for nearly a decade and already held top positions.

Poland's post-Communist neighbors adopted a firmer and more transparent method in dealing with history. Early on, the Czechs and East Germans took a pragmatic approach to their Communist past and decided to open secret police files of citizens to public scrutiny as part of a "cleansing" process. In the Czech Republic, dealing with the past meant that some top former Communist Party officials faced prosecution and jail time for their "crimes." These two highly industrialized states did not want the past to come back to irk them in the future nor did they wish to allow citizens with Communist pedigrees to be left unaccountable for their ideological mistakes. It seemed to them that naming names was a faster and better way of getting on with the job of implementing harsh economic reforms without letting the past slow down the pace of mass privatization. This "openness" was sadly lacking in Poland. Poland is now paying the price for its reluctance to deal with its Communist past and so are the priests of this deeply religious yet highly corrupt society.

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