Friday, June 13, 2008

Europe View no 85: Gold and clay


The Walesa question

Jun 12th 2008

Truth and memory conflict in post-communist Poland

DID the most famous living Pole, Lech Walesa, collaborate with the communist secret police? Over the past 15 years, he has vehemently denied it. The informant “Bolek” who features in the files is someone else, known to him. Mr Walesa has won a number of legal battles to clear his name.

A forthcoming book on the subject comes not from nutty conspiracy theorists, but from two respected Polish historians, Slawomir Cenckiewicz and Piotr Gontarczyk, who work at the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN, in its Polish acronym), the custodian of the communist regime's secret-police files.

They claim to have unearthed previously unknown documents linking Mr Walesa—who led the Solidarity union, served as president and won a Nobel prize—to the secret police, for a period up until 1976. That has prompted a furious row, with the incumbent president, Lech Kaczynski, trading bitter words with his erstwhile ally.

The argument is not just about a possible lapse of judgement more than 30 years ago. It also affects Poland's more recent past. Some believe that Mr Walesa's seemingly erratic behaviour and poor choice of advisers as president from 1990-95 was the result of blackmail (he strongly denies this too). That goes straight to the most divisive question in modern Polish politics.

For a large chunk of Polish opinion, the “PRL”, as the Polish People's Republic is known, was fundamentally illegitimate. Everything that happened—including much so-called “dissident” activity—was a sham and a fraud, orchestrated by Polish or Soviet secret police. Others see the PRL as a pragmatic response to Poland's impossible position after 1945. Surely it was better to live as best as one could than to die senselessly in the forests or rot in jail.

Solidarity under Mr Walesa in 1980 and 1981 partially bridged that gap. The idea that dissident intellectuals could unite with industrial workers and strike a deal with communist bureaucrats set the precedent for the 1989 round table, when the one-party state negotiated its own demise.

The argument about whether that deal was an honourable segue from totalitarian rule to freedom, or a shameful cop-out in which traitors and criminals dodged responsibility for their deeds, is still raging. The dilemmas that may have faced Mr Walesa are those of millions of Poles, including most of those who have been running the country since 1990.

One response to this would be to say that Mr Walesa's behaviour in the early 1970s is simply irrelevant. From 1980 onward, with his remarkable negotiating abilities, charismatic personality and stubborn bravery under arrest, he redeemed himself for any youthful mistakes.

Like many public figures, he was great in his heyday, and it is better not to dwell too much on what happened before or afterwards. Winston Churchill drank too much, grossly misunderstood economics, and had deplorable views about race. Even the founding father of modern Poland, Josef Pilsudski, cooperated with the Czarist secret police, among other things.

From that viewpoint, Lech Walesa is a Polish trademark, symbolising the country's courageous struggle for freedom: damage him, and you damage Poland. As the years pass, and Poland's international image is anchored more firmly in the achievements of others, that argument is diminishing. But it still counts.

Mr Kaczynski's intervention looks vindictive and ill-judged. Some would even say that the historians of the IPN should devote their attention to other subjects. But neglect won't make the problem go away. If the arguments for discretion are strong, the argument for truth is stronger. If the proof is overwhelming, Mr Walesa can still admit his lapse. If it is not, many people won't believe it. But a public cover-up would be the worst of both worlds.

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