Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lech Walesa

Lech Walesa

History’s tentacles
Jun 26th 2008 | WARSAW
From The Economist print edition

Was Poland’s greatest trade union leader a secret-police informer?

POLAND’S past has a long reach. An appeal court this week upheld the conviction of 14 policemen involved in killing nine miners protesting against martial law and the banning of Solidarity in 1981. And Lech Walesa, the trade union’s leader, whose contribution to the collapse of communism ranks with those of John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, faced allegations that he was once a secret-police informer.

The charge comes in a seemingly well-sourced, 780-page book by two historians working at the Institute of National Remembrance, the custodian of Poland’s surviving communist-era archives. Mr Walesa, they contend, was the informant known in the files as “Bolek”, recruited in 1970 and active until 1976. People on whom he snooped went to jail or lost their jobs, they claim. The circumstantial evidence, seen with a critical eye, is plentiful. But some note that the secret police habitually exaggerated and falsified records of their activities. Mr Walesa himself vehemently and repeatedly rejects the allegations as “lies” and says he will clear his name in court.

The flair he displayed in Solidarity’s heyday (he jumped, at least in legend, over a Gdansk shipyard wall to lead a strike there) and the guts he showed later under martial law (when he rejected all attempts by the communist regime to co-opt him) mean that many Poles would overlook a young man’s misjudgment. Polls give him high ratings for honesty.

What is harder to defend is his record as Poland’s first post-communist president from 1990 to 1995. He was erratic in manner, and surrounded himself with questionable advisers. Some say this was because the outgoing regime was blackmailing him to ensure a smooth switch from power to wealth—and back again. That is how the opposition Law and Justice party sees recent history: a conspiracy of ex-apparatchiks, spooks and dodgy businessmen, aided and abetted by weak-willed ex-dissidents. Discrediting Mr Walesa fits with a counter-attack against Civic Platform, the party that won last autumn’s election. Government figures dismiss the book; Law and Justice is promoting it. Their black-and-white world view leaves little room for human frailty, real or alleged.

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