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Creating a democracy in Poland: A Farce or a National Drama?

Part one of three

By: Jerzy Przystawa, University of Wrocław, Poland e-mail:
(Presented at the Regional Institute of Public Administration, Lvov-Brzuchowice, Ukraine 6th June 2006)


There is a widespread opinion that Poland represents a glorious case of a country which, by virtue of her people had given other nations within the communist empire an example how to get freedom and successfully pass to democracy. An infinite amount of praises and compliments had been publicly expressed to the Poles for their historical achievement. It is often being said that the triumph of "Solidarność" in Poland, the great wisdom of the so-called Round Table Agreement, opened the road to the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the general collapse of the Soviet Union and to freedom for all the countries concerned. At the very end of August 2005 many heads of states, including the Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko came to Gdańsk to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Birth of Solidarność and paid homage to her magnificent contribution to democratic development in this part of the world.

And Doubts

There are, however, some reasons to believe that the historical truth may not be so flattering to the Poles and that a more sober view should be taken with respect to those historical events and phenomena. First of all there are some doubts as to what extent the origin and lightening spread of Solidarność should be regarded as a genuine spontaneous social movement or how far the communist regime was able to control and manipulate it. There were at the beginning three major industrial centers, where the strikes of workers led to the famous Gdańsk Agreements. These were strikes in the shipyards of Gdańsk, in the shipyards of Szczecin and the third major center was the coal basin of Jastrzębie Zdrój in the heart of Silesian mines. It is rather ironic but now more or less evident that at the heads of those strike committees and chief signatories of the so-called Agreements of Gdańsk, Szczecin and Jastrzębie Zdrój were men, one way or the other, collaborating with the secret police (SB). This is a very painful knowledge for the Poles especially as one of those signatories had soon to become the Nobel Prize Winner and, subsequently, elected the President of Poland. There is also mounting evidence nowadays that quite a number of other members of the chief governing bodies of the registered and legally recognized Solidarity Trade Unions were informers and collaborators of SB. There have been cases, in places where local workers were reluctant to organize local Solidarność structures that such structures were directly initiated and organized by the police agents, who were assuming leading position and infiltrated the ranks of the Union to the top. It is more or less clear what clever ideas were behind that activity. They were stated in a famous "Jerzy Urban’s letter to Stanisław Kania”. Jerzy Urban was at that time merely a well connected journalist and Stanisław Kania was the General Secretary of the Communist Party. Naturally, the letter was not public and its contents became known much later. Jerzy Urban formulated a proposal how the Solidarność crisis could be resolved. The proposal was precisely a scenario similar to the Round Table Agreement, which materialized some 8 years later. No wonder that the author of this letter had become a minister in the General Jaruzelski Government responsible for public relations.

Martial Law: a unavoidable step towards the Historical Compromise

Unfortunately, such a brilliant idea could not be executed at that time. The movement immediately had become elemental and took over the whole country, all factories, offices, schools, hospitals and over 10 million people registered as its members. Whatever crafty plans the regime might have had - towards the end of 1981 it was clear that it cannot be managed and directed to whatever direction. Solidarność was developing and organizing itself in a democratic manner, her local, regional and country governing bodies were elected freely and the amount of secret agents and "moral authorities" placed in its’ rank and file was clearly insufficient. The Martial Law was inevitable.
Martial Law - outlawing Solidarność, brutally suppressing the ensuing strikes all over the country and imprisoning the tens of thousands of trade union activists and sympathizers - is generally presented as another chapter of martyrdom of the Polish Nation. The curfews, tanks and armored vehicles on the streets, soldiers and policemen patrolling night and day and searching the passersby - all such measures looked pretty serious and made a great impression on Poles and all over the world. However, nowadays one can afford looking at the events with less emotions and one has to admit that the regime's action was mainly psychological and rather soft. A few instances of spilling blood and loss of life looked rather like unintentional accidents or exceptional results of ignorance. Perhaps the regime understood that it had no strength to be able to wipe out such a big and widespread movement completely but it is more likely that the communists were determined to make use of the movement rather than getting rid of it. The only question remained how it could be used and how to transform, or, if you like, manipulate it to the communists benefit.

Laying ground for a Round Table

Thus the following years were years of a strange and truly underground activity on both sides. On one side, people of Solidarność tried to organize themselves and oppose the regime in all possible ways. Demanding that Solidarność was reinstated as a legal Trade Union and all the imprisoned people set free and reinstated in their jobs, on the other side all secret police forces worked hard to recognize and infiltrate the underground Solidarity networks. It has been recently disclosed that during the years between the Martial Law and the Round Table Agreement, i.e. between 1982 and 1989, about 100 thousand new collaborators and informers of the secret police had been recruited. Such an unflagging work was aimed at selecting and dividing Solidarność people: to the one side those wise, sensible people who might be willing to understand the historical necessity and compromise, to the other, the less reasonable, uncompromising activists who should be gotten rid of. The latter task was made much easier by the fact that the Western Governments, the US first of all, were ready to assist the regime in this labor: they offered political asylum to the unwelcome element and many thousands of active members of Solidarność had easily obtained passport and one way tickets. Naturally, such a nice channel was also largely exploited by the secret police and many new agents had been sent and placed in the West under the Solidarność guise.
Also a contribution of the Catholic Church of Poland should not be overlooked. The most common view is that the Church offered a hideout for hunted Solidarity leaders and activists and an umbrella for the national resistance. This was certainly so and premises of the Church, all over Poland, served as places of meetings, lecturing and hiding for underground activities. There is however another side of the coin. The news of literally the last days and weeks bring alarming evidence that many of the most trusted clergymen and spiritual patrons of Solidarność had been, in fact, long lasting collaborators and informers of the SB. A well-known priest from Kraków, Father Isakowicz-Zaleski, had announced that he would disclose 28 names of priests from the circle of his acquaintances, which he discovered in his files, who collaborated with the SB directly. Monsignor Stanisław Dziwisz, the Cardinal Archbiskop of Kraków intervened immediately and ordered the priest to remain silent. He also forbade Father Isakowicz-Zaleski to conduct any research in this field and farther examining the secret police files.
When the ranks of Solidarność had been sufficiently purified preparations for the Round Table accelerated. Secret meetings with Lech Wałęsa and his aides with General Jaruzelski and his envoys were taking place and a general amnesty for political prisoners and offenders was declared. From this point of view symptomatic was the fate of a famous underground leader of Solidarność Walcząca (The Fighting Solidarity), Dr. Kornel Morawiecki, a physicist from Wrocław. After 6 years in hiding he was finally caught and imprisoned. However he was not jailed in Wrocław but immediately transferred to the HQ of the secret police in Warsaw. The gossip was spread that it was done in fear that he might have been rescued by his “fighting organization” but of course the reasons were more sensible. Such an uncompromising person like Kornel Morawiecki was the most unwelcome figure during the time of preparation for a grand opening and as long as he was in jail he was a serious obstacle to the process of a "national agreement". Therefore Dr. Morawiecki was frequently visited in jail by the top ranking delegates of the Polish Church Episcopate and "moral authorities" of the Solidarity opposition, like the later Prime Minister Jan Olszewski and others. They all tried to persuade him to emigrate and eventually succeeded on the pretext that his deputy, Andrzej Kołodziej, by then also in jail, was in the need of an immediate cancer operation. They both got plane tickets to Rome. When after few days Kornel Morawiecki tried to fly back to Poland he had been detained at the airport and sent back without the right to return.

A broader perspective: perestroika

One must remember that all those events should be placed on a much broader picture of the whole Soviet block. In 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev announced his famous perestroika and the works of construction of the Common European House were under way. There can be little doubt that Poland and her Solidarność had to play a very significant role in such a construction. For historical and psychological reasons Poland was always a big obstacle to the development of communism and the Soviet Empire as a whole. There were good reasons to believe that Poland of all the countries was most unfit for communism and its ideas. Joseph Stalin himself is often quoted as having once said that "to impose communism on Poland would be like saddling a cow". This was perhaps the main reason why Stalin had not consented to the wishes of the Polish communists and refused to incorporate Poland as another republic to the Soviet Union. The existence of the powerful Catholic Church and the widespread Solidarność movement were significant obstacles but at the same time presented important advantages for the communist block perestroika. If it were possible to come to terms with these two forces and reach an agreement then they might serve as a powerful buffer and reins to lead the kicking horse of Poland to a desired direction.

Reshaping Solidarność

According to the scenario described in the aforementioned Urban’s letter to Kania the stubborn Poles needed a visible breakthrough to believe that the changes were real and genuine. Thus, in the middle of 1988, a wave of strikes ensued, which were to make an impression that Solidarność is still a vigorous and powerful social force that can bring the regime to its knees. There can be little doubt that those strikes were largely provoked and that the workers in factories were reluctant to participate. Nevertheless, they received large publicity, quite out of proportion with the size of the happening. Especially active was the Radio Free Europe, which tried to portray it as a major political event. Lech Wałęsa and his associates used the strikes as a pretext to start a process of reorganizing the Solidarność Trade Union and to put it firmly under his command. So far the underground resistance was a rather loosely connected spontaneous activity of various, though very many, clandestine groups dispersed all over Poland. Those groups had their leaders and there existed various underground structures which the public opinion recognized as the legitimate bodies of the outlawed Union. By the Autumn of 1988 Lech Wałęsa started the creation of a new regional and local bodies and demanded that members of Solidarność renew their membership and registered under this new leadership. For many members of the Union, who had never given up their membership and faithfully adhered to it in spite of the hardships of Martial Law and through all those years such a decision was a great surprise and a shock. Not too many followed the order and most of the members of the Komisja Krajowa (The National Committee) - the supreme ruling body of the Union - openly opposed the step and organized the so-called Grupa Robocza Komisji Krajowej - and maintained that Lech Wałęsa, who was merely a chairman of the Komisja Krajowa, had no such authority to behave like that and that it was a major breach of the Union's Constitution.

Next Month

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