Poland: the politics of history

Krzysztof Bobinski
12 April 2010

A small crowd gathers at midnight on 13 December 2008 outside a modest house in Warsaw. It is an annual event.

The scenario outside the darkened house hardly changes from year to year - even down to the attendees, who are divided into two groups. These chant slogans at each other, the larger (and younger) group scorning the house's occupant and the smaller (and older) one supporting. A line of police (mostly young) separates the rivals. Around one o'clock in the morning the demonstrators drift away. See you next year.

Krzysztof Bobiński is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine. He writes for European Voice and is an associate editor on the Europe section of Europe's World

Among Krzysztof Bobinski's articles in openDemocracy:

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (27 July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (2 December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe" (22 March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

"Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion" (27 October 2006)

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

"The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

"Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (20 June 2008)No one peers through the curtains; the 85-year-old man inside has seen it all before. In any case, he can choose to watch it all live on the local twenty-four-hour news-channels. For this is the residence of former Polish general, Wojciech Jaruzelski, and the occasion the anniversary of his imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981.

The move was intended to crush the then opposition Solidarity trade union that had emerged in the Baltic city of Gdansk in August 1980 and then spread throughout Poland to establish itself as a mass movement threatening radical change in the country's communist system of governance. General Jaruzelski succeeded: Solidarity members were arrested, harassed, beaten down and exiled, and the process of change in eastern Europe frozen - until it erupted again almost a decade later.

This minor Warsaw spectacle in the politics of memory will be repeated each year until the general dies. The debate on whether he was right or wrong to do what he did will go on for much longer.

A political trial

It's not a one-sided debate. As the twentieth anniversary of the end of communism in Poland approaches, polls estimate that around 44% of Poles have come to approve of his move against the Solidarity movement while only 32% are critical. The general himself invariably claims that his decision was motivated by fear that the Soviet Union would invade Poland - thus crushing far more than Solidarity. His critics argue that Moscow  wouldn't have invaded and have Soviet documents to back their case. The Russians, relieved that that this is one event they can shift responsibility for, are not saying much.

Meanwhile ex-general Jaruzelski and the surviving members of his leadership are on trial in a Warsaw court. They are accused of organising an armed conspiracy against the Polish nation. The case has been brought by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a state organisation responsible for prosecuting Nazi and Soviet crimes.

It is highly debatable whether the martial-law decision in 1981 is a matter for a criminal court at all. This is, in truth, a political trial. But the fact that it was brought at all reflects a shift in the debate on Poland's recent past brought about by the rightwing Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law & Justice / PiS) party, which came to power in September 2005 and was voted out in October 2007 in a wave of revulsion at its authoritarian and nationalistic policies. Before the PiS fell it managed to reverse the hitherto dominant view that the key event of the 1980s in Poland was the peaceful handover of power in 1989 by General Jaruzelski and his communists to Solidarity. The advent of PiS brought to the fore a set of historians too young to remember the communist times, who see the key date of this period in terms of Jaruzelski's 1981 clampdown.

Indeed, their view represents a paradigm-shift that covers the whole of the post-war period in Poland. This sees the years since 1945 merely in terms of resistance to and collaboration with the Soviet regime. It ignores the fact that the key issue for Poland and its people - abandoned by the western powers in 1945 - was neither resistance or collaboration. It was how to respond and adapt to the demands of a regime imposed ruthlessly by a Soviet Union which promised social change in return for loss of national sovereignty.

The response by the various social groups was different at different periods. Political changes  mostly matched changes in the Kremlin and the varying temperament of Poland's communist rulers. The framework was set by Moscow's military interventions in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. The end came when the promise of social change, attractive in the 1950s, reached a state of exhaustion in 1980. It was then that the country's working class irrevocably turned its back on its communist rulers and placed its hopes in Lech Wałesa's Solidarity.

An urbane insider

One of the more attractive characters entangled in this story on the communist side was Mieczysław Rakowski who died on 8 November 2008 at the age of 82. Rakowski, the son of a peasant family from western Poland, lost his father during the second world war, murdered by German occupiers. Like many of his generation he joined the communists in 1946 convinced they would build a better future for his country. In 1957 he became editor of Polityka, a weekly established to counter the hopes of a political thaw set in train the previous year. Within a few years he had turned the paper into a standard-bearer for the technocratic, liberal regime which he believed the communist system could evolve into.

openDemocracy writers track Polish politics and governance:

Neal Ascherson, "The victory and defeat of Solidarity" (6 September 2005)

Adam Szostkiewicz, "The Polish lifeboat" (22 September 2005)

Karolina Gniewowska, "The Polish minefield" (23 September 2005)

Marek Kohn, "Poland's beacon for Europe" (25 October 2005)

Neal Ascherson, "Catholic Poland's anguish" (11 January 2007)

Neal Ascherson, "Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "The Polish dictionary" (22 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Sleepless in Sczeczin: what's the matter with Poland?" (19 October 2007)

Neal Ascherson, "Poland after PiS: handle with care" (26 October 2007)

Neal Ascherson, "The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968" (1 February 2008) Rakowski's passion was politics, but his real talent was in editing newspapers. This drew not just good writers but a stream of foreign correspondents in Poland, enchanted by an urbane representative of the regime whose views went far beyond the governing orthodoxy. The dissident opposition dismissed him as little more than a liberal fig-leaf for a repressive regime. The reality was that the conservative wing of the ruling communist party hated him and the Soviets never trusted him; both hampered the political career he yearned for. Rakowski kept a diary reflecting these predicaments, now published in ten volumes; it is an invaluable political record of communist times.

Rakowski himself became the last leader of the communist party at the end of the 1980s, an act that gave him the place in history he had always dreamed of. He stayed  with the party to the end. He was also loyal to General Jaruzelski, who in 1981 had asked Rakowski to join the government to manage the dialogue with Solidarity which preceded martial law. After the clampdown Rakowski stayed in the government, believing that General Jaruzelski both would minimise repressive policies and represented the best hope of keeping the Soviets and the domestic hardliners at bay.

Rakowski was made prime minister in September 1988. He oversaw the negotiations with Solidarity on a power-sharing agreement which led to the first partially free elections in June 1989, before leaving office in August that year. He also dismantled many cumbersome regulations, which paved the way for the free-market reforms after 1989. Poland's bureaucrats are still trying to claw some of them back.

The future's past

After 1989, Rakowski edited a monthly magazine called Dziś. It was aimed at supporters of the post-communist movement - who to Rakowski's regret showed little inclination for political reflection - and thus disappeared into a void. The contents of the magazine, however, demonstrated Rakowski's skill and judgment as an editor. He remained an enthusiast till the end, excited at the prospect of publishing a stenogram of dramatic talks in October 1956 between Nikita Khrushchev, the then Soviet leader, and Poland's Władysław Gomułka. It was at this stormy meeting in Warsaw that Gomułka managed to dissuade the Soviet leader from using military force to crush the liberalising movement then coursing through in Poland. The country was saved from a cataclysm.

However, to Rakowski's disappointment the publication in Dziś provoked no interest in today's Poland. This shows that as long as recent history is seen only in terms of collaboration with or resistance to the communists then events such as those in 1956 which fit neither category will go unnoticed. With such gaps in the country's collective memory, Poland risks having the debate on its past and much of its present reduced to the equivalent of a shouting-match outside the home of a retired general in a Warsaw suburb.  

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