By Wiktor Osiatynski, an adviser to Poland’s Constitutional Committee from 1990 to 1996, is a law professor at Central European University (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 22/01/07):
POLAND trembled this month when the newly appointed Catholic archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, announced his resignation after revelations that he had collaborated with the Communist secret police. The Wielgus scandal seemed to portend a new era in the church’s lustration, or the purging of former secret police collaborators. So far, that has been a slow process, because Pope John Paul II guided the Polish church with principles of reconciliation and mercy rather than revenge. Only after his death did the files on the clergy begin to leak out.
Today in Poland, lustration has become a tool not only of revenge, but of politics. What may look like an effort to reconcile with the Communist past is something else entirely. It is an assault on reconciliation and a generational bid for power.
It has been difficult to deal with the Communist past in Poland in part because the transition was so smooth. Had Communism collapsed abruptly, swift retribution would have been more likely. But the new government promised to establish rule of law, and punishing people retroactively would have violated that basic principle. So a procedure was designed that called for all appointees or candidates for public office (as well as lawyers, but not the clergy) to submit affidavits stating whether or not they had been secret agents. Those who lied were to be disqualified from public service. A special lustration court was established.
But defining what made someone an agent proved a crucial problem. Under Communism, the secret service was omnipresent. It harassed large numbers of people, forcing many to sign loyalty declarations or to collaborate. Most people told them lies, signed the declarations and went home. In 2000, the Supreme Court declared that those who had merely appeared to cooperate, but who avoided providing the security services with any vital information, could not be considered collaborators, even if they signed agreements and met with agents.
Under such criteria, Bishop Wielgus was not a secret agent, even though he did sign two agreements in the 1970s to act as an informant and agent for Polish intelligence. The documents do not prove that he ever produced any reports.
Certainly, there were people in cells of the Solidarity underground who got paid to spy on their best friends, and these people did real damage. Unfortunately, the secret police files do not distinguish at first sight between them and others who didn’t do much harm. To make a valid accusation, it was necessary to analyze the files and other evidence in detail. But this process was too slow for the advocates of de-communization, many of whom have always wanted to use the secret police files as a tool in fighting their opponents.
When historians and some journalists received access to the files, leaks soon began to attract media attention. In January 2005, the entire list of more than 120,000 names was leaked from the Institute of National Memory, where the files are held. The list did not discriminate between agents and those who were merely under surveillance. But its release pushed lustration forward. After the 2005 elections, lustration became a mechanism for enormous generational change in Polish politics and society.
In the early 1990s, the current president Lech Kaczynski; his twin brother Jaroslaw, who is now the prime minister; and their supporters were alienated from their higher-stature colleagues in Solidarity. President Lech Walesa even purged the Kaczynski brothers from his Chancery. So when the twins decided to create the Law and Justice party, they turned to young people on the far right. Now, driven by resentment against an entire generation of older politicians, the Kaczynskis are happy to see them purged from offices and replaced by their own loyalists.
A new lustration law adopted last August seems to fit these purposes well. It weakens procedural safeguards against false accusations, doing away with the presumption of innocence and making it possible to publish the contents of the file of anyone who is active in the public sphere. In other words, now virtually every sitting or aspiring official who lived under Communism is at risk of being slandered.
Poland has a history of such offensives on the part of its younger generation. The last one happened in 1968, when a new, home-bred generation of the Communist party used anti-Semitic slogans and accusations of revising the principles of Marxism-Leninism to push out the aging founders of postwar Communism in Poland. The most active force in this operation was the security services.
Today, the files produced by the very same security services serve a new generation of decidedly anti-Communist young apparatchiks, who use the past to forward their own careers.
This is, of course, sad but not surprising. Politics breeds conflict. And that is why politicians should leave some sensitive realms of morality alone. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was separated from contemporary politics. In Poland, the past has became prey for today’s hunters, proving again that whenever history falls into the hands of politicians, distorted truth becomes an instrument for their own goals.