By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 11/01/07):
In recent years, the rightwing Catholic twins who run Poland have advanced two articles of political faith: first, that the strength and moral integrity of the Polish nation is built upon the rock of the Polish Catholic church; and, second, that the weakness and corruption of Polish public life results from the failure to cleanse it of former collaborators with the communist regime. So what happens when the new Archbishop of Warsaw turns out to have signed a secret agreement in the 1970s to spy for the communists?
What happens is the scene, at once dramatic and grotesque, that unfolded in St John’s Cathedral in Warsaw last Sunday. There is a mass, supposedly to install the new archbishop, Stanislaw Wielgus, who had assumed his office the previous Friday despite press revelations of his hidden past. Instead of being installed, the archbishop, decked out in all his glorious episcopal vestments, announces his resignation. Seated in the front row of the congregation, the president of Poland, Lech Kaczynski (twin one), starts to applaud. (Rumour has it that he has personally intervened with the Pope to bring this about.) But he rapidly stops applauding when he hears from the back of the nave a raucous chorus: “No! no! Stay with us!” He knows who is shouting. They are his people, the old ladies in mohair berets and knobbly nosed middle-aged men who listen religiously to Radio Maryja (“Mary”), the influential rightwing Catholic radio station that helped bring him and his brother, Jaroslaw (twin two), to power.
Apparently the mohair berets don’t agree with their president in thinking the compromised archbishop should step down. It’s our church, right or wrong. Except that the church can’t be wrong, can it? So they do what people often do when they don’t like what they hear: blame it on the media. “The media lie,” they chant in the street afterwards.
The primate of Poland seems to be with the mohair berets. In an extraordinary homily, Cardinal Jozef Glemp rails against judgment being passed on Archbishop Wielgus on the basis of what he dismissively calls “scraps of paper and documents photocopied for the third time”. Yet he knows the pope has already accepted Wielgus’s resignation, with regret but also with approval. So is the primate attacking the pope?
That unforgettable scene in Warsaw cathedral illuminates, like a medieval morality play, the dilemmas with which half of Europe has been wrestling ever since the end of communism. To remember or forget? To open the files or leave them under lock and key? To purge or not to purge? Some would argue that this case shows, once again, how dangerous it is to open Pandora’s box. How much better to let bygones be bygones, as Spain did after Franco. I think the opposite is true. The Wielgus affair perfectly illustrates the importance of a timely, scrupulous, fair and comprehensive uncovering of the dictatorial past, in all its complexity. After all, the truth will out in the end. Would it have been better if, 50 years from now, Polish Catholics had discovered from the long-sealed archives that their beloved archbishop – subsequently perhaps primate and, who knows, even second Polish pope – had been supping with the communist devil?
To be sure, partial, sensationalist press stories, based on leaks, are not the best way to go about this. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But the cure for a little knowledge is more knowledge, and still more, until people begin to see the historical truth in all its shades of grey. Already, the effect of this scandal is to blow to smithereens the simplistic black-and-white picture of the past constructed by the Kaczynski twins, Radio Maryja and the like. For them, anyone who walked in clerical black was whiter than white, while anyone who had ever, however briefly, sported the communist red was black as black can be. Now the archbishop in black turns out to have been the red spy, and all the colours are mixed up together.
The process of uncovering this messy past will now continue, hard though the church hierarchy has tried to resist it. Apart from anything else, younger and uncompromised Polish Catholics are demanding it. Another senior Polish priest has just resigned. A clergyman in Krakow will shortly be publishing a book naming 39 alleged clerical collaborators, of whom he says four are now bishops.
However, we will never know the full facts, because many of the files of Department IV of the communist security service, which dealt with the church, were destroyed at the end of the communist period. That is perhaps why Wielgus felt safe from his own grey past. It caught up with him in the form of a microfilm copy of a file belonging to the foreign intelligence department, to which he committed himself to report under the pseudonyms “Adam Wysocki” and then – very suitably – “Grey”. I have now had a chance to read some facsimile pages from that file, which are available on the web. Far from being mere “scraps of paper'”, they are almost textbook samples from a typical communist secret service file, with the wooden language and distorted perspective (almost invariably overstating the informer’s willingness to collaborate) familiar to me from the documents of other Soviet-bloc security services.
The personal story they tell is equally familiar. Stanislaw Wielgus was an academically and personally ambitious man, from a poor, conservative rural background. He wanted to go and study in West Germany, sitting at the feet of German theologians such as the present pope. He signed an agreement to collaborate in order to get there. He says he didn’t harm anyone. That’s what they always say. But the whole point of such an intelligence system is that the individual informer does not understand the value, in a larger jigsaw, of the apparently innocent scraps that they reluctantly toss to the secret police dog who is nagging them.
Many people signed similar declarations. But many others didn’t and paid the price – by not being allowed to go and study abroad, for example, and not going on to make good careers. As human failings go, this was not very serious. Those of us who had the good luck to grow up in a (relatively) free country should ask themselves: what would I have done; would I have signed? But such a man should obviously not be archbishop of Warsaw, especially since he did not come clean about his past until he was forced to.
When I first travelled to Warsaw, nearly 30 years ago, under communist rule, I chanced upon a monk in St Antony’s church who led me round pointing out memorial tablets that indicated that the person had died at Katyn in 1940 – killed, that is, by the Soviets, a fact flatly denied by official communist propaganda. Since I did not then speak Polish and he apparently spoke no other living language, communication was difficult. But finally I found a way. “Fortis est veritas,” I said, “et praevalebit!” (“Truth is strong and will prevail.”)
I will never forget his grin of sheer delight. It was a good motto for Poland then, and I think it’s still a good motto for Poland now. And not just for Poland.