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In the Land of Walesa
Polish diary, part III.


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John O’Sullivan

“I wish to goodness parliament would decide on an election one way or the other by five o’clock,” said my publisher (to whose surname, Findeisen I have been mistakenly adding an ‘h’ — my apologies) as we were driving towards the Empik bookstore in Warsaw for my first book signing.

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”Why is that?” I asked innocently.

“Because I’m afraid that they are spinning out the debate so that the vote will take place on prime time — just when we want to be selling books to the political junkies now glued to television.”

Well, of course, that’s exactly what happened. Parliament voted for an election around prime time — and then stayed on to debate some of the consequences. So we had a slightly smaller turnout than expected in Warsaw.

As with the later signings, however, the audience was extremely well-informed and on occasions passionate. Most questioners seem to agree with the book’s assumption that Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II are the historical trio most responsible for the collapse of Soviet Communism. But there is always a passionate minority that thinks a fourth name should be added. Outside Poland that name is usually Gorbachev; inside Poland it has invariably been Lech Walesa.

I have a great deal of sympathy with this Polish claim. Walesa is one of the heroes of my book alongside dissidents such as Vaclav Havel and politicians such as Helmut Kohl. Walesa’s role in arguably even more important than theirs since the rise of Solidarity in Poland, inspired by the Pope’s 1979 visit, began the undermining of Soviet Communism in its own “sphere of influence,” It proved to be the beginning of the end.

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . history placed Reagan in the White House, Thatcher in Downing Street, John Paul II in the Vatican, and Walesa in the Lenin shipyard. The first three places are simply more influential than the fourth. Those who occupy them are able to take decisions of great historical importance on a regular basis. Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II in different ways seized their opportunities to constrain and defeat the Soviet Union as surely as Walesa seized his chance to shape a free labor union in Gdansk. But they had many more such opportunities. What is truly remarkable about Walesa is that helped to change the world for the better from the position of unemployed electrician often under house arrest.

I intended to say this in my speech at the embassy party but because I was giving a speech off the cuff, I simply forgot to do so. I am happy to make amends now.

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It’s very hard for an outsider to make sense of the political battle now shaping up for an election in October 21. For a start the political spectrum in Poland is quite unlike the usual tug-of-war between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in most of Europe. The last election virtually eliminated the post-Communist Left parties in parliament even though (or maybe because) they had been governing Poland for the previous four years. They have now gathered together in an electoral coalition under the leadership of the popular former president, Alexander Kwasniecki, but it is scoring only 14-percent in the polls. Most observers are counting it out for this election.

That shifts the entire political spectrum to the Right. The election becomes a battle between two relatively rightist parties — the Civic Platform and the Law and Justice party. But what exactly is the difference between them? I have been testing possible explanations with my various interviewers. Is it a conflict between rural conservatives and urban liberals? Or between secular-minded conservatives and religious ones? Or between the Polish equivalents of Main Street and Wall Street? Or a modern version of the division between Whigs and Tories?

My interlocutors generally respond with Isaiah Berlin’s famous rejoinder: “Well, there’s something in that, but not much.” Law and Justice is perhaps more populist, the Civic Platform more business-minded, the former slightly more Euro-skeptic, the latter a little more Europhile. But there isn’t a great deal of difference on actual policies, they go on to say. After all, both parties have emerged from different wings of the Solidarity movement.

One journalist who interviewed me suggests, however, that the real difference is over how each party intends to deal with “the network.” This is the widely-suspected set of links between former Communists, Soviet-era intelligence networks, business oligarchs who benefited from corrupt privatizations, and the old KGB now reviving in Putin’s Russia under the acronym of FSB. This shadowy “network” is widely believed to be influential on a range of political matters, especially the all-important question of energy security, and largely outside democratic control.

Even if this fear is exaggerated, it rests on something real in Polish life. Because the transition from Communism to democracy was a negotiated one, the Communists protected their futures in various ways. Social “peace” was put before justice. No torturers went to prison; instead they receive state pensions. Communist apparatchiks mutated smoothly into “businessmen” and social democrats. Some are prominent in politics, the media, and public life. There has never been a reckoning for the 40 years of Communist oppression. Poles see their old oppressors still seemingly powerful and well-connected even out of power. It digs a deep well of legitimate resentment throughout society. People want to see justice done.

Here is the difference my interviewer saw between the two parties. He thought that the Law and Justice party was more determined than Civic Platform to uncover the Communist past and to challenge the network. In other words it wants a reckoning. The twin brothers Jaczynski who lead the Law and Justice party and who hold the offices of president and prime minister, have already tried to open the files on those who informed to the intelligence services. (They turned out to include some priests who were close to the future Pope John Paul II.)

Critics of “the twins” argue that they drew the net too wide — the constitutional court has for the moment halted the opening — and may have inadvertently relied on false files created by the old intelligence services to cause confusion. That may be so. Any challenge to the network will have to be clever as well as tough if it is to succeed against such a crafty adversary. But even voters dubious about the twins on other issues know that they really want to end the network’s influence. It is the strongest card in their hand and, if they win, it will be the reason for their victory.

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Before leaving Warsaw for Gdansk, I paid a visit to the Museum of the Warsaw Rising. This commemorates the seven weeks in 1944 when, as the Red Army approached the outskirts of Warsaw and the Germans prepared to hold the city, the Polish Home Army rose and waged a gallant struggle to throw their occupiers out. For the first few days it looked as if the Poles had won. They surprised the Germans, drove them from large areas of the city, and made ready to welcome their Soviet allies.

Alas, Stalin had other ideas. He saw the uprising as an opportunity to eliminate the Polish Home Army, loyal as it was to the London government-in-exile and not to him. He had already murdered something like 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest and, when the crime was discovered by the advancing Germans after June 1941, blamed it on them. Now Stalin saw the chance to get Hitler to completely eliminate Poland’s armed democratic forces on his behalf. It was, you might say, the last gasp of the Nazi-Soviet pact that began World War II.

Stalin ordered Soviet forces to halt outside the city and allow the Germans a free hand. He even refused to allow USAF and RAF planes to refuel on Soviet-controlled territory (except for a token flight) on their way to drop supplies to the Home Army. Long relief flights had to cross enemy territory and risk anti-aircraft fire. Many planes were shot down. Supplies dropped by air often fell into German hands as the liberated areas of Warsaw shrank. Eventually the relief flights were canceled.

Assisted in this way, the Germans gradually regained the initiative. Over seven long weeks they pushed the astonishingly brave and resourceful soldiers of the Polish Home Army — all wearing military insignia in accordance with the laws of war — out of the urban strongholds they had originally seized. Eventually they wore them down to defeat and set about obeying Hitler’s order to erase Warsaw from the map. Only after that did the Red Army resume its advance.

The museum commemorating this struggle with all the modern techniques of film and video, is extraordinarily vivid and powerful. Its centerpiece is an RAF relief plane, shot down during the uprising and now suspended from the high ceiling of the former power-station that houses the exhibition. Along its fuselage are the photographs and biographies of the young Polish RAF fliers who had volunteered for this hazardous patriotic duty. All were killed.

Another feature is a reconstructed Palladium cinema. During the siege this cinema showed the newsreels of the fighting taken by Polish cameramen. Visitors to the Museum now sit in the same uncomfortable seats in which Polish cinemagoers once watched the fighting that was creeping ever more closely towards them. The cycle of newsreels is gripping, showing the slow evolution of the uprising from early euphoria through growing realism to defiance in defeat.

One especially moving moment is the marriage of a resistance fighter to his shy young bride, both smiling with a happiness that was almost certainly brief. I remarked on it to Andrzej.

“Yes,” he said, “there were many marriages during the uprising.”

A new film on the Katyn massacre, entitled simply Katyn, opened on the 17th of September, the 68th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. It is the work of the great Polish director, Andrjez Wajda, whose previous subjects included the Warsaw uprising and the rise of Solidarity.

Wajda’s own father was one of the murdered officers. He had always wanted to make a film about Katyn, but for most of his life — he is 81 — he had thought such a project simply impossible. Like other children of the murdered Katyn officers, he had to keep silent throughout the Communist years and pretend to believe the official lie that the Nazis had carried out the massacre. As the basis of Polish-Soviet “friendship” this lie would last as long as Polish Communism — and Communist rule looked eternal. Poland’s political freedom meant his artistic freedom.

Wajda’s film is seen by Polish critics as the final profound word on Katyn. It says all that can and should be said. It arrives too at a propitious moment. The Putin regime is gradually retreating from the Yeltsin government’s admission of Soviet crimes. A brief mention of the film in an official Russian journal suggested — falsely, indeed absurdly — that Soviet responsibility for the massacre had not really been proved. Wajda’s film will greatly complicate Putin’s attempt to resurrect Soviet lies.

Will Wajda’s film have an effect on the Polish election? The director himself is keeping scrupulously away from this question, even refusing to give interviews until the votes have been counted. He told the BBC: “I think it is very important that this film doesn’t become a means of political manipulation.” Yet, whatever the effect on the main contest between the Civic Platform and Law and Justice, Katyn is bound to stand as a high barrier against any revival of the weakened post-Communist Left.

Wajda’s film will be nominated for Best Foreign Film in the next Academy Awards. Following this year’s Oscar given to the fine German film, The Lives of Others, on the crimes of the East German Stasi — as well as Wajda’s own high reputation — Katyn must be reckoned to be a strong favorite. If so, it would be a welcome sign that Hollywood is finally making serious amends for its long neglect of the crimes of Communism.

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Kingsley Amis used to say that the real test of a television performance was whether the technicians applauded. If these hard-bitten cynics who had literally seen it all before approved, that was the endorsement of very severe and authoritative critics.

Well, on Wednesday in Gdansk, a security guard at the Empik bookstore bought my book. I signed his copy with a particular flourish.

John O’Sullivan is the editor-at-large of National Review and author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister.



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