Lech Wałęsa and the Politics of History

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Lech Wałęsa, 1980. Source: AP.

By Siobhan Doucette

In 1980, a little known electrician from Gdansk was chosen as leader of an independent trades union that within one year had ten million members and within ten years played a decisive role in the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe. The head of that union, Lech Wałęsa, has this week come under attack amid allegations that he was a paid informant of the communist-era security service (SB).  These charges have been leveled without proper authentication of the supposedly new incriminating documents and within a fractious political climate. Whatever the objective facts of the case turn out to be, history and contemporary politics have become inextricably intertwined.

Claims that Wałęsa, in the early 1970s, informed to the SB appeared as early as the 1990s. Later, in 2009, historians Sławomir Cenckiewicz and Piotr Gontarczyk published a book arguing that Wałęsa, under the code name “Bolek”, was on SB rolls as an informant from 1970 to 1976, but that any substantial contact ceased in 1974.  The ostensibly new revelations therefore are that Wałęsa received monies for his purported services and reported on specific individuals.  These allegations are being broadcast most vociferously by individuals connected to the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party.  Wałęsa denies these claims, which need to be addressed within both their historical and political contexts.

Historical Context

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Gdynia, 1970.

Wałęsa’s alleged contact with the SB was at a time of social atomization, 10 years before the founding of Solidarity. In 1970, workers protests resulted in tanks on the streets of Poland’s coastal cities, the deaths of dozens of workers, and at least 1,000 injuries.  The exact number of casualties is unknown because there was no impartial contemporary investigation into the government attacks on the populace.  Amid widespread violence, thousands of workers were arrested.  Wałęsa, who was then 27 years old, took a leading role in these protests, was brought in for interrogation, and signed some kind of SB document.

Several years later, the Polish democratic opposition coalesced. It struggled to counteract social atomization and provided advice on how to behave in interrogations.  The free trade union idea emerged at that time, in part, in response to the isolation of Polish workers.  Those workers who first dared to struggle for free trade unions were beaten both in interrogation rooms and in public, as were their family members by “unknown perpetrators” and uniformed men. Activists lost their jobs, as did their spouses and children.  Short-term prison sentences were common.  Lech Wałęsa was at the forefront of this movement in Gdansk from 1978.  Two years later, he was chosen head of the Solidarity trades union when it was created and has since marched with it into the pages of history and lore.

As the opposition grew, the Polish security services frequently produced false documents in order to denounce known regime opponents thus making authentication processes necessary for all SB documents.  In 2000, a verification court was convened to look into Wałęsa’s alleged cooperation with the SB. It found that false documents related to Wałęsa had been created when he was being considered for a Noble Peace Prize in order to discredit him.  In part because of this revelation, he was found innocent of any collaboration with the SB due to the potentially compromised nature of all security service documents related to him.

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Cover of “Wprost” magazine dealing with the recent controversy and the alleged “lies” of the post-1989 Third Polish Republic.

The batch of new documents come indirectly from Czesław Kiszczak, who was Polish Minister of the Interior from 1981 to 1990. They thus have the same taint as all previous documents.  Following Kiszczak’s death in November, his widow attempted to sell the “Bolek” files to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) last week.  Government officials then seized them, arguing that these papers belong to the IPN by law. The documents were, despite their questionable provenance, almost immediately publicized without any serious authentication process having been carried out.

Legitimate authentication processes must go beyond simply ascertaining if an SB agent created a document at the purported time.  In my research into the Polish opposition in the 1970s and 1980s, I have found SB files in which claims were made that opposition groups had been infiltrated and even controlled by the SB.  When I looked for corroborating evidence, I found that such reports were sometimes false.  For instance, an agent may have made contact with a person of little importance to the group under question, but then would suggest in their report that they had contact with a leader of the organization.  Whether it was the informant or the agent who had lied, the document carried untrue information.  There are numerous cases of “informants” providing false information to the SB in order either to present themselves as a valuable asset or to mislead the SB.  Moreover, individuals often signed documents agreeing to inform with the sole objective of being released from interviews in which violence was not only threatened but also used.  Such individuals had no intention of informing and when called in for further information would provide useless intelligence since breaking all contact would generally result in punishment, including loss of employment.  Finally, some “sources” didn’t even know that the person with whom they were talking was an SB agent. Documents purporting cooperation with the secret services thus require historical professionalism and sensitivity.

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A copy of the files allegedly confirming that Lech Wałęsa was a communist collaborator. Source: Reuters.

Wałęsa never denied that he was repeatedly interrogated and thus “met” with members of the security apparatus. In recent years, he acknowledged that he signed a document, but was unclear about its precise nature. Questions therefore remain of what Wałęsa signed and if he ever provided any incriminating information against anyone. Wałęsa has explained that he simply prattled on in order to kill time in interrogations and that any documents to the contrary are forgeries. The new files indicate that he signed a paper agreeing to inform and then did inform on the views of his co-workers in the early 1970s.  However, these documents, which include contradictions and apparently different handwriting samples, have been released too quickly to allow for any kind of legitimate historical authentication.  This raises questions of political motivation given Wałęsa’s international profile and the antagonism between him and Poland’s new ruling party.

Political Context

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Jarosław Kaczyński and Lech Wałęsa.

The claim that Lech Wałęsa was the SB informant known as “Bolek” was first publicly broadcast in 1992 in the so-called “Macierewicz report”, which drew on SB files to name members of the political elite who allegedly had collaborated with the SB. Wałęsa, who was then president, denied that he had had any contact with the SB.  The report and the furor around it led to the collapse of the government in 1992 and the loss of ministerial office of the author of the report, Antoni Macierewicz (the current defense minister, whom I recently profiled for this blog). Shortly afterwards, Wałęsa also had a falling out with Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński, founders of the Law and Justice (PiS) party that currently governs Poland.  When the special court cleared Wałęsa in 2000, Maceriewicz and Piotr Naimski, who had led the Polish secret services when the “Macierewicz report” was written and is currently a PiS member of parliament, testified against him.

Macierewicz, Naimski, and Jarosław Kaczyński are part of a political faction that has attacked Poland’s post-1989 transition from communism, criticizing the way in which the 1989 Polish Round Table discussions were carried out.  The Round Table discussions were held in the spring of 1989 between the state and “society’s representatives” who were appointed by Wałęsa in the name of Solidarity. They resulted in the re-legalization of Solidarity and semi-free elections in June 1989.  The negotiations included not only public meetings, but also informal, non-public gatherings between state elites and the Solidarity leadership, notably Wałęsa (and also Lech Kaczyński).  Church officials were included in the secret meetings as third party observers.  These gatherings of the so-called “Magdalenka Group” were little noted at the time, but since have become the source of accusations of underhanded dealings.

The June 1989 elections resulted in a landslide victory for Solidarity.  This outcome was entirely unexpected and catapulted to power those Solidarity activists who had supported the Round Table discussions and had thus taken part in the elections as Solidarity candidates.  Once Eastern Europe’s communist regimes fell and Poland shifted from state socialism to liberal-democracy, the importance of the Polish Round Table became more apparent and new questions were raised about its proceedings amid charges that its participants had negotiated a transition that was favorable to them personally.

 

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Round Table Accords, 1989. Source: DW.

In post-1989 Poland, it is possible to hold elected office even if one has been a communist and collaborated with the secret service; however, one has to admit to such collaboration.  The justification for this policy is that one cannot be blackmailed if one’s sins have been publicly confessed.  Because Wałęsa maintains his innocence, those who do not believe him argue that he has been susceptible to extortion.

While no document suggests that Wałęsa ever informed to the SB once he was active in the democratic opposition and Solidarity, those who are making such a hubbub about the new documents, claim that they now have proof that Wałęsa, because of his behavior in the 1970s, could have been blackmailed into betraying Poland in the 1980s and 1990s.  The Magdalenka meetings thus become decisive.  The argument is that Wałęsa, due to blackmail, behaved dishonorably in the Magdalenka meetings and thus paved the way for the communists to maintain control of Poland after 1989.  It is even claimed that the Soviet and then the Russian leadership were privy to Wałęsa’s dark secret and coerced him into acting against Polish national interests in unknown ways.   Although there is no corroboration for such theories, they linger within certain groups, including the PiS leadership (whose politics are centered around the belief that a conspiracy of ‘post-communists’ have maintained wealth and influence in Poland since 1989).  Furthermore, Cenckiewicz and Gontarczyk, in their book on Wałęsa, contended that when Wałęsa was president, he attempted to have any documents related to his alleged collaboration destroyed.  For those who believe that Wałęsa is an informant and traitor, it is not a leap to suggest that he destroyed all proof of his misdeeds and that this is the reason that no corroborating evidence exists.

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Wałęsa has continued to defend himself. He has also received the support of many of his erstwhile colleagues in Solidarity.  Władysław Frasyniuk, the legendary leader of underground Solidarity Lower Silesia spoke out this week.  While the vast majority of Poles remained quiescent, Frasyniuk spent much of the 1980s either in hiding or in prison.  His is an important voice.  Although Wałęsa was released from prison in 1982 and thus spent most of the 1980s at liberty (because the regime authorities recognized the advantage of breeding suspicion within the opposition by treating some regime opponents better than others), he was constantly tailed and faced regular, petty harassments.  For those who besmirch Walesa’s reputation now it is worth remembering that when Wałęsa was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1983, no one dreamed that a democratic and independent Poland was several years away. Wałęsa could have easily left Poland and been feted by the international community with no loss of stature.  He sacrificed personal wellbeing by remaining.  When the Round Table was called, Wałęsa and those who supported him called for moderation not because of blackmail, cowardice, or collusion, but because they believed that it was the best way to achieve change without violence toward the populace. Wałęsa’s stance in 1989 was not his alone; men such as Zbigniew Bujak, Bronisław Geremek, and Tadeusz Mazowiecki – who no one suggests had been compromised – shared it.

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Lech Wałęsa, 1980. Source: AP.

It is possible that once the newly released documents have been fully analyzed, they will show that in the early 1970s Lech Wałęsa informed to the SB, and was given financial remuneration.  This would mean that Wałęsa, a young working-class father, had been broken in 1970 and lied thereafter. If that is the case, then he ought to have been honest about his past or not stood for election in the 1990s.  Still, it must be remembered that the only reason Wałęsa was interrogated in 1970 was because he had been active in protests.  Those who never stood up to the regime never faced the state’s coercive apparatus in the same way.  These documents would therefore underline an individual and national shame, while providing proof of the importance of Solidarity in helping to expiate that shame.  They could also tell a tale of redemption since there has never been any hint that as the head of Solidarity Wałęsa acted against his own conscience.  It is an unconscionable falsification of history to suggest that he did without a shred of evidence.  It is, of course, also possible that these documents will be shown to be forgeries and yet Wałęsa, now 72 years old, has already been smeared in the international media.

Over 25 years since the transition from state socialism and 20 years since Wałęsa left public office, one has to wonder to what end the publicity given to these recent allegations is directed. The fact that these debates are being carried out in the popular press rather than in historical journals suggests that the aim is political. Is it to prove that the present far-reaching restructuring of state institutions by the PiS government is justified, since the entire post-1989 political order has been a sham? Is the intention to demonstrate that not even the former head of Solidarity can lay claim to the mantle of Solidarity, and that this honor belongs solely to PiS?   When I spend my days in the Polish archives reading the publications of Solidarity, I am constantly struck by the self-restraint and dignity expressed by the Polish anti-communist opposition. Surely that is a legacy to which those who claim to be the heirs of that movement ought now to aspire in their treatment of these new documents and Solidarity’s former leader.

Dr Siobhan Doucette is an independent scholar whose research focuses on the Polish democratic opposition during the communist era. She is currently completing her first book on the Polish independent press in the 1970s and 1980s. She lives in Jamaica.

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One comment

  1. Easy

    Thanks to the Irish for sticking their noses far out East. Walesa was an informant for years, delivered reports on others and then lied about it (in fact, he continues to lie about it). Any responsible historian with half-a-brain would ask the next question: did the fact that the secret police had those papers regarding Walesa affect their belief as to ability to control him? Did it affect him and how he acted? Only a complete moron, dishonest apologist or drunken moral leprechaun would claim otherwise.

    I particularly like this gem “one has to wonder to what end the publicity given to these recent allegations is directed.” Yes, 25 years have passed. I guess you feel that the Generation of ’68 should also not have questioned the Nazi past of some of the leaders of the BRD? Yes or no?

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