“Walesa’s Skeletons in Kisczak’s Closet” published in Dziennik Zwiazkowy, Friday February 26th, 2016
An interview with political scientist, Professor Monika Nalepa, of the University of Chicago, conducted by Grzegorz Dziedzic. The interview is about the effect that releasing Walesa’s secret police files has and may have on Poland’s position in the world, the symbolic beginning of the so-called, “4th Rzeczpospolita”, dissident skeletons in closets of former secret police officer and on how easy with which one could become an agent of the “Służba Bezpieczeństwa (SB)”.
Grzegorz Dziedzic: Is it possible to predict how much the revelations from Kiszczak’s files about Lech Wałęsa, will change the way that Wałęsa is perceived by the world, including in the US?
Professor Monika Nalepa: I think we can make such a prediction. Wałęsa, like Vaclav Havel, was a symbol of fighting for freedom. Both Wałęsa and Havel were the first post-communist presidents in their respective countries, and both are associated with the fall of communism. Note, that the first rumors that Wałęsa was working with the security forces, SB, showed up much earlier in the monograph by Sławomir Cencikewicz and Pitor Gontarczyk from 2008 “SB and Lech Wałęsa: a biographical addendum.” The book was published by the Institute of National Remembrance, just as I was finishing my first book “Skeletons in the Closet: Transitional Justice in Post-Communist Europe”, so I discussed its contents in a special epilogue. However, at the time, the rumors passed through the West without much recognition. This time the revelations have been noticed, at least in academic circles, and some have begun to question to what degree was Wałęsa really a hero. The enthusiasm surrounding Wałęsa as a symbol of freedom is likely to quiet down.
Have the Kiszczak files created interest and commentary from political scientists?
Comments have emerged, and I, myself am part of these discussions. From the perspective of a political scientist studying democratic transitions, these files are hardly surprising. The Polish political transition occurred via the roundtable negotiations. The transition from communism was completely bloodless, and as a result, there were no consequences for the communist leadership - they were even allowed to transform the communist party (PZPR) into a new socialist-democratic party. Moreover, no lustration or communist purges occurred until 1997. For the transition to pan out in such a way, it is likely that the Roundtable discussions included a under-the-table deal: in return for not releasing the files that could prove that the opposition cooperated with the secret police, the solidarity opposition agreed to allow their Roundtable partners to partake in the creation of a new political reality. The recent release of the Kiszczak files merely supports the hypothesis that such an agreement took place.
“We [communists] will not compromise you, and you [the opposition] will allow us to function in the new political order” – in brief, what the 1989 deal entailed. Does conducting lustration a quarter century after the fall of communism make sense, and is it really necessary?
Certainly, as memories have faded, public interest in communist purges has declined over the years. However, keep in mind that Law and Jusitce (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS)) built a party around the notion of making Roundtable deals no longer binding. PiS from the start announced its intention to get rid of the foundational ideology of the 3rd Rzeczpospolita (The Polish Roundtable) and replace it with the project of a “4th Rzeczpospolita.” After PiS took over power in late 2015, voiding the deal struck between the communists and the opposition at the Roundtable Talks, it was only logical for the ex-communists to start shedding files containing the evidence against former dissidents. However, I believe that the Polish people will soon grow tired of these “file affairs”. Even fifteen years ago, when IPN was being created, releasing the Wałęsa files would have caused much more uproar, but today, the younger generation just sees Wałęsa as a historical figure they learn about from history textbooks.
Will the events associated with the discovery of Kiszczak’s files necessitate the re-writing of such textbooks?
The discovery and release of the documents found in Kiszczak’s home are the symbolic beginning of this process. In conjunction with the discovery of these files, the deals made at the Round-Table are slowly loosing importance.
The paradigm will have to change. What will PiS’s project of the “4th Rzeczpospolita” be based on?
In retrospect, PiS played a positive role in helping Poland join the European Union. Thanks to their platform, Poland was considered a hard-to-get member and was able to extract many benefits from joining. Currently, one of the main questions that the 4th Rzeczpospolita faces is how to attain economic and ideological independence from international organizations and the EU. At the same time the country is experiencing a shift away from secularity, and focusing in on traditional values, such as family and religion. These values come with an emphasis on the fusion (to use Anna Grzymala-Busse’s term) between Poland and Catholicism being. All of these changes are the results, of PiS’s action that have been foretold for years.
Is PiS becoming a European symbol of conservative values?
PiS is very similar to the Hungarian, Fidesz which from the beginning of the millennium has been promoting traditional values and eurosceptism. Within political scientist circles, Victor Orban is often compared to Jarosław Kaczynski, and the actions of PiS to those of Fidesz. The only differences between the two ruling parties is the speed with which they implement reforms, such as the weakening of the Constitutional Tribunal, or the taking over of the media. PiS is taking such measures much faster than Fidesz did, mainly because PiS was able to learn form Fidesz’s mistakes and because PiS has an absolute majority in the Sejm.
Lets return to Lech Wałęsa. In your opinion, as a researcher, did Wałęsa cooperate with the SB?
The concept of cooperating with the SB is fairly complicated. During communism, SB officials were paid based on how many agents they were able to recruit and on how important was the information they were able to obtain. Many people don’t realize how easy it was to fall into the trap of becoming an SB agent. SB officers started off by contacting a person of interest, then the officer would befriend the target, next they would extract information, and only after that would they try to officially recruit the person, get them to sign a sort of contract, if you will. Members of the opposition were always on the lookout, as they knew that it was very easy to become an informant, even unwillingly. Unsuspecting rank and file laborers, such as Walesa were likely to fall into the trap. In my opinion, that is exactly what happened to Wałęsa. He was in a uniquely advantageous position for the SB because as an electrician, he was in regular contact with workers throughout the shipyard. It is very unlikely, however, that Wałęsa worked for the SB when Solidarność was forming. The Kiszczak files, released by Kiszczak’s widow, predate the foundation of Solidarność and Wałęsa’s role in making Solidaność a symbol of the fight for freedom.
Lech Wałęsa is the second most recognized Pole, after John Paul II, and is a symbol of the fight for freedom and democracy. Could the discovery that Wałęsa was a member of the SB hurt Poland’s perception by the world?
Discovering that a highly positioned anticommunist opposition member cooperated with the Communist party is no sensation. In the Czech Republic, similar rumors emerged about Jan Kavan, one of the opposition leaders. Similarly, in Hungary, it was discovered that the Premier Petr Medgyessy cooperated with the communist authorities. Of course, among the people who have been accused of cooperating, Lech Wałęsa is the only Nobel Laureate. Academics studying Poland understand the conflict between Wałęsa and the Kaczyńskis, and are not surprised by the current situation. Tension between the two post-Solidarity factions was to be expected. Yet PiS’s attack on Wałęsa is a risky move, because it will be a long time before Poland once again has someone as recognizable as Wałęsa in the international arena. In terms of Poland’s international perception, the release of these documents is not a good thing.
Can one assume that there are many more flies, like the Kiszczak files, hidden away around Poland?
The cases, which made it to the archives, were all closed cases. Open cases, however, were located in the offices of the leading officers. These files were very easy to copy and take home and hide. When in 2000, I was getting my doctorate at Columbia University, I went to Poland to conduct somw preliminary research. I spent a month an a half with the “Karta” Foundation. Its library was at the time collecting articles related to the anticommunist opposition. Through individual donations, “Karta” ended up possessing a few hundred SB file folders. I was given access to them, and had a sudden realization of just how easy it is to access files – even files that until recently were classified. Nobody even checked my credentials.
The societal reaction to the release of the “Kiszczak files” seems to be a reflection of an ever-stronger divide in Polish society. PiS supporters announced a “victory of truth”, while thr PiS opposition have maintained solidarity with Wałęsa. Can we expect a deepening of the divide? To what end could this divide lead us, Poles too?
Political polarization in Poland is the center of my current interests. The formation of the two camps, which basically oppose each other on every issue, is a fascinating process. This current polarization has been brewing for at least the last fifteen years. In the first term of the Sejm (back in 1989-1991) decisions were made by consensus. This was the golden age of Polish parliament - political parties were still weak and thus, building coalitions was easy. Over time, however, the parties in power started closing off ways for the opposition parties to access politics. PO used such tactics against PiS and, upon taking over power, PiS has done the same. Parliamentarians no longer read policies - they simply vote based on how the party leadership tells them to. This new phenomenon is related to the strengthening of the parties, which in turns means a more divided society. The “Kiszczak files” affair is the consequence of this political divide, not the cause, and each side’s stance is a manifestation of the polarization.
How might we end up as a nation? Will we follow in the footsteps of the US, where the two polarized groups coexist, or will we end up like Indonesia, where scores were settled by violence?
Luckily, some significant differences exist between Poland and Indonesia, even if they are often compared to each other. In my opinion, democracy in Poland is not threatened, even if PiS is currently abusing its power. Comparing Poland to the USA isn’t correct either. In the USA political parties are weak and there is a presidential system. In Poland, however, polarization will continue, and divides will deepen. I hope that Poland will be able to stay in the EU, and that PiS, in its rush to realize its vision, doesn’t ruin Poland’s opinion in Europe and worldwide.
In light of recent events your book title, “Skeletons in the closet” appears visionary.
Lech Wałęsa is no doubt the largest skeleton that could have been found in the ex-SB boss’s closet. For the communists it was enough to convince the opposition that skeletons existed - they didn’t need to provide any details about whose skeletons they had. Right after the end of the Round Table discussions, a commission was formed, which included Adam Michnik, among others. This commission analyzed parts of the SB archives, and based on their findings convinced the rest of the Solidarność leadership that, for their own good, they should avoid lustration and the release of the SB files. This led to the failure of 1992 attempt at lustration and the very limited scope of the 1997 lustration. Only after PiS gained power for the first time, was a lustration division formed in IPN.
Will PiS finally conduct lustration?
I recently talked with the head of the lustration division, Radosław Peterman, and he confirmed that lustration is occurring, just very slowly. Verifying lustration declarations is a very lengthy process, and IPN has about 30 years of lustration work ahead of them. With regards to communist purges, I think that PiS will realize that society is only minimally interested in such a process. And what could possibly captivate the public’s interests more, now that the files on Wałęsa are released?
Thank you for talking.