3. Poland’s way of coming to terms with the legacy of Communism - Paweł Machcewicz (Institute of Political Studies)

One striking observation we should begin with is that in case of Poland the process of coming to terms with the legacy of Communism was belated in comparison with some other post-Communist countries, especially in terms of political and institutional solutions. This process in Poland started in late nineties, almost ten years after the collapse of the dictatorship while in Germany the so called Gauck Institute (Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Record of the State Security Service of the Former GDR) was established in 1991. In Czechoslovakia the lustration and de-communization legislation was adopted in 1991. In 1992 the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania was created which stimulated research on the period of the Communism and the World War II and played an important role in opening former KGB files. In Poland first attempts to create an institution dealing with the Communist past were initiated only in 1998.

Lustration and the opening of archives

‘The Law on the Institute of National Remembrance, commonly called the Law on Dossiers, was essentially the first real effort at coming to terms with the Communist (Polish Peoples’ Republic - communist) past that ended with the June elections in 1989. Thanks to the law, every citizen will be able to determine whether, or to what degree, the secret services were interested in them. It facilitates uncovering the truth, allows to objectively judge what was,’ wrote a journalist from the daily Rzeczpospolita after the acclamation of the Law on the Institute of National Remembrance by the Sejm in September 1998. [1]

One of the most important questions, impossible to avoid, is: why so late? Why was the first serious attempt to deal with the totalitarian past only undertaken nine years after the fall of communism? Why did Poles remain so far behind the Germans and Czech, where the decisions to open the archives of the former communist security services were taken rapidly after changes in the political system?

Of course there is not one single convincing answer to these questions. One could indicate the different, unique, way of dismantling communism in Poland: evolutionary, through negotiations between the authorities and opposition leading to the ‘Round Table’ negotiations and the June 1989 elections, followed by several months of co-governing (ministers designated by the PZPR (Polish United Workers’ Party) participated in Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government thru July 1990). [2]

In Poland there was not a radical, one-off, moment cleaving from the past; in the streets there were not in 1989 – as in the GDR or Czechoslovakia – crowds protesting against the communist government; nothing comparative to the toppling of the Berlin Wall, symbolising the end of the old order and beginning of the new, occurred. The second circumstance, differentiating Poland from the GDR and Czechoslovakia, was the somewhat less repressive nature of the regime, particularly in the final years before the 1989 breakthrough. In 1986, Wojciech Jaruzelski’s regime initiated limited liberalisation, announcing an amnesty for political prisoners, tolerating half-open opposition activities and relaxing censorship. [3]

Consequently, in Poland, in 1989 and the following years, calls for a complete settling of accounts with the communist past were relatively weak. The dominant trend sought to co-opt former communist and security functionaries in creating a new democratic order. If not – argued those supporting this approach – the people of the ancien regime would sabotage the building of democracy. A symbol of this policy became the phrase used by Tadeusz Mazowiecki of a ‘thick line’. The Prime Minister was referring to a clear separation between the beginning of the building of a democratic state and the communist period. His critics declared this a policy completely failing to bring to account the era of communist dictatorship.

At the beginning of the Third Republic, there were practically no demands to allow citizens access to communist security archives or to adopt a de-communization law like in Czechoslovakia. Moreover, the security service of the Third Republic (Urząd Ochrony Państwa – Ministry for State Security) was taken over by part of the cadres and structures of the Security Services (Służba Bezpieczeństwa, SB) that functioned until 1989 (of course including the archives that were at the disposition of the latter). The only attempt at lustration in the first few years immediately following the fall of the communist system was undertaken by the centre-right government of Jan Olszewski, but even then it was not grounded in legislation but only by parliamentary resolution, which called on the Minister of Internal Affairs to disclose the contents of the security services’ archives concerning members of parliament and high ranking state administrators. In June 1992, in the Sejm, Minister (of Internal Affairs) Antoni Macierewicz presented a list of several dozen parliamentarians who had been registered as secret collaborators of the of security services. This caused a tempestuous debate in the parliament and mass media and accelerated the downfall of Olszewski’s government. [4] Opponents of lustration, and even some supporters, believed that the behaviour of Minister Macierewicz compromised the idea of a fair reckoning with the communist past: by giving it an overly political character; lack of mechanisms enabling the verification of the reliability of security documents; or appellate procedure for the ‘accused’ (after the lustration act was passed in 1997 several of those on ‘Macierewicz’s list’ received court verdicts clearing them of charges that they collaborated with the communist security apparatus.

The lack of lustration and leaving documents created by the communist security apparatus under the control of special services created a situation in which it was relatively easy to accuse public figures of cooperating with the secret services, but in practice there was no legal means to verify the accusations. There were also accusations that the special services manipulated documents in order to compromise bothersome politicians – bothersome for either the services themselves or for ruling parties. In the next, possibly most celebrated, case – the accusation of Prime Minister Józef Oleksy of collaborating with Russian intelligence services – the Sejm passed the lustration act over the objections of the SLD (Democratic Left Alliance – the post-communist party). [5]

Genesis of the Institute of National Remembrance

Work on the act concerning the IPN began with the coming to power in October 1997 of a coalition made up of two parties rooted in the Solidarity movement: Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) and Freedom Union (UW). The idea of establishing an institution that would be charged with allowing access to documents created by the communist security apparatus, conducting investigations into crimes committed by functionaries of the totalitarian regime as well as carrying out academic and educational work, were particularly important to the former party, which, due to a larger number of seats, was the lead party in the coalition. Yet this was far from enough to ensure the swift passing of the act and rapid establishment of the institution that the ‘post-August’ camp vested with such import. The trials and tribulations surrounding the act, and subsequently – following its passage – surrounding the selection of the chairman of the IPN, best illustrate the difficulties and controversies that the idea of reckoning with the communist past, including giving citizens access to security files, provoked, and continues to provoke.

The proposed act supported by the UW and AWS called for the establishment of an independent institution that would take-over the entire collection of materials created by the communist security apparatus – both civilian and military – between 22 July 1944 (establishment of the puppet government by Stalin called the Polish Committee for National Liberation) thru 6 May 1990 (liquidation of the communist SB and creation of the UOP in its place). Aside from archives created by the Polish communist security apparatus, the IPN was also to gather and make available documents generated after 1 September 1939 by the security services of the Third Reich and the USSR, which clearly placed far broader responsibilities on the Polish institution than those with which German lawmakers vested the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the National Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic (BStU).

Another fundamental difference is the fact that the BStU took over the documents as well as archives and buildings after the Stasi was disbanded, which markedly accelerated the process of opening archival materials. The IPN was charged with assuming documents from functioning special services of the Third Republic, who had inherited the archives from their communist predecessors. Simultaneously, the IPN was to create from scratch a national archival infrastructure (including among other things suitably secure warehouses in several dozen towns). The complicated – both technically and logistically – and sensitive nature, as well as sheer scale of this undertaking, were likely without precedent anywhere in post-war Europe.

Another variation on the German model, which for the authors of the act was certainly one of the main sources of inspiration, was the inclusion of an investigative-prosecutorial function in the proposed institution. The IPN was to take-over the tasks of the Chief Commission for the Prosecution of German Crimes against the Polish Nation; after the creation of the German Democratic Republic it was re-named the Chief Commission for the Prosecution of Nazi Crimes against the Polish Nation (‘Democratic’ Germany was an ally of the Polish Peoples’ Republic; therefore war criminals could henceforth only be ‘Nazis’). At the beginning of the 1990s – together with a change of name – additional duties including investigation of so-called ‘Stalinist crimes’ – crimes committed by communist functionaries between 1944 – 1956 – were added. Within the IPN prosecutorial duties were to be expanded to include ‘communist crimes’ committed thru the end of 1989.

From the outset the draft legislation concerning the IPN caused controversy, particularly those sections dealing with the appropriation and opening of the archives of the communist security services. The post-communist left, concentrated in the SLD, accused the ‘post-Solidarity’ camp of wanting to exploit the ‘security files’ for their political purposes. Part of the leftist-liberal post-Solidarity community also expressed reservations about the legislation. Such well-known and opinion-making newspapers as Gazeta Wyborcza and Tygodnik Powszechny questioned the legitimacy of documents generated by the security apparatus, and even the point of making them available to the general public. Articles were written about the unleashing of ‘lustration hell’, and the possibility of accusing people based on ‘ubek’ materials, that could not be fully verified, even by legal means. The very name of the institution was called into question, arguing that national memory should not be constituted mainly in relation to documents generated by the communist security apparatus. The Catholic publisher of the Tygodnik Powszechny, wrote ironically that ‘security resources are advancing to the ostentatious title of ;National Remembrance Institute’ [6] ‘[I] heard accusations that in this manner [we] are honouring the memory of the ‘ubeks’. Are Israeli institutions commemorating the memory of [those] murdered institutions in the honour of the Gestapo?’ responded Janusz Pałubicki, Minister-Coordinator of Special Services and the main supporter of the Institute legislation in the ranks of the AWS, to similar accusations. [7]

Legislation concerning the IPN was passed by the Sejm in September 1998. In December 1998 the act was vetoed by President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, using his constitutional privilege, who himself had emerged from the ranks of the SLD. The president argued that the act discriminated against certain categories of citizens – former functionaries of communist Poland’s security services as well as secret agents, denying them access to gathered documents. The presidential veto elicited one of the most emotional outbursts directed at the head of state of the Third Republic. Janusz Pałubicki called Aleksander Kwaśniewski the ‘president of all ‘ubeks’’. [8]

The presidential veto was rejected by the Sejm. The next step was the selection by the parliament of an eleven-member committee for a seven-year term, representing the full spectrum of political parties (including the SLD) as well as the National Judiciary Counsel, the highest self-governing organ. The committee is a body overseeing the activities of the Institute as well as presenting the Sejm with candidates for chairman of the IPN. The position of the latter is very strong, guaranteeing the non-partisanship of the Institute. He is chosen for a five-year term and can be re-called only by the Sejm, and only when such a recommendation is put forth by the IPN committee. [9]

The selection of the chairman, who must first gain the support of the Committee, and subsequently three-fifths of the members of parliament, turned out to be the most difficult phase of creating the Institute. The first candidate failed to receive the requisite support from parliament, which began a several month impasse. When, several months after the passing of the act, consensus could not be reached even within the Committee it seems increasingly probable that the Institute would not arise at all. It appeared that the act would require amendment. This would re-open the issue anew to a long parliamentary procedure, susceptible to political pressures and deals.

The creation of the IPN became possible thanks to the candidacy of Professor Leon Kieres, acclaimed by the Sejm on 8 June 2000. Kieres is a lawyer, lecturer at the University of Wrocław; in the 1980s he was advisor to the NSZZ ‘Solidarność’ for the Lower Silesian Region; in the 1990s he was chair of the Lower Silesian provincial assembly for two terms; from 1997 he served as senator (from 1999, from the AWS party), simultaneously holding the post of Municipal Councillor in Wrocław running from the UW slate. Only the selection of the chairman began the procedure of organising the Institute, which lasted many months. Naturally the longest and most complicated operation was the transferring of archives and preparatory work to the opening of the ‘files’. The first of these were opened in September 2001, so several dozen months after the formal establishment of the Institute.

Three Dimensions of the Institute of National Remembrance’s Activities

The act divided the Institute into three substantive departments (sections) reflecting the main tasks of the new Institution: gathering and dissemination of security apparatus documents (Office for Preservation and Dissemination of Archival Records); academic research and historical education (Public Education Office); and prosecutorial investigation (Chief Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation). Aside from the headquarters in Warsaw, the act requires the chairman to create IPN branches in eleven cities, being offices of appellate courts. Over the course of a few years the IPN became one of the largest public institutions in Poland, employing over 1,200 persons (statistics from 30.9.2005).

The legislation specifies that the IPN gathers and makes available documents created by the communist security apparatus, both by civilian and military structures. Acquiring the documents from those who had previously held them (Internal Ministry, Office of National Security, Agency of Internal Security, Military Information Services) lasted several years, and was only really completed in 2005. This was an enormous logistical undertaking in result of which the IPN acquired approximately 82 km of files. A large portion of the transferred files were not catalogued and their access must be prefaced by tedious preparatory work by archivists. A separate issue is the question of the destruction of documents carried out by the SB after the election of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government – from autumn 1989 thru the first months of the following year. It is impossible to estimate the scale of these activities, they varied according to the city and period the documents addressed. Generally they were greatest in those areas where there was a strong opposition (i.e. Gdańsk) and related to the recent past (1980s). In the case of secret files relating to SB collaborators active in the last decade of communism a high percentage, even over half, may have been destroyed.

Legislation concerning the IPN specifies that documents are to be made available above all to two categories of individuals. One of the categories consists of those so-called ‘harmed’ individuals (“victims”), meaning persons invigilated or persecuted by the communist security apparatus. They receive a copy of all documents where their name appears. The names of agents (secret collaborators) who reported on them are blacked out. Only if the ‘harmed’ individual requests that they be revealed will he receive a list of names that have been incontrovertibly confirmed by the IPN (unscrambling pseudonyms of agents often requires tedious archival research, and often indisputably determining identities is impossible). The second is making the archives accessible for research purposes. The legislation quite minutely regulates the framework within which researchers can use the documents, in one place mentioning that information can be used ‘for academic and journalistic purposes’. The IPN accepted an interpretation of the last indication that allows journalists access to documents. This significantly caused an increase in interest in the documents of the security apparatus, both in regard to hitherto unknown criminal activities of the communist authorities as well as in the case of agents, sometimes known figures, which more than once elicited surprise and even shock among the general public. On the other hand, making documents available to journalists was criticised by some lawyers as being a somewhat too broad interpretation of the IPN legislation. The court concurred with the latter opinion and blocked journalists’ access to documents held in the IPN archives in 2005, limiting access to two categories: ‘harmed’ individuals and ‘academic researchers’. [10]

The duties of IPN procurators include investigation of Nazi, communist and war crimes, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. The three last categories were defined by legislation in accordance with international law. A new legal category, introduced by the IPN legislation, were communist crimes, meaning ‘actions committed by functionaries of the communist state in the period from 17 September 1939 [the USSR’s attack on Poland – P.M.] to 31 December 1989, consisting of use of persecution or other forms of violating human rights according to the Polish Criminal Code in effect during the period they were committed.’ The last fragment deserves highlighting: communist crimes pursued by the IPN were limited to those deemed as crimes according to the law in effect prior to 31 December 1989, meaning the period of communist government, and therefore, for example, torture and other forms of pressure used by security functionaries, assassinations of opposition figures or underground activists, or finally so-called ‘judicial crimes’ – sentences given by courts that defiled the letter of latter-day laws.

Among the 1,392 investigations (as of 31 August 2005) conducted by the IPN, 430 concern Nazi crimes, 888 communist crimes; among criminal procedures concerning communist crimes the majority constitute investigations of crimes committed in the 1940s and 1950s. These investigations were given priority due to, among others, the advanced age of victims and perpetrators, but also due to the scale and drastic nature of the crimes committed. Some of the most infamous cases include investigation into: the case of the illegal imprisonment of the Polish Primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński in 1953-1956; in the case of the ‘criminal methods of combating’ members of the ‘Freedom and Independence’ Union, the largest underground organisation functioning in the second half of the 1940s. Cases concerning the later communist period include: the 1984 murder of Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko; the illegal activities of procurators and judges accusing and sentencing ‘Solidarity’ activists during the period of martial law. In 2004, the IPN began an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the declaration of martial law (13 December 1981). It is not clear that this investigation will conclude with charges being brought but the very fact that as a result of the prosecutors actions charges can be brought against members of the highest authorities of that period, with General Wojciech Jaruzelski in the lead, constitutes the breach of a certain psychological barrier. To date responsibility was borne by, at most, mid-level state communist functionaries.

An important category, not fitting either among Nazi or communist crimes, is that of investigations of crimes (qualified as war crimes or crimes against humanity) committed by Ukrainian nationalists against the Polish population in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943-1944 – by regular divisions of the Polish Army or partisans.

Paradoxically, over the first two years of the IPN’s activities the most interest and emotions were raised not by any investigation into communist crimes but the investigation into the crimes in Jedwabne, committed on 10 July 1941 against the Jewish population of that village. Investigative activities were completed in July 2002 with a communiqué given by procurator Radosław Ignatiew, according to who the burning of several hundred Jews in a barn was committed by Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and the surrounding areas (‘men, numbering at least forty’), inspired by the Germans. [11] Discussion surrounding the murder in Jedwabne was for many months the most important public debate in Poland, contributing to the creation of the IPN’s image. [12]

During the five years of the IPN prosecutorial department’s activities (data as of 30 June 2005) ninety-two cases have been filed in the courts against 112 suspects. Sentences have been handed down in thirty-one cases resulting in the sentencing of 37 suspects and the acquittal of five suspects. Eighteen cases were dismissed due to, among other reasons, the death of the accused but also based on the 1989 amnesty law. Critics indicated the disproportionately small number of criminal cases and convictions in comparison to the scale of the IPN’s activities. The argument was advanced that the activities of the IPN did not bring about the expected breakthrough in the legal reckoning with the totalitarian past.

The IPN legislation also outlined the general duties of the research and education department. The Public Education Office (Biuro Edukacji Publicznej, BEP) conducts academic research into and educational activities on crimes and ‘other politically-motivated repressions’ whose victims were ‘persons of Polish nationalist or Polish citizens of other nationality’ in the period between 1 September 1939 and 31 December 1989. The second important duty according to the legislation are research and educational activities about the ‘activities of security services’ – Nazi, Soviet as well as Polish communist. In the case of the two former naturally applies to activities affecting Polish citizens or conducted on Polish territory.

From the outset it is clear that the research-educational duties of the IPN are far broader than analogical functions of the Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Record of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic. The IPN occupies itself not only with the communist security services and its crimes but also with the whole variety of complex issues surrounding the Second World War, the German and Soviet occupations. Research topics encompass Nazi crimes against Poles and Jews as well as Polish-Jewish relations (under both occupants), which as a consequence of the crimes at Jedwabne became one of the most controversial topics. The period of the Second World War also includes the Soviet occupation of 1939-1941, crimes by the NKVD, forced deportations during which over 300,000 Polish citizens were resettled in the depths of the USSR [13], as well as the dramatic Polish-Ukraine conflicts (in Volhynia and Western Galicia Ukrainian nationalists murdered from 75 to 90 thousand Poles between 1943-1944) [14], and even Polish-Lithuanian conflicts in the Vilnius region.

The BEP is – due both to the number of employees as well as the nation-wide structure – Poland’s largest research-educational facility concerned with modern history. The BEP combines traditional research and educational functions. The former includes archival research, preparation of document collections and academic monographs, publication of the periodical Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość (Remembrance and Justice) and organising sessions and conferences. Educational activities are carried out via exhibits, trainings for teachers, publication of educational materials (materials for teachers and students, supplements to textbooks), organising film viewings (documentaries as well as fictional films dealing with modern history) and publishing a monthly bulletin popularising the IPN’s activities.

Exhibits have the greatest and widest impact on the public. Each exhibit travels around Poland, displayed in local museums, cultural centres and schools. The vernissages are often accompanied by conferences and panel discussions. In smaller towns, the IPN’s exhibits often constitute one of the few opportunities for the local population to touch modern history. The most important exhibits include those on the following topics: workers’ strikes and their pacification by the communist security apparatus (June 1956, December 1970, June 1976), Martial Law, Nazi and communist repressions of the Catholic Church, Polish-Ukrainian relations 1939-1947, and the destruction of the Jews. A series of exhibits dealt with the anticommunist independence underground that functioned in various regions of Poland during the 1940s and 1950s. [15]

Reckoning with communism: an attempt at settlement

After several years of its functioning both supporters and critics of the IPN agreed certainly on only one point: the Institute had become one of the most important public institutions in Poland, influencing changes in the ideological atmosphere, spurring many debates and controversies concerning both the past as well as its consequences on the present. This was a gradual process to which publications, conferences and exhibits organised by the IPN contributed equally, as did making documents available and prosecutorial investigations into crimes committed by communist functionaries.

Access to previously unknown documents as well as establishing a strong analytical centre concerned with contemporary history lent itself to the re-evaluation of the hitherto accepted image of Polish history in the communist period. Briefly, the two most important changes were, on one hand, greater repressiveness of the system, on the other – a greater scale of civic opposition to the communist authorities. The IPN’s historians established for example that in the years 1944-1956 the courts handed down a considerably greater number of death sentences to political opponents (c. over 8,000) than had previously been thought. [16] They discovered and published information about the criminal activities in various periods by the Communist Party and political police. Their example were the activities of the ‘death squadron’, which operated in northern Mazowsze region during the 1940s murdering members of the opposition, as well as numerous provocations against divisions of the anti-communist pro-independence underground. [17] One such action, against the ‘Bartek’ group of the National Armed Forces (NSZ) resulted in the secret murder of some 200 person lured into a trap in 1946. [18]

Even more troubling were the discoveries concerning the period of ‘late’ communism, meaning the 1970s and 1980s. It turned out that it was at the beginning of the 1970s that secret cells were created within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which were responsible for carrying out special ‘disintegrating’ actions – as they were called in departmental parlance. These were responsible for numerous cases of intimidation, assault and murder of opponents of the system. The most infamous action became that of ‘D’ Cell (this was its cryptonym within the department) in the ‘anti-Church’ Department IV of the MIA, whose functionaries murdered Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko in 1984. [19] Similar activities were also used against other communities. The daily Rzeczpospolita published on its front page a document discovered by one of the IPN’s historians about ‘special actions’ carried-out against intellectuals and artists who supported Solidarity in the 1980s. [20] Shocking details regarding the ‘harassment’ of well-known public figures harmed the image of the former Minister of Internal Affairs Czesław Kiszczak as a ‘man of honour’ and one of the fathers of Poland’s transition to democracy. During the 1990s the most influential daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, and in particular its editor-in-chief Adam Michnik, one of the legends of the democratic opposition in communist Poland, did much to propagate such an image of the authors of Martial Law. [21] Information about the drastic activities that the communist regime engaged in even in its final years, increasingly broadly exposed after the establishment of the IPN, in an inescapable manner provoked questions regarding the validity of the ‘thick line’ policy, of not pursuing legal accountability for crimes committed by functionaries of the regime before 1989 on a greater scale, or even ‘historical amnesia’ – as some critics of the Polish transition model from communism to democracy said.

The opening of the archives of the communist security apparatus also allowed for new conclusions regarding the degree of civic resistance. Among others this concerns the scale as well as duration of the activities of the anti-communist underground in the 1940s and 1950s. Historians at the IPN established that many groups functioned, making use of local support and the rural population thru the first half of the 1950s; the last armed fighter was shot in the Lublin region in 1963. [22] Similar discoveries were made in the Baltic republics after historians gained access to the documents of the Soviet security apparatus. [23]

Thanks to new documents it became possible to recognise the formerly almost unknown phenomenon of school and youth conspiracy, which in XX [w origale chyba czegoś brakuje: która w stworzyła setki] created networks of dispersed secret organisations. The most functioned in the Stalinist period, but many also during the 1960s; part were discussion groups or self-education circles, some however planned and even carried-out propaganda activities (anti-regime flyers, graffiti) and even armed actions. Frequently even their names alluded to the Home Army (AK) and post-war armed underground. [24]

Thanks to SB documents it became possible to reconstruct the national scale of civic protests, which previously had been dominated by a Warsaw-centric prism. Civic protests in March 1968 can serve as an example. [25]

Perhaps the most surprising information regarding the PRL concerns the agents of the communist special services. Though this doesn’t concern specific names, but rather numbers. It turned out that the largest number of secret agents were not in the most repressive Stalinist period but in the twilight of communist, during the last years of Jaruzelski’s ‘liberalising’ regime. Historians at the IPN established that in 1989 there were at least ninety-six thousand, not counting agents of the civil services or military intelligence (in both cases there is no data available). [26] Not only was the number shocking (larger than anyone in Poland suspected though lower per capita than Czechoslovakia or, pointedly, East Germany), but also the dynamic growth in the number of agents in the 1980s. In 1981, the SB had ‘barely’ sixty-eight thousand secret agents at their disposal while by 1984 they had close to seventy thousand. To a large degree the agents were recruited or forced to cooperate from among the ranks of Solidarity and the opposition, since these were obviously of greatest interest to the security apparatus. Because this is not some distant historical epoch but rather the relatively recent past, the majority of secret collaborators constituting the aforementioned figures are still alive, are still working and part speak out in public. Naturally the result is that the problem of lustration and opening of the archives does not only have a historical dimension but most certainly tangible, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the often violent and dramatic tone of discussion on the subject of reckoning with the communist past. In order to conclude the topic about secret agents on a statistical note it should be added that IPN’s historians uncovered documents that showed that the SB managed to recruit – depending on the period – between 10 and 15 percent of Catholic clerics (most of them in the 1970s – the ‘Gierek’ decade known as the most liberal period of the PRL). [27] This is a percentage comparable with other Communist Bloc countries, for example Czechoslovakia, but in Poland this information elicited considerable surprise, also within the Catholic Church, which after 1989 – as much of Polish society – did not carry-out a full accounting with more irksome elements of its past.

It ought to be remembered that all these discoveries were not only of an academic nature. Their resonance was amplified several times over by the very scale of the IPN’s activities – a huge institution whose reach extends to cover the entire country, as well as publications of the IPN’s historians appearing in high-circulation publications or their appearances in that most mass of media - television. New conclusions were presented in exhibits that travelled the entire country, during academic or public conferences, in books and periodicals published by the IPN. It caused a marked increase in public interest in the topic of the communist dictatorship, measured by the number of articles published, air-time, or increased temperature of debates and arguments. Regardless of the evaluation of the exposed facts and work of the IPN itself, it was difficult not to admit that to a large extent it stimulated a marked change in the intellectual, moral and political climate in Poland. Matters which – it would seem – were part of a distant, inaccessible past began to revive over a dozen years after the fall of communism and at time acquiring dramatic acuteness.

Of course reactions were highly varied. A portion of public opinion identified with the activities of the IPN, expressing satisfaction that finally the truth about the past was being exposed. Critics spoke of exaggeration by the IPN’s historians of the scale of civic resistance and repressiveness of the system, which intended to lead to the creation of an inflated ‘heroic’ image of society in its contestation of communism and marginalizing attitudes of adaptation, acceptance and even engagement in the communist system. Others spoke of accepting a misleading perspective imposed by the documents created by the SB, which did not to the slightest degree accurately reflect reality, concentrating on one hand on the issue of agents, and on the other on real or imaginary activities of opponents of the system, as seen through the prism of the deformed mentality of the ‘bezpieka’. [28] Extreme opinions spoke of ‘witch hunts’ (alleged agents) and harming of innocent people accused on the basis of the SB’s unreliable and ‘prepared’ pseudo-documents. [29]

As usual in such cases, it is difficult to attempt to precisely reconstruct the spectrum of views and allegiances. A ‘hard’ indicator can be an increase in the number of supporters of lustration and opening of the archives. According to studies conducted in July 2005, by GfK Polonia, 67 percent of respondents were for the ‘opening of the IPN archives for all interested’ (33 percent against). The proposition of ‘decommunisation’ also clearly enjoys substantial support, meaning the introduction of ‘ban on assuming state positions by functionaries of communist Poland’; 62 percent of respondents supported such a ban and only 38 percent were against. [30]

Controversies regarding the communist past – and particularly the problem of secret agents – since the end of 2004 and beginning of 2005 found themselves in the very centre of public interest. For several months information regarding the exposure of subsequent agents – among politicians, academics, journalists – were constantly in the headlines and newscasts. Several factors combined to result in such a radical growth in interest in these matters. In 2004 the process of making documents public by the IPN was significantly speeded up, which until then had been dealing with the absorption of the majority of archives. An increasingly broad group of “victims” received not only photocopies of documents but also – generally after a further few months of waiting – the names of agents who informed on them. Many of those ‘harmed’ revealed these names publicly. The names of secret agents appeared more frequently in publications of both historians and journalists, who took advantage of the IPN’s archival collections. The direct catalyst of the great wave of interest in the issue of agents and lustration (or rather its lack or incompleteness) was the case of Małgorzata Niezabitowska, press secretary of the first non-communist governments formed in 1989. At the time she was a well-known public figure, the ‘face’ of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government. In December 2004, Rzeczpospolita published an article in which she referred to information that was circulating regarding her alleged cooperation as an agent with the SB, categorically denying them and demanding that the IPN open her case file to the public. [31] The Institute made them available to academics and journalists. According to the file it turned out that in the first days of Martial Law Niezabitowska was forced to cooperate and over the following few months had several dozen meetings with a SB functionary whom she gave information about the editorial staff of Tygodnik Solidarność where she worked as a journalist. [32] It would seem that she did no one any great harm and Niezabitowska herself was something of a victim as she did not cooperate by her own free will. Despite this the journalist announced that the documents in her file had been doctored by the ‘bezpieka’ and she never – save two interrogations – met with any SB functionary, nor did give any information. The majority of historians commenting on this case confirmed the authenticity of the documents. At the time of writing this article the lustration trial of Malgorzata Niezabitkowska is in process.

Echoes of this case did not even have time to fade before the next the next ‘affair’ concerning agents exploded. In January 2005, a known journalist, earlier a pro-democratic opposition activist, Bronisław Wildstein, revealed a catalogue containing names and file numbers of some 160 thousand secret collaborators, candidates for recruitment and functionaries of the security apparatus. It was acquired from the IPN as a records index for archivists, historians and journalists, available to all users of the IPN archives. Wildstein came into the possession (though he did not reveal how) of an electronic version, which he sent out to Warsaw journalists. The file started to circulate throughout Poland, and finally posted on the Internet. In the first few weeks the website where the so-called ‘Wildstein’s list’ was posted was visited by several million people. This was the true popularisation of the lustration issue, brought it home to the general public. Within three months of the publication of ‘Wildstein’s list’ more people applied to the IPN to receive documents about themselves than in the several years since the establishment of the Institute. In the period thru January 2005 there were few more than seventeen thousand such requests; by April there were over there were over 40 thousand. [33] At this point it is worth noting that despite the avalanche of interest in the ‘files’ this figure is relatively small compared to, for example, what occurred in Germany after the establishment of the BStU. The primary reason lies certainly in the fact that, in comparison to Germany, in Poland the opening of the archives of the communist security was delayed by about ten years. What seemed important to people immediately after the fall of the communist dictatorship became over the course of time overshadowed by other concerns and experiences. Also, perhaps the Stasi was perceived by former residents of the GDR as more omnipresent and more of an impediment to daily life that the SB in Poland, but this statement ought to be treated simply as a hypothesis as no studies on the subject have ever been carried-out.

The publication of ‘Wildstein’s list’ caused a true storm in the media and politics. For several weeks it was the most important topic in the mass media. It was the topic of a special debate in the Sejm. The intensity and harshness of the discussion can only be compared with the debates surrounding Jedwabne in 2001, in which, nota bene, the IPN found itself at the centre of. The publication of ‘Wildstein’s list’ mobilised all the opponents of lustration and of the opening of the archives, who now spoke of harming many innocent people whose name were published without their permission. The argument was raised that the list contained names of actual agents as well as those who were merely ‘candidates’ – meaning people identified by the SB as targets for recruitment. These latter in many cases were not even aware of this (as recruiting attempts were never finally undertaken), or resisted all efforts on the part of the services. [34] The argument was also raised that concentrating attention and society’s scorn on the ‘column’ that consisted of the secret agents, while leaving in peace and well-being their overseers and the true architects of the repression – the functionaries of the security apparatus and members of the communist party – was a moral error.

Interest in communist special service agents remained high in the following months due to the names of known personalities whose hidden past now came to light thanks to documents divulged by the IPN. Television journalists gained materials that testified to the fact that as a young officer Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski was an agent of the Military Intelligence, a division functioning in the 1940s and 1950s, that due to its crimes was particularly infamous. In turn, in April 2005, it came to light that for many years the Dominican Fr Konrad Hejmo was an informer for the SB. This was particularly shocking for the public since Hejmo was the guardian of Polish pilgrims at the Vatican and over several dozen years literally hundreds of thousands of Poles had contact with him. Millions watched him on television when he appeared as the main authority informing on the worsening state of the Pope’s health, his death, and finally funeral. The case of Fr Hejmo placed before the public in sharp relief the problem of lustration within the Catholic Church. [35] The capping of the lustration ‘series’ was the disclosure of Prime Minister Marek Belka’s file, who maintained contacts with the SB during the 1980s as a result of his departure on a Fulbright scholarship to the United States. [36]

Briefly, the consequences of the huge increase in interest in matters of lustration and communist agents were twofold. On one hand the conviction in Poland that a full opening of the archives and elucidation of all sensitive issues from the period of the communist dictatorship was clearly strengthened. The majority of those surveyed by pollsters support this. Two political parties that won parliamentary election in September 2005 Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) and Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) - placed such pledged in their campaign platforms.

On the other hand, the efforts of the groups that seek to limit the access to the materials of the security apparatus in the possession of the IPN intensified. An indication of another ‘battle front’ against access to the IPN archives was the announcement by Adam Michnik published in Gazeta Wyborcza. The former oppositionist threatened suits against every person who would prints or use in public statements materials regarding his invigilation by the security service. Historians responded arguing that such an understanding of privacy could be a serious hindrance in the study of modern history. [37]

The years of 2005-2007 are another chapter in the Polish history also in the field of lustration and political attitudes toward legacy of the Communist dictatorship. Those issues were integrated into party politics by Law and Justice which formed the government. It is another story, belonging to the most recent chapter of the Polish contemporary history and it will not be analysed here. Nevertheless, it is worth underlining in the conclusion that in Poland the period 2000-2005 was the most formative and brought about the real turning point in terms of public attitudes toward the legacy of Communism. The establishment of the IPN in 2000 changed society’s thinking with regards to the problem of reckoning with its totalitarian past to a significant degree. It has made it one of the main subjects of public debate. This process simultaneously fits into, and is strengthened by, the trend which extends far beyond Poland’s borders, with a pan-European if not global character, a sort of return to history, which is becoming an important element in contemporary relations between states. It suffices to remember the controversies surrounding the recent celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, or the disputes between China and Korea and Japan relating to perceptions of the latter’s policies during the 1930s and 1940s. In the Polish case historical disputes concern topics mentioned above – first of all during the Second World War – between Poles and Jews as well as Ukrainians and of course Russians. The Institute of National Remembrance finds itself – similar to the case of internal reckoning with the communist dictatorship – at the very centre of these controversies. Not long ago, the Institute began a prosecutorial investigation into the murder of Polish army officers in Katyń, by the Russians in 1940, which was strongly criticised by the Kremlin. The return of historical controversies reaching back to the Second World War are also in a sense an element of the reckoning with communism, which for several decades blocked authentic discussion about sensitive issues regarding relations between nations in Easter and Central Europe. These discussions will vary in intensity, degree of openness and general interest in the various countries. In the case of Poland – regardless of what happens in the future – without a doubt, over the course of the last few years there was a significant change in the intellectual climate regarding evaluations of the past. All observers agree that historical reckonings moved to the forefront of public debate. Though, of course, they vary in their evaluations of what this means for Poland – will this contribute to the creation of a well-functioning democracy and civil society, or will – as others hold – it turn the attention of Poles away from more important, contemporary challenges.


[1] Krzysztof Gottesman, ‘Rozliczanie przeszłości’, Rzeczpospolita, 23 IX 1998

[2] Rise and activities of T. Mazowiecki’s government as described by Antoni Dudek: Pierwsze lata III Rzeczypospolitej 1989-2001, Kraków, 2002, pp. 62-114

[3] See: Polska 1986-1989: koniec systemu, vol. 1-3, Paweł Machcewicz, Andrzej Paczkowski, Antoni Dudek, Andrzej Friszek, eds., Warsaw 2002; Jan Skórzyński, Ugoda i rewolucja. Władza i opozycja 1985-1989, Warsaw 1995; A. Paczkowski, ‘Polska 1986-1989: od kooptacji do negocjacji’, in: Od sfałszowanego zwycięstwa do prawdziwej klęski, pp. 126-187, Kraków 1999

[4] A. Dudek, ‘Pierwsze lata...’, pp. 257-268

[5] ‘Ustawa z dnia 11 kwietnia 1997 o ujawnieniu pracy lub służby w organach bezpieczeństwa państwa lub współpracy z nimi w latach 1944-1990 osób pełniących funkcje publiczne’. The Lustration Act was enacted on in autumn 1998, after an amendment indicating the Appelate Court in Warsaw as responsible for determining the verity of the lustration declarations as well as nominating the Public Interest Spokesman, or the ‘lustration procurator’. (See: A. Dudek, ‘Pierwsze lata...’, pp. 431-433, 465). The history of lustration in the Thrid Republic is discussed by Piotr Grzelak: Wojna o lustrację, Warsaw 2005

[6] Andrzej Romanowski, ‘Solidarność czy ‘obóz posierpniowy`’, Tygodnik Powszechny,

[7] Krzysztof Olszewski, ‘Prezydent zabiega o zmiany w ustawie o teczkach’, Rzeczpospolita, 9 X 1998.

[8] Jakub Karpiński, Trzecia niepodległość. Najnowsza historia Polski, Warszawa 2002, p. 228.

[9] ‘Ustawa z dnia 18 grudnia 1998 r. o Instytucie Pamięci Narodowej-Komisji Ścigania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu’

[10] Danuta Frey, Andrzej Kaczyński, ‘Teczki tylko dla badaczy’, Rzeczpospolita, 13-14 VIII 2005

[11] ‘Informacja o końcowych ustaleniach śledztwa S/1/00/Zn w sprawie brania udziału w dokonaniu zabójstw obywateli polskich narodowości żydowskiej w Jedwabnem w dniu 10 lipca 1941 r., tj. o czyn z art. 1 pkt 1 dekretu z dnia 31.08.1944 r. (streszczenie)’ (text of information in full is available on the IPN website: http://www.ipn.gov.pl); See also: ‘Mordowali polscy sąsiedzi’, Anna Bikont speaks with procurator Radosław Ignatiew, Gazeta Wyborcza, 10 VII 2002. Results of research conducted by the IPN parallel to prosecutorial investigation were published in two volumes: Wokół Jedwabnego, Paweł Machcewicz, Krzysztof Persak, eds., Warsaw 2002.

[12] The most important voices in the debate were published in English (Thou Shalt Not Kill. Poles On Jedwabne, Warsaw 2000) and German (‚Die ‘Jedwabne-Debatte’ in polnischen Zeitungen und Zeitschriften’, herausgegeben von Ruth Henning, Transodra. Deutch-Polnisches Informations Bulletin, no. 23, 2001)

[13] Stanisław Ciesielski, Wojciech Materski, Andrzej Paczkowski, Represje sowieckie wobec Polaków i obywateli polskich, Warsaw 2000.

[14] The newest and best conclusions in this matter in: Władysław Siemaszko, Ewa Siemaszko, Ludobójstwo dokonane przez nacjonalistów ukraińskich na ludności polskiej Wołynia 1939-1945, Warsaw 2000; ‘Antypolska akcja OUN-UPA 1943-1944. Fakty i interpretacje’, Grzegorz Motyka, Dariusz Libionka, eds., Warsaw 2002. The latter contains materials from an international conference organised by the IPN in Lublin in May 2000.

[15] All exhibits organised by the IPN (including publications and conferences) are contained in the IPN Chairman’s annual report to the Sejm as well as on the IPN website: www.ipn.gov.pl

[16] Among the numerous studies released by the IPN regarding death sentences in the Stalinist period see:: Krzysztof Madej, Jan Żaryn, Jacek Żurek, Księga świadectw. Skazani na karę śmierci w czasach stalinowskich i ich losy, Warsaw 2003; Tadeusz Swat, ‘...Przed Bogiem i historią’. Księga ofiar komunistycznego reżimu w Polsce lat 1944-1956. Mazowsze’, Warsaw 2003

[17] See: Jacek Pawłowicz, ‘Działania pozaprawne Polskiej Partii Robotniczej wobec opozycji i podziemia na przykładzie ‘szwadronu śmierci’ Władysława Rypińskiego’, in: ‘Zwyczajny’ resort. Studia o aparacie bezpieczeństwa 1944-1956, Kazimierz Krajewski, Tomasz Łabuszewski, eds., Warsaw 2005, pp. 227-261.

[18] Tomasz Kurpierz, ‘Likwidacja zgrupowania Narodowych Sił Zbrojnych Henryka Flamego “Bartka” w 1946 roku – próba rekonstrukcji działań aparatu bezpieczeństwa’, Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość, 1/2004.

[19] Documentation regarding action ‘D’ was destroyed simultaneously, from this arises the trouble of reconstructing a full picture of their activities. The most facts were established during an investigation carried-out in 1989-1990 by the aforementioned parliamentary Extraordinary Commission for the Investigation of the Activities of the MIA. For the use of this Commission, the Minister of Internal Affairs prepared ‘Information on the activities of cell ‘D’ section IV of the former SB’. This is the most expansive existing description of the activities of cell ‘D’. The full version of the report was classified for several years. It was first published in the Biuletyn Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej. (2003, nr 1 - January). There is also an expanded introduction by Marek Lasota, presenting the research conclusions of the author (‘O raporcie sejmowej Komisji poświęconym Samodzielnej Grupie ‘D’ w MSW’). See also: ‘Raport Rokity. Sprawozdanie Sejmowej Komisji Nadzwyczajnej do Zbadania Działalności MSW’, Introduction: Jan Rokita, Posłowie: Antoni Dudek, Kraków 2005

[20] Grzegorz Majchrzak, ‘Nękanie Holoubka’, Rzeczpospolita, 17 VII 2003.

[21] Disagreements in the evaluation of the, including leading politicians, are analysed by Paweł Śpiewak: Pamięć po komunizmie, Gdańsk 2005.

[22] See: ‘Ostatni leśni’, Tomasz Łabuszewski, ed., Warsaw 2003.

[23] The Anti-Soviet Resistance in Baltic States’, Arvydas Anusauskas, ed., Vilnius 2002.

[24] See: ‘Młodzież w oporze społecznym 1944-1956’, Monika Kała, Łukasz Kamiński, eds., Wrocław 2002; Jan Chańko, Zbigniew Onufrzak, Z dziejów konspiracji młodzieżowych w Łodzi 1948-1953, Łódź 2005.

[25] See: ‘Oblicza marca 1968’, Konrad Rokicki, Sławomir Stępień, eds., Warsaw 2004.

[26] Tadeusz Ruzikowski, ‘Tajni współpracownicy pionów operacyjnych aparatu bezpieczeństwa 1950-1984’, ‘Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość’, 1/2003.

[27] See: Metody pracy operacyjnej aparatu bezpieczeństwa wobec Kościołów i związków wyznaniowych 1945-1989, Adam Dziurok, ed., Warsaw 2004.

[28] See: Aleksander Hall, ‘Oczami bezpieki’, Gazeta Wyborcza, 9.2.2005; Jan Lityński, ‘Prawda solidarności, prawda bezpieki’, Rzeczpospolita, 25.2.2005

[29] See: np. Andrzej Romanowski, ‘IPN – bezprawie i absurd’, Gazeta Wyborcza, 25-26.9. 2004.

[30] Survey results presented in Rzeczpospolita 28.7.2005 (Filip Gawryś, ‘ dla IV Rzeczypospolitej’)

[31] Małgorzata Niezabitowska, ‘Prawdy jak chleba’, Rzeczpospolita, 18-19.12.2004.

[32] Andrzej Kaczyński, ‘Pseudonim ’, Rzeczpospolita, 22.12.2004.

[33] Statistics published monthly in Biuletyn IPN. Statistics from 31.8.2005, over 45 thousand Polish citizens requested access to their dossiers.

[34] See: np. Wojciech Staszewski, ‘Dlaczego jestem na liście?’, Duży Format (supplement to Gazeta Wyborcza, 14.2.2005); Sebastian Łupak, Marek Sterlingow, ‘Dwóch ludzi z kutrem, Gazeta Wyborcza, 14.2.2005

[35] The case of Fr Hejmo was submitted to the analysis of three of IPN’s historians, available ont the IPN’s website (www.ipn.gov.pl): Andrzej Grajewski, Paweł Machcewicz, Jan Żaryn, ‘Sprawa o. Konrada Hejmo. Działania Służby Bezpieczeństwa przeciwko Kościołowi katolickiemu w latach 1975-1988’.

[36] See: Andrzej Kaczyński, ‘Dossier premiera’, Rzeczpospolita, 23.6.2005.

[37] Announcement of Adam Michnik’s legal representative published in Gazeta Wyborcza 14.9.2005. On 6.10.2005 Gazeta Wyborcza printed a letter from a known historian Andrzej Friszek, arguing that materials from interrogations are important sources for historians studying the activities of the democratic opposition. The response of A. Michnik’s legal representative was published beside it in which he supported his earlier position and renewed his threats of legal suits.