Poland looks back in anger
New `lustration' law aims to ferret out the nation's `post-communist
monster'; observers say leaders overstate the old regime's influence
By Tom Hundley
Tribune foreign correspondent
November 28, 2006
WARSAW -- In 1989, when Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a soft-spoken Catholic intellectual,
became Poland's first non-communist prime minister in the postwar era, his first
promise was to draw "a thick line" separating Poland from its past.
Democratic Poland, he clearly implied, would focus on building its future, not
settling scores from the past.
Seventeen years later, Poland's current leaders--Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski,
the identical twins who serve, respectively, as president and prime
minister--are determined to erase that line. Their Law and Justice Party came to
power in elections last year by pledging to settle accounts with the old regime.
This month President Kaczynski signed a new "lustration" bill that will open
millions of volumes of communist-era secret police files in a belated attempt to
slay "the post-communist monster" that the brothers claim still haunts Poland.
Lustration is not a word commonly used in English. It means "to purify by a
propitiatory offering or other ceremonial method," according to Webster's
dictionary. In the former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe, it came to mean
the exposing and banning of communists and their collaborators from
participation in the new system.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former East Germany and the Czech Republic
pursued aggressive lustration policies with mixed results. Poland opted for the
more forgiving "thick line" approach; this, too, has produced very mixed
These days, there are two schools of thought on Poland's transition from
communism to free-market democracy.
The first holds that the process inevitably would be a bumpy ride that produced
its share of winners and losers. Perhaps it is unfortunate that a
disproportionate number of ex-communists and their friends are among the
winners, according to this view, but Poland's democracy seems secure and its
economy is growing.
The second school of thought holds that the real power in Poland continues to be
held by a shadowy network of ex-communists, former secret policemen and the
gangsters who do their bidding. According to this school of thought, Poland will
never be free until this network is exposed and crushed.
The Kaczynskis are proponents of the second school.
Old boy network disputed
"It has been their religion for the last 17 years," said Lena Kolarska-Bobinska,
director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw think tank.
"Of course there are networks of people who know each other from the past," she
said. "England has its old boy network. Every society has this."
Like many of Poland's Westernized elites, often more comfortable in Brussels
than in Bydgoszcz, Kolarska-Bobinska doubts Poland's network of old boys is as
sinister or powerful as the Kaczynskis make it out to be.
But Janusz Kurtyka, a young historian who heads the Institute of National
Remembrance, the agency that will preside over the lustration process, says the
"thick line" approach was a mistake that has returned to haunt Poland with a
"I was never one who thought that separating ourselves from the past was the
right thing to do, or even a possible thing to do," he said.
"What's behind us are several decades of a totalitarian regime in which the
secret police played a role of paramount importance," he said. "We can't move
forward ... [until] we make sure that the people who shape our future are not
implicated in this past."
Under the new law, all politicians, civil servants and others in positions of
public trust, including school principals and journalists, will have to obtain a
clean bill of health from the remembrance institute, which is known by the
Polish acronym IPN. The files of these people would then be available for public
scrutiny on the Internet.
The new lustration process also will disclose the names of people who met with
the secret police on an "institutional" or "operational" basis, but were not
necessarily informants or collaborators. In a totalitarian state with an
all-pervasive security apparatus, this would mean people such as factory
managers who received routine visits from the secret police or parish priests
who needed to get police permission for parishioners to travel on pilgrimages.
Critics say the new law is a politically motivated witch hunt that will harm
innocent people, and even Kurtyka agrees that its scope should be scaled back.
Vetting could take a decade
As it stands now, 500,000 to 1.5 million people could come under fresh scrutiny.
Kurtyka estimated that the process of vetting everyone would take at least a
The Kaczynski brothers, both of whom were prominent Solidarity activists, were
pushing the Polish government to reconsider the "thick line" approach as early
One institution that appears most nervous about the new lustration law is the
Roman Catholic Church. While the church is rightly seen as one of the heroes in
the struggle against the totalitarian state, there is little doubt that some of
its priests were compromised. Kurtyka estimated the proportion could be as high
as 20 percent.
"It will be a mess for sure," said Andrzej Friszke, a contributing editor to
Wiez, a leading Catholic journal.
Friszke, a historian and member of the IPN board, said 90 percent of the files
on alleged church collaborators were destroyed between 1989 and 1990.
"The archives are incomplete, and it's hard to know why certain files were saved
and others were destroyed. That's why this whole process will never be
credible," he said.
"The people who prepared this legislation have never been in the archives. They
don't know what they are talking about," Friszke said.
Andrzej Paczkowski is another historian who has reservations about lustration.
Noting that the new legislation was drafted by some of the younger members of
the Law and Justice Party, he characterized it as "a revolt of the young
generation ... and an opportunity for them to eliminate older elites."
Instead of opening the files on a million people, many of whom are now dead,
Paczkowski said it would be more useful to start in the present and work
"A good example is Mazur," he said, referring to Edward Mazur, a Chicago man who
holds U.S. and Polish citizenship and has been linked by Polish authorities to
organized crime. Mazur, wanted for allegedly ordering the 1998 murder of Polish
National Police Chief Marek Papala, is fighting extradition back to Poland.
"Go after corruption and go after the mafia," said Paczkowski. "In Mazur's case,
check the archives: Was he a secret collaborator? Who was his officer? Who were
his associates? In which domain did he work? But don't start by opening a
million files to look for 2,000 or 3,000 Mazurs."
`Look at Russia, at Ukraine'
Although much of the Polish intelligentsia sees the Kaczynski brothers as
provincial, and their obsession with righting the wrongs of the past as
misguided and too late, Jerzy Targalski strongly disagrees.
"Look around you. Look at Russia, at Ukraine," he said. "In all
all-post-communist societies, true power still belongs to the secret police and
Targalski, an academic, former dissident and one-time translator for Radio Free
Europe, recently was named to the board of state-run Polish Radio.
The Kaczynskis believe Polish Radio is part of the secret network, and
Targalski's appointment to the governing board opens yet another front in the
brothers' war on the past, a role Targalski seems to relish.
"I am from the right, but I have nothing against leftist journalists," he
explained. "I just don't think collaborators should be journalists."