In Reconciling Its Past, Poland Is Divided Anew

Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, shown in 1997, faces charges that while Poland's military ruler, he illegally declared martial law in 1981 to suppress the Solidarity movement.
Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, shown in 1997, faces charges that while Poland's military ruler, he illegally declared martial law in 1981 to suppress the Solidarity movement. (By Czarek Sokolowski -- Associated Press)

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 1, 2007

GDANSK, Poland -- Almost two decades have passed since dictatorship gave way to democracy in Poland, but after years of burying memories and avoiding the subject, this country is finally grappling with its communist past.

On March 15, a controversial law went into effect requiring an estimated 700,000 civil servants, teachers and journalists to sign an oath declaring whether they collaborated with the communist secret police before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Anyone caught lying, or who refuses to sign, is to be fired.

In January, the new archbishop of Warsaw quit after admitting he had been an informer. Since then, dozens of priests in this devout Catholic nation have likewise been outed as collaborators, shaking public faith in an institution that was long seen as the only reliable refuge from totalitarian rule.

Meanwhile, prosecutors are expected this spring to put on trial an 83-year-old man whose unsmiling visage and dark eyeglasses still symbolize the country's tribulations under communism. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's former military ruler, faces charges that he illegally declared martial law in 1981 to suppress the Solidarity labor movement that arose in Gdansk's shipyards.

The accusations and recriminations about who did what during the communist era have split Polish society. Proponents of the current purges say that they are long overdue and complain that ex-communists unfairly profited during the country's transition to capitalism. Critics, including many former foes of the communists, describe the campaign as a modern-day Red Scare that is driven more by political machinations than an honest desire to hold people accountable.

Few people have gone unscathed, including Lech Walesa, the Gdansk electrician who led Solidarity and won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 for confronting the communists. Walesa has had to go to court twice to clear himself of allegations that he served as an informer.

"Some people will never believe that I managed to accomplish as much as I did without the help of the secret police," Walesa, 63, said in an interview in his office in Gdansk, where he has led a pro-democracy foundation since he served as Poland's president from 1990 to 1995.

Walesa resisted opening Poland's communist-era intelligence archives during his presidency, saying the new republic was too fragile to endure a direct reckoning with its past. Today, however, he supports opening them and said the purges are painful but necessary.

"Only cowards and those who didn't fight didn't have any files," he said. "But we need to get it over with as quickly as possible and do it once and for all. We need to make this issue disappear forever."

Unlike in some of its revolution-minded neighbors in Eastern Europe, Poland's transition from communism to multiparty democracy was a carefully negotiated one.

In February 1989, the country's communist rulers opened talks with a delegation of Solidarity leaders and other activists in Warsaw. After two months, they reached an agreement that led to the first partially free elections in the Soviet bloc. Although the communists soon lost their grip on power, for the most part they avoided prosecution; many, in fact, joined new political parties and restyled themselves as democrats.

Some former Solidarity activists and other communist foes seethed at what they saw as a lack of accountability. After years of operating on the political fringe, they swept into power in late 2005, led by identical twins Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski.

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