Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland: Decommunization Process Tackles Communist Past

Warsaw, 9 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Nine years after Poland's Communists began giving away their power to the Solidarity opposition, some of those who were persecuted during the Communist years are preparing the groundwork for a new, aggressive settling of scores with their former Communist rulers.

In the last few weeks, the Polish parliament has passed a much-disputed resolution condemning the communist dictatorship and a bill empowering the Warsaw Appeals Court to investigate whether state officials collaborated with the communist-era secret police.

The Polish measures reflect a debate that is still going on all over Central and Eastern Europe.

In Romania, for example, two top officials were recently fired after admitting they had collaborated with the Communist Securitate secret police. All cabinet members have recently had to disclose whether they collaborated in the past, and the government is preparing to let ordinary Romanian read files that were kept on them by the Securitate.

In Hungary earlier this year, a panel of seven judges asked 13 top politicians, including then Prime Minister Gyula Horn to resign because of their past as communists or as secret police informers. All but one of the 13 refused to go and Horn ignored the panel's recommendtion on grounds that voters knew all about his background when they voted him into office.

There are several aspects of the so-called "decommunization" process. They include "lustration" (from the Latin word for a purification ceremony); screening of current high officials to make sure they were not former secret service collaborators; and opening secret service files to the public. In addition, in several countries there are criminal prosecutions of people who allegedly committed crimes under the old regime, but these trials are rare, slow and cumbersome.

One of the authors of the two recent Polish measures is Stefan Niesiolowski, a former oppositionist who served five years in Communist prisons and who lists "decommunization" as one of his interests in Who's Who in European Politics. He says the parties that grew out of Solidarity are going to take advantage of their current majority in Parliament to punish former Communists and make sure former top Communists never again gain power in Poland.

"We have to accelerate the process of punishing Communist criminals because in Poland hundreds were killed and tortured and specific people were doing it. They have to be found and prosecuted. These are criminals."

Niesiolowski says that because the Communists gave up power voluntarily -- and were not forced from office as in Romania or East Germany -- decommunization can be a mild process in Poland.

"All we want," he says, "is that someone who held a high position in Communist Poland should not hold high positions in democratic, free Poland."

But Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, a leader of the reformed former Communists, argues that politicians like Niesiolowski are selective in deciding which ex-communists to go after. He says they are using decommunization as a weapon in what he calls a "fundamentalistic, very aggressive" fight against political enemies.

Poland's initial approach to the communist past was set in 1989 by the country's first non-Communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who declared that Poland should draw "a thick line" to mark off the Communist past from the democratic future.

Although Mazowiecki's intention was to make Communists responsible for their era, and the new Solidarity-led government responsible for the future, in Polish parlance the "thick line" came to signify a blanket forgiveness of past Communist misdeeds.

Niesiolowski says "the thick line was a big mistake."

"Practically what it meant was creating tolerance for Communists, even worse, silent cooperation with the Communists at the cost of the right wing. At a certain point, they got enormous privileges, even while they were harming people before, while they were ruling Poland very badly for 45 years."

Mazowiecki told RFE/RL that he thinks people understood his concept of the "thick line" very well, but that his enemies turned the meaning upside down to use as a weapon against him.

Mazowiecki says the reason that -- nearly 10 years after the collaps of communism -- the past continues to haunt Poles is that the Communists have not been honest in assessing their own history, and that the Communists managed to profit from the transition to a market economy.

"I think that the reason for it is that they, as a Communist party, as a formation, not as people, they did not make an assessment of the past. And the second reason is an economical one because for the transformation maybe the people from this formation were located in very good positions, and they were making very good money. That's the reason."

Most observers agree that ordinary Poles have put aside questions about the past, and that former oppressors and former victims have largely been reconciled. For this reason, Cimoszewicz argues, it is inappropriate for politicians to stir things up at this late stage. And he says it is up to historians, not politicians, to pass judgement on the Communist era.

"I believe that it is of course necessary to study the past and to present more and more clear opinions. It is necesary for the nation, for the people's conscience. Everybody has the right to know and understand the history of his own state and own nation. Politicians, despite the fact that they have the right to speak, to present their opinions, are the last who are authorized to formulate any binding definitions, or opinions. It is rather the job for historians."

With politicians like Niesolowski leading the fight against former Communists, Cimoszewicz fears Poland is in for more years of sharp and unpleasant public debate. When will the issue be finally put to rest? Says Cimoszewicz, who is 47, "probably we will have to wait until our generation passes, and the next generation without such personal experience will behave naturally."