A Very Polish Scandal

Why Poles are so upset that a priest collaborated with the Communists 30 years ago.

Stanislaw Wielgus 

Like so many other scandals, this one unfolded in a pattern at once familiar and depressing. First there was an unsubstantiated leak in a somewhat marginal weekly; then there was a denial. Then came more substantial leaks in more mainstream media; then more denials. Then, all at once, there were behind-the-scenes maneuvers, interventions at high levels, and finally, at the last possible minute, a resignation.

But this scandal had a few twists: Instead of a politician, the authority figure in question was the newly appointed archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus. Instead of political hacks and advisers, the behind-the-scenes maneuvers featured Pope Benedict and a slew of high-ranking priests. Instead of sex or money, the scandal resolved around the archbishop’s alleged collaboration with the Communist secret police in the 1970s. And instead of announcing his resignation at a press conference (supportive wife weeping softly in the background), the archbishop made his surprise resignation speech during the live transmission of the mass being held to celebrate his new appointment.

This could only have happened in post-Communist Poland. Where else would millions of people be avidly watching the live transmission of an archbishop’s inaugural mass? Where else would absolutely everyone—from the Vatican to the national archives to the presidential chancellery—be leaking like a giant sieve? There are no secrets in Warsaw, a city that—not unlike Washington, D.C.—often feels more like a village than a metropolis.

Coming now, more than two years after Poland’s accession to the European Union, this little morality play also usefully illustrates the weird crossroads at which the citizens of formerly Communist Europe now find themselves. On the one hand, many have truly absorbed, with amazing rapidity, the Western “normality” to which they so long aspired. The Warsaw dinner parties that once ended in gloomy discussions of the Yalta agreement now feature lively discussions of property prices, just as in London or Paris. The same supermarket chains sell the same products in Poland as in Germany or France. The same range of media exists here, too, everything from satellite television to scandal-driven tabloids to newspapers with serious foreign coverage. They vary in quality, from excellent to mendacious, and act with enormous speed, also just like everywhere else. For all its attempts at modern media-friendliness, even the Catholic Church couldn’t keep up with their rapidly reported leaks.

Yet however dreary and however ancient this city of new office buildings and 24-hour news may seem, the past just will not go away. Behind this scandal, there are layers upon layers, starting with the still-open and still-bitter debate about the compromises people made in the Communist era. After all, the archbishop’s past collaboration was in some ways very typical. Intelligent and ambitious, he wanted to study abroad. The secret police told him that, in exchange for a passport, he would have to report what he heard when he got there. He apparently agreed. Many others, offered the same deal, did not agree—and as a result they did not study abroad and possibly did not advance as far in their chosen professions as Wielgus. Some of them are still angry about it.

It is true, of course, that the archbishop has said that he “never informed on anyone and never tried to hurt anyone.” It is also true that nothing about him has been proved: This was trial by media, not a balanced judgment. It is equally true that the documents that would clarify the extent of his collaboration, one way or another, apparently no longer exist. But their absence is also a historical legacy, this time from 1989, when the last Communist chief of secret police—who remained in charge rather longer than is generally remembered—destroyed most of the files concerning the church, and possibly those of other public figures, too.

Odd though it sounds, in some ways the memory of 1989 bothers Poles more than the memory of the 1970s. Certainly the deals done at that time—political power to the former dissidents in exchange for amnesty for the former rulers—laid the foundations for the country’s perpetual bad mood. Contrary to some Western reporting, the first Polish post-Communist governments did not conduct any significant investigations into the affairs of their predecessors. At the same time, laws neatly allocating shares in privatized factories to their former managers—allowing Communist cadres to transform themselves into capitalist owners—in Poland as in Russia, Hungary, and elsewhere were allowed to remain. Thanks to those shady privatizations, the former ruling class got rich in the 1990s, and their former opponents did not. Hence the generalized gloom, which has never been justified by the economic statistics, and the prevailing sense that justice was not done. Hence the lack of tolerance for archbishops who made mistakes as younger men.

This discussion of Polish Communism and post-Communism isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, Germans are still talking about the Third Reich; Americans were still talking about slavery and segregation when Trent Lott resigned from the Senate majority leadership. Maybe these overheated arguments about things that happened 30 years ago are a sign that Poland has, at last, truly joined the West.