Sunday, 25 April 2010

The white hole in Polish history

I suppose within my lifetime there will not be a consensus on how to assess the period of PRL comprehensively. There will be no unambiguous review for a simple reason – millions of people lived in that country and each of them might have a different view on those times. The spectrum is wide and covers opinions from moderately positive, focusing on social security and social advancement to clearly and extremely negative which point at enslavement, felony and lies as main pillars of People’s Poland. I would dare to claim there is no truth about PRL, there are facts (deniable or not) and interpretations, subject to endless debates. The biggest problems is that truth will not always out in this case.

Poland in its pre-WW2 shape was wiped off the map of Europe on 17 September 1939, the day when Soviet army invaded us from east. The man who signed a command to wreck the Polish state in 1939 and annihilate Polish elite in Katyn in 1940, in 1945 insisted on creation of Polish country, with new borderlines and in Soviet sphere of influences. Mr Churchill and Mr Roosevelt succumbed to his pressure, as Soviet Union, which had sent millions of its citizens for death on battleground, had had a significant contribution in defeating Nazi Germany and its allies. Thus Europe was carved up into two blocs – a Soviet one with Poland as one of satellite countries and a Western one, built on foundations of free market and democracy.

I cannot agree PRL ended up in the same form as it was set up. There were different periods and different shades of grey that could describe it. I could distinguish a few periods and milestones.

1945 – 1956 – the time of building communism, cracking down on the elements of pre-war Poland and those who fought for Poland on the wrong side. In this period Poland had most political prisoners, many of whom were sentenced to death. Meanwhile it was the time when many people still thought communism could bring paradise on earth, justice, equality and happiness for all. Some of them thought the ones who did not want to build the ideal system should have been eliminated, some were totally unaware of cruelty of the system. The pursuit for communism eased a bit in 1953 when Stalin died.

1956 – was the first short period of moderate (but relatively huge within the system) liberty. In that time totalitarian system thawed out and turned into authoritarian regime, whose power worn off gradually until 1989. In 1956 Poles were full of hopes for a new beginning, for a socialism more friendly to people, symbolised by Władysław Gomułka, Polish communist who spent many years in Soviet prison. He took over as first secretary of ruling party in October and soon kept a tight rein on Polish society. Four months earlier, in June, a first crack appeared on the countenance of Polish socialism – workers from rail construction factory in Poznań went on strike. Actually it was the first time in the world history when factory-owners went on strike.

1957 – 1970, so called “small stabilisation”, period of greyness and austerity. Most of national income was invested, little spent on consumption, it was the first time when ruling “elites” and ordinary people struck a deal “you’ll let us rule, and we’ll let you live (rather normally). In this period first dissidents voiced their protests against the system, accusing rulers of betraying the ideals of Marxism. Student demonstrations in 1968, anti-Jewish campaigns and brutally put down strikes in December 1970 brought Władysław Gomułka down and undermined the foundations of socialist system.

1970 – 1980, known also as “Gierek era” or “golden decade”. Many Poles recall those years as time when Poland made a big stride, standards of living were higher. It was indeed a time of liberalisation, it was easier to get a passport and go abroad. But in the same period, socialist inefficient economy reached the limits of its capacity and indebtedness. In 1976 workers once again protested against price hikes and first attempts of reglamentation. The consecutive years saw the formation of first dissident organisations and on 16 October 1978 Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope. This came as a bolt of the blue to the rulers. In 1979 Polish GDP shrank for the first time since WW2, Polish economy was on its knees until the system ultimately collapsed.

1980 – 1981, Solidarity and carnival of freedom – 16 months of liberalisation, authorities allowed to create independent trade unions. It was the big success of fledging civil society but in economic terms it caused Polish economy to falter even more. As we look today at some demands of protesters, we saw they demanded the same what today the most extreme leftist organisations want to put into practice.

1981 – 1985. The carnival soon ended. On 13 December 1981 the movement was clamped down on and Poland immersed into eight-year period of torpor. On that day general Wojciech Jaruzelski declared Martial Law. Among the most often cited reasons for that decision were threat of Soviet intervention and fear that the socialist regime could have been toppled. I also add the threat of civil war and economic hardship. The martial law dashed hopes and stifles zeal to fight for independent Poland but did not break Poles’ bones.

1985 – 1989. The declining years of PRL. The system once again began to thaw out as the Gorbachev came to power in Soviet Union. In those times there was still no free speech and many civil liberties were out of reach, but then when you could do and say anything except for declaring openly you wanted to topple socialism. The economy was still in a free fall and the government tried to resuscitate the corpse. Those attempts could have been successful, if it hadn’t been for lack of support from Polish society. Faced with Soviet Union going under and dramatically bad economic performance, the rulers decided to share responsibility for the country with the opposition, putting the late dissident on the spot…

Poles somehow had to get on with the system. Some, like Polish poet and Nobel prize laureate Wisława Szymborska declare they really believed the communism would bring collective happiness. For some, including Home Army Soldiers this was the biggest tragedy in their lifetime (those who remember the last scenes from “Katyń film know what I mean). Some tried to make careers, make a pile. This group can be divided into two subgroups – first were real communists, who also deeply believed in the system, the second were opportunists, who did not believe in the fairy tales of equality and justice, they wanted access to privileges and power and got it their own way. Quite numerous, at least in 1980 and 1981 was the group of opponents of the system. Most of them wanted to civilise the socialism, leave the economic foundations of the system which guaranteed social security intact, but held out for civil rights. And very few of them can be named pioneers who paved the way for market economy, because they defended working class. But the most important group numbered in millions were ordinary people who did their bit and kept their mouths shut. Those people proved for me Poland after 1956 was authoritarian (not totalitarian) and socialist (not communist) country. If you kept your mouth shut and did not stick your neck out, you could basically feel safe in that country. It wasn’t the Soviet Empire of 1930s when anyone could drag you out of your house and arrest on trumped-up charges. Doing nothing, which was also giving silent consent for misdeeds of the party, guaranteed some kind of safety.

There are also many theories concerning the collapse of socialism. A big role is put down to Lech Wałęsa, Pope John Paul II is credited with many merits. In my humble opinion those were economic difficulties and fall of communism in Soviet Union that played a major role. Mr Wałęsa and Pope had their contributions which cannot be forgotten but if it had not been for the factors above, they would have just dealt a blow to socialism, but it would have been still hard to overturn it.

And let’s have a quick overview of Polish “uprisings” in PRL and the reasons behind them.
1956 – economic reasons.
1968 – social issues
1970 – economic reasons
1976 – economic reasons
1980 – economic reasons, but demands regarding social issues
Poles protested against low salaries of price hikes, the free speech and other issues were in the background.

Many people still yearn for PRL. The reason is also simple – they miss the social security the system offered (in return for acceptance of its flaws). The responsibility which in liberal system is in hands of an individual was shifted into the state and many people found it convenient to have someone else taking care of their well-being and to have someone to blame for their failures.

So is there a truth? My father while listening to one of lunatics from IPN summarised the balanced view on Poland: “We could not fart without asking Soviets for permission but it was still Poland”. And I can go along with this assertion. Between 1945 and 1989 Poland was a lame and dependent country, which in spite of its subservience to Soviet Union was on the map of Europe, unlike Lithuania or Latvia which were Soviet Republics, and was recognised by other countries. Moreover, it was a country in which millions of people worked, not to build communism and support the felonious system but to do something good for fellow people. It is a subjective view, but it is what the blog is for…


Michael Dembinski said...

History needs an impetus. Before 1914, the widespread yearning for a Polish nation caused one to appear from out of the ruins of WWI.

But further east, a criminal gang seized control of the largest country on earth, armed with fanaticism driven by class hatred and a rather potty ideology.

By luck and skill, the gang kept hold of power. Its second leader, by dint of incredible will power, untrammelled by any humanitarian concerns, assembled the largest and best equipped army in Europe, fought back a rival gang equalling his in inhuman evil, and extended his control over the bulk of the Eurasian land-mass.

But he could not control all of it himself. He granted power to franchisees and who pledged allegiance to him, to the nutty ideology with its bizarre theories of how humans behave.

He dies; his successors try to continue his ways, but without his ruthlessness, the system slowly starts to unwind. It can only work with brutal coersion. Uncoerced, human society will return to free market ways.

adthelad said...

You seem very sure of your assessment of lunacies at IPN. I have read the blog to which you link and I still can't find the answer to this question. Perhaps you could be so kind to name the specific lunatic referred to above and what he/ she was saying?

student SGH said...

It took me 74 minutes to write the whole post and proof-read it once and now it sinks in to me I did it too hastily...

1. The word "lunatics" is the next one inappriopriately used - I didn't mean to imply there were mentally ill or very stupid, but that the institutions represents very extreme, one-sided views.

2. I linked to my blog to let the new and accidental readers familiarise with my opinions of IPN. In other posts they can find a link to wikipedia entry and from then they could go IPN's English webpage (unforgettable feeling for fans of PL->EN translation, if nothing has changed recently).

3. I have indeed clear assessment of IPN. Such an institution is necessary, as you once wrote we need to nurture our history and rememberance, but in its current shape, IPN is a political institution. Their loyalty to PiS manifests itself now, as they are reluctant to meet acting president Komorowski. Plus much of their activity is a waste of money, e.g. exhumation of Sikorski - no new detalis concerning his death were revealed, assassination hypothesis was dismissed. Now Stanisław Pyjas case - the family was opposing dragging out his body, they'll do it anyway, to no avail probably. And even if Sikorski investigation would have proved he had been poisoned, assassinated, shot down, what would it change?

Teczki are now used as an element of political mud-slinging in a very selective way - Jarosław Kaczyński's teczka was concocted, Zyta Gilowska's probably too. But when somebody scooped out documents which allegedly proved Andrzej Przewoźnik had collaborated with Służba Bezpieczeństwa it was a carefully planned political action to block his candidacy for the office of president of IPN. Later it was proved he categorically had refused to collaborate, but meanwhile Mr Kurtyka was appointed the president. Had Mr Przewoźnik been in charge of IPN, it wouldn't have been so politicised and harshly criticised.

student SGH said...

4. I straightened out the statement case. It wasn't any of historians from IPN, but Andrzej Czuma, PO deputy who said, when discussing in Polish Radio 1 the case of pensions of SB officers, secret service agents were "functionaries of felonious state" (funkcjonariusze zbrodniczego państwa. Nice to know I was born in a felonious state, but I'm immensely happy to live in a free country now! It was during one of Sunday afternoon debates, I can't tell you when, but I suppose in January or February 2010, maybe if you look you'll find a podcast somewhere.

5. But there's no problem in giving a name of a historian from IPN who said PRL was not Poland.
The first one that comes to my mind is dr Andrzej Zawistowski, head of Public Education Office (Dyrektor Biura Edukacji Publicznej, who lectures at SGH. I attended his lecture historia PRL and on the introductory class he would tell us his goal was to prove Poland was in practice, but not formally a Soviet Republic. To back his hypothesis he compared PRL to Królestwo Polskie. He used the following arguments:

Królestwo Polskie, just like PRL had its constitution, parliament, Polish as official language and its head of state was a Russian tsar.

But he falied to notice that PRL as a lame and dependent country had Polish rulers and First Secretary of Soviet Union Communist Party was not the highest official in Poland. Poles chose the highest officials, they had to be approved by Soviets, not designated. In terms of constitution, parliament and langauge his observations are hardly disputable. But on the other hand after 1945 Poland was on the map of Europe, unlike after 1815. PRL and its authorities were respected and recognised on international arena, though almost everyone realised it was not a sovereign country. And for me the most important distinction is between a part of Soviet Union and Soviet bloc. We had a lot of luck to be a part of the latter. Polish communists indeed wanted to make Poland another Soviet republic, but they didn't manage. It was hard to say PRL was set up by Poles. Most Poles who built the new system had close tie-ups with Soviets. But fortunately, PRL was wound down with Polish hands.