Over the past few weeks, Polish papers have been packed with revelations about one Professor Aleksander Wolszczan. Until recently, the professor was chiefly known for being the first man to pinpoint an extra-solar planet. However, a Soviet spectre has reared its head.
The claim that a brilliant young astronomer collaborated with communist secret police during the seventies comes as no earth-shattering news. Revelations about alleged informants have become an almost monthly occurrence in the Polish media. High fliers in the arts and sciences are amongst the most regular players in this carnival of compromised souls: writer Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski was unmasked not long after he departed from this world, many more had to face the music in person (although few showed grave remorse).
Time and time again it appears that a passport was the crucial factor. Today, when freedom of movement is largely taken as a given in Europe, it’s hard to comprehend the lure of this seemingly mundane document. But, if you speak to Poles of fifty and over, 99 percent will tell you that even as late as 1980, no one believed that communism would end (or at least not in their own lifetime). The system had already lasted 40 years – eight times as long as the Nazi Occupation – why shouldn?t it run for another 40? With this in mind, many decided that coming to some kind of arrangement with the regime was a must.
You don’t have to be a militant anti-commie to concede that there were aspects of Soviet life that weren’t exactly jolly. Those who experienced it first-hand cite the frequent food shortages, the epic queues for mundane items like toothpaste, and not least, the tangible sense that towns and cities were rotting, owing to so little money being invested. Being fed constant disinformation was not exactly uplifting either. Thus, finding a way to transcend the grubby reality was no mean feat (although the Catholic faith played a huge part). However, for those born with academic or artistic gifts, the concept of a creative career offered a glimmer of hope.
It’s accepted that becoming a full-blown professor was nigh on impossible if you weren’t arranged. Meanwhile, making it in the arts was a tricky business if you weren?t prepared to play communist ball. And invariably, just when you were beginning to make it in your chosen career, one of the “smutni panowie” (sad gentlemen) would appear. Yes, you could have your passport – you could take your film to Cannes, you could perform your concerto in Rome, you could do your teaching stint in London… But there was just one small proviso. Put simply, you had to keep them informed.
It’s easy to grasp that for many ambitious young people, it was possible to convince yourself that you wouldn’t do anyone any harm. You could just waffle a bit. Not say anything important. Yet before long, people had several years of informing under their belts.
In the case of Aleksander Wolszczan, not much has come to light about specific people that he might have harmed, and no one is insisting that he did cause direct harm to any of his peers. Indeed, Wolszczan claims that when Solidarity began, he deliberately refused to offer information on activists. The most memorable claim that anyone has made about the astronomer thus far is that when his son was born, he wrote a request to the Secret Police asking if he could have some more money for his services. Allegedly, the powers that be complied.
At present, Wolszczan’s case doesn’t appear to teach us anything new about the psychology of the informer. And it should be mentioned that no respectable voices are baying for blood. The professor will not lose his honorary citizenship of Polish towns, and he will not be cold-shouldered in academic circles. Nevertheless, as each new star is “outed,” the bravery of those who refused to compromise shines through with ever greater radiance.
Undeniably, the judgements of today’s generation are detached from the gritty realities of Soviet life. However, certain facts remain. It’s worth remembering that even if Wolszczan did not harm anyone through his dealings, the whole culture of informing did cause damage, in some cases it ruined lives.
Scores of Poles were denied passports for refusing to play the informing game. Dozens had their careers capped. Solidarity activists – who had informers circling them in shoals ? were arrested and incarcerated. Some were beaten up, some were killed.
Thus it’s hardly surprising that there is some bitterness from those that were kept down by the old regime. Journalist Bronislaw Wildstein, one of the key movers in the “lustracja” campaign (the movement to expose former collaborators), lost a close friend in the notorious “Pyas Case” (Stanislaw Pyas, a student in Krakow, was allegedly murdered by the Secret Services in 1977). Likewise, Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, one of the “Solidarity priests,” was twice beaten up, and his friend, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, was murdered.
As Isakowicz-Zaleski recently discovered, several of the clergymen who had been informing on him rose to positions of great power in the Church. Thus it came as no surprise two years ago when voices within the Church vigorously opposed the priest’s plans to publish his book on collaboration.
The question of whether former collaborators can hold positions of authority today is not as straightforward as it might seem. As mentioned, no serious voices are claiming that Professor Wolszczan has blood on his hands, or that he should be stripped of his credentials as a teacher of astronomy. However, logic suggests that each case is different. For example, the case of Stanislaw Wielgus, the would-be Archbishop of Warsaw is complex. Here is a man who until recently held the power to stifle figures such as Father Isakowicz-Zaleski. Was it sensible that he – a long-time informer – should maintain one of the most hallowed jobs in the land? Many felt not, and Archbishop Wielgus was obliged to resign from his post in December 2006.
These issues are already more than familiar to the Polish public, but to the West, they constitute a somewhat bewildering Pandora?s Box. Poland did manage to effect a bloodless revolution in 1989, and for this is should be proud. However, there were side effects. Poland did not start again from scratch. And whilst a witch hunt is not advisable, those historians struggling to reveal truths should not be halted in their tracks.