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11 January, 2016  ▪  Hanna Trehub

Karol Modzelewski "The seed of authoritarianism has sprouted in the minds of Eastern European peoples due to frustration with liberal democracy"

Polish dissident and leading ideologue of Solidarność on Poland's post-communist transition and domestic authoritarianism

Karol Modzelewski talked to The Ukrainian Week about the revival of independent Polish culture, science and education as an integral part of the struggle for Poland's independence and the rise of domestic authoritarianism as a threat to modern Eastern European societies.

What is the continuation of Solidarity in Poland today?

There is no continuation of Solidarity as a phenomenon in modern Poland. The Solidarity movement was actually a revolution directed against the communist regime and total dictatorship. It undermined the Communist Party monopoly on influence and power in the very heart of production, among the workers. Nevertheless, when making agreements with the authorities Solidarity did everything they could to avoid direct confrontation, bloodshed or open demands to overthrow communism. Solidarity knew that the USSR and Soviet Army stood behind the Polish People's Republic, so it wasn't worth tempting fate in the form of Soviet intervention. We didn't want to end up like Czechoslovakia or Hungary. There were Soviet tanks in Legnica, but they never made it to Warsaw. They set off to go there in 1956, and were stopped not by the people, but Khrushchev after a conversation with Władysław Gomulka. It was impossible to keep Solidarity within a secure framework, which obviously didn't exist, because for Brezhnev's team the legal existence of an independent movement inside the Soviet camp was a threat that could provoke a domino effect not only in Warsaw Pact countries, but also in the USSR itself. Therefore, there were demands for the Polish authorities to put down the movement as soon as possible.

Why was the Polish anti-communist movement called Solidarity and not anything else? Was it a coincidence?

Why Solidarity and not anything else? Because that's what strikes in various Polish cities were called. People didn't protest for their own sake, but to support the general demands put forward during the Gdansk Shipyard strike. The word "solidarity" did not appear in the communist lexicon, although it sounds rather collectivist and could well have been part of it. It was considered inappropriate.

In 1980 at a congress of representatives from the new union, which then had no name, we found out that the name should include "independent" and "self-governed", because that's what was written in the Gdansk Agreement. The then-government decided that new trade unions could be registered either on a sectoral basis, or territorially in the regions, but could not unite into a nationwide Polish organisation. I'm sure that this was done on a "divide and rule" basis. A dream of our government that never came true. We had to confront this. The advisors of Lech Wałęsa and the Gdansk Committee were against an All-Poland unitary organisation, as were the founders of the Free Trade Unions Committee. The former were afraid that if we act in defiance of the government, that would inevitably lead to conflict and partly negate the achievements of the Gdansk Agreement. The latter, who actually started the strike in Gdansk, feared that outsiders would come to us from Rzeszów, Poznań, Wrocław and Kraków–it would be impossible to trust them,as there would be no guarantee that they do not have ties to the Interior Ministry. The people who came to Gdansk from other cities insisted that we must unite to stop the authorities from crushing the strikers one by one.

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Seeing that there was a consolidated front against uniting among organisers of the aforementioned congress, I took the floor to strongly oppose it as head of the delegation from Wrocław. I was successful. At first, Jan Olszewski, a delegate from Mazowsze, pointed out the possible dangers in the event that we approve a national trade union. I spoke after him and said that we should create a nationwide alliance of trade unions called Solidarity to distinguish it from other unions, i.e. to protect our identity. Strangely enough, this idea was supported by thunderous applause. Wałęsa, as was his custom, then changed his course of action, took the microphone from my hands and supported my idea, saying that's exactly what we should do. Five minutes later, representatives of the city delegations met in a separate room to coordinate all the aspects of registering a nationwide union, which is now known by all as Solidarity.

Your academic advisor for your theses was historian Aleksander Gieysztor, one of the heads of the Department of Information at the Armia Krajowa's Bureau of Information and Propaganda. Why did he decide to leave the underground after the war to get involved in science and education? Was this a conscious form of resistance to communism?

Professor Gieysztor was a pupil of Marceli Handelsman, a brilliant pre-war medievalist. He was 23 years old when the Second World War started. He served as an artillery gunner and was wounded in 1939. After recovering, he walked back to Warsaw and lived in his apartment there. He immediately joined the Secret University, because the Germans banned Polish universities, and many lecturers were executed. At the same time, he joined the Armia Krajowa, first as the deputy of Jerzy Makowiecki, head of the Department of Information at the AK's Bureau of Information and Propaganda. Gieysztor was very distressed when Makowiecki was killed by members of a group that was associated with the Polish underground, but acted on the orders of extreme right elements within the AK leadership. They were a lot more to the right than your Right Sector. These hard-line nationalists believed that the liberals who managed the AK Bureau of Information and Propaganda were capable of cooperating with the Russians, so must be physically removed. They also handed Marceli Handelsman over to the Germans as a Jew, and he died in 1945 in Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp, Thuringia. After all this, Gieysztor took charge of the Department of Information and participated in the investigation of Makowiecki's murder. In the end, his murderers were sentenced to death by an underground court, but the Warsaw Uprising started before the punishment could be enforced. Gieysztor, unlike the others, knew that it would fail, as they would get no support from the allies, the Russians and the British, who did not want to go against Stalin. The thing is, he was the messenger who went to England through German-occupied Europe to learn about the political situation on the eve of Germany's defeat. After visiting London, he informed the AK leadership in Warsaw that the rebellion was doomed, because Europe had already been divided into spheres of influence at the Tehran Conference and Poland was to be part of the Soviet zone.

While in German captivity, Polish officers weighed up the pros and cons of returning to communist Poland or going to the West. Gieysztor decided to go back. In Warsaw, he was summoned to see the head of the AK Bureau of Information and Propaganda, Colonel Jan Rzepecki, who said that Gieysztor was still bound by his oath and that while the AK had been dissolved, a new civil organisation called Freedom and Independence was to be created. Gieysztor headed the Bureau of Information and Propaganda at this organisation. His older university friend Tadeusz Manteuffel advised him to go back to Rzepecki and say that he and his university colleagues would no longer be involved in any kind of partisan resistance and would work on Polish university education. Colonel Rzepecki realised the soundness of this approach from prison. The Communist government made a deal with him – he brings his people out of the underground and nothing untoward happens to any of them. He would be the only person to end up behind bars.

By order of Jan Rzepecki, Gieysztor brought everyone out of the underground, giving up their documents, money and weapons. Subsequently, he occupied himself with the development of Polish higher education and the Academy of Sciences alongside Tadeusz Manteuffel. There was a kind of unwritten agreement between the communist authorities of Poland and university intellectuals from the AK – they would be left alone and allowed to re-establish Polish universities in their own way, because there were almost no specialists left after the war and life had to go back to normal. There were no guarantees, for one side was weak and the other predatory, but the deal really did remain in force until the very end of communism. That is to say, they succeeded in creating a sort of ecological oasis inside universities against the background of communist dictatorship. Of course, they had to make concessions on modern history and, to some extent, philosophy and sociology. But there was still a certain freedom, albeit somewhat relative, of research and didactics that the Communist Party had no direct, rigid control over. Professors Gieysztor, Manteuffel, Kula, Herbst – the most significant pre-war Polish historians that created a free educational environment in Poland – were not members of the Party. In fact, what they did had its effect at the end of the 1980s, when Poland became independent. It was a positivist approach.

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You mean, the independence of Poland before 1989 was the result of work by not only the Solidarity trade union movement, but also Polish intellectuals?

There were two forms of resistance in Poland when it was divided. In the Kingdom of Poland, i.e. the territory controlled by the Russian Empire, which was more oppressive than Austria and Prussia, there was an underground movement and rebellions at first. In fact, every uprising in the nineteenth century worsened the cultural and social situation in Poland, not to mention the human cost. After the failure of the last revolt, a positivist movement emerged, whose members believed that it was not necessary to shed blood in hopeless battles, that it would be better to slowly but surely work on the development of Polish culture and the economy until the possibility to revive an independent state would manifest itself at the international level. The Nazis and Stalin's regime, despite what people say now, left no room for the sort of positivism that I'm talking about. Hitler and his followers thought that Polish life should be wiped out completely. After 1945, there was Soviet hegemony outside and a communist dictatorship inside Poland, but the conditions were more forgiving – space was left for work in schools and universities, to develop science and so on, which, as I said earlier, Polish intellectual circles took advantage of.

What role did the compilers of Kultura magazine, including Jerzy Giedroyc and Bohdan Osadchuk, play in the positivistic process you mentioned?

Mieroszewski and Giedroyc left General Anders' army, based in the Soviet Union, soon crossed the border with Iran and went to the West. They fought in Italy and Africa. Later, people from this corps established Kultura magazine, which subsequently began to seek links with Poles in Poland itself and moved away from the intransigent Polish exiles in London, who, in their opinion, demanded the impossible and were therefore losing influence within the country. Giedroyc and Mieroszewski believed that we should not demand the return of Lviv and Vilnius to Poland, that we should support the ambitions of Ukrainians, Belarusians and Lithuanians to achieve their own independence. Giedroyc thought it was important for the Polish ambassador in Kyiv to be accepting of an independent Ukrainian state. An independent Ukrainian state – these guys were ahead of the curve! The independence of Ukraine, which has much in common with the setup of the current Polish ruling elite, guarantees the independence of Poland. Giedroyc understood that if post-Soviet Russia devours Ukraine, it would inevitably return to an imperialist footing, which would be a threat for Poles. We can see this today.

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Bohdan Osadchuk championed the Ukrainian cause within Kultura, and there was a friendly attitude towards him. This magazine had a powerful influence on the Polish intelligentsia and its prestigious upper circles. We managed to get the Open Letter to the Party that Jacek Kuroń and I wrote across the border. It was in Kultura and was printed as a separate booklet. So the workers didn't read it, but the Polish intelligentsia did.

During the discussion at this year's Eastern Partnership Culture Congress in Lviv, you said that against the background of today's challenging twists and turns, Eastern European countries, especially Ukraine and Poland, have to take notice not only of Russian authoritarianism, but also their own domestic version that could spring up. Where does this threat come from?

We must have a sense of danger, otherwise it would be impossible to avoid it. Ukraine should be afraid of its own brand of indigenous authoritarianism that could rear its head. The Poles and Hungarians have an inclination for authoritarianism too. I'm not talking about external authoritarianism, but the type that is aimed at the internal environment. The seed of authoritarianism has sprouted in the minds of Eastern European peoples due to frustration with liberal democracy and difficulties in joining the economic order of the Western world. This system seems hostile to people who are used to a very poor existence, but one that guarantees security. Their rejection is built on a strong foundation. The fact is that these conditions are very difficult for the poor. In Poland, this is 15-20% of the population, and they support a populist party that is effectively post-Solidarity at elections. This is because wild capitalism, not based on state control, has led to a reduction in social security.


Karol Modzelewski is a Polish historian, writer and politician. An opposition activist in the Polish People's Republic and one of the leading ideologues of Solidarity, he suggested the name for this resistance movement. Author of many studies on medieval European history and an autobiography for which he won the Nike Literary Award in 2014. Member of the Polish Senate from 1989-91.

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