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Between Past and Future

Sorin Antohi

II. Winners and Losers in the Great Transformation

6. Independence Reborn and the Demons of the Velvet Revolution1

Adam Michnik

Texte intégral


  • 1 Excerpts from this chapter were printed in the 13 May 1999 edition of Time. They are reprinted her (...)

1To understand the history of Poland is to believe in miracles. Consider this: If you supposed in 1984 that in five years time Poland would regain its liberty and independence, you would really have had to believe in miracles. However, the Polish nation, Catholic and God-fearing, didn’t really have faith in this miracle. After all, who among us at Gazeta Wyborcza thought back then that soon enough we would come to work in a large and important daily newspaper, respected both in Poland and around the world?

2Yet who would confess to being a person of little faith? So we dispute among ourselves: Who, which political camp, what forces effected Poland’s independence?

3This is not the first Polish debate of this nature. Michal Bobrzyński, a conservative historian from the Krakow Stańczyk group, wrote in his Dzieje Polskie (Polish History): “The hand of Providence directing the course of history and avenging the crime of the partitions surpassed all hopes and brought us to the long awaited end. Although the clearer it seemed to my eyes, as to many others, the more I had to shy away from the truly hellish quarrels that flared up in Polish society over the question of which political group foresaw the final result and deserves credit for it. And which group should be condemned, perhaps because it strove for the rebirth of Poland via those paths which, under the circumstances, seemed to be the only ones possible.”

4Bobrzyński believed that “all Poles and all parties endeavored toward a single end, and that each of them deserves a portion of the credit, and that this should soothe the irritable camps.”

5Zygmunt Wasilewski, an intellectual of the National Democrats, viewed the problem in a completely different light. He was of the opinion that in the mid-nineteenth century Poland gave the impression of being an “immature nation; active, but unprepared for life. Such an impression must have been created by the lack of coordination between emotions and sensibility. Poland’s enemies understood this well and knew how to manipulate influences in Poland in order to widen the chasm between these two elements. Freemasonry in this case played the role of a malevolent psychiatrist, pulling the Polish soul in two directions—either toward outbursts of emotion, or toward opportunistic appeasement of the authorities—preventing the Polish psyche from ordering itself, keeping it in a state of anarchy, so that Polish political thought could not be consolidated...

6“It drove some to exclaim patriotic slogans in reckless movements which later drove others into the arms of the partitioning nations and, as a result, deepened the servitude and slave mentality...The secret of success of this last generation, which created the all-Poland democratic-nationalist movement, was that it first freed itself from the influences of covert international organizations, which to that point had held political divisions in their control.”

7Michal Sokolnicki, a well-known supporter of Pilsudski, categorically dismissed these explanations, however. He wrote:

“This new generation of Poles regards independence and the state as obvious, arising from nature itself, and in fact believes that it is impossible for it to be otherwise. Memory plays tricks on older people and there occurs a certain, I would put it, well-meant blurring of the facts. In good faith it seems that before the war there was no independence, but then at least everyone wanted it....An exacting analysis of prewar facts shows quite the opposite: a terrible moral decay of Polish national feeling in the last hours of their servitude. Two basic desires existed in Polish society at the time: the desire for peaceful prosperity and the desire to preserve nationality and religion... .That is why it is laughable if the matter is presented as if before the war everyone wanted independence, but each person wanted it in a different way, or that a powerful current existed in a Polish society striving to regain its own statehood....
“Mr. Roman Dmowski in Polityka polska (Polish Politics) often relates that after 1906 he realized the reconstruction of the Polish state was something inevitable and imminent. He claims that as chairman of the ‘Polish Circle’ in the [Russian] Duma he filled, as he himself put it, the role of Polish minister for foreign affairs, and initiated the neo-Slavic movement with the aim of bringing the Polish cause to the international arena. The deceptiveness of these statements is obvious. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that he was head of’foreign affairs’ in the ‘Polish Circle’ in St. Petersburg. Quite the contrary, the entire weight of evidence states irrefutably that Poles operated sincerely and consistently on the basis of the Russian state. This was their frame of reference, as proven by the very fact that they participated in elections to the all-Russian representative ‘National Duma’—this was, after all, the first instance of voluntarily performing national duties toward Russia, and not merely following command...
“Independence as a [political] program sprang up in the last fifty years from very small groups of people, whom we will come to look upon with increasing distance and see in a more historical, that is synthetic, context. From this point one figure, one name will appear more absolutely. In the course of their work and endeavors, these people were isolated for decades within their own nation. The image of this labor and effort is one of constant struggle, in large part with society itself. It turned out that the overwhelming majority of the nation was mistaken, and only a handful of people held the truth.... Righteousness and victory in the historical process remained with a scant few, against an enormous majority.”


8Bobrzyński, Wasilewski, Sokolnicki—all of them were right, but none of them completely. Without a shadow of a doubt everyone, in some way, desired an independent Poland and everyone, in their own way, labored for it. But in all political camps there was no shortage of people with base morals and little faith, political opponents and hooligans, traitors of the national cause and troublemakers in the service of platitudes. But after all, they performed a miracle: Poland regained its freedom and every Pole has the right to a moment of happiness in the “recaptured garbage heap”.

9We at Gazeta Wyborcza were not and are not objective observers of Poland’s struggles. We were and remain active participants in the debate on Poland.

10We remember the times when we spoke the words of Sokolnicki, inciting praise for the active, though woefully small group that lit the spark of dissent against the dictatorship from March 1968 to the foundation of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). We recall the time when, during the difficult days of martial law we spoke the language of Zygmunt Wasilewski, proclaiming the reason of an active policy, though one imbued with geopolitical realism, and rejecting the idea of armed irredentism. And finally, we remember the time when we borrowed the discourse of Bobzyński, announcing the need for a “united Poland”, where former adversaries can take pride in the patriotic achievements of their own political camp.

11The Polish path to democracy, through negotiation and agreement, was cleared for us by the round table agreement. I consider the round table to be the most prudent political act in Poland’s twentieth-century history. Almost no one believed in an agreement between the ruling communists and the anticommunist opposition. And yet, it became fact—without blockades and without execution squads, without even a single shattered window—Poland itself knew how to negotiate the path to freedom and independence. If a Polish patriot had caught the proverbial magic fish in 1984, what would his three wishes have been? First of all: that Poland would cease to be a dictatorship and become a democracy, without the dictates of the police, without censorship, without closed borders. Second: that the Polish economy would be rationalized, that the logic of the free market would replace the logic of command, distribution, and shortage, and that mounting debts be transformed into stable economic growth. And third: that Poland would be a sovereign country, that the Soviet military would leave Poland, that the Soviet Union would crumble, and that our country would be a permanent fixture in a democratic Europe.

“The word became flesh and dwelt among us”

12Why did communism fall in Poland? Was it pushed by the election of Pope John Paul II and his memorable pilgrimages to Poland? Was it occasioned by the policy of the American presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, who used human rights as the weapon of American politics against totalitarian communism? Did Mikhail Gorbachev, who in his desire to modernize the Soviet empire bring it about by dealing it a fatal blow?

13Each of these factors had a very essential significance. But another factor was decisive: the fact that Poles wanted to dismantle the system of dictatorship, that those Poles who served the dictatorship knew how to negotiate to this end with those who rebelled against it.


14That was the “Great Polish Velvet Revolution”. Like every revolution, ours, too, carried with it great hopes and brought great disillusionment. The authorities were disappointed—they were counting on the rationalization and modernization of the system and not on its fall. Solidarity was disappointed, relying on the coming of a time of “fame and glory”; instead there came a time of bitter denouncements, unemployment, “the war at the top”, the cunning of the former nomenklatura, and the corruption of the new ruling class. In short, all of society was frustrated, believing that the end of communism would transform Poland into a country with American wages, a Scandinavian welfare system, and a work ethic dating from the time of First Secretary Edward Gierek. The expected manna did not fall from heaven, because it couldn’t.


15Actually, for us at Gazeta Wyborcza, manna did fall from heaven; our good fortune changed water into wine. We realized that the round table had been a great success: the democratic opposition won everything there was to gain at the bargaining table.

16That which was meant to be the price paid for the legalization of Solidarity—that is, participation in elections to a compromise lower house of parliament (with just thirty-five percent of the seats available to the opposition)—those people at the round table turned into an instrument of revolutionary change. The contract lower house of parliament and wholly democratic upper house were formed after elections that won us a crushing victory.

17I remember those times well. Victory demanded of us imagination, courage, and caution. It was a shock for everyone: for the communist party elite, for the Catholic Episcopate, and for us—the people of Solidarity. In order to move forward and effect a change in government from communist to noncommunist, it was necessary to compromise, avoid rocky ground, clear the minefield, steer clear of conflict with the natural enemies of democracy—the ministries controlling the police and military—and also with Moscow, at a time when nobody thought yet of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

18The government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki was formed, the first non-communist government in the Soviet bloc. This government performed the historical task of decommunizing Poland. Ten years later we look back on that government and the people who supported it with gratitude. It was a government of hope. In the midst of desperate economic collapse, a government of consensus and unity was formed after years of internal conflict that was tearing the state apart. A government was in place to build the framework for freedom and sovereignty after years of dictatorship and subjugation. The government of Mazowiecki, Kuroń, Balcerowicz, and Skubiszewski knew how to negotiate with President Jaruzelski, with Gorbachev, and with politicians from democratic countries. This government initiated the historical “Autumn of Nations”: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia. And it was this very government and this prime minister that just a few months later became the targets of unforgivable attacks initiated by those who condemned separating the past with a “thick line” (closing the book on the past), those who demanded an “acceleration of democratization and vetting of communists” and “completing the revolution”. At the head of this attack stood the symbol of Polish resistance, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Solidarity, Lech Walesa.


19Someone from KOR wrote in spring 1995:

“I was of the opinion that Walęsa consciously aspired to a personal dictatorship, to become a ‘sultan’ of authority in the union, condoning autocratic decisionmaking on fundamental issues. I believed this process forebode the slow death of union democracy and I decidedly opposed it. At the same time I feared Walesa was liable to come to an understanding with the government at the cost of ‘cleansing the union of his antagonists.’ I would have considered this a betrayal of Solidarity. I was aware of Lech’s significance. By putting himself on stage, Walęsa satisfied the universal need for a charismatic leader, all-knowing and all-understanding, to lead the union to victory. This resulted in a large number of union activists relinquishing independent reasoning and political responsibility. In such a situation the capitulation of the charismatic leader would have been the same as the capitulation of the union. Even when criticized by moderates, Walesa was accepted by the masses. Geremek, Kuroń, Mazowiecki, and KOR activists were accused of conciliation—Walęsa was untouched by mass criticism. He was able to model himself as a leader accepted by millions. Sometimes he behaved like the great leader of the nation (repeating Kościuszko’s oath in Krakow), while on other occasions he played the role of an ordinary worker, an equal among equals, casting off stateliness in exchange for directness and humor. He had a wonderful, simple, and pithy language and a brilliant intuition. He faultlessly sensed the mood of those around him and could say what was expected of him. Poles felt that their leader was ‘one of them’, and at the same time the embodiment of their long-awaited success. There was greatness in him.
“I was afraid of Walęsa. I feared his ability to juggle words and his skill in eliminating opponents. I was afraid of his compromises and his fascination by talks with the government. I feared his susceptibility to a conspiracy-Mafia interpretation of the world, and his circle in which I saw many trivial and incidental people. I feared his apprehension before distinguished persons and his constant repetition: I am Solidarity!
“I should at this point confess openly that I was mistaken in my overall evaluation of Lech Walesa. The leader of Solidarity Trade Union turned out to be worthy of this role. Overlooking certain lapses, Lech Walęsa saved the continuity of Solidarity with his stature and consistency. Returning to work in the shipyard, commenting on the events of public life, he became an outward symbol of Polish resistance; a lighthouse sending out regular signals of faith and hope from Gdansk to all Poland. Combining defiance with restraint, Lech won the Nobel Prize and the status of a universally regarded authority...
“Today, Walesa is without a doubt the symbol of Solidarity, though he holds no actual power: he does not have an executive body at his disposal and he does not allocate posts in the regional administration. Today Lech is in no position to stop actions which are considered necessary. That is why attacks on Walęsa today have a completely different motive than before 13 December [1981]. These days it is not a matter of fighting for democracy within the union but, despite intentions, depriving Solidarity of its symbol and authority. Consequently, it would be regrettable to continue the pre-martial law polemics today, with their baggage of injuries and bitterness, instead of seeking agreement and meeting halfway...”

20This is my profile of Lech Walesa: a man of brilliant intuition and shameless self-adoration, a natural political talent and arrogant autocrat, the godfather of Polish freedom and its unwitting destroyer. No one did as much for Polish liberty, and no one trampled so many priceless Polish values underfoot. At the same time, no one defended the market economy and prowestern orientation in Polish politics as fiercely.

21Lech Walęsa did not want to and could not wait. Is that why I still think of Walesa with a mixture of warmth and aversion, fear and admiration? He did not respect partners, he only recognized loyal courtiers. He craved presidential power the way a drug addict craves cocaine. But it wasn’t the personality of the Solidarity leader that was the deciding factor in the “war at the top”. The outcome was decided by the mood of frustration that led Walęsa’s attack on Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government to success. The philosophy of this government was based on consistent but cautious reforms, the most important of which was Bal-cerowicz’s economic transformation, later known as “shock therapy”. Mazowiecki wanted to neutralize all other social conflicts. However, these frustrations and conflicts were the natural outcome of the transformation. This is where the sense of the “thick line” came in—to give everyone the chance to work for a democratic Poland, instead of foundering in “hellish quarrels”.

22Walesa’s genius, however, was based on his acute perception and articulation of popular dissatisfaction. Solidarity activists were frustrated: they expected the Solidarity union to become the new “leading power”, appointing university rectors and directors, chairmen, ministers, and province governors. Disaffected workers felt they had won their freedom through strikes only to come face to face with the specter of unemployment. Catholics were frustrated, as they had expected that, after the fall of “Communist Poland”, the time of a “Catholic Poland” would come. Those discriminated against under the dictatorship felt cheated, for they had anticipated compensation, but instead looked on as the communist party nomenklatura was enfranchised.

23New governments want to be liked—they like to hand out money. But Mazowiecki’s government stood by Balcerowicz’s strict economic policy. Now we can plainly see that Poland owes its present prosperity to that decision. At the time, however, demonstrations were held under the slogan “Balcerowicz is the Dr. Mengele of the Polish economy”. This sort of frustration is inherent in every revolution: after the heroic battle for liberty follows the struggle for power and profit. Then, as often occurs, the former dictatorship is replaced by the dictatorship of the revolutionary regime. Fortunately it turned out differently in the case of Poland.


24Balcerowicz—a politician with an iron will and a great and revolutionary imagination—had harsh critics from the very start. They accused him of being ruthlessly devoted to monetary affairs and the inhumane rules of the free market jungle, of creating unemployment and lacking social sensitivity, of aiding the rich and ruining the poor. Balcerowicz, however, had powerful allies: Prime Minister Mazowiecki and Jacèk Kuroń, the minister of the Polish poor; and galloping inflation was also on his side. In his favor, too, were the lack of alternative programs and a conviction that other types of therapy would fail. A parliamentary majority and a large part of the media also supported him.

25We at Gazeta Wyborcza always backed Balcerowicz’s policy. We had trouble with this. Most of us entered the epoch of freedom holding the deeply embedded ethos of defending workers’ rights: their dignity, their rights, and their interests. The ideal of emancipating the workers, rooted in the socialist tradition and Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals, was in direct conflict with Balcerowicz’s policy. Instead of independent workers’ authorities came privatization; instead of pay raises came price hikes and belt tightening; instead of social security came the specter of unemployment. We often asked ourselves: Are we not betraying our ideals? Ten years on we can look back and answer: No. We did not renounce our dreams; we only renounced our delusions. We believe, here and now, that there was no other road for Poland to take than the rocky path of Balcerowicz’s shock therapy. Along this path—though littered with mistakes, inconsistencies, and scandals—Poland experienced an economic boom and social progress never encountered before.

26We are aware that nothing is ever inevitable. The harsh logic of a market economy is often accompanied by the market’s cold cruelty, the ruthless business mentality, the rigor of technocrats and the abasement of human dignity. In such moments we recall and will continue to recall that our ultimate goal is Poland’s liberty and social freedom, to create a civic society in which everyone has the right to live with dignity. We realize that the free market is an inevitable part of transformation. But by no means should we consider the enrichment of some and the poverty of others to be the result of divine justice. On the contrary, we should keep a check on the rich and provide the poor with aid and the opportunity to escape their poverty.


27Tough free market policy and rapid modernization led to a conservative backlash and populist reaction. In Poland populism came in various forms: from the success of Stan Tymiński in the 1990 presidential elections, through the harsh anticapitalist and anti-European pronouncements of many Church authorities, to the show of support for the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) in the May 1993 parliamentary elections. Fortunately the SLD-PSL parliamentary coalition did not keep its campaign promises. The rate of reform slowed, but there was no return to a command economy. The populist-conservative reaction also took an anticommunist form, drawing from clericalism and ethnic nationalism. The voice of Radio Maryja was an extreme and perhaps the most dramatic articulation of these attitudes: fear of the unknown, of Europe, and of foreigners; ill-will toward ethnic minorities; the fear of being responsible for one’s own life, of poverty, unemployment, uncertainty, drugs, pornography, and the sexual revolution.

28In other words Radio Maryja voiced, often using crude and unrestrained language, the fundamental issues of those who felt wronged and frightened. It is to these people that the Solidarity leader from Ursus, Zygmunt Wrzodak, appealed when he fulminated against the “pink hyenas” from KOR. It is these people upon whom Switoń and Janosz called to plant crosses in the Auschwitz gravel pit and who, led by Andrzej Lepper, blocked Polish roads.

29We have described crushed and unfortunate people in Gazeta Wybor-cza, usually using journalistic language, but we have always declared ourselves—in the language of commentary—on the side of the reformers. We understood that a defensive backlash is a natural consequence of modernization. That is why we were for the policy of social dialogue, compromise, and the regulation of employer-employee relations by the law. At the same time we knew that where dialogue ends, the destruction of the democratic principles of the law-abiding state begins. We did not call for making the criminal code more stringent, but we appealed for the unstinting execution of the law toward those who flaunt it.

30We understood the complex situation of the trade unions. They are always an irremovable element of the democratic order. By their nature, they make demands. In Poland the trade unions were a fundamental factor in the evolving battle for freedom and the rights of workers; they unwittingly became a conservative agent in the transformation from a controlled economy to a free market.

31Conflict between a government with a policy of transformation and the trade unions that defend workers’ interests is just as inevitable as compromise between the two is inescapable. Ten years of transformation have shown that Poland cannot be reformed without society’s consent and that this consent can only be won through dialogue and compromise. We believe that a compromise on the economy is a priority because economic growth is the prerequisite for Polish achievement both at home and throughout the world. The economy should be a jointly guarded area, taken out of the framework of political conflict. But will that be possible in the “cold Polish civil war”?


32From the beginning, since 1989, we at the newspaper have supported a united Poland, a republic: a homeland for all its citizens, a state based on compromises and not on the domination of one political camp nor on a relentless battle and a never-ending settling of scores. We did not want Solidarity to become the new “leading power”; we did not want the once compulsory conformity to Marxism-Leninism and the Soviet Union to turn into conformity to the Catholic Church or western capitals.

33We looked on with joy when Polish society regained its liberty and the Polish state its independence. We supported the rational policy of successive governments toward all of our neighbors and our own ethnic minorities. We were grateful that Poland was free of conflicts with national minorities and arguments with neighboring nations for the first time in its history. That was an accomplishment of Polish politics. But it did not come about without difficulties. We saw in other postcommunist countries how aggressive nationalism took the place of dominating communist ideology and how old demons returned. We saw how the bloody conflict in Yugoslavia was born, erupted, and lives on, where yesterday’s communists were transformed into today’s aggressive nationalists and former democrats spoke in the language of ethnic fascism. We also saw how Christian clergy blessed ethnic massacres. We saw how nationalism, born of communism and anticommunism, seized Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union; with unease we listened to the outbursts of greater Russian chauvinism from Zhirinovsky or Zyuganov. We witnessed the bloody riots in Romania, the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the burning homes of African refugees in eastern Germany. We saw all this, and we must do all we can to prevent similar scenes from being repeated in Poland. That would be the death of Polish freedom.

34This is why we have warned and shall continue to warn against the discourse of national hatred and against the ideology of ethnic exclusivity. We have condemned and will continue to condemn the Polish-German conflict in the Opole area, the Polish-Ukrainian polemic around Przemśyl, the Polish-Belarusian problems around Bialystok, and Polish-Lithuanian tensions in the Suwalki region. We have condemned the abuse of Romani. We have also warned against anti-Semitism, which stupefies Poles and blights Poland’s image abroad. We agreed with Jerzy Turowicz, who wrote to Father Stanislaw Musial: “Dear Staszek, I read your distinguished—and very important!—Gazeta Wyborcza interview with true admiration. You are one hundred percent correct when you write that nationalism and anti-Semitism are the great weaknesses of the Polish Church. That is why this Church cannot tolerate the [Auschwitz] gravel pit affair, Father Jankowski, or Father Rydzyk and Radio Maryja. It’s true that more people in the Church are beginning to understand this (also thanks to you!), but there is still a long road ahead!”

35Only by traveling this road can Poland’s good name in the world be defended against damning generalizations.

36We have been advocates of new relations among states and nations in Central and Eastern Europe. With this intention in mind we have printed many Russian opinions, including those of Russian democrats, to whom the world has much to be thankful.

37It is an honor for us to call so many fine Russians friends of our newspaper. We also have reason to be proud because we are shedding new light upon the tangled history of Polish-Ukrainian relations. We consider work on behalf of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation to be one of the great accomplishments of Polish politics, in which Gazeta Wyborcza has played a part. We believed that the most effective path to the West and to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European

38Union to be internal stabilization, good neighborly relations, and an active regional policy. That is why we report extensively on the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia, on Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and on Belarus and Ukraine.

39We were aware that the prowestern option in Polish politics, which we always supported, also has its staunch opponents. We saw these adversaries among members of the former communist regime. For this reason we were thrilled to note every prowestern turn among Christian-National Union politicians, and the decidedly prowestern turnaround in the postcommunist Democratic Left Alliance. It was, however, the visit of Polish bishops to Brussels and their pro-European declarations that provided a true breakthrough.


40From the very first issue, we at Gazeta Wyborcza had great respect for the Catholic Church. We recognized the tremendous role the Church played throughout Poland’s history and its great contributions during the communist dictatorship and the round table. We admired the great cause of Pope John Paul II. Despite all that, and despite exercising caution in criticizing certain Episcopal declarations, we have often been accused of enmity toward the Church. We regarded and continue to regard these charges as unjust.

41We never claimed to be a Catholic newspaper, though we always considered ourselves friends of the Church. We opine, in the words of Leszek Kolakowski, that

“the Church is, as it were, on the dividing line between heaven and earth; it is both the depository of grace and the guardian of the law, it distributes invisible goods in the visible world... .The power of Christianity does not manifest itself in theology nor in its monopoly on creating canons to regulate all areas of life. Its power is revealed in the fact that it can build barriers against hate in people’s consciousness. In essence, mere faith in Jesus the Redeemer would be in vain and worthless if it did not carry with it the resignation of hatred, no matter what the circumstances; if after the words ‘forgive us our trespasses’ Christians did not have to go on to say ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’. This resignation from hating is the challenge Christianity presents which remains today. If a true Christian is only someone who fulfills this scripture, is a pupil of Christ, someone who doesn’t run from a fight but is free of hate—how may Christians have walked and walk today on this earth? I don’t know. I know neither how many lived in the Middle Ages, nor today. However many they number, they are the salt of the earth and European civilization would be a wasteland without them.”

42It is from this kind of Holy Scripture that we came to understand the Church. That is why we are disturbed by voices filled with hate and contempt, fired by the spirit of revenge and embarking on a crusade against those who think differently, and all this in the name of the Gospel and under the sign of the Cross. We were determined to show another side of Christianity and a Church of ecumenical faith and hope, compassion and dialogue, forgiveness and reconciliation. We were and are today people of dialogue but not of blind obedience, of criticism but not malevolence. Ours is the first daily newspaper to include a regular column on the Catholic Church and religion.

43There was a time when working with Gazeta Wyborcza was viewed unfavorably by the Church. Therefore we wish all the more to thank all those people of the Church who offered us their thoughts, articles, and essays with courage and understanding.

44A time of unjust criticism is, by its nature, a difficult test of loyalty. We never lost respect and admiration for the Church thanks to those who offered us friendship in moments of bitterness. It is hard to imagine Poland without Catholicism. The Catholic Church is deeply ingrained in Polish society. That is why the Church embodies simultaneously both the best and the worst of Poland. We were lucky in that we had the opportunity to associate with the best.


45Often we at Gazeta Wyborcza, and particularly myself personally, have been accused of being too soft on the perpetrators of the former regime. We have been criticized for not settling accounts and not taking part in vetting or decommunization, and as a consequence, of blurring the boundary between good and evil, truth and lies. One critic called this “a friendship pact with Cain”.

46The tenth anniversary of Gazeta Wyborcza seems a good occasion to respond to these accusations.

47For many years we belonged to the anticommunist opposition. Many of us spent a good bit of time underground or in jail, on the margins of public life, discriminated against and humiliated. Our opinions and our friends were excluded from the debate on Poland and the shaping of its future. This continued for many years.

48In the pages of underground newspapers we vehemently denounced the communist regime. Only in 1989, during the round table talks, did we acknowledge that there was a light at the end of the tunnel for Poland. Then (***)we realized that the route to Polish democracy was to follow the Spanish way—that of evolution from dictatorship to democracy via compromise and national reconciliation. This approach assumes there will be no retaliation, no vanquishers or vanquished, and that future governments will be chosen by ballot. We did realize that we, members of the democratic opposition, KOR and Solidarity, were particularly winners. But from this moral high ground we rejected sweet revenge on yesterday’s enemies. We said yes to amnesty and no to amnesia. This declaration meant casting aside retribution and exposing the whole truth. The historian, essayist, and artist were to pass judgement on our cursed past and not the prosecutor or investigator. We believed in the significance of this amnesty: for members of the right-wing National Armed Forces and the National Radical Camp, though they had much on their consciences, and for members of the Communist Party, who served the dictatorship for a variety of motives and with differing results. We judged that there must be a place under the Polish sun for all, because a broad spectrum of social harmony on these essential matters can only be built this way. Therefore, we wanted to see people of good will on both sides of the complicated Polish barricade. We wanted to uncover the complex truth of human fortunes, dramatically overturned in the course of successive twists, turns, and crises, caused by foreign aggression and native lies. We opposed the creation of a new historical myth for ongoing political polemics.

49We understand the building of a democratic and sovereign state as a process of reconciliation, of bringing together “Poland Discordant”: Communist Poland and Solidarity Poland. That is why we were against all attmepts at decommunization and vetting. We consider decommuni-zation—that is, discrimination against former communist party activists—to be antidemocratic. We see the analogies between decommunization and post-Hitler Germany as misdirected. Gomulka, Gierek, and Jaruzelski were not the same kind of people as Hitler, Himmler, or Goeb-bells. They were dictators but not mass murderers, and to blur these definitions is wrong.

50The Spanish transition to democracy fascinated us. We looked also to Chile, the Philippines, and South Africa, where yesterday’s enemies took their places in a joint, democratically elected parliament. We consider it better to turn the numerous supporters of the “former regime” into proponents of democracy, independence, and market economy, and not their staunch enemies.

51Naturally, we often wrote about the communist era while hardly disguising out heartfelt antipathy. But even while condemning the system and its practices—particularly the mixture of lies and violence—we attempted to understand those caught up in it. To put it in another, more

52Christian way: We differentiated the sin from the sinner. For us a communist was not the embodiment of evil, the devil incarnate, Cain, or a criminal whose hands were stained with innocent blood. We did not want to demonize the supporters of the former regime, though we repeatedly wrote of the demonic nature of totalitarian dictatorships, nor did we want to “deify” the anticommunist opposition, though these were often our friends from Solidarity, the underground, or prison.

53We often reiterated that people who had been in conflict for years created the interwar Second Polish Republic. What’s more, they fought in opposing armies during World War I. Yet Poland’s independence brought them together. We wanted to follow in their footsteps. We wanted, despite obvious biographical, political, and ideological differences, to seek that which binds.

54This is where our resistance to vetting came from. Of course, we cared if communist informers became ministers, ambassadors, et cetera. However, we felt that the data held in security service files could not decide whether a citizen was suitable for work in government administration. We did not believe the secret service archives were an accurate source of information. These documents were used as instruments of police blackmail, to compromise those people who were inconvenient to the authorities. A prime minister wanting to know more about a coworker can examine the material, but it should not be used to create a political circus. It was with dismay that Gazeta Wyborcza reported on the “night of the long files” instigated by Antoni Macierewicz, minister of internal affairs in Jan Olszewski’s government, who cast dark shadows on the good names of so many people who had contributed so much to Poland.


55Political conflicts and disagreements were a natural part of the first decade of a democratic Poland. We just didn’t want these conflicts to overstep the barrier of the “common good”, of law and good manners. Thus, we followed Poland’s unity in its accession to NATO with joy and looked on with unease at signs of the government exploiting legal loopholes. We were also unnerved by the special services’ interference in tensions among political camps: forging documents that were to compromise politicians and incite arguments, accusations of “high treason” directed at the prime minister by his own minister of internal affairs and based on the flimsiest of evidence.

56Increasingly, brutal political battles alarmed us: attacking the deputy minister of internal affairs for his willingness to surrender Silesia, suggesting that the president had connections with foreign agents, pelting politicians with eggs or splashing them with foul-smelling liquid.

57We rejoiced at the triumphs of the Polish economy. We categorically rejected the theory that turncoats and thieves ruled Poland. Even so, we were disturbed by corrupt links between the political and business worlds, which we described in painstakingly detailed reports. We steered well clear of making groundless accusations, insinuations, and insults. However, no government, no department, and no political party could count on our unflagging support.

58Reporting on Polish politics and taking part in Polish polemics, we realized that mere politics do not life make. We wanted, therefore, to create a newspaper that was sympathetic and helpful.

59We brought democracy and human rights right down to the grass roots with, for example, the two-year “Give Birth Humanely” campaign that changed the face of Polish maternity hospitals. We demanded that staff show pregnant women respect and empathy instead of the impersonal or even boorish treatment often practiced. We championed uninterrupted contact with the newborn and the presence of family members at birth. We asked readers to send in letters and surveys rating maternity hospitals, on the basis of which we compiled guides and rankings. Both medical staff and authorities at first scoffed at the campaign, but just a few months later hospitals entered a heated race for a better place in the ranking. We effected a change in consciousness and the term “give birth humanely” entered everyday language. Specialists even believe that the rapid drop in the infant mortality rate was in some part thanks to the humanization of the birth process.

60Gazeta Wyborcza also stepped in to defend the children of alcoholics and condemn domestic violence and violent television programs. We saved state orphanages by organizing a massive fundraiser, and we supported the creation of family-style children’s homes. We encouraged readers to “escape from the housing projects” in our “Live Humanely” campaign.

61Several times we directly lobbied for changes in the law. After the unexpected cancellation of the housing tax break in 1997, we collected thousands of signatures to urge the ombudsperson to appeal against the taxation bill. We covered the most difficult issues and those bound by social taboos, such as sex education and, recently, the moving series “Why a Hospice Shelter”. The newspaper regularly tried to convince Poles to live healthier lifestyles—to quit smoking, eat properly, et cetera.

62For years we have offered a steady stream of tax and financial advice, not to mention innumerable guides to construction, renovation, decoration, and buying an apartment in Gazeta Dom (Home Gazette) or buying a car in the Auto-Moto section. We also print sample tests to help students prepare for standardized exams. Recently, our coverage of social reforms has been very popular, especially as there is a lot of confusion surrounding the changes. The most popular series are “How to Get Medical Treatment in This Mess” and “Choosing a Pension Plan”.

63Readers are also quite attached to our local supplements. They include lost pet listings, tongue-in-cheek competitions for the biggest pothole, and hundreds of movie and theater ticket giveaways. Anyone can bid a fond farewell to a loved one in the obituary pages, and some of our twenty local supplements print pictures of newborn babies in the “Welcome to the World” section. The supplements chronicle city life and include amusing stories, such as that of the many month-long search for a warthog that escaped from the zoo.

64The supplements always keep a watchful eye on the local authorities. The series of articles “Cities Inside-Out” published before the 1998 local elections was the first summary of the achievements and failures of municipal authorities. The supplements also got involved in the tussle over the rearrangement of Poland’s regional administration map, organizing local referenda not only in those places threatened with losing their status as a province capital.

65We have always been proud of our roots in the opposition, KOR and Solidarity. But we did not want to be either an organ of Solidarity or part of it. For we wanted to work for a democratic Poland and not for successive Solidarity union bosses or for any other political party. When Lech Walesa and the Solidarity national commission banned us from using the Solidarity symbol on our masthead, we painfully accepted the decision. Today we see it as a positive move—a trade union should be a trade union, and an independent newspaper an independent newspaper. The important thing is for the union to be wise and the newspaper absorbing and honest.

66The first issue of Gazeta Wyborcza stated: “This newspaper has come into being as a result of the round table agreement, but we are publishing and editing it ourselves, and we are alone accountable.

67“We do have links to Solidarity, but we intend to present the views and opinions of all society, of opposing trends.”

68Did we keep our word? We leave it up to our hundreds of thousands of readers to answer that question.

69We believe that the prerequisite of our credibility is independence: political and material. We have built up this independence over ten years, receiving many complements and diatribes along the way. Today is a fitting time to thank both our critics and our friends.


70For nearly two centuries Poles symbolized martyrdom and bravery in the eyes of the world, but the Polish state was called the “sick man of Europe”, and the Polish economy was spoken of with contempt as “die polnische Wirtschaft”. Today the world sees not only Polish heroism but also the wisdom of Polish policy and the success of the Polish economy.

71Today, Poland is no longer a lamentable object of pity in defeat, but respected, admired, and envied in victory. This is also a good moment to remind ourselves of the downtrodden: the unemployed and the homeless, those impoverished and wallowing in apathy, those who do not take part in elections but strike and block roads for fear of an uncertain tomorrow. All are an intrinsic part of Poland and Polishness. Their fate should be a matter of common concern. Our attitude toward the downtrodden is, we believe, an essential measure of contemporary Polish patriotism.

72What does patriotism, for that matter, mean to us at Gazeta Wyborcza today? We looked on with aversion when Solidarity members requested compensation for the years they spent in prison and others demanded compensation for time spent in concentration camps. Both have a right to compensation, but we believe that patriotism consists in not taking advantage of all our rights, in being able to offer communism’s debts to a free Poland.

73That is our first instinct: to demand the truth and the righting of wrongs, while renouncing retaliation and veterans’ privileges. Our patriotism is not a stick with which to beat those who have a different view; it is not to be used as a method of extortion by tossing around slogans about the homeland. What we need is common reflection for the common good. Our patriotism does not endorse any one political party to take possession of the state, be it postcommunist or post-anticommunist. Our patriotism is the firm conviction that Poland is the common homeland of all its citizens. Only the nation—meaning all the republic’s citizens-—can give the authorities a mandate. Any governing group that explains its right to rule through services performed in the past, no matter how great, is on the path to dictatorship. Our patriotism consists in opposing dictatorship.

74It also consists of memory. We try to remember that Poland was lost in the past not only due to foreign aggression, but also to internal discord and the drive for personal interests and to an inability to compromise. The epitome of this was the liberum veto. This was not the height of liberty as claimed, but a channel for corruption and the cause of the fall of the Polish Republic.

75We are glad that Poland’s happiest decade in the last three hundred years also happens to be the best ten years of our lives. Gazeta Wyborcza is not only our contribution to this period, it is the contribution of a democratic and independent Poland in its entirety.


1 Excerpts from this chapter were printed in the 13 May 1999 edition of Time. They are reprinted here by permission of the author.


Adam Michnik is editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw.

© Central European University Press, 2000

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