The Wages of (Not) Dealing with the Past

What’s going on now in Poland is not really about the court sysem. It’s probably the last death throes of a conflict that for most people ended in 1992.

For lots of reasons, communist Poland from around 1960 on was much more ‘liveable’ than any other European country (apart from maybe non-Soviet Jugoslavija), not materially (where it was better off than most of the USSR but well behind Czechoslovakia, Hungary or East Germany) but in…. intellectual and spiritual terms.

Poland had the largest and most highly developed dissident/resistance movement (with a high level of support from the rest of the society which was not necessarily the case eslewhere). It had the Roman Catholic church as a functioning (if informal) opposition party and it had signficantly less controls in certain areas of life, from ownership of foreign currency to travel within the country (and visits back home by the diaspora) or just dealing with foreigners, which was generally safe to do in Poland –  in other countries not so much.

Plus, there was only minimum lip service paid to communism as an economic or political system so most of the time people didn’t have to pretend that communism was a great idea and the close association with the USSR was wonderful. Violent repression could and did occur but was the exception rather than the rule. The regime could get very ugly but most of the time exercised some degree of restraint. It was only at it’s worst, during Martial Law the day to day political reality approached that of other communist countries.

While all this made it easier to survive during the communist period there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The downside of an easier time in communism was that afterwards it was a lot harder to figure out what to do with the former communist authorities. That is it was much harder to distinguish the real villains from those with party associations but no blood on their hands…

This was complicated by a number of facts. Many party members joined because they more or less had to in order to advance professionally (because past a certain point in the hierarchy you had to be in the party). Many to most people realized there was a difference between hardcore and apolitical party members.

Locking out the apolitical members out of public life would mean losing their skills and competence (which were badly needed) while allowing them to contribute meant that some real SOB’s would not ever be punished. It also meant that a lot of former party members would do very well in the new system while many dissidents would flounder.

The conflict was more or less solved in 1992 and the result of an ugly and undignified political struggle (topic of another post) was that those from the previous system were allowed to continue in public life. Many on the losing side were unhappy and are still symbolically fighting a conflict that ended for most people in 1992.

Jarosław Kaczyński was one of the leaders of the movement to remove all party members from public life by hook or crook while Lech Wałęsa was on the opposite side. I’m afraid as long as their generation is around and active politically (officially or not) they’ll keep fighting that battle and each other. The current struggle over the court “reform” is largely a symbolic battle between those two about who was right back then. Neither is prepared to back down or let the past be the past.

For better or worse younger people really don’t know or care about the communist period and the hardcore ideologues regarding the period are hard to find among politicians under 60 and extremely scarce under 50. Almost everyone just wants to get on things now but they can’t because of a personal grudge between two old men….

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1 Response to The Wages of (Not) Dealing with the Past

  1. goldsteinweb says:

    This is all very true for Germany, too. We only had communism in one part of the country and the rest of it was blatantly ignorant about it, often supportive of the dictatorship they had not to live under.
    Today, it is the East, of course, that is most alert about democratic values being taken away. As you may have heard, the UN scolded Merkel over a recent censorship law, called NetzDG, that now is the blueprint for new censorship laws both in Russia and Belarus. Yet, most Germans don’t bother. We saw the passing of a law recently that allows our government to monitor our electronic devices with a computer virus, colloquially called the Bundestrojaner, and yet Germans are silent and complicit. We see trade unions openly asking their members to spy on one another to detect people on the pollitical right. We see people losing their employment for voicing their views. And Germans are complicit. I find it deeply frustrating. I hide my identity (though all I say can easily be verified with a quick search engine probe).
    This is NOT a left vs right thing. It is a civil rights thing. And if the Polish government treats the left the way the German government treats the right, the Polish left has all my solidarity. I just don’t get proper information here. And as with German affairs I have no power anyway. It is truely depressing.

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