When Poland’s Unrepentant Stalinists Defended Their Regime

As Polish state socialism entered its death spiral, journalist Teresa Torańska interviewed the figures who had first created the regime after 1945. The resulting book gave retired Stalinist statesmen a platform to defend their actions — but also showed why their antidemocratic model of socialism could never have achieved popular support.

May Day parade in Warsaw, Poland, 1951.

In the late 1970s Teresa Torańska, a Polish journalist employed by literary weekly Kultura, began a series of interviews with a retired communist statesman. These were no ordinary apparatchiks, but the people who had once occupied the very pinnacle of postwar Poland’s Stalinist hierarchy. The resulting book, Oni (in English, Them), was explosive. Torańska’s subtly forensic interview technique drew her subjects into a dramatic exposé of themselves and their regime. These men and women were first victims, then perpetrators of the most chaotic and violent periods of High Stalinism. Despite being clearly traumatized by their experiences — and their own actions — most remained deeply loyal to their beliefs and convinced of their righteousness.

The interviews were freely given and delivered with startling candor. The Stalinists who had led Poland from the end of World War II to its abortive reform period following 1956 were determined to record their testimony to a society that had, by the final decade of Polish communism, begun to openly portray them as monsters. Upon completing the book Torańska relocated to Paris, unable to officially publish such an inflammatory portrait of the regime’s architects at home. The book filtered its way back into Poland through the underground channels of samizdat literature, at that time flourishing via the emerging state-within-a-state, Solidarność.

Torańska is a visible presence throughout the text. Although she allows her subjects to speak at great length, her own interventions leave little room for doubt as to her own political standpoint. The fact that she is able to advocate so frankly for the dissident cause in dialogue with communist grandees attests to the system’s lack of energy by its final decade. Stefan Staszewski, a one-time Jewish communist propaganda chief, and later Catholic-convert anti-communist, is able to agree with her wholeheartedly on many points, embellishing her arguments with anecdotal flourishes. Staszewski embodies the staggering contradictions of the era.

A victim of the terrible purges inflicted on the original Polish Communist Party in the 1930s — resulting in its dissolution by Moscow in 1938 — after eight years of Siberian penal servitude, Staszewski finally returned to Poland as a member of its postwar governing clique. Despite the grievous harm done to him, he remained its loyal servant long enough — as he puts it — to implement the “rule of the minority over the majority. The restructuring of society against the wishes of the population.”

Staszewski later joined the Polish opposition, KOR (Workers’ Defense Committees), which ultimately amalgamated into Solidarność. It is, therefore, understandable that he would speak freely to Torańska. What is more intriguing is the way in which she manages to solicit similar candor and revelation from those who remained unrepentant. Her exacting knowledge of the history of Polish communism allowed her to prompt the memory of her subjects and guide them further and further into their confessions. Nevertheless, she occasionally comes into conflict with them, partly through exasperation at the moral gap between their prevalent attitudes and hers, and partly through their conflicting attitude to Polish nationalism and nationhood.

The Warsaw Uprising of August-October 1944 was callously abandoned by the Allies.

Much of their dispute revolves around Poland’s territorial integrity. While the communists are proud of securing former German lands for Poland, the nationalist Torańska furious at the loss of eastern territory to Belarus and Ukraine, including her hometown Wołkowysk. This ongoing nationalist disagreement comes to a climax in the final interview of the book. Jakub Berman — chief ideologue and once the second most powerful man in the Polish People’s Republic — insists that, but for the communists, Poland would simply have ceased to exist. In no possible world would the Soviet Union, he claims, have allowed the corridor to Moscow through which Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Hitler all marched to fall into hostile hands. For Berman, the contradiction of his position is resolved by the belief that the only alternative to a communist Poland would have been at best no Poland at all — at worst, World War III.

Them now stands as a monument to the work of Polish dissidents who were some of the principle actors in the moral, social, and political dissolution of European communism. Returning to this book nearly four decades since its publication, we can draw new lessons from this still incendiary text. The high stakes, the irreconcilable antagonisms, and the impossible choices in which Stalinism flourished were understood implicitly by the generations who had lived through the interwar period, but are a foreign country to today’s reader. Socialists today can repurpose Torańska’s seminal work into a resource for understanding the extreme conditions which pushed the revolutionary idealists of the 1930s into becoming the dictatorial bureaucrats of the 1950s.

Lublin, 1944

Postwar leader Bolesław Bierut developed a strong cult of personality.

Till his dying day, Jakub Berman stood by the role he played in 1944. He was one of the Lublin Poles, the group of communists put forward by Stalin as a provisional government of the new state. Some, like Bolesław Bierut and Berman himself, had spent the war exiled in Moscow. Others, like Hilary and Julia Minc, returned to Poland from the United States, where they had been close to Roosevelt.

Others still had spent the war in Poland engaged in underground resistance work, most famously Władysław Gomułka. Some, like Staszewski, were freshly released from the infamous Gulag penal colonies. Then there were those who, like Edward Ochab, had spent much of the previous decade in fascist prisons. Many were Jewish. Most owed their lives to the escape route provided by the Soviet annexation of western Poland in 1939. All were survivors of the terrible violence wrecked against Polish communists by both fascist pogroms and Soviet purges.

The Lublin Poles were arrayed against the London Polish government-in-exile, who commanded the loyalty of the noncommunist resistance forces, the Polish Home Army. Despite the widely perceived legitimacy of London’s government, the Yalta negotiations between Churchill and Stalin had doomed its claim to power. Just as Stalin abandoned the Greek communists to the predations of the British-backed fascists, Churchill abandoned the Polish Home Army.

As in other parts of Eastern Europe, the communists initially adopted a strategy of popular front-ism, or “People’s Democracy.” The communists would form a coalition government of all the major class parties, including social-democratic, liberal, and peasant parties, and through this coalition instigate a basic program of reforms, centered on land redistribution and reconstruction of industry. The reality was bleaker: extreme antagonism between the London and Lublin factions brought the country to the brink of civil war, while Soviet demands for reparations sweated Polish workers and inhibited the recovery of industry. It is still a subject of historical debate as to whether or not People’s Democracy was always intended as a transitional phase before the implementation of full Soviet style dictatorship, or whether the sudden intensification of the Cold War strangled options for political experimentation in Eastern Europe.

Edward Ochab reflects regretfully on the violence of the communist takeover. “We were unstinting in our efforts to broaden the base of the Polish committee for national liberation, drawing in, on conditions of partnership, populists, democrats and non-party people.” He is clear, however, that in the power vacuum which followed liberation, it was kill or be killed for himself and his comrades.

The London government was pushing the Home Army into what was practically an impasse. The fate of thousands of Home Army soldiers, who had spent years bravely fighting the Nazi invaders only to allow themselves, on the brink of total victory for Poland and the anti-Nazi coalition, to be pushed into anti-popular and anti-Soviet positions, was often tragic.

The crushing of the insurrectionary efforts of the Home Army was followed by a period of Stalinization throughout Poland. This, in practice, meant the curtailment of even the pretense of a coalition government, complete absorption or abolition of opposition forces, and the rapid implementation of central planning in the economy.

As in other parts of Eastern Europe, communist leaders deemed insufficiently reliable by Moscow (usually as a result of their ability to command local loyalties through their anti-fascist record and capacity for independent political action) were rounded up and arrested, Gomułka most prominent among them. Unlike in the rest of the bloc, those arrested were never subjected to show trials and execution, but Gomułka remained under house arrest for the final years of Stalin’s life.

The purge of this charismatic and popular leader, sympathetic toward Polish national feeling, deepened the shadow over the Stalinist government. The fledging republic had responded to political unrest in Poznań in 1953 with extreme heavy handedness. Their interpretation of events, in which a group of rioters attacked an office of the local security apparatus, was of direct imperialist sabotage, rather than the more likely scenario of economic dissatisfaction directed at the most visible organs of state repression. Gomułka’s release in 1954 thus coincided with a crisis of the authority for the new state, now firmly under Soviet surveillance and control. In 1956, as popular unrest swept across the bloc, Gomułka struck back.

The Polish October, 1956

1956 was the final nail in the coffin of High Stalinism throughout the Eastern Bloc. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” (leaked to the world press by the Polish communist leadership) exposing the criminality of the Stalin era prompted a wave of liberalization and reform to spread out from the Soviet Union to its satellites. Most countries in the bloc wrestled with a deep factional struggle between modernizing liberals and Stalinist conservatives. In Hungary, the recalcitrance of an especially brutal Stalinist leadership in managing the transition of power instigated rioting which gave way to insurrection, resulting in armed Soviet intervention.

In Poland, the forces of reform were directed more skillfully by Gomułka, who promised a program of liberalization and an independent “Polish Road to Socialism.” With the acquiescence of reform-inclined Edward Ochab, briefly and reluctantly elected to the post of first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) following the death of Bierut (struck down, it was claimed, by the shock of the secret speech), Gomułka ousted his erstwhile comrades.

Władysław Gomułka addresses hundreds of thousands of people in Warsaw on October 24, 1956.

The Polish October, as it became known, briefly set the state on a path of partial emancipation and economic rejuvenation, and marks the end of the narrative period covered by Torańska in Them. Marshal Rokossovsky, a Red Army commander of Polish nationality and widely known to be the controlling hand of Moscow inside the Politburo, was expelled. The chief perpetrators of Polish Stalinism, including Berman and Staszewski, were removed from positions of authority and influence. Only Gomułka — the architect of the postwar repression of the Home Army — was redeemed in the popular imagination by his nationalism and his own experience of persecution.

Gomułka, however, was not a democrat but a demagogue, and the promise of the Polish October degenerated into a resumption of autocracy. In 1968, following a period of dramatic economic slowdown and under the influence of the “Natolin” faction of ultraconservatives, Gomułka resorted to a furious campaign of scapegoating against an imagined zionist fifth column. The vast majority of the thousands of returning Jews who had chosen Poland over Palestine, were pushed further away from public life. Most emigrated, mainly to Israel, and the door was held open for them.

Weighed in Balance

An unintended consequence of Them is that we are able to grasp some of the extreme social prejudices that the Polish communists had set themselves against, albeit between the lines of Torańska’s condemnatory attitude. Berman tries to impress on her the deeply rooted popular antisemitism implicit in Polish nationalism, to which Torańska responds with hurt denial. For her, the Polish nation is a pure, sacred thing, and the evils which befell the Poles were malignant impositions of the communists. For her, the antisemitism fanned up by the anti-Zionist campaign was a direct legacy of Stalin’s own hostility to Jews.

Berman reacts defensively, pointing to the fact that in the buildup to World War II, the Soviet Union was the only place where direct antisemitism was actively criminalized. For all Stalin’s persecution of individual Jewish communists, in the 1930s it was his voice, Berman insists, which was raised against “national and race chauvinism” in Eastern Europe, with antisemitism specifically identified as “the extreme form of race chauvinism… a convenient lightning-rod for exploiters.”

In her interview with Julia Minc, an immensely arrogant and unrepentant official, we are confronted with a Jewish woman catapulted into towering seniority in a society more accustomed to feudal patriarchy. Torańska rails against the privilege Minc enjoyed as a member of the senior leadership, tasked with organizing the new republic’s press apparatus.

She responds without obfuscation, taking genuine pride in her strenuous contributions in the process of state building. For her, the People’s Poland she had built was superior beyond comparison to the Poland of her youth. Torańska quips sardonically that the West has achieved a higher standard of living for women, so that “mothers do not have to work at all.” Minc’s response is unequivocal:

It’s degrading for women not to work. Before the war they used to sit at home and rot. It’s only in People’s Poland that they’ve been able to flourish in their own work, to be appreciated. They go to meetings, develop, widen their horizons and raise their consciousness. They know the meaning of war, and the general interest.

Minc is one of those communist women written out of history whose participation in the construction of state socialism, makes them “bad” Poles, excluded from the legacy of contemporary Polish feminism. But her humanism is clear. “Do you have any idea how humiliating it is not to be able to find work?” she asks Torańska, a university-educated member of the Warsaw literati. “I remember what it was like before the war.”

An Exhausted State

The crushing disappointments of the reactionary 1968 relit the fires of popular Polish discontent, briefly constrained by the promise of political and economic reform. In 1970, mass strikes in the Gdańsk shipyards were put down with great loss of life, the backlash of which was increasingly open oppositional organization from the unofficial labor movement. Gomułka’s career ended in disgrace, but the PZPR had lost whatever little claim it may have had to be the legitimate political arm of the Polish working class.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the Polish state engaged in a pitched battle with the emergent anti-communist opposition. By the late 1980s, Solidarność had established themselves as the real power in the land, leaving the communists in office but without power. The spectacle of Wojciech Jaruzelski, a tragic figure disfigured by snow blindness sustained during his spell in Stalin’s camps, declaring martial law in 1981 only confirmed the basic frailty of the regime. It was in this context that Torańska so artfully solicited the final will and testimony of last of the Polish Stalinists.

The title “Them” expresses the way many Poles viewed the communist elite that ruled them. This meant taking the communists as an alien caste, their atheism and internationalism held to conflict with the deep Catholic nationalism of the Polish majority. But there was also a much darker aspect to this. Complaints at the disproportionately Jewish composition of leading communist cadre voiced a suppressed but nonetheless widespread antisemitic animosity against “them” — the ruling elite.

Unlike the GDR and Czechoslovakia, Poland’s communist tradition had no deep popular basis and the original Communist Party had indeed been composed of an internationalist (and in fact, largely Jewish) vanguard. The dominant prewar political tradition was the militarist, nationalist populism of Józef Piłsudski, who had originally risen to prominence as a socialist leader in his own right. Piłsudskism was set first against Russian imperialism and later Soviet revolutionary expansionism, and he played a major role in the defeat of the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in 1920.

Yet, despite the book’s status within the pantheon of anti-communist literary masterpieces, Them somehow invites us to empathize with its subjects. The grandiosity of their world-historic arguments to one side, Torańska’s own insistence that a liberal-nationalist Polish state was possible after the World War II also feels like propagandist delusion.

Reading Them with the benefit of hindsight, allows us to reflect on how it came to pass that people who had suffered so much brought about so much suffering themselves. “We did it” reflects Berman, “because we were afraid … Poland is a Pandora’s box. It’s easy to release evil spirits from it, but harder to get them back in later…. Dreams of a great Poland, a Christ of nations, and of the Poles as the chosen nation.”

If we’re not destroyed by an atomic war and we don’t disappear into nothingness, there will finally be a breakthrough in this mentality which will give [communism] an entirely new content and quality. And then we, the communists, will be able to apply all the democratic principles we would like to apply now but can’t, because they would end in our defeat and elimination.

The fact that such a book could be written at all, in an open collusion between a dissident writer and regime loyalists is astounding; the fact that it could not be officially published less so. The contradiction of a regime willing to privately admit its own dysfunction, but publicly commit to a policy of repression until the bitter end, is exemplary of the failure of European communism.

In the final analysis it was not violent cataclysm, but sheer exhaustion that caused the communists to step off the stage of history. The world which had formed the Stalinists had changed beyond recognition — the incredible social violence of interwar capitalism against which they justified themselves — had passed, leaving them exposed as the monsters they had set out to destroy.

The real tragedy, however, is that for all the sound and fury of their revolution, the basic conditions which drove them into the arms of Stalin have endured. While extreme exploitation, vicious nationalism, racism, and sexism are all alive and well in contemporary Europe, the communists, self-appointed enemies of these social evils, have disappeared into nothing.