Photographer: Ullstein bild via Getty Images

Walesa Legend Now a Spy Story as Polish History Is Rewritten

  • Government sees itself as Poland's savior from corrupt elites
  • Walesa denies accusations he was paid communist-era informant

In the new Poland, yesterday’s heroes are being turned into today’s villains.

It means that Lech Walesa, the country’s most famous politician and freedom fighter, is a traitor and the 1989 uprising that ushered in democracy and a market economy was little more than a conspiracy. At least, that’s the new Polish government’s narrative after documents were released this week that purport to show the former Solidarity leader was a paid agent working for the communist authorities.

“Walesa may have been a puppet -- we have to sort this out,” Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told TVN24 on Friday. “This casts a shadow over the creation of an independent Poland and its political elites.”

The government in Warsaw has spent its less than four months in power on a collision course with adversaries in the European Union, the nation’s banks and even credit rating companies. As it tries to remold Poland’s relationship with the world, it’s also setting out to rewrite the history of its fight with communism.

Direct Hit

While suspicion and conspiracy theories have been rife in the former eastern bloc, the alleged collaboration, vehemently denied by Walesa, is the latest ammunition for the Law & Justice leadership as it portrays itself as the true savior from a corrupt ruling class. 

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who founded the party with his twin brother Lech and still leads it, fell out with Walesa in 1991, when he was fired from his post as the then president’s chief of staff. He spent most of the following decade in the opposition.

“This is a direct hit at the biggest symbol of Poland’s switch to democracy,” said Jacek Sokolowski, a political scientist at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. “Kaczynski will seek to exploit it to strengthen his domestic position and drive his narrative of who are the country’s real heroes.”

The Walesa files, found by the National Remembrance Institute this week during a search of the home of Poland’s last communist-era prime minister, date back to the early 1970s. That was years before the Nobel Peace Prize laureate led the Solidarity trade union and ultimately helped broker the first free elections behind the Iron Curtain 27 years ago.

Communist Forgeries

The now 72-year-old Walesa, who became Poland’s first post-regime president in 1990, said the documents are forgeries made by the communists to discredit him. The institute, a body that tracks communist- and Nazi-era crimes, said the new files contain a “declaration to collaborate” signed by Walesa, code name “Bolek,” as well as receipts of the agent receiving money.

The documents will be made available to journalists and researchers on Feb. 22, Lukasz Kaminski, head of the institute, told a news conference on Saturday.

Relatives of striking workers wait for news outside the gates of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, in August 1980.
Relatives of striking workers wait for news outside the gates of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, in August 1980.
Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

“I wasn’t collaborating, I wasn’t controlled by anyone, I simply did my best,” Walesa said on Saturday in an interview with private television broadcaster TVN24. “Anyone could have done it better, but if so - where were they? why didn’t they take it over me?”

For years, Walesa has fought allegations that as “Bolek” he ratted on his Gdansk shipyard colleagues. A special court in 2000 ruled that Walesa, who has largely withdrawn from day-to-day politics but remains a respected elder statesman, never collaborated with government agents.

Even so, Walesa’s past dominated media coverage in Poland this week, with tabloid Super Express splashing “Walesa Was Bolek! He Took Money” on its cover on Friday. Public television showed video footage from a 1989 meeting where dissidents and communists agreed to free elections, showing Walesa and other pro-democracy activists toasting and joking with the nation’s communist leaders.

“They want to take my place, today and in history,” Walesa said on Saturday. “I’m no longer interested in defending myself. I know what I was doing. Now, I only want to have my heart clear.”

He declined to name “them.”

Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II.
Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II.
Photographer: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Changing Narrative

To the Law & Justice government, it all represents the smoking gun that taints their predecessors as corrupt and undermines the idea that Poland really won freedom. 

“The elites were always against Kaczynski,” Arkadiusz Mularczyk, a Law & Justice lawmaker, said in an interview. “Now it’s clear, they defended that agreement, thanks to which the communists could still shape Poland.

Law & Justice returned to power last year by promising to overhaul what they said was a Poland “in ruins” and protect downtrodden voters left behind by the prosperity of a country that emerged from the post-communist wilderness to become a member of NATO and the EU within 15 years.

Since then, an investigation by the EU into Poland’s democratic rule of law has also played into the government’s depiction of them and us.

Donald Tusk, Walesa’s friend and Poland’s only two-term prime minister who is currently the EU president, said the accusations were “very sad” and undermined “Poland’s great victory over communism” and the revolution’s leader. Speaking to reporters in Brussels, he said it wasn’t clear if the files contained “anything new.”

(Updates with Lech Walesa comment in 11th, 14th paragraph.)

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