A Social Climber with Epaulettes

Lech Kowalski, Cze.Kiszczak. Biografia gen. broni Czesława Kiszczaka, Wydawnictwo Zysk i S-ka, Poznań, 2015.

Black holes are so fascinating that our rudimentary knowledge of them is common to all: Hardly anyone is able to derive the formula for the Schwarzschild radius, determining the size of the “event horizon,” but almost everyone knows that these objects cannot be observed directly, simply because no light gets out of them. Astronomers have to deduce the existence of black holes on the basis of their interactions with the surrounding world: comets, planets, and stars swallowed by them, bent beams of light and similar phenomena.

Astronomers of human things are also familiar with such phenomena: We often deal with so powerful or at least so influential figures that journalists, historians, and authors of society columns do not write about them. Accusations of rude commentators are tactfully ignored, archives are shrouded in fog, and footnotes, if any, are printed in nonpareil. And precisely this absence of studies, this lack of books in an era were covers of biographies of obscure athletes and singers scream at us from every side, allows us to infer the importance of the man about whom it is more convenient to remain silent. To quote the classic: “There is only an indirect proof—but a sufficient one.”

No member of the highest echelons of power in communist Poland better fits the above description then Czesław Kiszczak—interior minister (throughout his life connected with military intelligence) in the Solidarity “carnival” period of 1980-1981, architect of martial law, and eight years later of the round table agreements. Generals of the military and police, aces of intelligence and propaganda, first, second, third and district party secretaries have studies written about them—sometimes superficial, sometimes painstakingly detailed. Nothing like that has been written about Kiszczak, the absence of serious historical studies about him cannot fail to amaze. It is all the more a pity (probably only historians dreaming about a strong debut are delighted) that the first comprehensive biography of the general, which just appeared in Poland, tells us very little on its 728 pages.

That is, it depends on the register. We rarely encounter a work aspiring to the academic status which would be so full of sarcasm. And generalizations. And dubious jokes (the neat pun in the title is unfortunately an exception). And phrases bursting with emotions (“liars, torturers, criminals”), factually correct (who would deny that security police officers were liars and often murderers rather than “people of honour”?) but strangely feverish. In Lech Kowalski’s book lame locations appear side-by-side with hypotheses which are lame—to both legs!—in their methodology. There are also speculations about possible alternative fates of the general (“Czesław Kiszczak, like many of his peers, could have gone to high school and then university.”) which bring to mind Jacek Kaczmarski’s famous phrase about Soviet researchers who “prove scientifically what would happen if.” This may occur when a historian is jealous of journalistic fame—and the author’s jealousy seems to be confirmed by the footnotes, almost one quarter of which refer to articles in opinion-making weeklies.

So why should we review this book in any other mode than a satirical one? Well, because this is after all the first attempt at a monographic description of the general’s work in the decade which was critical for communism in Poland. Moreover, it regards one of the architects of the “transformation”—canonized by some, castigated by others, but for everyone marking a dividing line between historical eras. Let us be fair to Cze.Kiszczak: Three quarters of the footnotes cite sources hitherto unknown to historians. They are largely operational files, personal files, and analyses of the Ministry of Internal Affairs—available only since a couple of years in the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). Of course, more such documents will certainly be found, not only due to the announced opening of the so-called classified collection in the IPN or greater accessibility of military files, but also due to some unexpected discoveries.

In February 2016, everyone was talking about “Kiszczak’s wardrobe:” documents which his widow had tried to sell, and which were ultimately taken over by the IPN, as they should under the law. Their credibility is still being verified and the uproar they caused in the media is due mostly to the fact that they may constitute a new voice in the debate about the possible connections of Lech Wałęsa with the security police in the 1970s. But “Kiszczak’s wardrobe” confirmed for historians what they had intuitively long known, namely that many important documents of the past were “privatized” during the transition with total disregard for the law: The question is in which hands they found themselves, when they will be disclosed and to what end.

The documents which the author gained access to could have probably been made better use of. Instead of a synthesis which might have been attempted (and an excellent example of which is the biography of Wojciech Jaruzelski by Paweł Kowal and Mariusz Cieślik, also discussed in Aspen Review), we received a kind of “chronicle of life and activity” with a tiresome linear narrative. It seems that for Lech Kowalski the main duty of a historian is taking note of almost every business trip by the lieutenant, captain, major, and finally general Kiszczak, completely disregarding Voltaire’s warning that the secret of being boring lies in saying all. But if we start reading the book equipped with two virtual markers, one to cross out all outbursts of the author’s hostility (quite understandable!) towards the functionaries of successive criminal formations and the other to underline what is really important, at least two elements of Cze.Kiszczak’s biography deserve a mention, for they importantly complement our vision of Polish post-war history.

The first element is the matter, very much liked by historians with a sociological bent, of career patterns and paths constructed in 1944- 1947, when the system of power in Poland was born. Probably the biggest number of testimonies and analyses concern the process of “seducing” and co-opting intellectuals, and especially artists, without whom the regime could not dream about building the superstructure and winning people’s hearts and minds. It is no accident that so many works of this kind appeared: Humanists who succumbed to the “Hegelian bite” found themselves in a peculiar situation of being both the builder and the building material, and they often described this experience. Such confessional literature, its monumental beginning probably marked by Czesław Miłosz’s Captive Mind, counts hundreds of excellent volumes.

But even if they managed to seduce all frustrated Home Army sergeants and Polish Studies graduates, it would not be enough to create the cadres of the centralized state. Hence the comic-sounding, but nevertheless true couplet claiming that “it is your honest desire, and not schooling, which will make you into an officer,” and the readiness to open career paths in the structures of administration, production, and also—perhaps above all—security apparatus to social classes and communities previously underrepresented or even excluded, to all the “peasant sons.”

It was a fully rational move; if we choose to forget for a while about the motives and ambitions of the ruling elite, it is difficult to see anything reprehensible in it. In recent years authors with a leftist sensibility, such as Andrzej Leder or Jan Sowa, initiated important discussions with books in which they defended the importance of the “top-down social mobilization” which took place in “caste-ridden and fossilized” Poland due to changes imposed by the communists. Czesław Kiszczak—a peasant son from Podbeskidzie, with seven years of elementary school and two years of forced labor in his CV—would perfectly fit into this pattern (if I may use the conjunctive so much liked by Lech Kowalski). Thanks to his mental capabilities, his undeniable “emotional intelligence” and desire for advancement, he would easily have achieved the position of a manager, recruiting officer, engineer, or perhaps even director of a state-owned farm.

But in the case of the communist security forces additional criteria appear—and unlike in a spy novel, knowing a rare language or a particular talent for seduction are not among them. To become a participant of the courses in the Central Party School in Łódź in July 1945, it was probably enough to be extremely naive or extremely driven to achieve something big in life. Still, to round up (in December of the same year) the following sentence: “I hereby ask Citizen Colonel to accept me for work in the Information Organs of the Polish Army. My request is motivated by […] my desire to make the best possible contribution to the consolidation of the democratic system in Poland and to combating enemy forces,” with an awkward but easily readable signature “Kiszczak Czesław”—now this required some familiarity with the prescribed rhetoric. And he also had to know the methods of combating enemy forces.

Kiszczak Czesław landed in the last circle: At that time Military Information was directly subordinated to the NKVD, without even trying to preserve some appearances of autonomy. “When I was transferred from Koszykowa, from the MBP [the Ministry of Public Security] to Oczki, to GZI, I had an impression that I left the company of thieves for the company of hardened criminals,” this passage from the memoirs of general Adam Uziembło, repressed in Stalinist times, is often quoted as a concise illustration of the state of affairs. In charge of Kiszczak’s professional apprenticeship was the head of the Personal Department of the Main Directorate of Information (GZI), Lt Col of the NKVD Cyril Pogrebnya, and he was fully successful in that task: On July 2, 1947, Czesław Yanovych (is it not how his superior would have addressed him, using his otchestvo?) had an opportunity to drink a toast for his promotion to lieutenant. Indeed: “It was not schooling…”

We do not know when was the first time when the apprentice of master Pogrebnya sat opposite a suspect, when he had an opportunity to turn a lamp on him. One of the undeniably valuable research findings of Lech Kowalski is the discovery of how thoroughly reviewed were the personal files of the general: Not only his personal file until 1954, but also the records of investigations with his participation were purged of almost 90% of the documents they contained, which, of course, is a tribute to the competence of the Ministry’s archivists, but also raises the question when the materials for the biography were retouched in this way. Yet in the context of our analysis of advancement patterns another thing is important: The vestigial records clearly show that to get promoted faster than your average colleague you needed something more than efficiency and availability.

The GZI put a premium on showing initiative in actions which would be difficult to defend even in the capacious framework of the logic of “seeking suspects” or “hunting down active enemies of the system” (there is no denying that security forces of many countries function within this logic). What you needed to do was to actively create new victims. Out of many involvements of Lt Kiszczak Czesław in actions of this type let us name two, contrasting in their location and scale, but similar in their consequences: In the spring of 1948, in cooperation with Lt Col of the NKVD Nikolai Dianov, he prepared a provocation in the Lublin Military District, which consisted of making and distributing leaflets calling for a “mutiny and joining the ranks of WiN [War and Independence] in order to overthrow the communist regime.” And the aim was not to find possible candidates for such activity: The very act of the scattering the leaflets served as a pretext for arresting many officers in the district.

Much more far-reaching in their consequences were the achievements of the young GZI officer in the ranks of the Polish Military Mission in London, that is in the wide-ranging structure of the military attaché office, charged with organizing the return of soldiers and officers of the Polish Armed Forces (PSZ) to Poland. “Just after the war I was in England, I helped to organize the return of Polish officers home,” is how Czesław Kiszczak sums up his actions in the book-length interview cited above. Given that his work resulted in several dozen “information sheets” where he detailed the behaviours, views and even weaknesses of the interviewed PSZ officers and indicated those who should be first considered for surveillance—we can admire two things above all: the smartness and perspicacity of the twenty-year-old officer and the talent of the sixty-seven-year-old pensioner for coining euphemisms.

The second novelty which we owe to the book of Lech Kowalski is describing the actions of the Interior Minister, member of the Politburo and host of the round table in the period of 1987-1988. For while the rapid advancement of Kiszczak in the structures of the NKVD subsidiary squares with what we know about the process of “gaining power” in Poland in the 1940s and only some minor details may be shocking to us, the description of what the general did under the process of the “peaceful transfer of power” is absolutely amazing.

Kiszczak’s biography is not the first work speaking about the beginnings and “underpinnings” of Polish transition. Besides memoirs and chronicles, often not free from (self)hagiographical features, we have the works of professors Andrzej Paczkowski and Antoni Dudek, the much advertised (although controversial) Postkomunizm by Jadwiga Staniszkis, Paweł Kowal’s work about the changes in the power system in 1986-1988. However, this is the first reconstruction, based on archival sources, of the process of selecting and manipulating the leaders of the strong, extensive, but also diversified and often divided democratic opposition in Poland. At least since the middle of 1986, with a talent worthy of a Talleyrand, General Czesław Kiszczak took two parallel courses of action. Like in the Bible, the right did not know what the left was doing: Besides the routine process of surveillance and repression of the “underground” (breaking up demonstrations, intimidating activists, arresting distributors of underground publications, confiscating printing presses, and so on), he assessed opposition leaders in terms of their “flexibility” and “readiness for dialogue,” and then marginalized— through simple repression or operating games—the “inflexible” ones while turning a blind eye to the actions of the former.

The summary of this process sounds so tacky and “conspiratorial” that it requires at least a few serious reservations and caveats. Fortunately, we are immunized against blindly believing in the omnipotence of the general, who “personally created his partners for talks,” for we are aware of many factors contradicting this view, such as the decomposition and erosion, and hence unmanageability of the whole system of communist power (and perhaps particularly of the security apparatus) in Poland. Machiavellian intentions of the general are one thing, but the practice of rank-and-file officers, indifferent to the subtle plans of their bosses and equally brutal (or unconcerned) towards rioters from “Fighting Solidarity” and conciliatory intellectuals from the Clubs of Catholic Intelligentsia, is quite another thing. The third factor, ultimately the strongest, turned out to be the “third estate,” that is society, confused and apathetic after the trauma of martial law, but in its mass staunchly rejecting the communist regime, which it finally did at the first quasi-democratic opportunity it was offered, that is during the June 1989 elections. It is also crucial to note that those regarded by the ministry’s analysts as “potentially promising partners” were not aware of the favors extended to them: They fought against the system at their own pace and with their own determination, perhaps happy that repressions were weakening.

Regardless of the fact, in the light of the files cited by Lech Kowalski Kiszczak’s “operational game” which can be summed up as selectively choosing partners for the process of transferring power—the very game for many years discredited as a “paranoid figment of a frustrated imagination”— really did take place and was implemented in many different ways.

Of course, the credibility of the files left by the security forces, especially those which somehow survived the selection processes, is also debatable and sometimes hotly disputed. Of course, there cannot be too much recalling that the dynamics of social and political processes, especially in the situation of the “revolutionary Autumn of Nations” which we had in 1989, surprises and surpasses the most powerful strategists. Nevertheless, the burden of proof that wringing power out of the hands of Polish communists was exclusively the result of a free play of forces and social pressure, that the communists were on a defensive and had no control whatsoever over the process of regaining independence, from that moment on lies with the numerous apologists of the round table agreements.

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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