“THEM”: Stalin’s Polish Puppets. By Teresa Toranska. Translated by Agnierzka Kolukowska. Harper & Row. 384 pp. $22.95.
What price is Poland paying for its Stalinist heritage? In 1981, during the heyday of Solidarity when everybody was looking at the present or, with fingers crossed, to the future, Teresa Toranska, a bright and persistent young Polish journalist, decided to probe her country’s recent past. For four years she interviewed as many surviving leaders of Poland’s first postwar decade as would agree to talk to her. It was high time for such a project since her potential subjects were already in their seventies or early eighties. The resulting book, originally commissioned by an official Polish publisher who eventually decided against issuing it, became a samizdat best seller in Poland. It has now appeared in the United States in a slightly abridged version consisting of five interviews. Among these are lengthy dialogues with Edward Ochab, who, after a long Stalinist period, presided in October 1956 over the transfer of power to the rehabilitated Wladyslaw Gomulka; with Stefan Staszewski, who, as party boss for the Warsaw region, also played a role in that “Spring in October”; and, last but not least, with Jakub Berman, who, as the man in charge of ideology and security, was one of the ruling Troika (together with Boleslaw Bierut, the party chief, and Hilary Minc, the economist) in the worst years of the Moscow-sponsored dictatorship.
European reviewers of the book have emphasized either its spicy details–Berman dancing with Vyacheslav Molotov in front of a smiling Stalin at one of his late-night parties–or its trivial ones–the brief portrait of Julia Minc, a bigoted and unrepentant old woman who figures in the book in part because she was the economist’s widow and also because she describes how “they,” the rulers, lived in relatively privileged but almost total isolation. But the book is far more interesting than such details can suggest. It contains much valuable material for future historians–notably on China’s role in the 1956 crisis, on Russian methods of control, on Khrushchev’s attitude toward anti-Semitism and especially on the thinking of Poland’s nominal leaders, so mighty and yet so powerless. Indeed, the book contains all the ingredients of a major tragedy, although the reader does have to be aware of certain of its biases and limitations.
The first point to be clarified is that “them” should not be taken as an anti-Semitic reference even though four out of the five people interviewed here happen to be Jewish. It is true that the 3.5 million or so Jews in prewar Poland were an oppressed minority and that many of them were naturally attracted to socialism’s idea of universal social justice. After Hitler’s holocaust, Poland’s Jewish’ community had almost vanished, but many of the leaders who arrived from exile in Russia, where racism had not been a key criterion in Stalin’s purging of the Polish Communist Party, were Jewish. Nevertheless, the ratio of four Jews to one non-Jew in Toranska’s sample is accidental. Some of the leaders had died. Many more–Gornulka, Stanislaw Radkiewicz (the Minister of Security) and General Mieczyslaw Moczar–refused to talk.
There are people in the States, as in Poland, who will read a great deal into this accidental figure. Those who dislike “Reds” and stress the names of Minc or Berman are cousins of people who curse capitalism and speak only of the Rothschilds never of the Rockefellers. I can guarantee that Teresa Toranska is not one of them, but I did warn her on reading the manuscript that this point should be clarified when presenting the text to the Western public. Those responsible for the American introduction might have explained it in a couple of paragraphs instead of arguing, for instance, inaccurately and with a degree of snobbish arrogance, that if the language in the book sounded stilted it was partly because the people interviewed lacked formal education. The snag with Berman, a law graduate and Ph.D. in social science, was his Stalinism, not his absence of education, formal or otherwise.
The other almost inevitable bias in the book brings us closer to the heart of the drama. For Toranska’s generation, socialism is identified with the Soviet tank and with a domestic leadership entirely divorced from the people. No wonder that her generation tends to idealize Western capitalism and Poland’s prewar regime of Pilsudski and his colonels. The avuncular Ochab occasionally reminds his aggressive interrogator that the Russians were also liberators, the main victors over Nazism, and that if the new regime in Poland committed crimes, its opponents from the underground were no angels either.
Indeed, if you look at the potted biographies introducing each chapter, you will discover that most of the protagonists had spent at least as many years in jail as a Kuron or. a Michnik now. It was no picnic to be a Communist in prewar Poland. Neither were the future rulers, at least to begin with, mere timeservers. Mostly children of the middle classes, they were originally “going to the people” in order to change the world and were ready to take serious personal risks for that purpose. To complicate the matter still further, by the time they were back in Poland as proxy rulers driven home by the Red Army, they could no longer have had many illusions about the nature of the Soviet regime. “We’re all survivors, people Stalin didn’t manage to kill off in time–the third set of KPP [Polish Communist Party] cadres,” Roman Werfel, formerly one of the party’s chief ideologists, admitted quite candidly. Some of them had very direct experience of the blessings of the workers’ paradise: for instance, Stefan Staszewski–the only one to recant and who, somehow, sounds the most unpleasant–spent eight years in Kolyma, one of the worst Soviet labor camps; Stalin had his brother killed.
Yet these people did not hesitate in their course of action at the end of the war. History was on their side and Stalin was their prophet. Did they genuinely believe that they would avoid the major Soviet mistakes? In, the, early postwar period, they, like many others, may have thought so, but that illusion did not survive the cold war. In any case, they were masters only in name. Admittedly, they managed to avoid the staging of Moscow-type trials in Poland. But they never tried, or even thought of trying, to alter substantially the imported Soviet model. Whatever their original motives and intentions, they had become true believers, Stalin’s faithful and obedient servants.
Jakub Berman perfectly illustrates, the mentality of such an apparatchik. Challenged by Toranska, he does not answer in the language of socialist democracy. How could he? His fundamental case rests on Realpolitik and geography. We had chosen the right side, he argues, the only one historically valid. Had we chosen otherwise, Poland would have been reduced to the role of a “Duchy of Warsaw, a truncated scrap, a mean pathetic little Central European state.” And if this imported revolution from above did not take root among the working people, it is entirely the people’s fault, a weakness that will be cured by time. No matter if centuries are required for the purpose. If the Polish leaders had really argued in terms of class links.transcending frontiers, and not of subordination to Russia conceived as the “Socialist fatherland,” they could have invoked the name of Rosa Luxemburg. They did not because, fundamentally, that great revolutionary was anathema to them. Her conception of democracy was exactly the reverse of theirs. Where she had maintained that the “errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee,” their basic premise was and is that the mistakes of a politburo are always preferable to the “active, untramelled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people. ” Berman does not seem to have asked himself why a decent young woman like Teresa Toranska, who would certainly have belonged to the left in prewar Poland, was asking him so aggressively, not “What have you done with socialism?” but “What have you done with my country?”
The price Poland paid for an imported revolution is still to be fully measured. The damage done to socialism as an attractive idea is obvious. At the very time the aged Berman was beginning to plead his case–he died in 1984–the Polish workers were in revolt against “them,” or to be more precise, against their ideologically utterly empty successors. In the role they were playing the workers of Gdansk and the millions rallying around Solidarity were straight out of a Marxist textbook. But their language was not that of socialism. Indeed, if they spoke socialism at all, of self-management and workers’ control over, their own fate, they were, like Molière’s M. Jourdain, unaware that they were doing so.
True, the complicated story of postwar Poland is far from finished and future historians will have to draw the final balance sheet. It will require, however, a great playwright to convey the drama not just of a few leaders, but of whole generation which set out dreaming of changing the world, of dominating fate, and which ended as fate’s cruel plaything. It will require a great dramatist to bring to life the Stalinist tragedy for which Teresa Toranska’s book provides so many fascinating ingredients.