Tuesday, January 26, 2010

'Mad Dreams, Saving Graces'

Although I believe this book review was published in the International Freedom Review in 1989 or 1990, I have been unable to find that particular volume in my library. What did turn up in a file box was a typescript that shows its age simply by the fact that it was produced on a dot-matrix printer.

Mad Dreams, Saving Graces – Poland: A Nation in Conspiracy, by Michael T. Kaufman. New York: Random House, 1989. Pages: 270. Price: $19.95 (hardcover). 

Reviewed by Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

For the Polish people, the month of September 1989 resonates with history — past, present, and future. It was fifty years ago this month that Hitler’s forces, in cooperation with Stalin’s Red Army, dismembered Poland less than twenty years after it had achieved independence upon the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian empires. September 1989 will be the first full month in more than forty years that Poland’s government is headed by a non-Communist, Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. The new prime minister is an unassuming intellectual, a newspaper editor who only a few years ago was jailed by the order of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the man who last month requested that Mazowiecki form a government under the umbrella of Solidarity, the free trade union movement banned from 1981 until last year. What the future holds is anybody’s guess, but given the rapidity of events that were unpredictable even eighteen months ago, for many people, optimism hard to avoid.

Michael T. Kaufman, an American reporter born of Polish parents in exile just before the Second World War, returned to his ancestral land as a New York Times correspondent in 1984.

What he discovered was a country living in conspiracy -- consciously, surreptitiously, historically living in a conspiracy designed to show that no totalitarian government whether Nazi orCommunist can keep the Polish people down.

Kaufman’s account of the underground Solidarity movement in the years following the declaration of martial law in December 1981 is full of tales of personal heroism. The heroes, however, are modest. What they do, they say, is only what is necessary to maintain their own dignity and that of their nation. Whether running from gun-toting secret police or editing underground newspapers, the conspirators felt that their conspiracy was nothing out of the ordinary, only the honest efforts of honest people to keep their heads above water. In Polish, writes Kaufman, “the word conspiracy has absolutely no negative connotation. A Pole will say, ‘I was a conspirator,’ in the same way a Frenchman might say, ‘I was with the wartime resistance.” It is a matter of pride.

It has become a commonplace among both travel writers arid political analysts to describe a nation as being filled with paradox. For Poland, however, this cliché is undoubtedly true. Kaufman writes that Poland’s “social landscape” is dominated by “tragic though sometimes ludicrous paradoxes. Almost everyone in Poland knew that what was economically necessary was politically impossible, that what was required was forbidden. The government knew this, the party knew this, the nation knew it.” He cites a Polish writer whom he had called absurdist in the tradition of Eugene Ionesco. The writer’s reaction to this characterization? “I am a realist like Zola. It is just Poland that is absurd.”

In Poland, merely not to lose is to win. This seems a paradox to us, because, as Kaufman explains, “For those brought up in pragmatic Western cultures, a system that accepts stalemate as the best possible substitute for success seems like a Wonderland absurdity.” Kaufman reminds us of the modest aspirations apparent in the Polish national anthem, which unlike national hymns that lay claim to God’s bounty or military victories, merely states, “Jeszcze Polska nie zginela" [“Poland has not yet perished”].

Poland is a police state like other Communist countries. It is just that the police are not quite so effective at stifling dissent and the underground conspiracy. The police are held in widespread disdain. One common joke in Warsaw asks: “Why do policemen here walk in threes?” Answer: “Well, the first is there because he can read, the second, because he can add, and the third, to keep tabs on the two intellectuals.” And are Poles proud that one of their countrymen, Feliks Dzierzynski, founded the Soviet secret police (forerunner of today’s KGB) arid participated in Stalin’s bloody purges? Well, in a manner of speaking. In one story about the monument to Dzierzynski in Warsaw, “an old peasant visits the statue, crosses himself, and tells a passerby that Dzierzynski was one of the greatest Poles who ever lived. When the stunned stranger asks why, the peasant tells him, ‘Because he killed more Communists and more Russians than vodka and winter.”

Poles are more aware of their history than perhaps any other European society. A university lecturer told Kaufman that “everywhere else, people think history is something that happens to strangers, while here it is what happens to our mothers and fathers and what is happening to us and our friends.”

What is happening now is the gradual transformation of a Communist police state into a democratic republic. The underground movement that arose spontaneously after martial law was declared in 1981 was not violent but intellectual. Said Solidarity leader Zbigniew Bujak, “Once resistance had meant taking up a gun. Now, people instinctively took up typewriters.” The underground consisted of “firms” of people engaged in political propaganda activities: newspapers, books, plays, musical performances, debates. The result was stimulation of political ideas and, finally, forcing the government to hold genuinely free elections in which Solidarity candidates won every seat that they contested.

Although Kaufman’s book necessarily ends its chronology of events some months before the most recent occurrences, it is interesting to note his guarded optimism about Poland’s future. Polish hopes for economic rescue by the West, he says, are “politically unrealistic. Some limited growth in capital from abroad [is] probable, particularly if state and society established a truce, but full-scale rescue by a consortium of benefactors seem[s] a chimera.” Moreover, the Polish example poses a threat to Soviet domination over its own republics, particularly Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, where clamor for independence is loud today, and in the Ukraine and elsewhere farther down the road. How far will Gorbachev allow the Poles to go before saying “Enough!”?

It is far too early to make an accurate assessment of Poland’s economic and political future. What is clear to me, at least, is that the hard-won status now enjoyed by Solidarity is Solidarity’s to lose. Economic or political failure is the unfortunate likely outcome for a government made up of people who have never before held responsible public offices. The hard choices necessary to reform the Polish economy will come down most severely on Solidarity’s own constituents, the workers: higher food prices, layoffs, closing plants and industries. In fact, it may be necessary, on the basis of economic realities, to close down the inefficient and archaic Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, which besides being totally non-competitive with foreign shipbuilders, is the birthplace of Solidarity. What an ironic, paradoxical grace note to accompany Solidarity’s triumph!

Richard Sincere, a Washington-based issues analyst, is an American of Polish descent.

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