Conservatives and liberals are still struggling over the meaning of Poland’s post-communist transition. LECH WALESA, the iconic leader of the Solidarity labour movement that brought down Poland’s communist regime, was blessed with a lucky streak. In the early 1970s, when he was a humble electrician at the Gdansk shipyards, he bought a television set and a washing machine with money won in the lottery, his wife later recalled in her memoirs.
But files released this week suggest he may have been getting extra money from a different source. The documents, spanning the years 1970 to 1976, indicate that Mr Walesa was a paid informant for the communist secret police. The allegations are not new, dating back to the early 1990s, when Mr Walesa was president. That they have returned to the spotlight says less about Mr Walesa than about how Polish politics remains divided over the meaning of the 1989 revolution.
The files were found last week at the home of a communist-era minister of the interior, after his widow tried to sell them for 90,000 zloty ($22,650). The Institute of National Remembrance, which guards Poland’s communist-era archives, released them to the press on Monday, without having them checked by a graphologist. The controversy has dominated the Polish press for days, and reporters queued restlessly outside the archive, keen to get their hands on the pages. The highlight is a handwritten pledge to work as an informant, signed with Mr Walesa’s name and the undercover moniker his handlers assigned him: “Bolek”.
While some questioned the institute’s haste in releasing the documents, Mr Walesa’s accusers feel they have waited long enough. The situation is “black and white”, said Slawomir Cenckiewicz, co-author of a 780-page book on Mr Walesa and the secret police, published by the Institute in 2008. Meanwhile, Mr Walesa denies that he snitched. The 72-year-old, who was traveling in America, responded with a flurry of posts on his blog. “You betrayed me not I you,” he wrote in one published on February 22nd, amid bright photos of Florida.
Those on Poland’s religious and nationalist right have long been hostile to Mr Walesa, whom they view as having been in cahoots with a cabal of secular cosmopolitans who took over the country after communism fell. Since the victory of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party in last year’s elections, criticism of him has intensified. In Mr Walesa’s native Gdansk, some on the right want to rechristen the city’s airport, which currently bears his name. An association of former oppositionists has called for him to return his 1983 Nobel Peace Prize. Yet the outrage has been matched by much sympathy. Staunch supporters maintain that the documents were forged. Others feel in no position to judge; they point out that Mr Walesa was a young man supporting a large family (he ultimately had eight children) under a brutal political system. “It is easy to be a revolutionary when you are alone, but not when you have a family,” as one sympathiser puts it.
Mr Walesa’s most fervid opponents are not aging apparatchiks, but other men who battled communism, some of whom are now in power. Antoni Macierewicz, the current defence minister, has been accusing Mr Walesa of collaboration since 1992. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS party leader, was Mr Walesa’s chief of staff from 1990 until a falling-out in 1991. In a 2010 interview with Gazeta Polska, a right-wing daily, Mr Kaczynski predicted the image of Mr Walesa constructed by the centrist establishment would someday “crumble like a house of cards”. His late twin brother Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash earlier that year while serving as president, would then become the “symbolic patron” of Solidarity.
The split is less about communism than what came after. Centrists and liberals see the past 25 years as a success, marked by economic growth, democracy and a return to Europe. For PiS, they have been plagued by ex-communist sleaze, arrogant elites and kowtowing to Berlin. Disgracing Mr Walesa is part of discrediting the state established in 1989, by proving that it was rotten from the start.
Meanwhile, the files may only be a prelude to what is to come. The Institute for National Remembrance plans to release more documents on February 24th, not focused on Mr Walesa. Poles wonder what revelations the closets of others who survived the communist era contain. Some are reminded of the lustration law PiS passed when it was in power a decade ago. Examining the Walesa files, archivists noted “the particularly strong smell of the documents”. To the delight of some and dismay of others, it is spreading.