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The Polish Pro-Independence Diaspora in the West in the Face of the Political Breakthrough of 1989

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This article aims to analyze perception of political transformation in Poland in the years 1988–1990 by Polish independence émigrés in the West. It presents assumptions which guided the émigrés and indicates the objectives of their political activities. The different points of view of the reality in Poland between the independence émigrés and the national democratic opposition are explained. The article demonstrates the dilemmas of the émigré leaders arising from the peaceful transition and gradual democratization of Poland, instead of the expected break with the legacy of communism. The closing paragraphs attempt to clarify the meaning of Polish President-in-exile Ryszard Kaczorowski’s symbolic transfer of authority to Lech Wałęsa, democratically elected in presidential elections in Poland.

The workers’ strikes of August 1980 and the establishment of the NSZZ Solidarność [Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity”] have found their well-deserved place among the most meaningful events in the post-war history of Poland and the entire Eastern Bloc. It was not the first time in the twentieth century that the whole world turned its eyes toward Gdańsk and Warsaw. Interest among political leaders and the societies of the West accompanied Solidarity throughout this multimillion-member trade union and social movement’s nine-year journey: from the August strikes in Wybrzeże (the Coastal Region), through Martial Law, to the non-violent system transformation of 1989.

The events in Poland were also followed by Polish political immigration to the West. Poles living in London or America, although deprived of direct contact with their country for a long time, still considered Polish issues a frame of reference in their public activities. Having spent decades in exile, the emigrants had to face the changes taking place in their homeland and confront them with their own hopes and their ideological and political mission.

In order to depict this confrontation, we ought to clarify, first of all, who the post-war pro-independence Polish émigré community was, and what their goals and values were.

The Indomitable Poles of London

As an outcome of World War II and the arbitrary political decisions made at the Yalta Conference, Poland fell within the Soviet sphere of influence. The shifting of the country’s borders (Poland lost its eastern borderlands, including Vilnius [Wilno] and Lviv [Lwów], to the Soviet Union, and was compensated, at Germany’s expense, with the “Regained Territories”), governed by communists installed by and subservient to the Soviets, was difficult for most of society to accept. The postwar reality was unacceptable for most of the civilian refugees and the soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, who found themselves in Western Europe at the close of World War II. Their opposition to the Sovietization of Poland caused them to stay abroad and wait for changes in the international political situation. This laid the foundations of the postwar Polish diaspora in the 1940s, which was decidedly anti-communist and pro-independence.

At the time, London was the center of the Polish diaspora’s political life. Since 1940, the Polish Government and the President in exile had been based there, by invitation of the British authorities. Since the Constitution of Poland, in force on 1 September, 1939 (the “April Constitution”), allowed the government of Poland to act abroad, the legal continuity of the Polish state was preserved throughout the whole of the war with Germany, fought by Polish armed forces outside Poland. Despite the Yalta agreement and the fact that the United States and United Kingdom withdrew their recognition in July 1945 and established diplomatic relations with the government in Warsaw, most Polish emigrants, including the Polish Armed Forces in the West, still under arms, recognized the authority and command of the London president and government. This fact considerably shaped the profile of the Polish pro-independence émigré community, which took the form of a state in exile. It survived for nearly half a century as such, with a president, government, and a quasi-parliament. The “state in exile,” while rather symbolic, had to be anchored in a doctrine accepted by the émigré community as a whole. The foundation of this doctrine was, first of all, legalism and the conviction of its special importance for the émigrés’ main goals and tasks. The notion of legalism, according to the émigré theorist, should be understood as “an uninterrupted continuity of a legitimate legal order of the state when another, competing, and present legal order of another state comes to exist” (Gawenda 1959, 120). What constituted this competing and present legal order for émigré legalists in the post-war period was the internationally recognized People’s Republic of Poland. The foregoing guarantee was to be ensured by the office of President of the Republic of Poland and his Cabinet, who had the sole right and obligation to represent and act on behalf of the Polish state and nation. As such, only the President and the government were empowered to decide on peace and war, or on the issue of the country’s borders, which was especially important for the Polish emigrants from the Eastern Borderlands. Consequently, this right, according to the pro-independence émigrés, was then denied to Stalin-imposed Warsaw Government, which “Polish London” considered as subservient to the Kremlin usurpers.

Apart from defining the status of the Polish Government in Exile, legalism had two meanings for the Polish emigrants. The first pertained to the sphere of symbols and was crucial to the community which mainly founded its collective life on imponderables. In this sense, legalism was the basis for creating and cultivating a myth of the steadfast existence of the Polish State in Exile. This myth manifested itself in rituals, special celebrations of national holidays and the way the President of the Republic of Poland was worshipped (a word we use deliberately). The President was not only a political leader of the émigré community; he was the symbol of the perseverance and resistance of the Polish diaspora.

The third function, apart from the political and legal role and mythmaking, was the integration of legalism. The symbolic nature of the Polish state in exile involved the establishment of several competing political centers over a period of half a century. Despite this, the part of the émigré community which appealed to legalism, though internally at odds, remained the most significant. The presence of the president in exile in public life turned him into a symbol of the opposition against the Soviet dominion of Poland, and a natural political leader. This perception of the head of state prevented the Polish communities abroad from disintegrating entirely. Obviously, identifying the entire pro-independence émigré community with the legalistic center would be a blatant historical falsehood. After 1945, there were groups which, for various reasons, defied legalism, but by their nature remained political émigré communities. In 1980s the Stronnictwo Narodowe [National Party] kept its distance from the legalist centers, and the editorial team of the Parisian Kultura was fully autonomous in its actions, focusing mainly on affecting the Polish society in Poland, rather than the émigrés. In the present article, however, in analyzing the attitudes of the Polish pro-independence émigré groups, I will focus mainly on the legalist communities, recognizing the President in Exile as the Head of State.

It could be said that the principle of legalism and the form of existence adopted by this group, as a “state in exile,” organized the thinking of émigré elites. The end of the harshest phase of the Cold War, a prolonged stay in a foreign land, and the unforeseeable prospect of the émigrés’ political mission ever coming to an end were accompanied by two advancing processes. One of these was the Polish émigrés’ gradual assimilation into the countries where they had settled; the other was the unintentional narrowing of their viewpoint to intra-émigré matters. The political elites of the émigré circles had contented themselves with partisan pushing and shoving for decades, or with quite serious political games in the émigré “parliaments,” growing increasingly distant from the interests of Poles in Poland, and less and less aware of the intricacies of Polish politics back home. It should be explained here that this is by no means a condemnation. It comes from the very nature of exile: as they were anchored in the law, politics, and symbolism of the Second Republic of Poland (1918–1939), this was quite a natural point of reference for the political émigré elites. Apart from natural generation changes, the inner circle of the Polish communities abroad, for all the time they functioned as a political diaspora, was composed almost exclusively of people who had spent their adult years, or at least their adolescence, in prewar Poland. Subconsciously then, their perception of the contemporary state was shaped by the traditions of the Second Republic. Over the years the pro-independence émigrés’ tendency to mythologize the past did not wane or vanish; on the contrary, it grew stronger with time. The émigré society was growing old, the nostalgia for their country was growing stronger, and the urge to counteract the official communist propaganda falsifying the interwar image of Poland only intensified their idealization of the past (Lencznarowicz 2009, 400).

A lack of understanding of contemporary Poland, despite the best intentions and the desire to maintain ties with the country, manifested itself clearly on the rare occasions when the “old emigrants” made contact with people representing the new, postwar reality of Poland. Adam Michnik’s account of his meeting with Polish émigrés, when he visited London in 1970s as a young representative of the democratic opposition, is typical:

I was learning about a different Poland, one that was completely new to me. A Poland of the ‘Indomitable Poles of London.’ This Poland was alive only in [my interlocutor’s] mind, but still present as a real part of his life. A Poland of the manor houses of the Polish gentry, a Poland of the cavalry, of Piłsudski and Wieniawa, of lancers and the legend of the Polish Legions. A country of his childhood... My interlocutor was aware that Poland as he knew it no longer existed, and nothing could possibly bring it back to life. Therefore, he did not long for Warsaw, Poznań or Łódź; Wrocław and Szczecin were empty words for him; while Wilno and Nowogródek, Lwów and Stanisławów constituted an ineradicable part of his memory. He still stood before a prewar map of Poland (Michnik 1988, 78).

This reflection by one of the leaders of the emerging Polish democratic opposition conveys not only the thinking of some postwar emigrants, but also a cognitive dissonance experienced by a Pole from behind “the Iron Curtain.” This dissonance was caused by a meeting of two people who shared the same language, but actually belonged to two different worlds and two different realities – one “in Poland” and one as an emigrant. Of course, the evocation of the past did not obscure the present for all emigrants. In his article Adam Michnik refers to the Parisian Kultura as an example of a Polish magazine published abroad that focused on dialogue with contemporary Poland. On the whole, however, the paths of the “Vistula Poles” and those living on the Thames had diverged over time.

Problems in communication were not entirely due to psychological differences or to the conflicting identities of the Warsaw Poles and the London Poles. The pro-independence emigrants decided to stay in the “free world,” with a sense of a political mission. The postwar émigrés called themselves the “battling emigrants” (Terlecki 1946), who, having rejected the Yalta agreement, incarnated the idea of Polish opposition against the superpowers’ dictates. Thus, the ultimate goal of the political émigré community was not to encourage Polish domestic policy to head toward democratic reform and to free the country from Soviet dominance, but to overrule the Yalta decisions and to restore an independent Poland. An exile columnist wrote: “Ideologically and politically, the émigré community must remain faithful to the doctrine in its purest form. The doctrine for which they left country in 1939 to fight for freedom, territorial integrity, and the independence of Poland.” (Gűnther 1946).

The “Thaw” after Stalin’s death and the end of the Stalinist terror brought little change to the exile leaders’ perception of the country. It was still a maximalist approach. An undisputed émigré frontrunner, General Władysław Anders, said to the veterans in 1956: “We will never accept a compromise with the occupant. We shall stay true to our program of fighting for a unified and independent country, with Lwów and Wilno in the east and the Regained Territories in the west” (Orzeł Biały 1956). An interesting sketch by Jan Maciejewski and Krzysztof Mazur points out that “this sort of absolutism in the sphere of symbols, the praise of ideological purity and aversion to political ambiguity” was bringing the pro-independence exile community closer to an Icarus approach. This was in the extreme idealization of their political problem: the Polish exile Icarus flew closer to the ideal, melting his wings which kept him in contact with reality (Majewski 2002, 16–27).

The “indomitable Poles of London” had to match their viewpoint with those of the students who protested in 1968 (represented by Adam Michnik, quoted above), or those of workers who fought for their rights during various “Polish months.” For the latter, especially the generation born after World War II, the People’s Republic of Poland was their homeland, albeit one riddled with evil and injustice, governed by tyrants who suppressed student gatherings and gave orders to open fire on workers. Although there were groups and communities with pro-independence programs throughout the communist era, none of the irredentist movements – apart from the anti-communist armed resistance groups of 1940s – in postwar Poland was on a mass scale. Even the KPN [Confederation of Independent Poland], an organization of an openly pro-independent character established in the 1970s, was perceived by many democratic opposition leaders as extreme and fundamentalist. To say nothing of the government in exile, functioning abroad for dozens of years, which rejected the Polish reality on principle.

Solidarity and Martial Law

Most émigré leaders were well aware of the discrepancies between the programs of the pro-independence émigré communities and the emerging democratic opposition, which became plainly evident after Solidarity was established. Though they generally sympathized with the Polish workers who decided to rebel, the exile leaders surely realized that the road to independence would be very long. After years spent in foreign lands and a great many disappointments the emigrants were rather skeptical about the international situation, which they saw as a pivotal factor in the potential for profound system changes in Poland, and which, at the same time, they saw as deeply saturated (too deeply, in fact) with the spirit of détente. Some émigré leaders believed that the emergence of Solidarity had the potential to change international politics; on the other hand – mindful of the experiences of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, respectively – they warned the union against escalating radicalism and provoking Soviet intervention (Friszke 1999, 435).

It should be emphasized that the emigrants, still true to their goals, remained exceptionally tactful with the Polish movement, refraining from imposing their point of view on Solidarity leaders. From 1980–1981 the political émigré community tried to perform a merely ancillary function, providing information, material aid, and political initiatives on the international scene, and did not attempt, with a few exceptions, to interfere with the Solidarity camp tactics or support particular Polish opposition groups. We should note that the scale of the workers’ protests and the scope of concessions they gained from the ruling communist party astonished the émigré communities, who were quite unprepared for a scenario of this sort.

Martial Law was imposed in Poland on 13 December, 1981, radically changing the emigrants’ perception of the changes occurring there. In spite of advance warning signals, General Jaruzelski’s coup d’état was a major surprise for the émigré groups, and, at the same time, pointed the way for further activities. Referring to the developments in Poland, Prime Minister-in-Exile Kazimierz Sabbat said: “The émigré community is now the only spokesman for the will and stance of the country in the free world. Again.” (Machcewicz 1999, 235).

After 13 December, 1981, most of the pro-independence emigrants’ activities focused on humanitarian aid, speaking at international forums for civic freedoms in Poland, and organizing the lives of new emigrants. The mainstream émigré community sympathized with underground resistance in Poland, tried to provide them with any aid they needed, and acted as their advocates in the countries of the free world. The mere existence of the underground Solidarity, often drawing from independence rhetoric and defying the political system in Poland, served to give meaning to their mission. Some significance should also be attached to advances toward the exile circles made by a few opposition leaders, e.g. Leszek Moczulski, the leader of KPN, who recognized the authority of the President in Exile in his official statement in London. The importance of this event, together with the awareness that there were clearly anti-communist forces in Poland, overshadowed other, often negative experiences of “old emigrants” with young and impetuous Solidarity fighters. The old émigré circles also merged to a very limited degree with the new ones that came to the fore under Martial Law (Friszke 1999, 458–459).

To summarize, it can be said that, in the 1980s, the perception of the émigré society resembled, to some degree, that of the late 1940s and early 1950s. With its military oppression, organized underground resistance, and repressive apparatus, the country still validated the existence of the Polish political émigré community and, to a great extent, defined its role. Internationalizing Polish affairs, on the other hand, in the form of restrictions imposed by Western countries after 13 December, confirmed the old émigré thesis that the fundamental priority was to change the politics of the West and abolish the Cold War order. It was no coincidence then, that one of the most important dates commemorated by émigré circles in the 1980s was the fortieth anniversary of the Yalta Conference (London celebrated “Yalta Week,” coorganized by Central and Eastern Europe emigrants). The pro-independence émigré community’s first and foremost task remained the overthrow of the Yalta agreement and its consequences (Tarka 2003, 259–260).

The Round Table

Initially, the émigré community did not attach much weight to either Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms or the attempts made by General Jaruzelski’s government to open a dialogue with the opposition; however, the swift events of the summer and the fall of 1988 did echo in “Polish London.” When, at the end of August of 1988, the government proposed a dialogue with the opposition and the initially vague idea of a “round table,” the expatriate community received it with skepticism. While not rejecting the idea of discussion with the communists on principle, they expressed two major reservations. First, the experience of the 1980–1981 period, combined with a conviction of inalterability of the regime, made them look upon the ruling party’s gestures with the greatest suspicion, and without faith in their good intentions. Expressing his profound mistrust, President-in- Exile Kazimierz Sabbat warned: “The communist party will not relinquish its power, its absolute power, as this would mean its self-destruction. The party will not adhere to any treaties. All arrangements are only a maneuver in a moment of weakness.” (Dziennik Ustaw RP 1989 No. 1 – Journal of Laws of the Republic of Poland /in-exile/). Secondly, a dialogue between the troubled ruling party and part of the democratic opposition risked the incorporation of this part of the democratic resistance into the apparatus of the current system, consequently delaying interminably the prospect of restoring genuine independence. This would have been a devastating blow to the ideas represented by the pro-independence expatriates. Nor should it be neglected that the London émigré community maintained a much warmer relationship with those opposition leaders, who – like the aforementioned Leszek Moczulski or Kornel Morawiecki of the Fighting Solidarity – belonged to a group that strongly opposed any negotiations with the communists. Quite naturally, their standpoints and tough stance toward the communists were closer to London’s outlook than the apparently conciliatory attitude of the group gathered around the Solidarity leader, Lech Wałęsa.

While no formal statements were made by the London expatriate officials openly criticizing Wałęsa and his camp (including the closest aides: Adam Michnik, Bronisław Geremek, or Tadeusz Mazowiecki), it was frequently emphasized that they did not represent the whole of the opposition. “Back home in our country not everybody is involved in the talks. Those who do are dubbed the ‘constructive opposition,’ ready to participate in the elections, which in fact will not be elections. But there is a growing group of activists in Poland, pro-independence assemblies, whose goal is that of the ‘indomitable’ Poles of London and other expatriate towns and cities: a truly independent and free Poland,” said President Sabbat on 1 April, 1989 (Dziennik Ustaw RP 1989 No. 2).

Considering the above, it would be fair to say that, in late 1988 and early 1989, the émigrés’ satisfaction with the increasingly visible decay of the regime was mixed with openly expressed doubts about the role of the Polish opposition in the process of the system transformation. “Polish London” read the idea of the Round Table and the acceptance of Solidarity members as power-sharing partners as a government bluff. It is worth mentioning that this skepticism about the negotiations between the regime and the opposition was shared by the legalist circle in London and Kultura in Paris, who were traditionally more flexible and prone to dialogue. On the other hand, among the few who supported the tactic of negotiating with the communist rule was a long-standing head of the Polish section of Radio Free Europe, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański (Friszke 1999, 465–467).

The Round Table talks, which included government officials, some opposition members, and observers representing the Catholic Church, were held between 6 February and 5 April 1989. The most important points to be negotiated were: the government’s consent to relegalize Solidarity, the organization of a semi-free parliamentary election in which non-partisan candidates (including Solidarity ones) could run for thirty-five per cent of seats in the Sejm (the lower chamber); a fully free election to a newly-created upper chamber of the parliament (the Senate), and the restitution of the office of the President of Poland.

The official stand of the legalist circle on this momentous event was drawn up during the meeting of members of the London government and the representatives of political parties in exile, called by President‑in- Exile Kazimierz Sabbat on 5 April, 1989. They did not discard the significance of the talks on principle, and some positive effects were mentioned, like the government concessions, but on the whole, a deep pessimism about the Round Table agreement dominated the statement. It was pointed out, not without cause, that the right of the opposition to run for seats in the parliament was counterbalanced by reinstating the office of President, who was to be endowed with nearly dictatorial powers. The majority of émigré leaders saw the agreement as a device to prop up the shaky system, rather than to provide for real system transformation (Friszke 1999, 469–470).

Admittedly, the leaders of the expatriate community did not call for a boycott of the election (though the Government in Exile did call upon the émigrés not to vote, which almost amounted to the same thing), but, characteristically, they stressed it was non-democratic and that there was risk of ballot rigging. The Government in Exile on the one hand admitted that the electoral success of Solidarity candidates would be in the nation’s interest, but on the other, they sympathized with the part of the Polish opposition who decided to boycott the election (Dziennik Ustaw RP 1989 No. 4).

The result of the parliamentary elections of 4 June, 1989 (the second round was held on 18 June) and the landslide victory of the Solidarity candidates, who took nearly one hundred per cent of the free seats in both chambers, is often considered a symbolic date in the history of Poland. The symbolic significance of the date is not connected with the end of communism as such, but as the most important event in the whole process of political transformation of 1988–1990. Obviously, this point of view was unacceptable for the pro-independence expatriates, and for the legalist group in particular. This group had never hoped that the government in exile would one day return to Warsaw to rule the country. The émigré community had been ready to accept a free decision made in Poland since the end of World War II. What the “Polish London” hoped for was the President of the Government to have the chance to go to the free country and present their insignia of the office to democratically elected authorities. Regulated, quasi-free elections, communist-controlled administration, military, and police forces bore no resemblance to democratic representation. Consequently, this façade of democracy (the “contractual” Sejm was perceived as such) blurred the line between communist regime and independent state. This sort of “soft transformation,” incorporating the opposition into the intact apparatus of oppression, was exactly what the émigrés feared most.

Anxiety about the future course of events predominated the presidential circle leaders’ addresses after the results were announced. The political elites focused on the elections as a sort of referendum. The results were to be seen as a mass disapproval of the current authority, expressed by the whole society. At the same time, the seats held in parliament by numerous significant representatives of the opposition could, as President Sabbat pointed out, result in the neutralization of Solidarity within the communist power apparatus. One ominous harbinger of this direction was the election of General Wojciech Jaruzelski as President, which was announced as a stage in the execution of the Round Table agreement (Dziennik Ustaw RP 1989 No. 4).

One of the most pessimistic evaluations of the situation in Poland was expressed by Prime-Minister-in-Exile Edward Szczepanik during the inaugural sitting of the seventh tenure of the National Council, held on 4 July, 1989 (Turkowski 2002, 83). Choosing this date for the opening of a new term of this semi-parliamentary body, whose members were in part elected, in part appointed by the representation of Polish émigré community, was a clear signal that the expatriates had not yet accomplished their mission and, in fact, were still far from it. In a resolution of 10 June, 1989 the National Council confirmed this point of view, stating that the primary goal of the émigré community, and now the opposition circles in Poland as well, should be to abolish the Yalta Agreement and to restore a fully independent Poland (Dziennik Ustaw RP 1989 No. 4).

On 19 July, 1989, the Sejm of the People’s Republic of Poland, with some opposition deputies voting in favor, elected as president Wojciech Jaruzelski, the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party. On the same day, the President in Exile, Kazimierz Sabbat, died in London of a sudden heart attack. The symbolism of these two events could not possibly be more vivid, as the tragedy of an individual and a generation. After Kazimierz Sabbat was officially pronounced dead, Ryszard Kaczorowski was sworn into office on the same day in the President’s headquarter at 43 Eaton Place. In spite of the changes underway in Poland, the expatriate society stayed as alert as half a century before (Górecki 2002, 238).

Mission Accomplished

While upholding its political stance, the pro-independence émigré community could not neglect the changes in Poland, especially as they started to diverge more and more from the pessimistic forecasts formulated during and immediately after the Round Table talks. The growing unrest in the communist camp, comprised of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s coalition government, made the decay of the old system all too clear and discredited the theory that this was a trap set by the ruling party. When one of the opposition leaders assumed the position of Prime Minster, this was generally warmly welcomed in “Polish London.” Both the legalists and their opponents, the National Party, expressed their satisfaction. It might be said that the pessimistic attitude was giving way to expectations for more rapid political change in Poland (Cichocka 2012, 76).

The pro-independence diaspora spelled out their stance, expectations, and forecasts for further developments during the Third Worldwide Free Poles’ Congress, held in London on 15–16 September, 1989. Apart from the representatives of the pro-independence community, it was attended by delegates representing various organizations and political parties from Poland, including Solidarity, Solidarity of Individual Farmers, the NZS [Independent Students’ Union], and the Confederation of Independent Poland. The Congress referred to the situation in Poland and defined the position of the pro-independence emigration community against the backdrop of the current events in the country. In the final declaration it was emphasized that, despite the positive developments in Poland, the system remained communist and externally imposed. The émigré community appreciated the political achievements of Solidarity, stressing that further support would be conditioned by Solidarity’s commitment to the further “eradication of Sovietism” in Poland. This clause echoed previously expressed fears that the reforms that had started only a few months before would come to a halt. The Congress, having spelled out their approval for Mazowiecki’s team, stressed that they “in particular supported” the “independent opposition,” that is, the extra-parliamentary wing of the opposition camp, including the KPN [Confederation of Independent Poland] and “Fighting Solidarity” (Rynkiewicz 1996, 589–591).

During this congress, there was a discussion on the conditions by which the émigré authorities’ mission could be considered complete. With reference to this issue, Prime Minister Edward Szczepanik stressed that conditio sine qua non was free parliamentary elections in Poland. According to Szczepanik, these could be held when the USSR abandoned the Brezhnev doctrine and all the political forces in Poland were given equal chance to run for parliament. Interestingly enough, Szczepanik estimated it would take dissident underground groups a couple of years to emerge from hiding. Szczepanik’s final condition was the initiation of economic reform (Szczepanik 1995, 8–10).

Curiously, while presenting an electoral ultimatum, the issue of national independence, Szczepanik was relatively soft on the other diaspora flagship: Poland’s territorial integrity. The Prime Minister in Exile voiced his hopes that Krzysztof Skubiszewski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Mazowiecki’s government, would address the issue of reversing the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and the Yalta Agreement, consequently restoring the 1921 Treaty of Riga and the Polish-Soviet borders it established. This statement was much milder than an earlier address in the National Council, in which the issue of reestablishing the 1921 eastern borders was among the most inflexible demands (Habielski 1999, 475–476).

In fact, however, these comments diverged dramatically from the foreign policy of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government. Minister Skubiszewski had no intention of raising the question of the eastern border, and in 1990 he stated explicitly that Poland would lay no territorial claims against any of its neighbor states. This official stance of the Polish minister caused some friction in London – the Government in Exile had never officially renounced the right to the Eastern Borderland, reserving this right for the parliament – but no immediate negative response was forthcoming (Tarka 2003, 265). It seemed as if the border issue, so important immediately after World War II, was now only theoretical, and treated halfheartedly by the political émigré community in London.

As a condition for ending the expatriate political mission, free parliamentary elections were also included in the National Council resolution of 2 December, 1989. Hopes were expressed that the newly-elected free Sejm and Senate would be a Constituent Assembly (Dziennik Ustaw 1989 No. 6). The émigré leaders realized, of course, that it would be unrealistic to expect a restoration of the constitution of 1935, though the exile structures had been based on this constitution since 1939. However, they hoped at least to ensure a kind of symbolic continuity of the state, to avoid a situation where the émigré authorities would return the insignia of the office to representatives of Polish officials functioning on the basis of the Stalinist constitution, albeit modified. On 29 December, 1989 the Sejm of the People’s Republic of Poland passed amendments to the constitution, changing the official name of the country to the Republic of Poland [Rzeczpospolita Polska]. February 1990 saw the restoration of the prewar coat of arms, a crowned white eagle. In the first months of 1990 the remnants of the previous system swiftly disappeared. The institution of local governments was restored, and the Security Service [Służba Bezpieczeństwa] disbanded. Even if the Round Table agreement seemed to function directly after General Jaruzelski was elected President, after a few months Poland’s thorough transformation was an undeniable fact.

The pro-independence émigré community welcomed the changes with deep satisfaction, and, it is worth emphasizing, with genuine realism, given that the changes did not always match their expectations. The non-violent transformation and smooth transition from the communist era to democratic reality precluded proclamations of non-continuity between the PRL and the Third RP, which meant that the emigrants’ legalism could only be recognized in symbolic way. This also meant resigning from territorial claims in the East, rejecting the April Constitution (though in April President-in-Exile Ryszard Kaczorowski was still calling for its restitution), and abandoning the idea of a one-time act, albeit symbolic, that would signify breaking with the tradition of the People’s Republic of Poland. Changes in the name of the country and modifying its coat of arms could not be recognized as acts of this nature, since the office of President was held by the General, who had stood behind Martial Law.

Nevertheless, the émigré community accepted this reality. Although the idea of restitutio ad integrum (i.e. declaring the entire legal heritage of PRL void) was still alive in late 1989 and early 1990, given the political environment of the time, this solution was pure fiction. Jerzy Jan Zalewski, a minister in several governments in exile, admitted that demanding restitutio ad integrum, which he himself advocated, was wishful thinking on the part of the epigones of the Second Republic of Poland. It seems that most pro-independence emigration leaders were aware that this extreme understanding of legalism could only come about if the communist rule was overthrown, but not when a non-violent transformation was underway (Zaleski 1995, 195).

migré society, there was little controversy in assessing the events in Poland. The only reasonable conclusion could be to end the fifty-year mission. It was irrelevant to continue the activities of the authorities in exile with the process of democratization underway in Poland, and the Brezhnev doctrine, which had restrained Polish independence, practically invalid. To continue the mission when Poland was regaining the attributes of an independent state would pose the risk of being completely incomprehensible to Polish citizens both in Poland and abroad. The only question was how to choose an appropriate moment to close the mission and make a symbolic return.

In March 1990, Prime-Minister-in-Exile Edward Szczepanik presented two possible scenarios for concluding the political mission in exile. The first, mentioned mainly pro forma to appeal to the émigré community, assumed the restitutio ad integrum option, reinstating the Constitution of 1935 and organizing parliamentary elections based on its provisions (incidentally, the April Constitution contained clauses which were far from democratic). The other scenario was free parliamentary elections, based on the existing election statute and other regulations, a new constitution passed by both chambers, electing a President, and the President in Exile handing over the insignia of office. The second scenario basically coincided with the general statements of the émigré community from the preceding months, and seemed more probable. In early 1990, however, the path to its implementation seemed rather long. General Jaruzelski was still in office, hopes for dissolving the “Contractual Sejm” appeared faint, and changing the constitution rather unlikely (Przekazanie insygniów 2000, 37–39).

One more important issue had to be addressed: official contacts with Polish authorities. Although the legalist circles maintained close contacts with various opposition communities (especially close with those who recognized the authority of the émigré political structures) in “Polish London” in the latter half of the 1980s, there was a forty-five-year tradition of disregarding and boycotting official representatives of the PRL. After the government led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki was established, the situation became equivocal. On the one hand, Mazowiecki enjoyed popularity among the émigré leaders; on the other, they could not help treating him as a representative of the communist state. This reserve in contacts with “Polish London” was visible on both ends. As such, during the first visit of the Polish Prime Minister to London from 26–27 February, 1990, an official meeting between the authorities in exile and Tadeusz Mazowiecki was not held. But the political situation in the first half of 1990 presented no formal obstacles to strengthening relations. All the more so, that the émigré community did not want to be a passive bystander to the events in Poland. On 11 May, 1990 Aleksander Hall, a member of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government paid a visit to President Kaczorowski. This marked the beginning of formal relations between the Polish officials and the pro-independence émigré community (Friszke 1999, 479–480).

In the summer of 1990 it turned out that the scenario to conclude the émigré mission, developed a few months earlier, failed to match up to reality. Under pressure from the right wing, General Jaruzelski decided to resign from office; this was confirmed by a resolution in the Sejm. Thus, the expected order of elections was reversed: instead of parliamentary elections and a change of the constitution, a free presidential election was to be held first. Moreover, the presidential election was to be universal for the first time in Polish history. This fact was important for the emigration legalists, as the National Assembly still consisted of the deputies and senators who, some twelve months earlier, had taken an oath of allegiance to the People’s Republic of Poland.

The Polish authorities in exile faced a historic decision about handing over the office of the President in Exile to the President of Poland to be elected in free, democratic elections, before they were held. The pivotal question was, as President Ryszard Kaczorowski rightly pointed out, whether a newly elected president would take the office from the successor to the prewar tradition of free Poland, or from the communist apparatchik, the man behind Martial Law of 1981. In spite of complaints from some émigré politicians, who lamented the fact that the government in exile would conclude its mission while Poland was still waiting for democratic parliamentary elections, hopes for the former option prevailed. On 12 October, 1990 President Kaczorowski announced his intention to hand over his office to the President of Poland, chosen in a universal and democratic election (Turkowski 2002, 91–93).

On 9 December, 1990, in the run-off, Lech Wałęsa, the Solidarity leader, was elected President of Poland. Having arranged the details for the transfer of the insignia of presidential power, Ryszard Kaczorowski arrived in Warsaw on 22 December, 1990, on board a government plane, received with all the honors due to a head of state. On the same day, at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, there was a ceremony where the presidential insignia were handed over to Lech Wałęsa (Górecki 2002, 250–254).

The day before, in a special address, Ryszard Kaczorowski explained:

Giving over the office of the President of the Republic of Poland to Lech Wałęsa tomorrow at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, and passing the insignia of this office, I entrust him with the whole, independent, free, democratic and just Poland, for which the soldiers of September 1939, soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces in the West and the brave Home Army, fought in the past. To them, above all, I pay my tribute today. I shall entrust President Lech Wałęsa with care over the pro-independence émigré community, which completed its mission by prudently preserving the idea of an Independent Poland. It did not manage to reach all of its political goals. The political parties created in the free country shall take over its mission. (Suchcitz 1997, 678).

In the Realm of Symbols

The ceremony held on 22 December, 1990 can be summarized in one sentence: the pro-independence émigré community completed its mission with its head held high. With his decision to accept the insignia of the office from Ryszard Kaczorowski, the President-elect confirmed that the Third Republic of Poland was the successor to prewar Poland. I believe, however, that his general statement should be supplemented by a deeper reflection on the actual meaning of the symbolic transfer of the office from the head of the state-in-exile to the President of the nation. I can say without hesitation that on that day, at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, two Polands met. One, for fifty years on foreign soil, took pride in their tattered flags, and the other one, whose founding myth originated in recent events, in the rebellion of young Polish workers. Two Polands, two generations, two historical experiences, far apart.

The celebration at the Royal Castle had no legal or constitutional significance. During the political transformation in Poland, no one had seriously questioned the legal continuity between the People’s Republic of Poland and the Third Republic of Poland. Regardless of the wishes of the émigrés, who would have been more than happy to erase the PRL period from the nation’s history textbooks, undermining this continuity was inconceivable. Obviously, this did not preclude the existence of another succession: between the Polish state-in-exile and the Third Republic. In this case, however, we are talking about two fundamentally different entities, out of which only one – the successor – met the criteria of statehood. According to international legal regulations, the Polish state-in-exile failed to meet these criteria. Its organs and institutions, anchored in prewar traditions, exclusively served the pro-independent émigré community. So the émigrés’ Poland with its President, parliament and government constituted a kind of alternative statehood for the reality in postwar Poland. Its statehood, however, was more of a symbolic nature, recognized only by those who consented to it.

Therefore, the transfer of the insignia of office was largely symbolic as well. At the same time, it should be mentioned that it was the émigré society who needed the symbolism of 1989 more than the citizens in Poland. The émigrés expected recognition for their fifty-year mission in an extremely hostile environment, with dim chances for success, but with the deep conviction that their path was morally and historically right. The victorious Solidarity less needed legitimization from the pro-independence émigré community. Some leaders of the political elites did not entirely treat them seriously.

This state of affairs should not, however, be attributed to the ill will of local politicians. It was more because of Poland’s unusual path from communism, which determined the place of the pro-independence diaspora in this process. In the atmosphere of “national reconciliation,” it was pushed into the background.

For the same reason, the Round Table became the symbol of the transformation (including the informal meetings of the communist dignitaries and Solidarity leaders in Magdalenka, whose celebratory pictures were later revealed), rather than the ceremony with Wałęsa and Kaczorowski. The émigrés could not ignore this fact, and it is unsurprising that they felt disappointment, which only became more profound in light of the two consecutive victories of the post-communist left: the parliamentary elections in 1993 and the presidential elections won by Aleksander Kwaśniewski in 1995.

On the whole, however, historical justice had been served to the pro-independence émigré community. It could be said that both the Round Table (accepted by at least some of the post-communist camp and the Solidarity elites as a model of “wise agreement over political differences”) and the heritage of Solidarity have become the founding myths of the Third Republic of Poland. This was still insufficient. The collective identity of Poles and the sense of historical continuity called for other references, legends, myths, and paradigms. The prewar period, the time of the Second World War, and early post-war years were explored in seeking them. The figure of Marshal Józef Pisudski, the martyrdom of the Polish officers in Katyń, the heroic story of the Warsaw Uprising, and the tragic fate of anticommunist “cursed soldiers” were all evoked.

The Institute of National Remembrance was established from this attitude and to promote national heritage; research on little-known aspects of Polish history (such as the anticommunist armed resistance) was also intiated. There were also attempts to consciously shape the politics of memory. Opened in 2004, the Warsaw Uprising Museum might serve as a good example of this tendency.

Mythologizing the Second Republic of Poland made the society start to notice the heritage of the pro-independence émigré community. The last president in exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, became widely known; moreover, he was recognized as a symbol of the link between contemporary and historical Poland. His tragic death in the plane crash in 2010 near the Smolensk airport had all the hallmarks of a symbol: the last leader of the Polish diaspora flew together with the President Lech Kaczyński to Katyń to pay homage to officers of the Second RP, murdered on Stalin’s order in 1940. To some extent, it can be said that Kaczorowski’s death was the closing episode of the Polish pro-independence diaspora’s mission.

It seems that only now, twenty-five years after the political transformation, we can grasp the meaning of the pro-independence émigré community at that time. Handing over the insignia of the office to the President Lech Wałęsa built a historical continuity between the second and the third republics of Poland. Even if in the late 1980s and the early 1990s the need for this continuity was not clear to all, it is now considered to be a substantial contribution to the Polish historical identity.

Handing over the office to Lech Wałęsa, Ryszard Kaczorowski legitimized not only the Third Republic of Poland, but also the “Polish road to freedom.” This road, in the eyes of the stolid Polish émigrés, was far from perfect, marked with half measures and compromises. Yet, as the process of democratic transformation progressed, both sides symbolically recognized that it led to establishing a free, independent Poland – a country which draws upon both the history and achievements of Solidarity and of “the indomitable Poles of London,” filled with sacrifice and self-denial.


Paweł Gotowiecki. Born 1983, is a PhD, historian, journalist, and social activist. He graduated from the Jagiellonian University (2007) and received his Ph. D. from the Jan Kochanowski University (2012). He specializes in Polish history of the twentieth century, in particular the history of Polish independence emigration in the West after World War II. His books include For Poland with Vilnius and Lviv: The Association of the Polish North-Eastern Provinces 1942–1955 (Warsaw, 2012). He lectures at the University of Business and Enterprise in Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski, and serves as Chairman of the Ostrowiec Solidarity and Remembrance Historical Society.


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