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The Danger in Poland: A Letter

There is a great danger that the Polish military government will present the world with a fait accompli with regard to the spokesmen for KOR (the Committee for Social Self-Defense)—Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik, Jan Litynski, Jan Jozef Lipski, and Henryk Wujec, who were interned and then arrested and have now been accused of treason and conspiracy.

If the court finds the accused guilty—the Party press already treats them as if they were—the law allows for the maximum penalty—death.

If, instead, the accused receive prison sentences, no matter how severe, East European experience indicates that they might be freed in a few years as a result of a thaw and could again become highly respected members of the democratic movement.

It is very likely that there are champions of hard-line retribution who do not wish to give this chance to the KOR leaders and who wish to erase them from Polish life forever.

I am raising my voice on behalf of these highly talented Polish intellectuals, who are of strong personal integrity and who have contributed a great deal during the recent history of the East European democratic movement toward a legally instituted social contract between the party-state and society within the framework of a self-limiting democracy. To be sure, the present military government has once again proven stronger than societal self-government. Consequently, there are some, otherwise committed to the values of democracy, who see the dictatorial suppression of the Polish experiment in liberation merely as a logical—and acceptable—result of East European history. But this does not justify taking the next easy step—to accept as equally logical the execution of these independent Poles.

I have considered the probable objection that it is not a good thing to foresee such “writing on the wall,” and that many well-informed and intelligent people will reject my warning as one which unnecessarily conjures up horrors. But I cannot forget the shameful shock that we Hungarians felt after the defeat of our 1956 national democratic revolution when we were informed in June 1958 of the execution of Imre Nagy and his comrades, Miklos Glmes, Pal Maleter, and Jozef Szilagyi. Their sentences were pronounced in a closed trial and immediately carried out. The public was informed only after the fact.

The trial was closed because the defendants were not broken and did not repent. An open trial might have become propaganda against the government itself.

The accused members of KOR have not been weakened by repeated arrests. They are tough and consistent people who did not accept an offer of enforced exile. It is unlikely that their trial will be open; if it is closed, it is quite possible that once again the public will be informed only afterward.

A quarter of a century ago interested people around the world came to understand the bitter truth that their acceptance at face value of the Hungarian officials’ declarations concerning the eventual fate of Nagy and the others was irresponsibly naïve. A general lack of suspicion created a suitable psychological climate for those death sentences, which were followed by hundreds of others, affecting less prominent people.

The Hungarian government leaders who were put into power through Soviet intervention had publicly promised that no harm would come to Imre Nagy and members of his government. The Polish military government has also promised that no one will be called to account for his activities before December 13. But Nagy and his friends were executed. And now the KOR spokesmen are accused of capital offenses. The promise that the legal activity of Solidarity would again be permitted once “order is restored” has also been violated.

I recently left Budapest for a year’s study trip to West Berlin and for a short visit to the United States. I am not alone among my responsible and experienced friends in Hungary in fearing that a classic political trial is being prepared. The underlying theme will be the usual one: badly intentioned intellectuals with their heads in the clouds—agents of imperialism—have corrupted the innocent working class. It will come in handy that the tool of corruption, the hitherto suspended Solidarity union, has been finally banned at exactly this time, with the specific justification that it did not serve the goals of the working class, but rather those of KOR.

Why was it necessary to sentence to death in absentia the Polish ambassador to Washington, who asked for political asylum in the United States after December 13, 1981? Perhaps the government wants the public to become accustomed once more to the phrase “death sentence.” First in the absence of the accused, later in his presence.

There is a war on against the independent structures of society, against the Solidarity underground. The KOR trial will be a Russian-style trial exorcising demons. It will be followed by trials of the corrupted, and, as matters escalate, it may turn out that they too are demons.

Vigilance on the part of democratic public opinion throughout the world can help those among the Polish and Soviet leaders and in East European government circles who favor more moderate solutions and who seek to avoid a politics of accomplished and irreversible facts.

I ask the readers of these lines to raise their voices against the increasingly severe destruction of the autonomy of the largest nation in Eastern Europe. They should not think that the bad cannot be followed by something worse. The fate of the KOR members should be constantly monitored by committees of concerned citizens. No one should assume that if they kill Kuron and Michnik they will not kill anyone afterward.

I would be happy to be wrong. I will publicly express my apologies to the Polish government if it will prove in a convincing manner the groundlessness of my dark suspicions.

November 1

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