Poland's Witch-hunters Burn Their Own

WARSAW: Control the past and you control the future. That Orwellian maxim animated communism for decades. It has now taken root in postcommunist Poland. But the anti-communists in the government who seek to use it have only succeeded in burning their own supporters at the stake.

Recently, a Polish vice-premier, Janusz Tomaszewski, was sacked because a special judge sent his case to the "lustration" court. Tomaszewski was and remains a brave man from the former opposition and the probability that he collaborated with the communist secret services seem small. He denies ever being a collaborator. Nevertheless he had to resign, because his colleagues from the rightist, post-Solidarity party now in power decided that anyone merely accused by the special judge (even before conviction) must leave his (or her) job in government, parliament or the judiciary.

Lustration is new in Poland. Parliament passed this strange law a year ago. Now people must declare if they collaborated with the secret services before 1990. A special judge then checks the truthfulness of their declarations. If someone has lied, or there are ambiguities, the case goes to a special court. But the only sentence it can inflict is a forced absence from public life for a given time. The people subject to this law are members of parliament, of government, judges and other lawyers who volunteer to be checked.

From the moment of its passage, the law was criticized heavily. It was introduced ten years after the transition to democracy, and the archives of the secret police are obviously neither complete nor necessarily honest. Moreover, the law failed to define adequately what constitutes collaboration.