POLAND’S PREDICAMENT IS a variation on our own. A gulf runs down the center of political life, and people on either side do not understand each other. Worse than that, they consider each other alien beings with whom all communication is pointless. But people of a certain age can easily recall a time when things were different.

In the early 1990s, I was on good terms with a conservative historian in Cracow and we talked through everything, occasionally ribbing each other about our respective blind spots. If we ever talk to each other again, we would have little to joke about. A few years ago, he co-authored a book claiming Russia is to blame for a plane crash that killed Poland’s president and 88 further dignitaries at Smolensk in 2010. No evidence supports his belief, and that’s exactly what it is: a matter of faith, shared by everyone in his camp, which combines with other irrational propositions to form a worldview: the more you show it is wrong, the more it grows.

There were subtle warnings about deeper fissures between right and left a quarter century ago, not so much from my friend, but from his mother, a veteran of the World War II underground: resolute, fearless, principled, the kind of person it took to defeat Nazism and then communism. She surprised me by complaining about Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Catholic intellectual who became Poland’s first post-communist prime minister in 1989 after a career as a dissident. By his dignified bearing and reasoned behavior Mazowiecki seemed to embody the spirit of democracy for which millions of Poles had yearned for. Or so I thought.

My friend’s mother told me about Mazowiecki of the Stalinist years, Catholic to be sure, but a journalist who justified show trials of priests and nuns in piece after poisonous piece. She felt particular pain at what he wrote about the Kielce bishop Czesław Kaczmarek, who admitted to being a spy for the West during a show trial. Mazowiecki said the bishop had been blinded by the “capitalist baggage” of his upbringing. Only after the destalinization of 1956 did people learn the confession was obtained under torture.

Her concerns about Mazowiecki were worth investigating, but did not fit the spirit of the 1990s, when the post-Solidarity elite demanded that a “thick line” (gruba kreska), be drawn between Poland’s present and past. Somehow everyone was implicated in communism and seeking justice would only delay recovery, perhaps indefinitely. This posture of forgiveness annoyed the nascent right of that time; they said that communists not only avoided prison, but also made fine careers. Why were democrats like Mazowiecki showing so much latitude? Perhaps they had something to hide.

But the full enigma of Poland’s first post-communist democrat, as Piotr Kosicki tells us in his absorbing and important work, is more unsettling. As a student of law in the late 1940s, Mazowiecki worked for Bolesław Piasecki, a Catholic intellectual who recruited authors for publications he ran under communist censorship. Piasecki was not just any Catholic: in the 1930s he had led Poland’s fascist movement, the Falanga, and preached racist revolution, demanding that Poland be purged of all Jews. Like other right-wingers he fell into a communist dragnet in 1944 when the Red Army swept through Poland on its way to Berlin. Yet rather than send him to the Gulag — the standard fate of Polish nationalists — the NKVD released Piasecki half a year later. He had made a bargain that saved his life.

Under careful supervision, Piasecki created a Catholic conglomerate called PAX that published newspapers, but also gained exclusive rights to print and distribute the Bible, and to produce a variety of popular consumer items including the dishwashing liquid Ludwik. His role was to make communism palatable for a population that was overwhelmingly Catholic and nationalist. But the story of PAX was more than just extortion and opportunism. A vital current of Catholic intellectual life had drawn the young Mazowiecki to Piasecki; we learn from Kosicki that the current ran from Poland into France’s progressive Catholic left, and ultimately to St. Thomas Aquinas. This current of thought is called “personalism.”

During the crisis of the 1930s French Catholics rediscovered Aquinas’s belief that human beings had to be seen as body and soul: integral persons. They opposed communists and fascists who reduced human personality to class or race; they also rejected the liberal idea that human value could be calculated in the “free” market. None of those snapshots came near capturing the sacred specificity of each person. The anti-Nazi priest Johannes Oesterreicher, a Jewish convert who beamed radio sermons from Paris into Nazi Germany just after war broke out, gives a sense of the personalist passion:

[E]very person is and remains unique. Every one is of unending worth, every one is called to his own task, every one a thought of God. None is the copy of another, none will ever come back again. […] the more a human being lives in spirit and in love, the more evident it becomes that he is not simply a species exemplar but a personal being.

Yet what sort of political or economic program could follow from such words? Christian social movements had existed for decades, but neither they nor the Vatican gave prescriptions. The pope’s social encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931) told employers not to exploit workers, but they also called for respecting private property. No church authority gave a clue about when taxes might infringe property rights, or on whether workers could lay claim to the machines they built and operated, let alone make a state guided by plan instead of market.

The best-known personalist, French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, a man of humble background, advocated solutions that were “neither right nor left,” but he was nevertheless a revolutionary, troubled by the bourgeois complacency that had set in among Catholics despite the crisis swirling all around them. The gospel’s radical messages had become inaudible in the din of modern society’s concerns and comforts. A number of Polish Catholics met the self-abasing and charismatic Mounier in the 1930s, and he infected them with a passion for ultimate justice.

Yet the vagueness of his program (“communitarian personalism”) meant that it could appeal to people all over the political landscape, and bridge right and left, not just Mazowiecki and Piasecki with Mounier, but Mounier with Stalin. Mounier seemed not simply to transcend right and left, but to register ambivalence about all distinctions; at one moment during World War II he worked in an elite Vichy training college, but thereafter with the resistance. At the same time, Polish nationalists like Piasecki were hiding out in forests with Marxists, and thanks to sophisticated networks of smugglers and underground printers, all were reading Mounier’s essays and imbibing his uncompromising calls for compromise. Mounier’s recipe for the age of extremes was not the center, a liberal desert without purpose. No, a higher morality had to emerge out of the rubble of smashed cities, soaring above everything conceivable in the 1930s.

Before the war Mounier opposed Marxist collectivism, but in 1945 communists were the leading force in crushing Nazis, and now brought a revolution to Central and Eastern Europe that seemed to humanize workers, thus achieving personalism’s essence. Mounier’s thought resonated across political boundaries, connecting and animating French and Polish Catholics impatient to “build a just society without waiting for the Last Judgment.” And if his sense was acute it was not unusual: one did not have to be a Marxist to think that capitalist structures strangled justice.

Bolesław Piasecki had been able to come to terms with the NKVD in part because his fascist Falanga had been socially radical, favoring nationalization of land and industry. They had been anticommunist, but now the communists called themselves the “Party of Labor,” open to collaborating with all “progressive” forces in common-sense reforms like taking unproductive plantations away from dissolute gentry, or making education and health care available to everyone. One cultural cadre admitted that revolution had finally reached Poland, but it was a “mild” one.

Soon three Catholic journals were operating, independent though censored: Piasecki’s Today and Tomorrow [Dziś i jutro], and two weekly representing the Catholic intellectual elites in Cracow and Warsaw, Tygodnik Powszechny and Tygodnik Warszawski, respectively.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki later said he came to work for Piasecki because the other highbrow operations were closed to ambitious young people wanting to change society. In 1948, he was a 21-year-old law student barely making ends meet. His land-owning family had lost everything, and in 1944 the Gestapo sent his older brother to a camp for his work in the underground. He never returned. Mazowiecki’s first wife, Krystyna, had contracted TB at Ravensbrück; it proved a slow death sentence.

Mazowiecki’s gifts as a writer, his deep faith and insistence that Polish society needed shaking up, made him a perfect find for Piasecki. The other young Catholics Piasecki assembled came to resemble a cult, and he its born leader: one described him as a mesmerizing actor with penetrating blue eyes, by turns approachable or monumental, pleasant or repulsive, reticently cheery or angrily gloomy, always at the center of the group but always distant.

Mazowiecki jettisoned studies for full-time writing at Dzis i jutro, where he was protected from the anti-clerical bigotry of Poland’s intellectuals, but also from Rome. By 1949, building socialism meant building Stalinism, and Pope Pius XII declared all cooperation of Catholics with communists to be anathema. Fortunately, the Holy Office’s reach did not extend to Warsaw, or Mazowiecki would have been excommunicated. Mazowiecki’s wife, Krystyna, died in 1951; he later said she might have moderated his fervor with sound orientation. Stalin had said enemies increased as the new society neared completion, and the New Testament gave no contradiction. Christ had warned of enemies and catastrophes before the age was fulfilled, and he spit out those who were lukewarm. And so did the Stalinist regime.

When I lived in Poland intellectuals told me that Mazowiecki was not just believing, but “deeply believing” (głęboko wierzący). Over the decades he adjusted his politics to belief, living not for abstract justice, but for the just society emerging before his eyes. There was only one question about all he was witnessing in the early 1950s (the collectivization, heavy industry, peace propaganda, or show trials): was it necessary for the better future? The answer was yes in every case.

Piasecki’s case was simpler. He served power, and his politics adjusted, moving from fascism to Stalinism, and after 1956 to more moderate state socialism. What counted was control over organization and people, all the way to his early death in 1979. Still, the bargain he made with the Soviets in 1945 was about more than just personal survival. He believed Christianity would outlast Marxism, and thus socialism would be revealed as God’s kingdom on earth.

In 1953, Mazowiecki justified the show trial of bishop Kaczmarek as a culmination of socialist justice. What made Mazowiecki’s words especially troubling was that he knew Kaczmarek personally. Before the war the bishop had called upon Mazowiecki’s doctor father at their home in the town of Płock; and before his arrest, Mazowiecki paid the bishop a visit (we don’t know what they said). Then he sat in the audience as Kaczmarek incriminated himself. If the fantastic language did not make Mazowiecki suspicious, that was because it had become Mazowiecki’s own language: by 1953 he had surrendered the narrative of his life to the Communist Party.

But, as Kosicki insists, the story of this otherworldly trial was not just one of the Stalinist Eastern Bloc, a world of unsettling grays beyond the reach of “real” Europeans in France or Italy. What made Mazowiecki the Catholic Stalinist was not the communist Stalin or the former fascist Piasecki, but the French intellectual Mounier: Catholics, West and East, linked inseparably across the Iron Curtain through personalism even at the height of the Cold War.

In 1948, Mounier visited Poland and met many PAX Christians; close relations developed, including at least one Polish-French marriage. Kosicki calls the French visitors to Poland “useful idiots” because they did not give witness to the injustices of Stalinism, but that is not fair. In their own world, they were serious and courageous; one of France’s “red priests” was defrocked on orders of the Vatican, and when the Westerners visited Poland, they were not shown problems.

Yet by going to Poland and not seeing evil, they were able to maintain the fiction of personalist communitarianism for the likes of Mazowiecki, and permit him to believe he was not simply the collaborator of a former fascist in building Stalinism, but part of an international Catholic movement. That was the historic function of personalism. Like a great bridge its strength was flexibility, usefulness in connecting otherwise foreign entities, despite great shifts of earth or climate. Personalism could weather the storm of images telling one’s mind that grave crimes were occurring right before one’s eyes; it stood unmoving amid political absurdities, its paint unvarnished and structures sound, apparently leading to something immeasurably better than what had ever before existed — by its miraculous power of connecting religion and atheism. Yet if personalism seemed a firm tribute to humanitarianism, peace, and brotherhood, what ultimately linked French and Polish Catholics when all else failed was fear and animosity: of Germany.

Here the Vatican gets at least supporting credit in building Polish Stalinism. Pius XII, originally the Italian nobleman Eugenio Pacelli, had an abiding affection for German culture and nationhood, and refused to recognize Poland’s possession of former East German territories after 1945. His pro-German stance opened huge opportunities for PAX (and the communist regime it served) to claim they truly represented not just Poland, but healthy Polish Catholicism. Who after all had suffered more than the Church from “German,” i.e., Nazi, barbarity than Catholic priests? The Polish socialist state, now claimant to these recently German — but supposedly deeply Polish — territories, was defending Polish Catholicism in a way that Rome would not.

How Mazowiecki broke with this odd left-wing hybrid of ethno-nationalism and Christianity had more to do with feudalism than with personalism, however. PAX had become a fiefdom and cult, where everyone trusted and loved the prince, and those who questioned his wisdom were shunted aside. After internal disputes about power, in 1955 Piasecki cast Mazowiecki and his friends out of PAX’s gardens — its canteens, good salaries, cars, vacation homes — and left them in a place that was not supposed to exist in socialism: unemployment.

Yet the year 1956 was already dawning, when Nikita Khrushchev identified Stalin as a vicious criminal, raising severe doubt about how he might have helped God’s kingdom take shape. Poland was permitted to return to a more normal normalcy; Mazowiecki connected to other Catholic socialists in Poland’s Catholic Intelligentsia Clubs (KIK), and his past was gradually forgotten. He besought Kaczmarek for forgiveness, and soon rose to editor in chief of the Warsaw Catholic monthly Więź, a perch for propagating the set of ideas he still called personalism.

The brilliance and signal contribution of Kosicki’s work is to show connections between East and West — Poland and France — that are essential to telling the story of both, but that somehow all previous authors have missed. His tone is balanced and steady, his learning impressive. Yet ultimately he tells a story that is at times too linear, and too transparent in cause and effect. Mazowiecki the personalist wound up Poland’s first post-communist prime minister, and therefore Kosicki finds Mounier’s influence somehow present in the great drama of the Polish opposition movement in “bringing down the Communist system.” Once freed of its “Stalinist shackles, Catholic socialism helped the men and women of KIK to change the world.”

But his book is also eloquent testimony to personalism’s other potentials, from left to far right, including antisemitism — one leading Polish personalist said Jews were not persons. Why should it not also accommodate democracy? How one can attribute any political outcome to so vague a set of ideas is a mystery; personalism led Mazowiecki into Stalinism, but it did not lead him out.

Perhaps the skepticism of my historian friend’s mother is a better guide to what happened in Poland during and after Stalinism, and the questions only begin with Bishop Kaczmarek. Mazowiecki carried on in the service of a regime that closed the two other Catholic newspapers and put some of their staff members in jail. These were not reactionaries, but also “personalists.” He must have known that Catholics who had refused to band with the former fascist Piasecki were denied basic rights; and that for all the industries and housing units he saw sprouting up, there was a suppressed reality of suffering in people’s private spaces, sometimes in prison; that Stalinist justice was also a factory of injustices previously unimaginable.

If one takes a broader view, one can arrive at gloomier reflections, but perhaps some incipient illumination. We face the same question in our day that Tadeusz Mazowiecki faced in his: why should Christianity and socialism stand opposed to each other? After Stalin’s death, scholars, activists, and theologians met at international conferences to pose this very question, and progressives on both sides agreed that there was no reason why they, believers or not, should not work together on an endless array of problems: the environment, social justice, international peace, an end to racism. In fact, given the basic mandates of solidarity common to the gospels and to socialism, they had no other choice. Mazowiecki’s tragedy was to reach this conclusion not after but during Stalinism.

Yet Stalin and his system would never have reached Poland had they not had the world-historical task of vanquishing Hitler. Hitler in turn would have had no chance in Germany in the early 1930s had Christians and socialists there and elsewhere banded together in common cause: for social justice, and against racism. Everywhere the two forces were a majority, and in Germany the moderates among them were well organized in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and Catholic Center Party. Yet in 1930 they divided over a dispute on how to fund unemployment benefits, and the Nazis staged their great electoral breakthrough months later.

One can trace this story of gratuitous estrangement of socialists and believers back to the 1840s and the emergence of Marxian socialism, which in subsequent decades seized the imaginations of workers movements throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Perhaps this is where the problem of the “fissure” alluded to above begins: Marxists (of which the SPD was a variant) famously mixed their political economy with philosophy, not content simply to oppose capitalism, but intent on provide a complete justification for their cause, uncovering every form of enslavement, and doing so with the certainty of science. Yet complete certainty, as the poet Czesław Miłosz noted, was no longer science, but itself a kind of faith, as it turned out, a very aggressive one. Unlike bourgeois liberals, Marxists were not simply agnostics, but atheists, pitting faith against faith, and themselves in a sense decreeing that Christians would become their enemies.

One does not need to be dialectician to grasp what happened after that point. Forces grew and reified within Christianity insisting that socialism was indeed an implacable enemy, and those forces, for example in Central America, often supported landed interests. As such, Mazowiecki’s dilemma of 1949 was just a small coordinate point on a vast map of unnecessary oppositions and counter-oppositions, by which Marxists not only gave new purpose to religion, but in a sense made their own analysis of the relation of base (economy) and superstructure (religion) into a reality: religion was not simply an opiate, but a weapon effectively used by the class enemy. Worse than that, socialism’s hostility to faith was the only reason millions of peasants had to oppose it.

This form of dialectics is more sinister than the cynical kind described by Miłosz: “I predict the house will burn, then I pour gasoline over the stove. The house burns; my prediction is fulfilled.” Marxism’s insistence that religion must disappear created a division that keeps reproducing itself, generation after generation: socialist atheists versus believers who defend themselves as “conservatives.” Sobering in Poland was that this division was not left behind after the “end of history” of 1989, and that precisely Mazowiecki, the man who incorporated this troubling division more than anyone, became the democratic prime minister, and thereby convinced millions of Catholics — like my friends in Cracow — that liberal Catholics were in fact abettors of atheism desiring the destruction of all they hold most dear. Was his appointment happenstance or plan?

The words “thick line” had been his personal invention, used in his first speech to parliament, on August 24, 1989. The first thing the first non-communist prime minister in postwar Eastern Europe had said was to forget communism. He thereby gave communism an extension of life that lasts into our day. Perhaps Poland’s first democrat was more politician than Christian, and believed that contrition was a path to defeat and failure rather than salvation.

That is just one possible set of reflections unleashed by Kosicki’s superb and timely story of how progressives across the continent endeavored to become allies in the struggle for peace and justice, and instead became prisoners of the 20th century. He leaves us to wonder whether we must be prisoners of our own.

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John Connelly is professor of History at the University of California Berkeley, currently working on a history of East Central Europe, 1784–2008.