Senior Expert, Institute of National Remembrance; Research Fellow, Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Science
Institute of National Remembrance: Polish Model of Dealing with the Totalitarian Past
Ukrainian and Polish Historical Commissions, Friday, March 12, 2010, 10:30 – 12:30
Krzysztof Persak is a research fellow at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Science and senior expert at the Public Education Office of the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw. He is also visiting professor of contemporary history at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw. In 1999, Dr. Persak was visiting fellow at the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C. He also served as consultant for the Hoover Institution Archives and research associate of the NATO–Warsaw Pact Parallel History Project. Dr Persak’s research area is contemporary political and social history of Poland, with special focus on Polish-Soviet relations, the communist power system, and the activities of the communist security police, as well as Polish-Jewish relations. His major publications include: Odrodzenie harcerstwa w 1956 roku [Rebirth of Scouting Movement in Poland in 1956] (Warsaw, 1996); Wokol Jedwabnego [Around Jedwabne – A two-volume study of a massacre of Jewish inhabitants in north-eastern Poland, carried out by Polish peasants and Nazi Security Police in July 1941] (Warsaw, 2002– jointly with Pawel Machcewicz]; A Handbook of the Communist Security Apparatus in East Central Europe, 1944-1989 (Warsaw, 2005 – jointly with Lukasz Kaminski); Sprawa Henryka Hollanda [Henryk Holland Affair – an investigative study into the mysterious death of a known journalist during a search conducted in his apartment by the communist Security Service in 1961] (Warsaw, 2006). The latter book won the Polityka weekly historical award, the most prestigious Polish award for books on 20th century history.
Abstract: Institute of National Remembrance: Polish Model of Dealing with the Totalitarian Past
The Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation (IPN) was established in 2000 as a public institution charged with the task of confronting the dark historical legacy of the World War II, with Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland, and the post-war communist dictatorship. The Institute was designed as a hybrid organization, whose four main departments perform activities and tasks characteristic to a research and education center, an archive, an investigative body (with full powers of public prosecutor’s office), and finally a body responsible for vetting people holding or running for public offices for their possible past collaboration with the Communist State Security Service.
The principal idea lying behind the foundation of the IPN was to solve the problem of the files of the Communist State Security Service, which were still in the custody of secret services since the systemic change of 1989/90. Accordingly, the IPN Archive concentrated documents of State Security and other repressive institutions of the Communist regime with the aim to grant victims access to “own files” as well as make the files available to researchers and journalists. This documentation forms the principal source-basis for IPN’s research, which is, however, not limited to topics connected with the activity of the Communist secret police, and repression and resistance to the Communist system, but covers a variety of themes related to the history of the 1939–1989/90 period. The newly created IPN incorporated an institution with a long-established tradition in Poland, dating from 1945, the Main Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation. Under new circumstances the Main Commission was charged with conducting penal proceedings concerning Nazi and Communist crimes as well as other crimes which were classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on Poles between September 1, 1939 and July, 31 1990. In 2007, the Vetting Office was attached to the IPN as its fourth department.
Since the beginning, the IPN confronted inter alia the problems of inter-ethnic violence during and after World War II, particularly in cases where the perpetrators were Poles. The first major challenge, both in terms of historical research and penal investigation, was the massacre of Jews in Jedwabne in Northeastern Poland in July 1941, uncovered by Jan T. Gross in his well-known book Neighbors. Another case investigated by a specially created panel of historians was the so-called “Bloody Sunday” in Bydgoszcz (Bromberg) in September 1939, when the Polish Army shot several dozen German saboteurs during the initial days of World War II. The IPN also dealt extensively (in all areas of its activity: books, conferences, exhibits, etc.) with the history of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict of 1939–1947, including the ethnic cleansing of Poles by Ukrainians in Volhynia in 1943–1944 and the deportation of ethnic Ukrainians from Eastern Poland in 1947.
Opening the files of the secret police not only opened up new possibilities for research and assessment of the Communist system, but also brought problems connected with the judgment of past conduct of individuals. Disclosure of the identities of secret collaborators (informers) of the Communist State Security Service turned out one of the most controversial issues in Poland. Apart from disputes arising out of genuine differences in views on whether and how secret collaborators should be exposed and treated, there were also many myths and misunderstandings in that area. In recent years, debates over State Security files and secret collaborators seem to have somewhat overshadowed other activities of the IPN in the eyes of public opinion in Poland in the recent years.
Ten years of operation of the Institute of National Remembrance provide a suitable perspective to present and analyze its activities and reassess its experience in coming to terms with Poland’s difficult past in the latter half of 20th century.