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“High Noon” in Poland, thirty years later

John Paul II would not have countenanced in any way, shape, or form is the anti-Semitism that occasionally bubbles to the surface of contemporary Polish public life.

Thirty years ago last week, Poland began to self-liberate from communism through the first semi-free elections held behind the iron curtain since World War II. The memorable 1989 election poster created by the Solidarity movement’s graphic artists featured Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane in the western epic “High Noon.” The lawman was wearing a red-and-white Solidarity pin over his badge while striding purposefully toward the bad guys, with the jumbled red-letter Solidarnosc logo in the background. There were no slogans on the poster; the image said it all — this is an election of great consequence, between good and evil.

As things turned out, Solidarity candidates won 99 out of the 100 contested seats in the newly-created Polish Senate and swept all the contested seats in the lower house of parliament. That overwhelming victory on June 4, 1989, turbo-charged the decade-long process of change ignited in east central Europe by Pope John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage to his native land. By the end of a true annus mirabilis, communism was finished throughout the Warsaw Pact and was on its way into the dustbin of history in the Soviet Union (a state that was also on its way out the door, much to the chagrin of a middle-tier KGB operative named Vladimir Putin).

During the tumultuous 1980s, Poles often said that they wanted a “normal society,” and that is in large measure what they’ve gotten. Poland is a robust, if increasingly fractious, democracy. Its economy is among the most robust in Europe. Poland is a member of the European Union and a stalwart of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The cultural free-for-all we now associate with late modernity and post-modernity is well established in Polish cities and in the national media. Virtually every imaginable public policy argument encountered in the older democracies of western Europe and North America can be found in Poland, although it can’t be said that those arguments are conducted in Poland with any more rationality and civility than elsewhere.

That’s a sadness. For as Solidarity’s “High Noon” poster reminds us, there was, in living memory, a brief, shining moment of moral clarity in Polish politics. And while it would have been foolish to expect that the line between good and evil would remain as bright and bold as it was when the issue was communist tyranny vs. democratic liberties, it might have been hoped that the lessons of the 1980s would have led Poland to model a new depth of debate in politics, rather than recycling the shallowness and shrillness found in much of the democratic world today.

What would John Paul II have made of all this? He would likely have been disappointed. But he would have remained a witness to hope, a man convinced that the better angels of our nature have a place in public life. And he would insist that public life is not just a gladiatorial arena for contesting power. Democratic public life must also be a place of human encounter, a place for building solidarity as well as for exercising personal liberties; a place where moral truth can make its claims and where “freedom” means more than childish willfulness.

What John Paul II would not have countenanced in any way, shape, or form is the anti-Semitism that occasionally bubbles to the surface of contemporary Polish public life from the fever swamps of the past. He would have deplored a Polish parliamentarian describing as a “provocation” the Passover good wishes tweeted by the U.S. ambassador to Poland in April. He would have cringed at a Polish political activist’s squalid complaint about the ambassadorial tweet: “Christ died and was resurrected also for you, pagans and traitorous Jews.” And he would have been appalled by a Polish bishop fouling his Chrism Mass homily on Holy Thursday by quoting a fake anti-Semitic text from the 1930s, redolent of the Jewish-world-conspiracy madness of the bogus Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Public anti-Semitism is an infallible indicator of sickness in the body politic, everywhere. The Solidarity coalition that liberated Poland 30 years ago was composed of Catholics and Jews, believers and non-believers, radicals, liberals, and conservatives. That coalition took its inspiration from a Polish pope who bent every effort to heal ancient wounds in Catholic-Jewish relations. This 30th anniversary of an electrifying moment in Polish history is a good time for Poles of all political persuasions to reclaim his heritage — and live it.


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About George Weigel 218 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). He is the recipient of nineteen honorary doctorates in fields including divinity, philosophy, law, and social science.

10 Comments

  1. I have been born in Poland and lived here all my life. I witnessed 1989 elections and transition to democracy thereafter.

    I can assure you that antisemitism is complete fake news… simply because there are hardly any Jews in present day Poland. Hardly and Pole has ever met a Jew.. yet alone would have any views on Jews at all.

  2. As a child I could feel the anti-Semitism from the dear teaching Sisters, who taught us our prayers in Polish and English, late 1930’s to early 40’s. In later 40’s High School it was no where near as much felt, even though the teaching order was the same. A more mature sort of enlightenment noticeably came from somewhere. So it was even then, sadly like an up and down phenomenon

    • If you were in school in the late 1930s and early 40s, you are now almost 100 years old! You can type and use a computer? If you “…could feel the anti-Semitism from the dear teaching Sisters,…”what did that feel like?

  3. Anti-Semitism is as much of a problem in Poland as racism and anti-feminism is in the US/the West; an issue blown out of proportions by the Left.
    Poland is being a scapegoat, again.

  4. Meiron, I should have said that from the Sisters I clearly heard their fatalistic belief (obtained from someone somewhere) that said, the Jewish nation was doomed to a life of suffering victims. Looking back with consideration for ironic emphasis, this in a way could be said of all of us. Simple envy was often the name of the game too, in which Jews had it both ways. They played the roll of biblical carriers of God’s promise and they also seemed to have the good life with much talent. BTW I did read Weigel’s “High Noon” piece here.

  5. The immense relief experienced by the entire West at the unexpected unravelling of the communist threat that put an end to the Cold War has blinded even the sharpest of critics to the reality that lay behind the sudden decision to let the Berlin Wall be dismantled. As ex-Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky has shown, unheeded, this decision was prepared for, years in advance, by the Kremlin, as the combined effort of Reagan’s wise intransigence and the heroism of Bl. Jerzy Popieluszko and the Solidarnosc activists were wreaking havoc on the Soviet economy, inspiring the rebellion of the rest of its satellites. The documents found by Bukovsky show that “peretstroika” was meant to include the entire world and that, in secret collaboration with Euro-communist leaders of Western Europe, Gorbachev planned the fall of the Berlin Wall as the Trojan Horse that would induce the West to stop defending itself.
    That the plan succeeded so incredibly well must mean that there were and are a legion of covert facilitators everywhere ready to answer and gloss over the huge inconsistencies in the fairy tale that the whole world bought into: the one that implies that the millions of people employed, involved in and benefited by the communist structures (the East German secret police alone numbered some 200,000 agents!) simply converted their mindsets, trained from childhood to detest and despise the West, into embracing the West and its ways. The real story of the huge transition from totalitarianism to democracy, in the ex-Iron Curtain countries, has hardly even been investigated. It is a crucial gap in our knowledge of the history of the Eastern European countries, where in many if not most cases people witnessed the old communist apparatchicks simply don some new garb and continue as before in their old jobs in the deep state. If communism had been defeated, why go on worrying, right? How impolite!
    This is the situation that continues to define the events in Poland, Hungary and the other “ex”-communist countries. It is as if after World War II, having eliminated Hitler (Ceausescu and few others), the nazis had been allowed to change back into their civilian clothing and take up their lives where they had left off.
    Not only was there no Nuremburg trial and convictions but hardly even any apologies or admissions of guilt.
    To take an image from Spe Spalvi, in many cases over the years, evildoers have been sitting beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened. Indeed, as in the case of the justice system which the Polish parliament is prevented from reforming by well-orchestrated but uninformed international outcry, they may often have continued to pass judgment as though nothing had happened.
    In the case of the surviving Kacynski twin, moreover, it is a searing wound to see the big lie succeed in pulling the wool over the world, especially after the horrendous airplane accident that took his brother’s life, and prevented a world-wide recognition of the Katyn massacres that his brother had been on his way to celebrate. The Kacynskis really were there, in the beginning, with Solidarnosc.
    This has everything to do with today. On both sides of the invisible fence, we are fed stories and stimuli and half truths calculated to perpetuate stereotypes that provide the lenses through which we view reality. I disbelieve that Poland is anti-semitic. I believe instead that accusations against its right-wing government (like in Hungary, Italy and the US) are the prism through which the mainstream media are viewing events, commenting and spreading them out in turn.

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