Americans should take heed: The case of Józef Oleksy, somewhat insignificant in the grand scheme of European history, is nonetheless a case study in all of the ills of political life in Eastern Europe and the pitfalls of rushing to judgment in foreign affairs.
Of the recently deceased former Polish Prime Minister, Mr. Józef Oleksy, Lech Wałęsa said: “He was extremely talkative. Because he was so talkative, he was sucked into being a secret Russian agent. But of course he was never a secret Russian agent. Those rumors about him being a Russian agent were all complete lies. The matter was all cleared up.”
Americans, whose nation is being bled to death by complete lies, should take heed. The case of Józef Oleksy, somewhat insignificant in the grand scheme of European history, is nonetheless a case study in all of the ills of political life in Eastern Europe and the pitfalls of rushing to judgment in foreign affairs. Mr. Oleksy became Prime Minister as a result of the election victories of the former communist party in Poland in the early 1990s. Mr. Wałęsa was then President. Those of us old enough to remember it and young enough to be amazed by it will never forget the fateful day when the Minister of the interior nominated at Lech Wałęsa’s behest rose to speak in the Polish parliament on live television and announced that the Prime Minister, Mr. Józef Oleksy, was actually an active Russian spy.
If Poles were a people prone to care about what silly things their political leaders say on the floor of the parliament, words like these may well have sparked a civil war. If indeed the Russian government had infiltrated the Polish government to the extent of placing a Russian spy as Prime Minister of the entire nation—then this was an unprecedented emergency. In my young eyes, this event was stupendous; the height of drama. Wiser, more experienced Poles of the time knew well that it was actually typical Polish hyperbole. If it were possible to get one dollar for every time a high government official accused another high government official of being a Russian spy, one could end up fabulously wealthy (interestingly enough, no one is ever accused of being a German or American spy).
Naturally, following the accusation, Mr. Oleksy stepped down as Prime Minister and dissolved his government. What else was the poor fellow supposed to do? Proving his innocence would take time and embroil the country in—at the very least—political warfare, if not civil war. Proclaiming on the floor of the Polish parliament that President Wałęsa—Nobel Prize laureate and most famous Pole in the world next to Pope John Paul II—was actually insane would harm Poland. The former communist party, the Democratic Left Alliance, decided that Mr. Oleksy should step down and replaced him with another party member. The drama effectively came to an end.
It was this fact—that the drama effectively came to an end with the resignation of Prime Minister Oleksy—that became my first practical lesson in the politics of modern Eastern Europe. For if indeed the accusation against Mr. Oleksy were serious—if there was proof to back up the charge—then at the very least there would have been a Tribunal of State called and a formal accusation of treason leveled. The Polish government would have reviewed vetting procedures for government officers, and demands would have been made in the international arena against Russia to cease and desist its practice of infiltrating the Polish political arena to the extent of having spies placed high enough to become Prime Minister. And if, as the case turned out, Mr. Wałęsa simply made the accusation up out of thin air, then the President would have to be forced to resign, censured, impeached, or at the very least suffer some sort of repercussions.
No such thing happened. Mr. Oleksy, who died last week, continued his public life. He never held such high office again but went on being a prominent member of parliament, and remained active in public life. His characteristically raspy voice continued to argue in favor of a luke-warm socialism that was calm, conservative in demeanor, and somewhat aloof. Were he not bald, it would be proper to say that nary a hair fell from his head for having been a “Russian spy” and a traitor. Tellingly, Mr. Wałęsa never suffered for having leveled the accusation either. It was just another day in Polish politics.
The more experience of Eastern European politics one acquires, the more accustomed one becomes to this particular line of argumentation. Whenever someone is losing an argument, they immediately question the loyalty of their adversary. What better way to do so than to accuse their adversary of being a Russian spy? This was especially easy with regard to former members of the Communist party who were generally far more dependent on the Russian Soviet apparatus than your average Pole. Of course, like the case of the boy who cried wolf, if you cry “Russian spy!” enough times, you eventually make the matter of internal security rather boring in the eyes of the public. In fact, you force the public to draw one of two conclusions: Either the Polish state is so vastly incompetent that it keeps hiring Russian spies to work in important capacities, including as Prime Ministers; or the term “Russian spy,” when used in political discourse, is simply Polish for “person I disagree with.” A third possibility: The Polish state is actually run by American and German spies, possibly British ones as well—because no one is ever accused of being one of those.
What does all of this have to do with America? Well—Americans are often told that foreign lands are populated by the forces of good and evil, and gripped by dramatic circumstances which call for extreme measures in order to resolve them—often at U.S. taxpayer expense. Why, if the world were not so busy enjoying the end of the Cold War at the time of Mr. Wałęsa’s accusation against Mr. Oleksy, who knows—perhaps some American crusader for democracy would have called for the invasion of Russia for having taken over Poland and placed a Russian spy at the head of the Polish government? In any event—to understand all of this we must once again turn to good old Tintin.
Herge’s Tintin records a wonderful adventure in a certain South American country where General Tapioca is in a state of eternal war against the tyranny of General Alcazar, who in turn is in a state of eternal war against the tyranny of General Tapioca. In Herge’s charming vision, a revolution takes place on average once every few minutes, which makes it extremely difficult to know what to do with prisoners condemned to death for treason, spying, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Tintin, himself condemned to die by firing squad, is saved by one such revolution which grants amnesty to the criminals who have now become political prisoners of the ousted dictator. Moments later, word arrives that the ousted dictator was not ousted—and of course was not a dictator but a great and noble man—and the revolutionary hero cheered moments ago becomes the swine pig dog traitor to the nation. “Sorry senor,” an officer informs Tintin, “we are going to have to shoot you after all.”
The case of the dearly departed Prime Minister Józef Oleksy is a lively illustration of this sad principle. It is actually impossible—even now—for me to find the heart to criticize the poor man’s tenure; not only because it is unbecoming to criticize the dead, but more so because he was removed from office in such a disgusting manner as to immediately absolve him of his sins and turn him into a victim of banana republicanism run amok. If Ronald Reagan could say that he was having trouble engaging the Soviet leaders because they kept dying before he managed to meet them, then in the early 1990s, Polish conservatives had a rough time criticizing the economic policies of Prime Minister Oleksy because the debate kept shifting to idiotic questions about whether or not he was actually an evil Russian spy beamed into Warsaw from Moscow.
So the next time you turn on the TV to hear that somewhere on Earth the evil dictator General so-and-so is cracking down on the heroic people’s revolution, or that President such-and-such, who seemed to have been elected by the people, is actually a paid spy of President-so-and-so—think of Prime Minister Józef Oleksy. The dearly departed Prime Minister of Poland, a man who was certainly not my political cup of tea then or ever, nevertheless served his country well by virtue of the manner in which he was deprived of his office. His removal from office—a gross breech of public trust and, judging from Mr. Wałęsa’s utterly predictable post-mortem mea culpa—a complete farce—illustrates the pressing need for nation-states to abide by those pesky principles known as the “rule of law” and the “right to a fair trial,” not to mention “innocent until proven guilty.” For in the end, it turned out that in order to damage Poland, Russia did not have to mastermind a plot to place a Russian spy at the head of the Polish government: It was enough to let the Poles shoot themselves in the foot. If Poland wants to build a serious and lasting republican order, it should remember the case of the coup against Prime Minister Oleksy as a prime example of how not to go about conducting political affairs. May the Prime Minister rest in peace and may there never be a President Wałęsa again who dares proclaim that a Prime Minister is a Russian spy simply because he feels like it. As for Americans: Remember Józef Oleksy the next time a Congressman stands up to try and pronounce the name of the dictator du jour that your children are to risk life and limb bombing.
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