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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Truth Comes Out Eventually

In recent years, the right-wing, Catholic twin brothers who run Poland have advanced two articles of political faith: First, that the moral integrity of the Polish nation is built on the rock of the Polish Catholic Church, and second, that the weakness of Polish public life results from the failure to cleanse it of collaborators with the former communist regime. So what happens when the new archbishop of Warsaw turns out to have signed a secret agreement in the 1970s to spy for the communists?

What happened was the scene, at once dramatic and grotesque, that unfolded in St. John's Cathedral in Warsaw on Sunday. There was a Mass, supposedly to install the new archbishop, Stanislaw Wielgus, who had assumed office the previous Friday despite media revelations of his hidden past. Instead of being installed, the archbishop, decked in all his glorious episcopal vestments, announced his resignation. Seated in the front row of the congregation, the president of Poland, Lech Kaczynski (twin No. 1), began to applaud. (Rumor has it that he had personally intervened with Pope Benedict XVI to bring this about.) But he rapidly stopped applauding when he heard from the back of the nave a raucous chorus of "no, no, stay with us." He knew who was shouting: his people, the old ladies in mohair berets and knobby-nosed, middle-aged men who listen to Radio Maryja (i.e. Mary), the influential right-wing Catholic radio station that helped bring him and his brother, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski (twin No. 2), to power.

The primate of Poland seemed to agree with the mohair berets. In an extraordinary homily, Cardinal Jozef Glemp railed against judgment being passed on Wielgus on the basis of what he dismissively called "scraps of paper and documents photocopied for the third time." Yet he knew the pope had already accepted Wielgus' resignation, with regret but also with approval. So was the primate attacking the pope?

That unforgettable scene in Warsaw's cathedral illuminated, like a medieval morality play, the dilemmas with which half of Europe has been wrestling ever since the end of communism. To remember or forget? To open the files or leave them under lock and key? To purge or not to purge?

Some would argue that this case shows, once again, how dangerous it is to open Pandora's box. I think the opposite is true. The Wielgus affair illustrates the importance of a timely, scrupulous, fair and comprehensive uncovering of the dictatorial past, in all its complexity. After all, the truth will come out in the end. Would it have been better if, 50 years from now, Polish Catholics had discovered from the long-sealed archives that their beloved archbishop had been supping with the communist devil?

To be sure, partial, sensationalist media stories based on leaks, are not the best way to go about this. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But the cure for a little knowledge is more knowledge, and still more, until people begin to see the historical truth in all its shades of gray. Already, the effect of this scandal is to blow to smithereens the simplistic, black and white picture of the past constructed by the Kaczynski twins, Radio Maryja and the like. For them, anyone who walked in clerical black was whiter than white, while anyone who even briefly sported the communist red was black as black can be. Now the archbishop in black turns out to have been the red spy, and all the colors are mixed up together.

The process of uncovering this messy past will continue, hard though the church hierarchy has tried to resist it. Apart from anything else, younger and uncompromised Polish Catholics are demanding it. Another senior Polish priest has resigned. A clergyman in Krakow shortly will publish a book naming 39 alleged clerical collaborators, of whom he says four are now bishops.

However, we will never know the full facts because many of the files of Department IV of the communist security service, which dealt with the church, were destroyed at the end of the communist period. That is perhaps why Wielgus felt safe. His past caught up with him in the form of a microfilm copy of a file belonging to the foreign intelligence department, to which he committed himself to report, under the pseudonyms "Adam Wysocki" and then -- very suitably -- "Grey." I read some facsimile pages from that file, which are available on the Internet. Far from being mere "scraps of paper," they are almost textbook samples from a communist secret service file, with the wooden language and distorted perspective (almost invariably overstating the informer's willingness to collaborate) familiar to me from the documents of other Soviet bloc security services.

The personal story they tell is equally familiar. Wielgus was an academically and personally ambitious man from a poor, conservative, rural background. He wanted to go study in West Germany, sitting at the feet of German theologians like the present pope. He signed an agreement to collaborate in order to get there. He says he didn't harm anyone. That's what they always say. But the whole point of such an intelligence system is that the individual informer does not understand the value, in a larger jigsaw, of the apparently innocent scrap that they reluctantly toss to the secret police dog.

Many signed similar declarations. But many others didn't and paid the price -- by not being allowed to study abroad, for example, and not going on to good careers. As human failings go, this was not very serious. Those of us who had the good luck to grow up in a free country should ask ourselves: Would I have signed? But such a man obviously should not be archbishop of Warsaw, especially because he did not come clean about his past until he was forced to do so.

When I first traveled to Warsaw -- nearly 30 years ago, when it was under communist rule -- I chanced upon a monk in the church of St. Antony of Padua who led me around, pointing out memorial tablets for prisoners of war who died at Katyn in 1940 -- killed, that is, by the Soviets, a fact flatly denied by official communist propaganda. I did not then speak Polish, so communication was difficult. But I found a way. Fortis est veritas, I said in Latin, et praevalebit! (Truth is strong and will prevail.) I will never forget his grin of sheer delight. It was a good motto for Poland then, and I think it's still a good motto for Poland. And not just for Poland.

Timothy Garton Ash is the author of "The File," a book about his own experience with files of the communist secret police. This comment was published in the Los Angeles Times.