For Freedom and Peace; WiPing Poland into Shape
Michalski, Franek, The Nation
WiPing Poland Into Shape
From May 7 through 9 an increasingly vocal groupof young Polish peace activists that calls itself WiP, the Polish acronym for Freedom and Peace, hosted an unprecedented seminar in Warsaw on International Peace and the Helsinki Agreement. For the past two years WiP has protested various aspects of military service and the political role of the Polish Army. WiP--pronounced "veep"--numbers several hundred active members in a half-dozen of Poland's major cities, with perhaps 10,000 more who can be counted on to demonstrate, sign open letters and take part in support actions. Given the atmosphere of post-martial law Poland, the group, whose methods and philosophy are nonviolent, has scored some remarkable successes.
After its tentative victories at home, WiP has begun to explorethe international implications of its antimilitarism. It has made contact with other Eastern Europeans, for example signing an "individual peace treaty" with East German pacifists, in which the signatories pledge not to participate in military actions of "friendly assistance" against each other's country. WiP also regularly reprints news items and interviews from the publications of Western peace groups, as well as information from Amnesty International.
WiP First came into public view in 1985, with a campaignin support of draftees jailed for refusing to take the army oath because of its pro-Soviet content and for refusing military service altogether. The group's vigorous appeals to the Ministry of Defense led to a de factor recognition of alternative service: in its January 7 issue the army newspaper, Zolnierz Wolnosci, published instructions for seeking conscientious-objector status. In a backhanded way last autumn's general amnesty was a recognition of the politicla rights of draft protesters, because WiP members were released along with other imprisoned opposition activists. (However, the pacifist Wojtek Jankowski, jailed for refusing induction into the armed forces, was freed only after a sit-in demonstration in Warsaw's downtown shopping district.) Although these shifts in policy have not been made law, they are a significant reversal of the customary denunciations of draft refusal as one of the "dangerous crimes against the state."
After the Chernobyl disaster WiP members from thesouthwestern industrial city of Wroclaw held a spirited protest march with banners that read, "Why the delay in news of nuclear fallout?" and "Today Chernobyl, tomorrow Zarnowiec!" -- a reference to a nuclear power plant under construction. Later, WiP members in Wroclaw organized demonstrations against a local steel mill that had been dumping chromium, a heavy metal, into the city's water supply. As a result the local authorities have put aside a proposed expansion plan and have decided to phase out production at the mill, promising to close it altogether by 1990.
The Wroclaw group, most of whose members are of collegeage, has earned a reputation for street militancy and guerrilla theater. When the Rector of Wroclaw University became annoyed with WiP activists who were members of the campus Hiking Club, he threatened to ban the club unless it acted like other campus social groups. "Why don't you rent a bus, get some beer and have a picnic?" Delighted to oblige, the Hiking Club spent a merry day riding a bus through the streets of Wroclaw, drinking beer and regaling passers-by with rendtions of old Stalinist standards and more contemporary Solidarity protest songs. The Hiking Club was suspended the next day.
The whimsy of some of WiP's public actions, its "peacepolitics" and youthful profile (most WiPers are not old enough to have participated fully in Solidarity) tempt one to make comparisons with the Vietnam War-era protests in the United States. In a January headline The New York Times called WiP activists, not altogether kindly, "Hippie Foes of the Draft."
There is some truth in the comparison. WiP people arecurious about the history of the U.S. civil rights struggle and the antiwar and draft resistance movements, and their tactics show it. Undeniably, there is a trace of generational rivalry between these kids in jeans and baggy sweaters and their elders, whom they discomfit with insistent questions about peace and nuclear disarmament.
But WiP has maintained close working contact with theSolidarity movement--through personal collaboration with figures such as Jan Jozef Lipski, the historian and veteran activist, and Jaceck Kuron, one of the founders and guiding spirits of the workers' defense committee known as KOR -- and has cooperated in the printing and distribution of underground literature. The canny way WiP phrases its uncomfortable questions about peace and the role of the army in Polish society makes them difficult to dismiss.
Take WiP's revival of the memory of Otto Schimek, ayoung Wehrmacht soldier executed by the Nazis in World War II for refusing to shoot Polish civilians. WiP has adopted him as a national hero, seeing his refusal of a direct order on the ground of individual conscience as a model for the attitude that young Poles today should take toward military service in general and the Polish Army in particular -- given its role in facilitating the intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981. WiP members have been joined in vigils at Schimek's grave by West German Greens, who have used the opportunity to reconsider present-day Polish-German relations in light of a painful common history.
Polish authorities deny Schimek's historical significance. "Hewas executed as a deserter," declared Trybuna Ludu, the Communist Partyhs daily newspaper on March 30, 1986. Writing in WiP's "Bulletin," Jacek Czaputowicz commented wryly on the Polish state's unseemly respect for the verdict of a Nazi court-martial.
The "Bulletin" has carried a self-critical discussion ofWiP's organizational structure, questioning whether its informality, coupled with a style of moral witness and public protest based on consensus, is more effective than a clear doctrine and a formal, hierarchical structure. Or does WiP's anarchic spontaneity and participatory ethos disguise the danger of "natural" leaders rising to prominence and making decisions without formal accountability to any of the others"
In the past several months there have been internationalrepercussions to WiP's activity. After the Soviet daily Izvestiia criticized the Polish group in February, WiP members in Krakow staged a demonstration to coincide with Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Czechoslovakia. If Gorbachev would like to discuss troop withdrawals from that country, WiP said, why not also consider Poland, a country which hosts 40,000 Soviet troops? The group would welcome such a withdrawal, which, it said, would lessen tensions and be a step toward dissolution of the bloc system.
A few weeks later WiP distributed several thousand leafletsin front of the Hungarian and Czechoslovak Cultural Centers in Warsaw as an act of solidarity with activists jailed in those countries. The Czechoslovak opposition group Charter 77 had called for protests on behalf of Petr Pospichal, arrested for circulating Solidarity literature among his fellow workers. And in Hungary, Zsolt Keszthelyi, 23, had been arrested for refusing to serve in an army that is not subject to sovereign, popular control. Keszthelyi, the country's first political conscientious objector, was recently sentenced to three years in prison.
On May 7, WiP's international seminar in Warsaw drewdelegates from almost every Western European country. Statements of support arrived from a similar seminar in East Germany, and from thirty-three members of the Moscow Trust group, who were unable to attend. At first police repression seemed likely: twenty-three WiP sympathizers were arrested, some as they attempted to board a train from Krakow to Warsaw. On the second day, however, police were nowhere to be seen. The Polish government clearly does not relish challenges such as these, but now, at least, it appears reluctant to subdue them too harshly.…
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Publication information: Article title: For Freedom and Peace; WiPing Poland into Shape. Contributors: Michalski, Franek - Author. Magazine title: The Nation. Volume: 244. Publication date: May 23, 1987. Page number: 680+. © 1999 The Nation Company L.P. COPYRIGHT 1987 Gale Group.
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