Radio Free Europe and the Catholic Church in Poland during the 1950s and 1960s

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ABSTRACT:

A review of the literature on Radio Free Europe's role throughout the Cold War reveals its underdeveloped historiography. Yet, how valuable are RFE's reports and broadcasts as a tool for historical exploration? Drawing on a wealth of materials from Polish programming, this analysis uses the case study of the role of the Catholic Church in Poland throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, to appraise not only the content of RFE reports but also the extent to which they can be used as a historical tool. The reports reveal, for example, that the Church became politically active already in the mid 1960s during its struggle with the Communist regime over the Millennium anniversary celebrations and the issue of Poland's Western territories. This analytical framework allows for an examination of RFE's comments in terms of what they might tell us about what really happened, and in ternis of what they actually tell us about the station's perceptions of what happened. The station's position as an observer, critic and participant in the turmoil of the Cold War, gave it a distinct ability to access both the realities behind the Iron Curtain and the Western perceptions of what was happening in the satellite countries.

On 3 May 1952, as Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski was travelling across Poland's Western Territories to inspect the status of the Church in the region, the airwaves were filled with the first Polish broadcast of Radio Free Europe (RPE).1 In an attempt to communicate with the peoples of East Central Europe, the radio became one of the most powerful weapons of collecting and distributing information to eager listeners behind the Iron Curtain. Sponsored and, to an extent, controlled by American political interests, Radio Free Europe became a propaganda machine geared to weaken the Communist bloc. Scholarship, however, is only beginning to examine RFE's role and impact on Cold War history.2 As a contemporary critic of Polish affairs-both an observer and interpreter of events-the 125-person staff of the Polish section3 offers a window into the world of the Polish emigre's mind, especially its perception of realities in Communist Poland. Although the motivations behind RFE's programming have been questioned,4 the actual content of various programs was created and developed by Poles themselves, probably accounting for its popularity in Poland. This programming, combined with the political agenda of the radio station, provides a distinct analytical framework for the study of Polish history. Yet, how can the value of RFE's reports and broadcasts be appraised as a tool for historical exploration? A case study of the role of the Catholic Church in Poland throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, will serve as the litmus test. The intent here is not only to give new insights into the role of the Church, but also to provide a critical appraisal of RPE reports on the Church. This will determine not only the value of RFE reports but also the extent to which they can be used as a historical tool.

Why use RFE reports to analyze Polish history of the Communist era-in particular, the history of the Catholic Church? It seems to me that to understand the content and the nature of RFE's perspective on this issue is to get inside the defining process of the actor in order to understand his actions. The station's position as observer, critic and participant in the turmoil of the Cold War gave it a distinct ability to access both the realities behind the Iron Curtain and the Western perceptions of what was happening in the satellite countries. To identify the boundaries of analysis, it is essential to examine RFE's commentaries (a) in terms of what they might tell us about what really happened; and (b) in terms of what they actually tell us about the station's perceptions of what happened. Submerged in the process of historicity, RFE examined (and still examines) facts, events, lives, and rituals that extend far beyond the historical narrative, moving into topics such as politics, law, economics, sociology, religion, and anthropology. …

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