Research Communications

The Pious Revolution 

Historian uncovers how the Polish Catholic church helped sow the seeds of Solidarity

June 3, 2011

On October 19, 1984, the Polish Roman Catholic priest Jerzy Popiełuszko was kidnapped by three agents of the Polish communist internal intelligence agency, beaten and murdered.  His body was dumped into a water reservoir. Popiełuszko was targeted by the communist security service because he was popular with the people and was associated with the Solidarity union.

“Killing Father Jerzy was a way for the authorities to tell all of us—see, we can do this and there is nothing you can do, we are in charge.”

This retrospective testimony is from Tomasz Wiscicki, a Catholic journalist with the monthly magazine Wiez based in Warsaw, and is taken from one of the interviews David Curp conducted recently for a new book that will focus on how and why people embraced religion as an alternative to communist doctrine. Curp, an associate professor of history at Ohio University, is using both archival sources and oral histories to chronicle the roles and influence of religious culture in Poland over the last 40 years. It’s an ambitious project, he admits, which will take from five to 10 years to complete.

“I take faith seriously on a personal and professional level,” Curp says about the motivation behind the project. “I’m intensely interested in belief and how it plays a role in the contemporary world. Especially after 9/11, religion isn’t just a quaint interest.  It can be terrifyingly relevant.”

David Curp
David Curp.

Supported by a Fulbright Fellowship, Curp spent the 2009 academic year in Warsaw combing through Polish secret police documents housed at the Institute of National Memory and also doing oral interviews with Catholic church officials as well as lay people. He was no stranger to archival work, having spent many hundreds of hours at the institute in researching his first book, A Clean Sweep: The Politics of Ethnic Cleansing in Western Poland, 1945-1960, which focused on how communist authorities drove out the vast majority of Poland’s Germans at the end of the Second World War.

“Going back to the archives was a good starting point for my new project,” Curp explains. “It was fascinating to read this history created by the secret police of so much that happened,” he adds, pointing out that he has a solid and “hard-won” fluency in Polish after studying the language over the course of the last 15 years.

In reading through thousands of pages of the official documents, he was repeatedly struck by one recurrent theme: the fact that the secret police considered religion to be the communist state’s number one enemy.

“Harassment and discrimination against believers varied in its intensity,” Curp says.  It included unofficial but pervasive blackballing for employment of people who went to Catholic University of Lublin from the 1940s to the 1950s and throughout the period of communist rule. The authorities harassed the institutional church by forbidding processions, pilgrimages, and religious celebrations, and monitoring the sermons and conduct of all clergy.

“There was a constant surveillance of active believers, and people were pressured to become informants.  People’s homes were bugged, phone calls monitored, and letters intercepted—all illegally according to the constitution,” Curp adds. “And the murder of Jerzy Popieluszko was not an isolated incident.  In the 1980s several other priests were murdered and many more beaten by ‘unknown perpetrators’ and ‘hooligans’ who often were members of the Security Services.”

In their monitoring of various church activities, the authorities were constantly looking for the political conspiracy. “What became crystal clear is that secret police officials just didn’t get it,” Curp says. “They were fixated on the assumption that in these gatherings people must be plotting to create some political movement.”
Curp adds that the authorities could easily find out who was involved in religious activity, and where and when they were meeting, but had no sense of why people wanted to do this, of what moved people to be religious. “The secret police were incapable of empathizing with people—getting to know their heart and soul—because they were propagating a system that denied the whole concept of a soul.”

To understand the heart and soul of the people during this time, Curp knew he needed to employ a different research tool—oral histories. Interviewees were identified with the help of historical societies in Warsaw and Lublin, about 200 miles east of Warsaw, and through Curp’s own personal contacts. Everyone he interviewed was in some way involved in religious activities during the 1970s and 1980s. They not only attended Catholic church services, but some also worked at Catholic youth centers and summer camps. Some took part in lectures and panel discussions on topics ranging from sex and relationships to Polish history and contemporary social problems, programs sponsored by pastoral centers.

One commonality in his interviews so far, Curp says, is that the subjects are willing and eager to talk about their religious experiences under communism; they seem highly motivated to “get it right” for the record. Though he is near the beginning of the project—Curp has done 30 interviews so far and hopes to conduct several hundred—a common theme has already emerged from his discussions with church officials and others: people were working to develop their character, their sense of themselves and their relationship with God.

“What authorities continually missed was how this ‘God talk’ was creating a sense of solidarity,” Curp says. “People more and more came to believe the life they were living was unworthy of them, and their turn to religion is what reinforced that for many of them.” He adds that not all the dissidents were religious, but that both religious and secular people worked together in Poland from the 1970s on to find a common language of human rights and human dignity.

Interest in organized religion in Poland, especially Catholicism, grew after the Second World War, Curp explains, and was “helped” by the ruling powers in the 1970s and 1980s because communism became increasingly discredited culturally, socially, and economically. The result was that religious values, with their emphasis on human dignity and human rights, became even more attractive to many Poles.

Not all historians are sold on the value of oral histories, Curp points out. What about the failings of human memory? The self-serving motives of the storyteller?

“Well, the documentary records—the archives—are also prone to all of those kinds of problems,” he says. “When the secret police were chronicling daily events, there was always an overlay of official ideology. All of the limitations and fallacies accorded to oral histories are duplicated in these official records. It’s also worth noting that much of this archival record is, in effect, second hand oral testimony, mediated to us by the Security Services.”

Curp is a strong believer, however, in how oral histories can help shape the full historical record.

“In a sense what I’m doing is what historians are always accused of doing: Writing history from the perspective of the winners,” he says. “The supreme irony of this history, however, is that the people who left the largest documentary record are the “losers”—the Security Services and official apparatus of power. Oral history allows me to get at the experiences and values of the people who transformed Poland and helped change the world in 1989.”

By Jeff Worley

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine.