Another issue arose at that first meeting: should we invite General Wojciech Jaruzelski? In 1970, as Minister for Defense, he had been responsible (directly or indirectly) for the massacre of protesting workers in Gdańsk, and as head of state in 1981 he had attempted to crush the Solidarity movement by declaring martial law. Because of this background, some on our committee were uncomfortable inviting him to speak, but most of us felt that his role in the negotiations of 1989 was too important to overlook. Since we also intended to invite a strong contingent from the Solidarity side—
including Lech Wałęsa himself—it seemed clear (to me, at least) that we were offering no endorsement of General Jaruzelski. We would soon learn that such an endorsement would be assumed, regardless of our intentions.
From the start we received criticism from many different directions. One of my colleagues told me that such a conference would be of no interest to students or faculty outside the Polish studies program, because our guests were limited to “a bunch of obscure male politicians.” Another dismissed it as a publicity event with little intellectual content. Although we were able to obtain enthusiastic support—and money—from the university administration, I would continue to perceive the apathy of my fellow faculty members. Evidently we were striding dangerously close to the line between the scholarly and the popular. Of much greater concern was the aggressive opposition that arose outside the university. In October 1998, Michael Kennedy (then Director of CREES) visited Poland to extend personal invitations to those we hoped to bring to Ann Arbor. Apparently this visit brought our plans to the attention of those who had long opposed the Round Table and the compromises it had entailed. The right-wing newspaper Głos ran an article urging readers to protest our plans to provide a forum for communist “criminals.”2 This appeal, and others like it in Polish-American publications and on Polish e-mail lists, provoked an avalanche of letters to CREES and to the University of Michigan’s president, Lee Bollinger. As one of our opponents put it, “what is the POINT of the conference? Why is it not being held in POLAND? Are these scholarly bleeding hearts unaware that some of the invitees have blood on their hands?…Is history being whitewashed again for the sake of some scholarly papers?”3 One bitter Polish-American, Mirosław M. Krupiński, even sent us a poem, in which he complained about the “traitors” who “ten years later, fat and arrogant / well fed from profits, and victorious / without any disputes, any disagreements / once again raise a toast—in Michigan.”4
Another critic, Tadeusz Witkowski, composed an article for a Polish-American journal called Periphery, in which he complained because we had limited our invitations to “individuals representing the left, the center, and the very moderate right.” By focusing on those who actually played a role in the negotiations of 1989, we had overlooked the many Poles who had opposed the talks. What most disturbed Witkowski, though, were “the political ideas behind the conference”—that is, our own alleged agenda. “Some American academics,” he wrote, “apparently try to measure the welfare of Polish society only in terms of what benefits today’s political establishment and the new Polish business class.” Here Witkowski was plugging into a common (albeit minority) conviction that the Round Table did not mark the end of communism, but was instead a negotiated settlement allowing the communists to retain their wealth and influence under new circumstances. As Witkowski put it,
for Americans who do not understand the Polish political scene, the Round Table might be something that “opened a new era for Eastern Europe and the entire world” [this is a quotation from our own pre-conference literature]. For many Poles it is only one more fraud and act of power division. Many would prefer to leave the “opening of a new era” to others and in Poland settle accounts with those responsible for the crimes of the communist era…At the Round Table, new elites emerged that absorbed the old ones.
For Witkowski, the Round Table is responsible for “a nihilism affecting young Poles as a result of their sense of the impunity of evil committed by the communists and a devaluation of the patriotic slogans used by some representatives of the opposition who subsequently exchanged them for money.”5 Such opinions are by no means limited to émigrés like Witkowski. On the occasion of the Round Table’s anniversary in 1998, a right-wing political party issued a statement declaring that “nine years ago the communists came to an agreement with the pink leadership of Solidarity, dividing Poland like a cake…
|All of them thought only about themselves, leaving only meager remains for society.”6
It was easy to dismiss the conspiracy theories regarding the Round Table, particularly when they accused us of involvement in a mysterious plot to retain the “pinks and the reds” in power, and simultaneously to buttress the interests of the American business elite. In the heat of the moment, I reacted with anger to the charge that I was pursuing a political agenda. Writing in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in February 1999, I attempted to respond to these critics.