Volume 2 Number 11
Elder Statesman of the New Poland
01 December 1989

For decades Stanislaw Stomma has stood for democracy and new relations with his country's neighbours. He talks to Pierre Spoerri.

In February 1976, two press photographs were published around Europe. In one, all the members of the Sejm (Polish :V Parliament) have their hands up except for one white-haired man sitting stonily in their midst; in the other, he alone has his hand up.

Professor Stanislaw Stomma was taking a courageous lone stand against the Polish Communist leadership, and it marked the end of his 21 years in the Sejm. Since then he has been a national symbol of democratic resistance. In Bonn this September, Lech Walesa referred to him as `the senior personality of our political life'.

Stomma was first elected to the Sejm in 1956, when a new Communist leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka, wanted to appear more tolerant of other political groups. Stomma chaired the largely Catholic ZNAK group in Parliament among whom, for ten years, was the present Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

In 1976 the Communist leadership decided to amend the Polish Constitution to establish `the leading role of the Communist Party' in the nation and to confirm Poland's `unshakable fraternal bond' with the Soviet Union. The head of the party was determined to have unanimous support in the Sejm and put pressure on Stomma in a personal interview. But, as the photos dramatically showed, the professor refused to budge.

Later that year he published an article in the West in which he admitted that he was frustrated with 'his earlier political activities. `There are limits beyond which realists cannot go,' he argued. `When their repeated efforts at a compromise find no response, there is no other way but resistance.'

In spite of his 81 years, Stomma's defiant act back in 1976 made him a natural Solidarity candidate for last May's Senate elections, the first since the Second World War.

As a result of the negotiations at the Round Table between Solidarity and the Communists, the Senate elections were completely free - in contrast to the Sejm elections where the Communists preserved a built-in majority for themselves. Stomma won 118,000 votes in the Plock constituency while the most successful Communist in that district won 7,000.

When the new Sejm and Senate met to elect a President for Poland, feelings were running high. Many of the Solidarity members had only recently been released from imprisonment under martial law and strongly opposed having a Communist President. However, Senator Stomma and six of his colleagues decided to abstain. Jaruzelski was re-elected by just one vote.

Shortly before this, Adam Michnik, one of those who had spent longest in prison, had suggested in the Solidarity daily that power should be shared between a Communist President and a Solidarity-controlled government. For the first time in 40 years a largely non-Communist government was in power in Eastern Europe. With typically dry humour, Stomma commented, `Poland is lucky that both political camps have very intelligent men in their leadership at this crucial moment.'

I first met Stomma in the Bonn home of a Social Democratic Member of the German Bundestag, General Beermann. At that time, German-Polish reconciliation was not a popular cause in either country. Whenever we met through that period, Stomma tried to convince us that not all Poles were Communists, and that even the Polish Communists were more Polish than Communist.

Stomma is a man of few words. He lets one draw one's own conclusions. During my visit to Warsaw in September, he took me to Palmiry, deep in the forest. Here, more than ten thousand Poles - a great percentage of the Polish intelligentsia of the time - were executed by the Germans and buried in mass graves. Some of the stone crosses had names on them, the rest did not, as many of the corpses could not be identified by the end of the war. For a long while Stomma stood there amongst the lines of crosses without saying anything.

Many events helped make Stomma the respected political thinker that he is today. He was born in Lithuania as the son of a small land-owner. The country was divided between the large Polish minority, who owned the land and controlled both trade and intellectual life, and the Lithuanians, who were mostly peasants.

In 1915, when Stomma was six, the Germans occupied Lithuania. `The Germans helped my mother,' he recalls - his father had already died. `I learned to speak German.'

Under the German occupation
Stomma studied law at the University of Vilnius and the family finally sold up and joined him there. In Vilnius, 60 per cent of the population were Poles, 35 per cent Jews and the rest Russians. During the Second World War, Vilnius changed hands several times. Under the German occupation Stomma secretly taught Polish children their history and the German language. `In spite of bitter experiences during the occupation, I knew that there was another type of German and that one must not let one's view of history be distorted by a limited number of events,' he says. `But I was an exception in thinking that way.' He later married Ella, one of his students of that period.

At the end of the war Stomma took part in the Warsaw uprising. Influenced by that tragic event, he started studying for the priesthood in Krakow. At the seminary he shared a bench with Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II. But, after much reflection, Stomma felt that he was not called to be a priest. He joined the editorial boards of two Catholic reviews: Znak and Tygodnik Powszechny.

Towards the end of the Stalin era, both papers were closed down. Stomma was unemployed for a year. Friends in France and some priests helped him and his family to survive. Then, for two years, he had a lowly job in the Krakow Historical Museum until, in October 1956, he was elected to the Sejm. After his exclusion from Parliament in February 1976 he joined Krakow University as a professor of law and finally retired in 1978.

In the Bonn speech where he referred to Stomma, Walesa expressed the wish that Germans and Poles should become good neighbours. Walesa quoted Stomma to the effect that `good neighbourliness is guaranteed where aggression has become psychologically impossible' and called for the creation of `a new model of mutual relations between peoples'.

Walesa's call was in line with two closely linked aims that have engaged Stomma throughout his varied career. The first concerns the freedom and security of the Polish nation and her constitutional foundations; the second, the Polish people's relationships with all their neighbours.

Few in Western Europe know that Poland's Constitution of 3 May 1791 was Europe's first written body of law to proclaim the rights of man and of the citizen. But scarcely was the ink dry on the paper before Poland's three reactionary neighbours - Prussia, Austria and Russia - annexed most of her territory and forced her to abandon her constitution.

By the end of the Second World War, one fifth of the population of pre-war Poland had been killed many in concentration camps. 6,028,000 Polish citizens dead - including three million Jews. In that climate of unimaginable misery, perhaps the bitterest pill of all was the handing over of Poland to the Soviet Union at Yalta. The shifting of the Polish borders 250 miles westward also meant that Poland had lost its ethnic and religious minorities and become truly homogeneous for the first time in its history. The presence of the Red Army made so-called free elections a farce. Although Stalin had once said that imposing Communism on the fiercely independent Poles would be like trying to saddle a cow, he let his Polish henchmen go through with it.

Stomma and many others kept their vision of a free Poland alive through their intimate contact with the Catholic Church. Its leader, Cardinal Wyszynski, who spent years in prison or under house-arrest, said, 'A man who passively accepts the slavery which is imposed on him submits himself to the yoke and in a sense ceases to be fully human.'

Highest award
There was little room for manoeuvre in Poland's post-war political framework with its close ties with the Soviet Union. During that period it was also easy to be accused of being 'proSoviet' when one agreed to work `within the system', as Stomma did. But there were opportunities to work towards creating new relationships with some of Poland's neighbours, even Germany.

Stomma travelled back and forth between Poland and Germany. His address was the first point of call for any German visiting Warsaw. He studied the lives of Germans who had made positive contributions to Poland and of Poles who had worked for better German-Polish relations.

In 1988, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher bestowed on him the highest award that West Germany can give a foreigner.

Lately, Stomma has been particularly concerned with relations between the Poles and the Lithuanians. Vilnius, near the Stommas' birthplace, is the present capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic but was part of Poland for centuries. The image of the Holy Mother of Vilnius is almost as venerated in Poland as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. But today there is tension between the Lithuanians who are striving for independence from the Soviet Union and the Polish minority in Lithuania. The Poles send their children to Russian schools as they feel they face discrimination and ridicule in Lithuanian schools.

In a recent article Stomma wrote, `The Lithuanians are worried about the old feelings which link the Poles to them. In conversations we hear: "You love us too much! It would be better if you loved us less but understood us better." That seems to be the problem. We impose our sympathy on them and give them good advice and force our proposals on them as solutions.... We would like the (Polish) minority to be loyal and creative from the point of view of the Lithuanians. But they can only be so if they do not feel discriminated against. We would like them to be a link between our two peoples and not a cause of tension and division.... We want to start a new chapter in history.'

As a Senator, Stomma is not blind to the economic sufferings of ordinary Poles. `We need to lower inflation, save our economy and strengthen the alliance between the two political camps,' he says. `This is the only way that will lead us out of the present confusion.'

Michnik has said, 'In one sense there is no model for what we are doing because no one has ever done it before. But if we make it, we will surely become the model for Russia.' Even though Stomma might be too modest to express himself publicly in such a way he would certainly agree.

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