I cannot do justice to Stefan Kisielewski’s Memoires. He was without doubt the most prominent of Poland’s post-war thinkers and founders of Poland’s post-war conservative movement, alongside his dear friend Henryk Krzeczkowski. Many of his insights are of great interest, such as his skepticism of those Polish Catholic intellectuals excited by the Western idea that the Church must restore its foundation by turning to the poor, while oblivious to the fact that there are only poor people in Poland and thus Western Catholic thought cannot easily apply to the East. There are, however, those with whom one can share many opinions but lack common sentiments. Communism made for a strange bedfellow, and reading Stefan Kisielewski twenty-five years after the fall of the Iron Curtain demonstrates as much.
In fairness, my differences with Mr. Kisielewski and his Polish admirers may stem from the chance coincidence that I grew up in New England and therefore have a more subtle view of American culture than Europeans, and particularly Poles. I do not carry the burden of Stefan Kisielewski’s experience of communism, but I know a man who misunderstands America and the West when I see one. Readers unable to familiarize themselves with Mr. Kisielewski’s Memiores may find my criticisms a tad harsh, but they are as measured as possible towards a man who constantly referred to even his political allies as fools, idiots, and far worse. He had a foul mouth so instinctive as to be incapable of keeping it out of his private diary even, a diary which he mused would hopefully one day find a publisher. Many Poles would argue that Stefan Kisielewski did not have a colorful vocabulary, but rather a brilliant sense of humor. His sense of humor remains impenetrable to me, and his penchant to digress from serious thought into the language of the lavatory is almost unbearable to my sensibilities. Blame it on my German blood, but I cannot admire this man’s writing and do not understand his popularity. I support his politics only because everything else in Poland is indeed far worse—for now.
Three principle obstacles stand in the way of my admiration. First, Mr. Kisielewski’s writing, like the music he composed, is chaotic and grating on my delicate sensibilities. We Rieths prefer epic tones and prose to Kisielewski’s insensitive writing and frenzied music. The Polish Christian Socialist Anna Kowalska noted in her memoires that Mr. Kisielewski rather disgusted her—I cannot help but share her sentiment. Second, Mr. Kisielewski was not a conservative except in the broadest of political senses. He was more accurately a classical liberal, or a free-market liberal, or even a modern, liberal democrat. The differences between a liberal and a conservative seemed rather pedantic in communist Poland, but in reading Mr. Kisielewski today, anyone of a truly conservative disposition would likely find themselves somewhat repulsed by his raving tractates. For Mr. Kisielewski, the key culprit in human history is not human sin, but stupidity and the failure to implement correct policy or make one last necessary charge against enemy lines. Where sin is a problem, it has a solution: the free market. Thirdly, I simply disagree with an immense portion of Mr. Kisielewski’s political thought, particularly his diatribes against Charles de Gaulle. Where I do agree with him, for example with regard to his support for Richard Nixon, our agreement is only superficial. Admittedly, if not for the numerous references and accounts of his dear friend Henryk Krzeczkowski, I likely would not have read this 900-plus page book.
Mr. Kisielewski and Henryk Krzeczkowski enjoyed sharing vodka and conversation–this much is clear. Mr. Kisielewski persistently thought very highly of Mr. Krzeczkowski throughout the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s. Only once, in 1977, towards the end of the Memoires, does Mr. Kisielewski write of a great disagreement with Henryk Krzeczkowski. An issue is the fate of the Committee in Defense of Workers, an important element of the budding Solidarity movement, and specifically the fate of Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń, two liberal, Marxist intellectual opponents of the Communist government who have risen to prominence in the politics of the times and would go on to greater prominence in the years ahead. Henryk Krzeczkowski correctly calls Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń “Demons,” after Dostoyevski’s book of the same title. Mr. Krzeczkowski warns against becoming involved in a dispute among Marxist factions. Mr. Kisielewski opines that Henryk Krzeczkowski’s view is insane and likely the result of the fact that Henryk Krzeczkowski is a “Jew faggot who fought the war in Russia.”
Naturally, as with everything else Mr. Krzeczkowski said about politics in Poland, he was proven right. Adam Michnik went on to become best friends with the worst elements of the Communist nomenclature, to become a darling of the worst elements of the liberal West and is now embedded in a multimillion dollar media enterprise, which advocates against Catholicism and conservatism and for war with Russia, abortion-on-demand, homosexual marriage and the litany of Western degeneracy that corrodes America and Europe. Even Mr. Kisielewski eventually came around to souring on Adam Michnik, but in 1977 he was apparently bitten by the bug of making political friends amongst the trendy political crowd: the professional dissidents and “democracy activists.”
Aside from this, Mr. Kisielewski is also unbearable in his foreign policy thinking. Like Henryk Krzeczkowski, he too was a veteran of World War II. He fought in the Polish army when the Germans invaded Poland and, by his own account, spent quite a bit of time retreating alongside his comrades in arms. Avoiding capture, he continued the struggle in the Polish underground and took part in the Warsaw Uprising. Like many Poles, Mr. Kisielewski never stopped waiting for the British and Americans to appear. This explains his wild fluctuations between blind faith in the benevolence of American military activity during the Cold War and resentment of Western safety on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Mr. Kisielewski is often either hoping for more American bombs to fall on Vietnam or for Soviet bombs to fall on America and France as a kind of righteous Judgment for the West’s abandonment of Poland.
He admires the West and despises it at the same time for managing to maintain a comfortable living standard and decent liberty while Poland suffers communism. This emotional dualism compromises Mr. Kisielewski as a geopolitical thinker—at least insofar as his Memiores are concerned. Of course, a private diary does not record public political thought, and in public he was far more rational, particularly when he suggested negotiating a settlememt with Soviet Russia that acknowledged the Warsaw Pact but allowed for the introduction of a free market economy in Poland. Nevertheless, despite a theoretical grasp of the general benefits of markets over a command economy, there is little by way of true in-depth political analysis in Mr. Kisielewski’s thought. Nowhere is this more evident than in his ruminations on the Polish invasion of Chechoslovakia, which is fraught with hysteria.
Another persistant source of foreign policy hysteria in Mr. Kisielewski’s Memoires are his thoughts on Charles DeGualle. Mr. Kisielewski, to put it simply, hated DeGualle for what Kisielewski perceived as Guallist anti-Americanism. He believed very strongly that Guallist France was breaking apart the anti-Communist Western alliance and engaging in wrecklessness. The iron-clad support for American intervention in Vietnam (which Mr. Kiesielewski never paused to consider from the perspective of Vietnam’s 1000 year struggle against foreign occupation) that the Memoires present is absent with regard to the French military effort in Indo-China, because Mr. Kisielewski considers the French to be cowards and opportunists. Oddly enough, this makes him enthusiastic about Mitter and, who despite being a socialist, is a pro-American socialist. There is no more superficial analysis of geopolitics in the Memiores than the recurring rants against Gaullism. The axis around which Mr. Kisielewski’s view of world politics turns is the notion that communism is a hegemonic force which can only be defeated by American arms. All current affairs, from Vietnam to Chechoslovakia, are made subservient to this axis.
Needless to say, this leads Mr. Kisielewski to conclusions which, in retrospect, are rather laughable. For instance, after blaming Eisenhower and Nixon for being soft on communism, Mr. Kisielewski proclaims it is time to give the Democrats a chance and places his hopes for a tougher American foreign policy in the person of Jimmy Carter. This is the portion of the Memiores that made me laugh out loud. No doubt Mr. Kisielewski’s faith in a Carter presidency was rooted in his friend, Mr. Zbigniew Brzeziński, being close to Carter. Mr. Kisielewski’s faith in the Carter administration remains unshaken following the helicopter tragedy in Afghanistan. He even goes so far as to write negatively about Ronald Reagan for criticizing Carter for the fiasco. The juxtaposition of Stefan Kisielewski’s blame of DeGaulle and Eisenhower for being “soft” on communism in conjunction with his faith in the Carter administration is rather ludicrous, but Mr. Kisielewski can be excused given the circumstances under which he wrote. He is somewhat better on Nixon, but not much.
What is useful about reading Kisielewski is the extent to which his thinking demonstrates blind Polish faith in American power, a faith which clouds all reason and reduces America to the role of a kind of Deus ex Machina, rather than an autonomous political entity whose people might have in mind a destiny far different from fighting Europe’s wars. This mentality persists amongst some Poles today who express the naïve hope that a Hillary Clinton Presidency will “stick it to Russia.” Kisielewski seemed uninterested and oblivious to the actual content of Eisenhower or Nixon or DeGaulle’s political thought. This is symptomatic amongst Poland’s admirers of America: rather than looking to Statesmen and inquiring how it is that they sustained strong republics, Poles only focus on the extent to which foreign powers helped fight against Russia. The result is a strong martial spirit amongst her people combined with clumsy, weak republican institutions and laws. Everyone wants to emulate Reagan, but few care to read the Federalist Papers.
Henryk Krzeczkowski’s writing, in juxtaposition to Mr. Kisielewski. is the height of political science. There is no hysteria, not an iota of resentment, no expectation nor desire for American or British rescue and a maniacal commitment to creating the framework for an independent Polish republicanism anchored in a realistic geopolitics that ignores the passions of the moment in favor of a strategic clarity that is the stuff of a martial mind. It is perhaps a testimony to the greatest flaw of the Polish character that Mr. Kisielewski made a greater name for himself as a political writer than Mr. Krzeczkowski. Mr. Kisielewski reaffirms Polish readers in their sentimental conviction that American weakness is the cause of all the woes of the world. He expresses the Polish bitterness at allied betrayal mixed with the expectation of allied assistance which Henryk Krzeczkowski refused to engage in, understanding full well that Britain, France and the United States did not exist to provide eternal military aid to Poland. Henryk Krzeczkowski took seriously the proposition that Poles had only one realistic path: to nurture their own strength and conduct their own diplomacy. He refused the silly notion that Poland’s geopolitical situation was somehow inherently hopeless and recognized, as the old satirist Stańczyk conservatives did, that it was Polish failure to take political thought and the creation of strong republican institutions seriously that hindered the nation.
None of this is to suggest that the two men were antagonists. Stefan Kisielewski constantly refers to Henryk Krzeczkowski as a refreshing conversationalist, a barometer for understanding the inner workings of the communist government (which Mr. Krzeczkowski viewed without ideological pretenses, but merely as a forum for natural competition between political ambitions) and of communism in general. Perhaps the wisest observation Stefan Kisielewski makes of his conservative friend is the following: “Henryk was a Soviet Man.”
We often speak about homo sovieticus in theory, but Henryk Krzeczkowski was indeed a Soviet Man in practice, albeit one perfectly familiarized with the West and a Christian. His understanding of Bolshevism and of Communist politics was impeccable, no doubt due to his lifelong association with the Communist intelligence apparatus and membership in the United Workers Party of Poland which presumably began when he joined Stalin’s Polish Army and expired only in the early 1950s. Few men understood Communism on a functional, political level, as well as he did. He was only one of two men to accurately predicted Martial Law, including the exact date it would be announced. Stefan Kisielewski admired his great wisdom. Henryk Krzeczkowski returned the favor and enjoyed the company of his good friend. Of Stefan Kisielewski, Henryk Krzeczkowski writes that he had managed to make of himself a one-man private institution of civil society within the Iron Curtain. This was true. Today, Mr. Kisielewski is a de facto private institution of civil society insofar as a Foundation in his name exists as well as a coveted award in his name.
I wonder at times about the significance of the popularity of Mr. Kisielewski amongst Poles and the comparative obscurity of Henryk Krzeczkowski. The two were great friends, and yet the latter is either forgotten by everyone or explicitly rejected while the former is now embraced by everyone even to the extent of being diluted into a mainstream icon. On the surface, this is easy to explain. Henryk Krzeczkowski was everything that is suspicious in Poland now: a communist party member, a soldier in Stalin’s army, a Catholic of simple faith who eschewed excess theology in favor of provincial religious faith and thus made no friends amongst the sophisticates of the intellectual world, a homosexual, a conservative, an admirer of Roman Dmowski–a Jew and an (open) agent of the communist security services. Beneath the surface, however, Henryk Krzeczkowski’s person simply explodes the ideological categories that a demented twentieth century foisted upon the human person. His entire oeuvre demonstrates the stubborn insistence of a man of conscience to write about politics as a permanent confrontations with the weaknesses of fallen human nature. Henryk Krzeczkowski was, as Stefan Kisielewski correctly noted on more than one occasion, someone you turned to when you needed to lift your spirits amidst the omnipresent dictatorship of idiocy.
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