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Author Paweł Machcewicz on RFE's Special Relationship with Polish Audiences Behind the Iron Curtain

Poland – Hundreds of young anti-government demonstrators staged a protest march in Central Warsaw on June 30, 1989 to oppose Polish leader General Wojcieh Jaruzelski.
Poland – Hundreds of young anti-government demonstrators staged a protest march in Central Warsaw on June 30, 1989 to oppose Polish leader General Wojcieh Jaruzelski.

RFE/RL interviewed Paweł Machcewicz, author of Poland's War on Radio Free Europe, 1950-1989. Machcewicz discusses the role of RFE’s Polish Service in providing Poles behind the Iron Curtain with reliable information about what was happening in their country during and before 1989.

RFE/RL: Based on your research, what were the most profound challenges RFE faced in Poland?

MACHCEWICZ: Certainly one of the most profound challenges was finding reliable information on the other side of the Iron Curtain, which became the basis of RFE’s programming and broadcasting. Seeking such information was the main reason why people in the communist countries listened to RFE, sometimes – especially during the Stalinist time – risking painful consequences. RFE journalists and researchers talked to people from behind the Iron Curtain who travelled to the West, analyzed all available official information from the communist countries, but also established working contacts with those living in permanence “on the other side.” Sometimes they suffered severe consequences, as, for instance, a clandestine group created by Władysław Bartoszewski in Poland in the 1960s. I describe their story in my book.

RFE/RL: Much is said about RFE’s “special relationship” with Polish audiences because of its coverage over decades of critical, national events. Can you comment on this “special relationship”?

MACHCEWICZ: The Polish service of the RFE, in my opinion, had two unique features in comparison with other RFE services. First, it was based on a very large and politically and intellectually vibrant émigré community. Its existence was the continuation of the war-time emigration when the Polish government in exile and Polish armed forces fought on the side of the Allies. During the Cold War – especially in the 1950s and 1960s – those people contributed in a decisive way to creating the Polish RFE service and making it such a dynamic and interesting place.

Secondly, RFE’s Polish Service managed to establish a very broad network of contacts in the country behind the Iron Curtain. It usually provided abundant and reliable information, which enabled timely and flexible reactions to the developments in Poland. There were moments when RFE exerted a tangible impact on what was happening there. For example, in 1954 it stimulated the anti-Stalinist thaw by broadcasting the revelations of a famous defector from the Polish Public Security Ministry, Józef Światło; in 1956 RFE encouraged Poles to demand democratization, but at the same time urged them to stay calm and not follow the Hungarian path. Exceptional was also the leadership of Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a charismatic figure who was the head of the Polish service from 1952 to 1975.

RFE/RL: Your research includes documents from the Polish secret service archives. What were some of the measures undertaken by the security services to undermine RFE’s broadcasting efforts?

MACHCEWICZ: RFE was the constant enemy of the Polish security service since the 1950s until the end of the communist regime in 1989. It is hard to point at any other political or ideological target which was attacked by the communists with such persistence for almost four decades, regardless of all the political changes in Poland. The security apparatus organized jamming which hampered – especially before 1956 – the possibilities of listening to the RFE. It also inspired propaganda attacks that presented RFE as lackeys of American imperialist and of German revanchists, who allegedly attempted to attack Poland and take back parts of the Polish territories. The latter accusation was based on a real fact that RFE broadcast from German soil. It tried to exploit the genuine Polish fears rooted in the traumatic experience of the Second World War.

Last but not least, the security service attempted to infiltrate the Polish service of RFE. They planted there, starting in the 1960s, several agents whose task was to gather information and to foment internal tensions and conflicts. In the latter task, they achieved some successes, especially in “disintegration” (as it was called in the language of the security service) and defamation campaigns against Jan Nowak-Jeziorański. All in all these campaigns never really jeopardized the position of the Polish service. Security agents never exerted any real influence on programming and broadcasting. RFE continued to be very popular in Poland, in times of political tensions (such as from 1980 to 1982) and about half of the Poles admitted that they listened to it. (These were the estimates of official Polish sociological surveys, confidential for obvious reasons.)

RFE/RL: 30 years later, what are the important lessons learned from the events of 1989?

MACHCEWICZ: The lessons that can be learned are the importance of the free media that for decades provided information to people living behind the Iron Curtain. This information certainly contributed to the demise of the communist dictatorships. The other lesson is the vulnerability of democracies which arose after 1989. Some of them – in Hungary and Poland – are currently severely jeopardized. Public media are again used by the “rulers” to attack political opponents and distort reality. In that respect, one might think that the mission of RFE is not over yet as it seemed to be in the early 1990s.

Interview edited by Anna West.