Polish Lutherans Facing Their Communist Past

The Case of Bishop Jagucki

In March 2007 the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession (ECAC) in Poland established a historical commission for the purpose of investigating the infiltration of the church’s structures by the communist secret police, or Security Service, as it was officially called. The ECAC, it must be added, was the first church body in Poland, including the Roman-Catholic church, to face its past in this manner.  The step earned it much praise from certain Catholic journalists and clergy who are to this day waiting for a similar act of institutional courage, as the Lutherans’ decision was then widely viewed.

Things, not surprisingly, were off to a rather slow start, given the intricacies of archival work, for which only some of the commission’s members were professionally qualified as either archivists or historians.  However, as time went by, what was initially seen as seriousness and caution gave way to the impression that the commission was, in reality, dragging its feet rather than fulfilling its mandate.  Its most important task was the investigation of the archival material pertaining to the church’s current leadership: the bishops, members of the Consistory and of the Syndical Council.

Reasons for this apparent reluctance became clear when, in September 2008, the nationwide daily Rzeczpospolita, published an article entitled The Pastor and the Security Service, by Lutheran journalist Cezary Gmyz.[1]  It brought the startling revelation that among political police informers in the church’s ranks was also its current presiding bishop (and, ironically, president of the commission’s supervisory college[2]), the Rt. Rev. Janusz Jagucki.  When elected Bishop of the Church in 2001, Jagucki never disclosed to the church that, as a pastor, he had for 17 years maintained secret contacts with the Security Service.  What the archival evidence now showed with painful clarity was not only Bishop Jagucki’s collaboration but also its more-than-willing character.

The historical commission eventually concurred in this judgment and, in March 2009, in a secret ballot declared Bishop Jagucki guilty of persistent and conscious collaboration with the communist secret police – a collaboration, the commission concluded, that had undeniably harmed the church.  Materials gathered in Jagucki’s thousand-page file, some of them in his own handwriting, show that, as a pastor, he was the one who often initiated meetings.  He informed widely on parishioners, fellow pastors, and even members of his own family, as well as undertaking to obtain intelligence of interest to the Security Service.  A particularly egregious example was Jagucki’s betrayal of a runaway from the German Democratic Republic who had turned to him for help.  For his collaboration Pastor Jagucki seems to have occasionally accepted small financial gifts (some signed receipts have been preserved).

Jagucki’s collaboration, it is now known, was hardly an isolated case.  The past three years have seen a flurry of historical studies of the Polish Lutheran church’s entanglement with the communist regime, including the first monograph which covers the years 1945-75.[3]  While there is little doubt that pastors who were secret informers remained a minority, it was clearly a significant and influential minority.  Today it is estimated that 20% to 30% of the clergy were, in some measure, Security Service informers.[4]  The figure, it seems, does not differ much from the level of infiltration of the Roman-Catholic church.  But there are several factors which make matters worse in the case of the Lutheran church.  The first is its small size.  With only 200 or so pastors, professional and personal interconnectedness is extremely high.  It is practically impossible not to know more than one perhaps should about fellow pastors.  Second, the informers were generally high-ranking church officials, diocesan superintendents, or pastors of prominent parishes.  They were the decision makers, and the fate of their brothers in the ministry often lay in their hands.  The Security Service was obviously interested in informers that were deemed valuable.  Finally, as the former military bishop, Ryszard Borski, notes in a biographical essay, students graduating from the Christian Theological Academy in Warsaw, in contrast to graduates of Catholic seminaries, received no preparation for, or even an informal warning about, the possibility of an enlistment attempt.  This made young Lutheran pastors all the more vulnerable in confrontation with the seemingly all-powerful communist apparatus of repression.[5]

In what follows, I shall situate Jagucki’s case against a larger, though necessarily selective, picture of Polish Lutheran pastors’ collaboration with the Security Service in the years 1945-89.  As noted, the extent of the problem is becoming clear only now.  What is disturbing, however, is not only that historians have shattered the all too convenient myth of the church’s victimization by the communist regime and brought to light the church’s complicity.  The problem also has a present-day side.  The investigative work has been taken over by individuals, many of them professional historians, with no institutional ties of dependence to the ECAC.  This has been a reaction to what is seen as the church’s lack of real interest in coming to terms with its communist past.  Once it became clear that too many members of the ECAC’s current leadership would be implicated and would then have to act as judges in their own case, the historical commission’s enthusiasm seems to have petered out.  Already in Bishop Jagucki’s case, the commission showed itself to be susceptible to those who are decidedly not interested in raking things up because the church’s communist past is also very much their own past.  Church-political maneuvering has effectively reduced the commission’s activity to issuing warnings against hasty conclusions, with which it typically greets the results of others’ investigation.

However, if there were some in the church’s leadership who expected the problem eventually to go away or remain of interest only to a handful of historians, they have so far been proved wrong.  The perceived political maneuvering in the church’s highest ranks has given rise to a largely lay-led grassroots initiative concerned about the ECAC’s moral voice.  The emergence of this group has brought to light a dangerous fault line between the church’s clerical leaders, resorting to self-defensive theological platitudes, and a minority group of mostly younger lay persons who are concerned about the credibility of the ECAC’s witness.  I shall return to this in the final portion of this article.

 

Polish Lutherans and the Communist Government

Let me begin with some background.  In the interwar period, there were several Lutheran and Union churches in Poland.  The largest of those, with some 425,000 members, was the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, headquartered in Warsaw.  Its general superintendent and then presiding bishop was, throughout the entire period, the Rt. Rev. Juliusz Bursche, widely known for his pro-Polish sympathies.  The ECAC was largely Polish speaking, though with a substantial German-speaking minority.  The Prussian Union churches had some 270,000 members and were predominantly German in ethnicity.  Altogether Lutheran, Union and Reformed Christians added up to 2.6% of the population.[6]

The losses suffered by the Lutherans during World War II were incalculable.  At the war’s outbreak, the ECAC had 227 clergymen, of whom 125 declared Polish nationality.  Of those 125, 63 were arrested by the Nazis, 39 were sent to concentration camps, and 3 murdered in prison.  The ECAC was also the only Polish church body to lose its leader.  Already in early October 1939, the Nazis arrested Bishop Bursche, who had refused to leave the country and issued a statement condemning Germany’s aggression.  Bishop Bursche was then sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on charges of participation in the Versailles Peace Conference and betrayal of the Germans in Poland.  He died in uncertain circumstances in 1942.[7]  When the War ended, Poland had 352 Lutheran places of worship, served by only 42 pastors.  The total number of Lutherans in the first years after the war is estimated at 235,000.[8]  (At present the ECAC has some 80,000 members.)

The war’s end brought no relief but a host of new challenges.  In 1945 Poland found itself within new borders, with a large portion of its pre-war territory annexed by the Soviet Union and with new territorial gains in the west, granted at Germany’s expense by Stalin and his western allies.  The country was ruled by a communist government, entirely dependent on Stalin’s orders and legitimated solely by the presence of Soviet troops and the ever-expanding apparatus of terror.  Even after a considerable relaxation of the Soviet grip on the country, which took place during the 1954-56 period of de-Stalinization, the reality in which the Lutherans had to function was that of a state that sought far-reaching control over the lives and socio-political aspirations of its citizens.

What made matters even worse for the Lutherans was the popular post-war stereotype which portrayed them as Nazi sympathizers, or at best a foreign, German element in the native Catholic soil.  The only exception was the former Duchy of Cieszyn in Austrian Silesia, where Lutheranism was traditionally associated with Polish ethnicity; it remained a Lutheran stronghold.  In other parts of the country, the Lutherans were dispersed and forcibly thrust into an ethic mold many did not identify with.  The years immediately following the war saw numerous takeovers, despite protests, of Lutheran churches by Catholics on the pretext that the buildings were former German property.

The weakness of the ECAC – which in 1947 became, by law, the sole Lutheran church in Poland, incorporating both former Union and Old Lutheran parishes – made it turn to the government for protection.  But, not surprisingly, the government was only interested in guaranteeing the ECAC’s legal rights because it saw a place for the Lutherans in its own plans.  One of the Lutheran church’s abiding roles was to weaken the position of the Catholic church, which by virtue of its sheer size remained the only real competitor and threat in the communist struggle for the rule of souls.

In addition to this intermediate propaganda function (the government’s goal was not, after all, to have Catholics turned into Lutherans), there were also other roles that the government, at various times, envisaged for the Lutheran church.  Among them was, in the 1950s, the polonization (though here the government also feared accidental clericalization) of the native population of the former East Prussia.[9]  The government was also interested in monitoring Lutherans’ institutional and private contacts with the West, which became possible again after 1956.  The ECAC could perform this function less obtrusively.  Further, because of its contacts with the West, the Lutheran church served a vital role in presenting Poland as a country where freedom of belief and other civil rights were respected.  The church also proved useful in supporting the Polish government’s and even the entire Soviet block’s policies in face of their western detractors.  Notorious in this regard is Presiding Bishop Andrzej Wantuła’s reference to the Berlin Wall as “a wall of peace.”[10]  Last but not least, the communist regime, by its very nature, even aside from those goals, remained vitally interested in the activities of the church as a potential source of discontentment and subversion.

All of those roles necessitated the predictability of the church’s actions and its close cooperation with the authorities.  After 1956 this was to be achieved not through direct coercion, as in the Stalinist period, but through intrigue and indirect control, exercised by means of a network of reliable secret informers within the church’s ranks.  This is not to say that there were no informers in the church prior to 1956.  Far from it.  But once the government was no longer concerned with the imminent suppression of all church life, the issue of control became more pressing, while at the same time more complex and requiring greater sensitivity.

Interestingly enough, as one historian has observed, it is chiefly among the older generation of pastors who survived the war that one comes across skepticism and criticism of the new political reality.  An informer’s report accuses one pastor of having said at a pastoral conference in 1953: “It is our task to proclaim not that social change or the 6-year plan is important but that God’s Word is.  One must not engage in polemics during instruction, so that the other side might not accuse us of activism; but one must present the most important information where their textbooks attack our positions.  It is not so bad, because their teachers don’t believe yet what their textbooks say.”[11]  Likewise, one must admire the Kraków pastor, Karol Kubisz, who, after he had been forced to sign an informer’s agreement in 1953, not only did not deliver on it but, when repeatedly pressed by the Security Service officer, retorted that “he has his own job and is not going to snitch on people.”  This, it seems, put an end to any further demands for collaboration.[12]

In this light, it seems all the more surprising that, with Stalinist terror gone, so many pastors agreed “willingly” (if one is to believe the recruiters’ reports) to serve as secret informers.  What motivated them?  So far, according to Jan Szturc, the archives have not yielded a single case of blackmail pertaining to the informer’s financial dealings or his private life.  Most informers actually seem to have been driven by a desire to gain a position of prominence in the church.  The prevalent sentiment appears to have been that one could not make a career in the church without government support.  Another common type of motivation had to do with obtaining goods that were scarce, such as a passport to be able to travel abroad, as well as some types of material goods and other favors.  Among motivating factors was also fear of Roman-Catholic dominance: as long as the Catholic church suffered government restrictions, the restrictions imposed on the Lutherans did not matter.[13]

This latter reason is related to how some informers justified their collaboration to themselves: they were doing it for the good of the church, since both the communists and the Lutherans shared a common enemy, the Catholic church.  However, the good of the church was, according to Szturc, invoked merely for the sake of appeasing one’s conscience.  The guiding officers’ reports convey practically no expectations, on the informers’ part, of benefits to the church at large or to the informer’s own parish.  There were also a number of other strategies that helped one to appease a guilty conscience.  In some cases, the informers refused financial remuneration, though usually they did not shy away from accepting small gifts.  The Security Service also stopped requiring written declarations of collaboration, which may have created the impression of an informal, though secret, chat instead of a confidential exchange of sensitive information.  Not without importance here was, finally, the fact that some informers may have been led to believe that the information they divulged was only insignificant gossip.  The most common excuse one hears today is “What I said didn’t hurt anyone” – even though this cannot be anything more than a subjective impression.

There remains no doubt that the Security Service achieved its goal in regard to the Lutheran church.  Grzegorz Bębnik notes that “The saturation of the ECAC’s structures with informers was so high that not infrequently several informers, knowing nothing of one another, informed on one another.”  An informer that stands out, in particular, is the former superintendent of the Katowice Diocese, Rev. Adolf Hauptman.  His extensive connections to various Lutheran and charity organizations in the West and the seriousness with which he took his task earned him the reputation of an especially valuable source of operationally worthy intelligence.  In fact, he was such a prized informer that his guiding officer came to his funeral with a wreath in gratitude for the 31 years of fruitful collaboration.[14]  For many informers in the church’s ranks collaboration ended automatically only when Poland became a free country.

 

Problems with Repentance

In light of its sluggish performance to date, one can only speculate about why the ECAC’s historical commission was formed at all and what it was hoped it might find in the Security Service archives.  What is certain is that the decision to establish the commission followed the 2006 revision of the lustration law, which requires some public officials to submit lustration statements disclosing their dealings, if any, with the communist secret police.  The truthfulness of these statements is then vetted by the Institute of National Remembrance, where the Secret Service archives are now deposited.  Those found to be “lustration liars” are barred from public office.

The lustration law does not, of course, extend to churches.  However, the opening of the Security Service archives led some in the church to express concern about its moral authority – especially if it were to be historians and journalists, rather than the church itself, who first made public, and then passed judgment on, the unsavory pages in the ECAC’s history.  Concern about moral credibility, as well as the issue of timing, was certainly at play in the establishment of the ECAC’s historical commission.  It must be mentioned, further, that the archives are preserved only partially, many files having been destroyed in 1989-90.  For someone aspiring to public office, not to disclose one’s past may, therefore, be a risk worth taking.  Yet in reality, as we now know, even if operational reports are missing, the pseudonym of an actual informer appears in so many places that the fact of collaboration is generally beyond doubt.  The Security Service was not stupid enough to be fobbed off with worthless information; it carefully evaluated and verified operational reports, for example, against other informers’ accounts.[15]  There is thus a paper trail even if actual reports no longer exist.  Given the partial nature of the preserved files, it was perhaps hoped (if so, then rather naively) that the church would find in the archival material only confirmation of its self-perception as victim – as “a hostage of the times” (as a 2003 publication of the Polish Ecumenical Council described the Protestant churches in Poland and Germany in the 20th century).  But that was not to be.

Since Bishop Jagucki’s secret, conscious and harmful collaboration with the Security Service became public knowledge, the response of the ECAC’s leadership has been hubristic in the extreme.  The commission’s decision brought to light the tremendous pressure exerted on its members by the Consistory and the bishops, clearly stunned by what one could find in the archives and determined not to allow matters to progress any further.  Following the confirmation of Jagucki’s collaboration and in the absence of any remorse on his part, military bishop Ryszard Borski put forth a motion to the Synodical Assembly for Bishop Jagucki’s immediate retirement.  To prevent the motion from being considered, Bishop Jagucki and his supporters asked that a vote of confidence be taken first, evidently hoping it would be in his favor.  This turned out to be only a partial victory: the vote failed, but only by a simple, rather than absolute, majority.  This led to the shortening of Jagucki’s term, but allowed him to remain in office for another 8 months.  He was then retired with full benefits, even though he never served a full term as bishop and to this day has repeatedly refused to recognize the harm his actions caused, let alone apologize.  He remains the vice-president of the Polish Ecumenical Council, and the ECAC’s representative in that body.  Earlier this year he also took a part in the consecration of a new diocesan bishop.

Before leaving office, Bishop Jagucki made sure – in what is widely viewed as an act of revenge – that the military bishop would not be reelected for another term but rather forced into an early retirement.  This was not difficult to accomplish, considering there are still some 20 pastors, registered as Secret Service informers, who currently occupy high-ranking positions in the ECAC.  Until earlier this year, the number also included four of the six diocesan bishops (at present it is down to three).  This entire group reacts allergically to the idea of raking up the past and even more so to calls to accountability and repentance.  Most, it seems, would simply like to reach retirement age without having to face any uncomfortable questions.

However, being left in peace may no longer be an option in the era of the Internet.  The sense of incredulity at the political maneuvering of Bishop Jagucki and his camp has led to the rise of a mostly lay-led Internet forum where rank-and-file Lutherans have been able to comment on the state of the ECAC and the hubris of its leadership.[16]  Some members of the forum appear to be historians with access to the Security Service archives, some are journalists; most are concerned laity, joined by a handful of pastors, usually appearing under pseudonyms.

What brings them all together is their worry about the church’s moral credibility in today’s world.  But there is also a theological concern.  The ECAC’s renunciation of its own moral voice for the sake of self-preservation is symptomatic of an underlying perversion of the Lutheran teaching on justification.  Why repent if humans are justified apart from works?  This attitude, it is widely felt, seems to pervade the misguided actions of the ECAC’s leadership.  It has taken the place of the genuinely Lutheran question: Why not repent?  Why not repent when, thanks to our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, the entire life of believers can be one of repentance?  This moral-theological concern is coupled with a feeling of exasperation and even anger at the self-preserving actions of the ECAC’s leaders.  Yet there is also a growing sense of confidence not only that God will preserve the church but also that members of Christ’s body themselves can, and indeed should, bring about a change.

To date only the bishop of the Katowice Diocese, Tadeusz Szurman, has responded to the growing criticism.  “Let us not demand admission of guilt on the part of those who feel innocent,” he cautions in his post, “we have seen this before and it was the darkest side of totalitarianism.  Church members always have the right to make critical remarks, but do not forget about the dignity of people of faith and the image of our community on the outside.”[17]  Szurman is, of course, right that to insist on a confession of guilt from an innocent person is immoral.  But there is a difference between an innocent person and a person who merely feels innocent.  Szurman himself is among the bishops registered as Security Service informers.  By his own admission, he met with a guiding officer several times but offered no information and, therefore, does not feel the need to apologize.  It is especially in cases like Szurman’s that one should have the courage, as Cezary Gmyz postulates, to petition for auto-lustration in order to have one’s name cleared.  This procedure entrusts the tracking down and analysis of the archival material to a specially established court.  The court determines, on the basis of the extant evidence, not only the fact of secret collaboration but also whether it was conscious and caused actual harm.  A pastor registered as an informer should take advantage of this procedure in his own interest and in the interest of those he serves.

Unfortunately, the current presiding bishop, the Rt. Rev. Jerzy Samiec, seems largely inclined to let sleeping dogs lie.  He was, in any case, elected on the platform of putting a stop to lustration proceedings and had himself played a role, as Synodical Assembly President, in the maneuvering that was to save Bishop Jagucki’s head.  The sentiment, prevalent among the current leadership, remains that expressed by the historical commission’s chair, Dawid Binemann-Zdanowicz, shortly before the meeting that was to decide Bishop Jagucki’s guilt.  In a letter to the Consistory, Zdanowicz accused pastors who had refused to collaborate with the communist secret police of harming the church.  “Every pastor,” he wrote, “knew that the Security Service was the secret political police, and that showing hostility to or disregarding its representatives was obvious foolhardiness and an activity that harmed the church.”[18]  What all this means in practice can be illustrated by the example of one pastor who was legally declared a victim of secret informers among fellow pastors.  This pastor has been denied the right to have the court sentence published in the church’s official periodical “for fear of causing grief to those on the other side.”[19]

Given all this, it remains to wish perseverance to the concerned laity of the ECAC, as they call on the church to face its past with integrity.  They seem to have a better sense of what a life of repentance and enjoyment of God’s forgiveness might be all about.  Already in this, there is hope.

____________________________
NOTES:
[1] Cezary Gmyz, “Pastor i Bezpieka,” Rzeczpospolita (26 September 2008).

[2] Throughout this article I shall make no distinction between the commission as made up of two research teams, on the one hand, and the supervisory college, distinct from those, on the other.  I shall simply refer to “the commission” and take it for granted that it is the college that has actual decisional powers.  The historical commission’s statute is available via the ECAC’s website at http://www.luteranie.pl/pl/materialy/Statut%20KH.pdf.

[3] Ryszard Borski, “Doświadczenia życia w komunizmie jako duszpasterskie i historyczne wyzwanie [The Experience of Life under Communism as a Pastoral and Historical Challenge]”; and Cezary Gmyz, “Co kryje archiwum IPN?”  Both articles can be found at http://www.luteranie.net.

[4] Jarosław Kłaczkow, Kościół Ewangelicko-Augsburski w Polsce w latach 1945-1975 (Toruń: Adam Marszałek, 2010).

[5] Not insignificant here is the fact that the Academy was (and to this day remains) a state school, created and supported by the government after the expulsion of the Lutheran Theology Faculty from the University of Warsaw in 1954.

[6] The data come from the 1931 census.  For a more detailed breakdown, see Elżbieta Alabrudzińska, Protestantyzm w Polsce w latach 1918-1939 (Toruń: Adam Marszałek, 2009), 90.

[7] For a discussion of the German atrocities committed against Polish Lutheran clergy, see Woldemar Gastpary, Protestantyzm w Polsce w dobie dwóch wojen światowych (Warszawa: ChAT, 1981), 203-218.

[8] Kłaczkow, Kościół Ewangelicko-Augsburski, 105.

[9] Ryszard Michalak, “Kościoły Protestanckie w koncepcjach i działaniach Urzędu do Spraw Wyznań (1950-1989),” Jarosław Kłaczkow (ed.), Polski Protestanztyzm w czasach nazizmu i komunizmu (Toruń: Adam Marszałek, 2009), 176-77.

[10] Kłaczkow, Kościół Ewangelicko-Augsburski, 305ff.  Wantuła remains a controversial figure.  He was by all accounts an excellent pastor, theology professor, and church leader.  During the war he was imprisoned in the Mathausen-Gusen concentration camp for refusing to deliver his sermons in German.  It was through his efforts that the Polish Lutheran church hosted the 1961 meeting of the Executive Council of the Lutheran World Federation.  In recognition of talents, Wantuła was elected Vice-President of the LWF at its 1963 assembly in Helsinki.  At the same time, as Bishop of the Church (1959-75), he remained completely loyal to the communist authorities.  By doing so, he arguably contributed to the stabilization of the church’s situation.

[11] Cited in Grzegorz Bębnik, “Od »Górala« do »Gustawa« – zwierzchnicy Kościoła ewangelicko-augsburskiego na Górnym Śląsku wobec aparatu bezpieczeństwa w świetle dokumentów z archiwów Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej (szkic problemu),” Aparat Represji w Polsce Ludowej 1944-1989 (2008), 1:52, 54.

[12] The citation comes form a guiding officer’s report.  Cited in Grzegorz Bębnik, “Historia jednego werbunku: Ks. Karola Kubisza zmagania z UB,” Kłaczkow (ed.), Polski Protestanztyzm, 339.

[13] For a comprehensive overview, see Jan Szturc, “Duchowni Kościoła Ewangelicko-Augsburskiego w PRL wobec Służby Bezpieczeństwa (1956-1989),” Kłaczkow (ed.), Polski Protestanztyzm, 284-92.

[14] I owe this information to Bębnik, “Od »Górala« do »Gustawa«,” 53, 59-61.

[15] To the reliability of the archives, see Szturc, “Duchowni Kościoła,” 280-82.

[16] At http://www.luteranieforum.org.  See also http://www.luteranie.net, which is run by some concerned pastors who have had the courage to speak up and to oppose the direction in which the church is currently heading.  This group includes the military bishop emeritus.

[17] Tadeusz Szurman, http://www.luteranieforum.org (in a post dated 17 November 2010).

[18] In a letter written from Ciechocinek and dated 23 March 2009.

[19] Tadeusz Konik, “Odmieńcy,” at http://www.luteranie.net.

Piotr J. Malysz

This article appeared in the quarterly Lutheran Forum 45:2 (Summer 2011), pp. 36-41.


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