To Kill a Priest
Kevin Ruane Gibson Square Books, 386pp, £16.99
History is meant to be the responsibility of presidents and prime ministers. Usually it is. Just occasionally, however, it is ordinary people who inspire and motivate millions of their fellows and change the destiny of a nation. This book is about a parish priest in Poland who did just that. Between 1980 and his murder by secret policemen in 1984, Father Jerzy Popieluszko inspired his countrymen to continue resisting the dictatorship that had banned Solidarity, imprisoned Lech Walesa and persecuted those who opposed Communist rule.
What turned Popieluszko into a symbol of Polish freedom were the sermons he preached at his church in a suburb of Warsaw. Thousands flocked to hear his advocacy of Christian values and non-violence, unapologetically combined with a scathing denunciation of General Wojciech Jaruzelski's regime. Stalin once famously asked: "How many battalions has the Pope?" In the 1980s, when there was - at last - a Polish pope, Stalin's heirs found that Popieluszko was the equal of most of the battalions at their disposal.
Kevin Ruane's book on this extraordinary episode is a vigorous, gripping real-life thriller. Ruane was the BBC correspondent in Warsaw at the time. He knew all the main players, and his narrative describes not only the events, but the motives and mindset of the priest's killers. So far as is known, the Polish government did not order the murder. But, as occurred in a far-off time in Britain's own history, powerful people in the regime were muttering, "Who will rid us of this turbulent priest?" The consequence was that three secret policemen kidnapped Father Popieluszko, severely assaulted him, and dropped him into a river.
Their self-justification at their subsequent trial was chilling. The ringleader declared: "Popieluszko was a matter of indifference to me. He broke the law and what irritated me more was the fact that the rule of law could do nothing about it . . ." While the ringleader's irritation may have been understandable from his own perspective, his response was to believe that the murder of the person responsible was an acceptable means of encouraging greater respect for the law. Only a product of a totalitarian regime could indulge in such nauseating doublethink.
I recall a conversation I had with the Chinese foreign minister when Britain was negotiating the handover of Hong Kong. I tried to impress upon him that the continuation of the rule of law was of crucial importance to the people of Hong Kong. He beamed. "Yes," he said. "We in China also believe in the rule of law. The people must obey the law." I gently informed him that it was the government of China, not the people, that I had in mind.
As Kevin Ruane brilliantly recounts in his book, Popieluszko's murder had the opposite effect to the one intended. His funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands of people and the church where he was buried was festooned with banners of the banned Solidarity movement. Its steeple was decorated with Polish flags draped to form the "V for victory" sign that Solidarity had adopted.
The regime, desperate to prove that it had not authorised the crime, arrested the culprits, who were tried and sentenced to lengthy terms in prison. But the murder had wider, long-term consequences in which I found myself playing a small part. By coincidence, I arrived in Warsaw on a ministerial visit on the day of the funeral. I had had doubts about visiting Poland while Solidarity was still banned, but the Foreign Office had sounded Solidarity out, and they had assured us that contact with western governments was desirable, especially if it included meetings with representatives of their organisation.
On arriving in Warsaw, I decided to lay a wreath at Popieluszko's grave. The Polish government did not like this, but could hardly object. More significantly, Ruane asked me in an interview whether I had plans to meet representatives of "independent opinion" while in Poland. "Certainly," I said, "because Britain has relations with the people of Poland, not just its government." The next day I met four Solidarity officials at the British embassy. It was the first official contact between a minister of a western government and Solidarity since it had been banned, and it was happening on Polish soil.
Jaruzelski was furious. He cancelled a proposed meeting with me and accused me of treating Poland as if it were a British colony. My meeting created a precedent. By chance, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister, was visiting Poland the following week. He felt that he had no choice but to follow my example. It became the pattern for all western ministers visiting Warsaw. In his book, Ruane remarks that my meeting "marked the moment when Solidarity was shown to have gained in the west the official recognition it was denied at home". The Communist regime's policy had failed.
I should mention one extraordinary postscript. Three of the four Solidarity officials whom I met were Tadeusz Mazo-wiecki, Bronislaw Geremek and Janusz Onyszkiewicz. At the time, the names meant nothing to me. Within five years the first was prime minister, the second foreign minister and the third minister of defence of a free Poland.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind was UK minister of state for foreign affairs at the time of Jerzy Popieluszko's murder