Monday, April 22, 2024

Communists vs. the Catholic Church in Poland

Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski next to Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) in October 1980 (Source: / / The file has not been modified)

The security apparatus of “People’s” Poland in its fight against the clergy had a number of failures and only a few successes.

Rafał Łatka

For the vast majority of the period of the existence of “People’s” Poland, the Catholic Church was the main enemy for the communist government. This was due to several fundamental factors. The most important of these was the desire to build a “new man” according to Soviet models, uprooted from social ties with Marxist views. “The ideal” pursued was a non-religious state hostile to any religion. These ideological goals were attempted to be fulfilled throughout the period of the Communist dictatorship, although after 1956 those in power realized that the complete destruction or complete subjugation of the Catholic Church was beyond the capabilities of the Polish People’s Republic.

One of the main tools for limiting the social role of the clergy (mainly Roman Catholic) was the security apparatus, which acted in this regard at the behest of the central and provincial structures of the Polish Workers’ Party and then the Polish United Workers’ Party (from 1948 until the end of the communist system in Poland). Thus, it can be figuratively said that the security apparatus was a sword (to destroy enemies) and a shield (to protect the interests of the People’s Republic of Poland) held by the party apparatus. Thus, the security apparatus: invigilated, obtained information, carried out disintegration activities against priests, recruited clergy for cooperation, and even used criminal activities to “combat reactionary clergy” (as written in numerous guidelines of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). Combating the Catholic Church in “people’s” Poland had several stages, which directly translated into the activity of the security apparatus, which pursued the goals outlined by the Polish Workers’ Party / Polish United Workers’ Party 

Beat up the clergy”

The first years of the communist system were marked by the destruction of the independence underground and the consolidation of power at the behest of Moscow. At that time, the security apparatus was just preparing for a “crackdown on the clergy.” The main repressive actions were carried out by the security apparatus against the clergy involved in the forest units, either as chaplains or as people who in various ways supported the active struggle against the installation of communism in Poland. This changed after the falsification of elections to the Sejm in January 1947. A few months later, between October 13th-15th, 1947, Julia Brystygier, director of Department V of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), during a briefing of the leadership of the MPS, gave a lecture entitled “The Clergy’s Offensive and Our Tasks,” in which she instructed “to proceed with a comprehensive and systematic crackdown on Church institutions in the field. The main objects: the bishop’s curia, the deaneries, the deanery councils, and the institutions most closely based on the dioceses (‘Caritas’).” It further stressed to “resolutely and ruthlessly prevent the encroachment of the clergy and Catholic organizations on workers’ land. […] Systematically crack down on school prefects, primarily with the help of youth agents. […]”. At the same briefing, Minister Stanislaw Radkiewicz delivered a paper in which he gave specific instructions for combating the Catholic Church. He referred to it as “the most organized reactionary force acting against the camp of democracy. […] It is necessary to beat such an enemy as the clergy. For we are dealing with an adversary that is the most sophisticated, the best able to use deception and all that is associated with the term Jesuits.” Such directives were followed by the intensification of the security apparatus’ fight against the Church, which reached its peak in 1949-55.

At the end of the 1940s, in order to intimidate, or coerce, confessions that incriminated others, many priests were summoned for interrogation to the headquarters of the UB. During the interrogations, they were psychologically abused, and sometimes physical violence was used against them. The interrogations usually took place at night and lasted many hours. It should be remembered that during the period in question several hundred clergymen, monks and nuns were taken into custody and imprisoned, accused of collaboration with the Germans or aiding and collaborating with the independence underground. Show trials were held, in which indictments were prepared on the basis of information obtained by the Security Office. The most important of these were: the trial of Bishop Czeslaw Kaczmarek, the Krakow curia and the Wolbrom trial. At the same time, priests were stigmatized in the press as “enemies of the people’s government.” The fundamental goals of the political trials of the clergy were to shatter the unity of the Church, and to discredit the Church hierarchy among rank-and-file priests.

Wawel Royal Castle in Cracow (Photo taken between 1925-35) (Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

One of the elements of the destruction of the clergy was the building of a network of informers from priests and other religious figures. Most of the informants from among the clergy and church lay activists in the 1950s were obtained through blackmail, violation of consciences, intimidation, and even physical violence. In this way, the Communists tried to ensure access to information about the hierarchy and clergy, pastoral plans, economic and charitable activities of church institutions, intentions in the field of social initiatives. Through the informers, they also sought to influence the Church’s conduct in those fields of activity. The end result was to take total control over the clergy, reduce the dependence of the Catholic Church in Poland on the Holy See, build a hierarchy dependent on the Communists and gradually destroy the Catholic community.

The pinnacle of the anti-Church activities was the internment of the Primate. On September 25th, 1953, Cardinal Wyszynski was “removed” from his ecclesiastical functions by the government of the People’s Republic and simultaneously deprived of his freedom. He was sequentially isolated in Rywałd, Stoczek Warmiński, Prudnik Śląski, and Komańcza. He regained his freedom after three years. During his imprisonment, he was subject to constant surveillance by numerous security officers, while in Stoczek and Prudnik he was accompanied by fellow prisoners Father Stanislaw Skorodecki and Sister Maria Leonia Graczyk. Both were informants of the security services and reported intensely on the Primate’s every step and every word.

Deepening surveillance

In 1956, there was a thaw in the People’s Republic of Poland, which brought a series of concessions by the communist authorities to the Church. The actions of the security apparatus against the clergy also weakened temporarily. Anti-Church activities were again intensified at the turn of 1957/58, with a focus on the following two main goals: subordination of its structures and elimination from influence on social life. The specific directions of the authorities were: administrative restrictions, counteracting religious construction, operational measures, limiting public worship, and secularization of social life. The main tool for achieving these goals was the security apparatus and (to a lesser extent) the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA).

The decade of the 1960s also saw an attempt by the authorities and the security apparatus to implement a policy of “differentiating” the bishops based on their attitudes toward the communist authorities, and breaking up the unity of the clergy by means of disintegration methods. The greatest attention was paid to dividing the bishops, and especially to provoking conflicts between the most important hierarchs, and for this purpose agents were recruited in church circles. It is worth noting two other important issues related to the problem of clergy unity. The first was the attitude of alumni drafted into the army since 1958, the vast majority of whom did not submit to the ideological pressure carried out in military units. The second important issue was the defense against religious conflicts instigated by the security apparatus with the help of the Polish-Catholic Church under almost complete control of the Security Service. Of particular importance in this regard was the conflict in Wierzbica stretching virtually to the end of the 1960s.

In 1962, a separate Department IV was created in the Ministry of Internal Affairs to deal with the Catholic Church and other religious associations. With the organizational changes, the priorities of operational work were modified to some extent. Particular attention was paid to the operational control of the activities of bishops and clergymen who held high positions in the curia, as well as the crackdown on parishes (labeled in the nomenclature of the secret police the “front line of the struggle” against the Church). At the same time as the organizational changes, the records kept by Department IV were modified. As of July 6th, 1963, a unified documentation and operational record of Roman Catholic clergy was introduced by an order of the Minister of the Interior “for a more thorough identification of the activities of the clergy.” For 26 years, until 1989, the SB collected information on each priest in folders of operational records per priest (TEOK), starting from the moment he, as a candidate for the clergy, crossed the threshold of the seminary. A special variant of this type of folder for bishops was also introduced – the folder of operational records per bishop (TEOB). The documentation of the activities of the basic units of church administration, namely parishes, was not forgotten. On the basis of instructions from the Interior Ministry, information was collected on each such unit (under the so-called TEOP).


The years 1971-89 were marked by the refinement of manipulative and disintegrative methods used by the Security Service against the clergy and the further development of the Security Service’s anti-church structures. Significant in this regard was the establishment in 1973 of the so-called “D” Group, responsible for activities of a disintegrative nature. It was to outline strategic guidelines for Department IV and its counterparts in the field, and to coordinate all disintegration activities of the units of the Ministry of the Interior. After just four years, however, it was decided that the established structures of Group “D” were too fragile to fully carry out their tasks, and for this reason it was decided to create their counterparts in twenty provincial headquarters of the MO, including those in Cracow, Częstochowa, Katowice, and Przemyśl. These structures also carried out criminal activities, even from the point of view of communist law, which were manifested, among other things, in the battery of clergymen by so-called unknown perpetrators.

The decade of the 1970s, in terms of anti-church activities carried out by the repression apparatus and ORA structures, was not only the creation of the “D” group, but also the development of previously established structures. The biggest changes were carried out with the administrative reform of the state implemented in 1975.The emergence of organized opposition and the crisis of the system in the second half of the 1970s caused further strengthening of existing Security Service units and the creation of new ones. This was evident in the gradual increase in employment in the repressive apparatus. In view of this, there was also great activity in the surveillance and suppression of priests involved in activities in support of the emerging opposition.

In the 1970s, control over bishop’s curiae was further intensified, and hence the Ministry of the Interior instructed provincial anti-church structures to recruit clergymen with chances for promotion in the church administration, or those who were being typified as bishops. This was written explicitly in many security documents: for example, the Cracow Security Service plan for 1977 emphasized: “The main emphasis should be placed on further operational strengthening in the leadership cells, dispatch centers of the lay and religious clergy.”

Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński in 1961 (Source: Nationaal Archief/ Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

The most important goal of the disintegration activities was to divide the two Polish cardinals: Wyszynski and Wojtyla. At the beginning of the 1970s, the Primate, who was referred to as the “black cardinal,” was considered far more dangerous. It is worth noting, however, that over the years the optics of the authorities significantly changed, and from the mid-1970s it was Cardinal Wojtyla who was assessed as the more unpredictable enemy, labeled as a “cosmopolitan troublemaker” or a man full of boor” – in part because he refused to have contact with the provincial authorities. Cardinal Wyszynski, on the other hand, was described at the time as a “patriot-realist,” despite the fact that for years it was considered that the Primate was the main obstacle to the policy towards the Church implemented by the authorities. The Metropolitan of Krakow was rated at the time as the second most important opponent of the authorities, right after Bishop Ignacy Tokarczuk, who was hated by party dignitaries.

The decade of the 1980s saw the further development of security structures responsible for anti-church activities. The number of agents among the clergy also grew systematically. After the imposition of martial law in the Interior Ministry, it was decided to move to actions of a more offensive nature. This was due to the concern, as the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party Miroslaw Milewski put it, “of the [Polish United Workers’ Party] activists with the dissoluteness of individual Church representatives.” This process continued until the murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko by officers of the IV division. After the murder of the legendary Solidarity chaplain, measures were taken in the Interior Ministry to cover up those responsible for the criminal actions of the security police against priests. At that time, some of the agents derived from the clergy resigned from cooperation with the Security Service. Until the end of the communist system, priests were invigilated and repressed, as can be seen by the example of Father Adolf Chojnacki, who was persecuted by the security police until 1989. As late as 1989, three clergymen associated with the opposition were assassinated: Rev. Stanisław Niedzielak, Rev. Stanisław Suchowolc, Rev. Sylwester Zych.

Successes and failures

The security apparatus of “people’s” Poland in its fight against the clergy has suffered a number of defeats and only a few successes. Such a conclusion emerges quite unequivocally after years of research by historians of recent history. The greatest failure of the security forces was their lack of control over the leadership structures of the Polish Church. Never, even during the period of Stalinist repression, did the Episcopate become a tool in the hands of the communist authorities in Poland (which, unfortunately, was the case in other Eastern Bloc countries). Nor was it possible, with the help of disintegration measures, to bring the most important Polish hierarchs into conflict. Here, a particularly significant failure was the attempt to bring Cardinal Wyszynski and Cardinal Wojtyla into conflict. Except in a few cases, the secret police were also unable to influence the decisions made by the bishops. And, what is worth emphasizing, the vast majority of the clergy not only did not cooperate with the Security Office / Security Services, but also, in accordance with the directives of the Polish Episcopate, did not maintain any contacts with security officials.

Among the successes of the security apparatus in its operations against the Church was the ability to obtain information on the clergy. Thanks to well-placed agents and the means of operational technology, the security apparatus had detailed and accurate information from inside the bishops’ curia and the most important parishes. Thanks to this, the security service was able to accurately plan repressive actions and carry out further agent recruitment. It also managed to recruit a number of informers who were in the entourage of the most important Polish hierarchs, mentioning here such clergymen as Fr. Władysław Kulczycki (a long-time informer / covert agent from the closest circle of Archbishop Antoni Baraniak and Cardinal Wojtyła); Rev. Hieronim Goździewicz (longtime secretary to Primate Wyszynski, who, however, managed to escape the snares of the security police and refused to cooperate further); Rev. Mieczyslaw Satora (covert agent with the pseudonym “Marecki,” who reported on Cardinal Wojtyla). The security apparatus also recruited future bishops, among others: Rev. Boleslaw Pylak (long-time covert agent with the pseudonym “Teolog” and then “Boleslaw,” Ordinary of Lublin in 1975-97), Rev. Jerzy Dąbrowski (covert agent “Ignacy,” Auxiliary Bishop of Gniezno, Deputy Secretary of the Polish Episcopate in the 1980s). The security apparatus also had some successes to its credit in securing loyalty from a small part of the clergy, which did not come forward with any initiatives harmful from the point of view of the authorities in their parishes (this was particularly evident in the 1970s).

This article was published in 2023 in “Historia Do Rzeczy” magazine.