We enjoy a large support in society

Interview with Łukasz Kamiński, President of the Institute of National Remembrance

Petr Blažek

After its establishment, the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) faced a number of problems. Politicians and historians alike debated about whether its existence made sense. Today the Institute is celebrating fifteen years of activity. What is the situation now? What is the position of the Institute in society and how is it perceived by politicians?

In fact, a big debate about whether such an institution should be created took place before the establishment of the Institute. There was discussion about the proposal of the law, later on about the veto by President Alexander Kwaśniewski and also during the first years of existence of the Institute. Today, however, the question of the purpose of the Institute of National Remembrance is not raised any more in the public sphere. Of course there are debates about what the Institute should focus on, whether we do certain things properly or not, but discussions about its liquidation and the termination of its activity ended many years ago.

President of the IPN Łukasz Kamiński at a conference in Budapest on 5 May  (Photo: Peter Rendek)

It needs to be said that we have a large support of the public. In the last public opinion surveys about fifty percent of the people declared that they trusted the Institute and only about twelve percent said they did not. This means the third rank among state institutions in Poland. Only the military and police have a better ranking. We enjoy the same trust of society as the Catholic church. At the same time, it is a bit strange given that we deal with unpleasant issues giving rise to emotions. Such a support in this context is a reason to be proud.

How many employees does the IPN have at present and what do they work on?

Currently, the Institute employs about 2,300 persons, more than forty percent of whom are archivists. Our archives are very extensive, they contain more than ninety kilometres of documents, that is why almost a half of our employees are archivists. We have two further types of employees. They are state attorneys on the one side, who deal with the investigation of Nazi and Communist crimes. The remainder are civil servants. Unfortunately, an amendment to the Act on the IPN did not make it through Parliament. We wanted a part of the employees to have a status of scientific collaborators just like in the Academy of sciences or at a university. The amendment was approved by the Government but unfortunately it did not pass a committee in the Sejm. This means that at the moment almost everybody who is not a state attorney is a civil servant, but of course each part of the Institute is specific.  Some focus exclusively on scientific work and others deal with education.

The Institute of National Remembrance is active on the entire territory of Poland. What does the current regional structure of the IPN look like?

We now have eleven branches. Their number is given by law, because we have state attorneys working for us and so the structure is given by the number of courts of appeals. Beside that however we can create lower organisational units which we call delegatures. At present we formally have seven of those, in reality five are working. A number of cities are asking us to settle on their premises too but we do not have sufficient financial means and possibilities to do that.

What is the authority of the branches and delegatures? Do they function autonomously?

Yes, the most important thing is that the branches are financially independent. It is a separate chapter in the state budget, another part being dedicated for the central office. Of course the guidelines for work are laid out by the central office, but the regional offices have considerable creative freedom. Especially in the last years, a number of very good and interesting initiatives in regional historical research have appeared. This concerns primarily the Western lands, former German territories where it is important to discover historical stories for the creation of our own identity.

And which interesting stories or cases helped to form the identity of the Institute of National Remembrance?

There were several most important cases. They were more like breaking points which were the result of long-term work. First of all, at the beginning it was the case of the pogrom in Jedwabne. Everybody thought when the IPN was created that the first problems which would be dealt with would be the problems of the recent past, agents in the opposition, the past of politicians, but it turned out that the topic which first shook Polish society was the role of the Poles in the crime of Jedwabne. This happened during the first year of the existence of the Institute. It began in June 2001 when the building was still being furnished and employees were being hired, followed by which the delimitation of documents was starting. This was a case which tested the Institute in all areas of its activity. The respective documents had to be found, the scientists had to study them and we had to present the results to the public. At the same time, the investigation of the Jedwabne crime was going on. That was the first moment which established the position of the Institute. It is possible that without this case, the post-Communists who won the elections in 2001 might have abolished the Institute. It would have been a likely scenario, in my opinion. On this case we demonstrated that we were not superfluous, that we had a say not only for the period of Communism but also for the wartime. That was the first breaking point.       

The second one which I need to mention was the research on the anti-Communist underground and resistance. Of course, this topic was dealt with in a limited scope even before the creation of the Institute, but it was mostly by means of individual books. We gave this research an organised structure. A fundamental result of the first period of this research was the Atlas polskiego podziemia niepodległościowego 1944–1956 (Atlas of the Polish underground resistance 1944-1956), which presented basic information on this topic within one extensive publication. This work which took a number of years to complete, changed the view of society significantly. Fifteen years ago, when the IPN was created, the term “doomed soldiers” (Żołnierze Wyklęci), as the members of the anti-Communist resistance are called, was generally quite unclear. Most historians did not even know what it meant. And now we have hundreds of events on 1 March when we commemorate the National day of the memory of the doomed soldiers. We inspire various initiatives in society, there has been a huge shift in the research on the topic. These people are called heroes today and schools are being named after them. Every year, the Run of the doomed soldiers takes place. This year it happened at 200 locations and next year it will surely be a much larger number. All this shows that our work has tangible results. The change in society does not concern only science, it concerns also attitudes and values which were the inspiration for the activity of these people. And which can be an inspiration for us today. 

The third very important event in the history of the Institute of National Remembrance was the publication in 2008 of the book on Lech Wałesa and his collaboration with the Security service (Służba Bezpieczeństwa) at the beginning of the 1970s.  That was really the biggest policital crisis surrounding the IPN, there were very many attacks against the Institute and all sorts of politicians expressed themselves in different ways about this book. From a perspective of several years it can be said that but for a very few mistakes which arose during the editing of the book, the Institute emerged from the case as a winner. The truth was accepted and even those people who then criticised the book admit today that Lech Wałesa was registered as a secret collaborator to say the least, and that is a one hundred percent fact. Secondly, nobody was capable of proving methodologically that the publication was poorly written. And thirdly, after the publication of this book everybody acknowledged that it was important to talk about it, even though these are difficult questions. And a similar discussion did not arise any more.

The fourth event which fundamentally affected the activity of the IPN was the tragedy at Smolensk where next to President Lech Kaczyński and other important personalities also IPN President Janusz Kurtyka died. It was a very difficult moment. At the very same time, the Institute was going through a complicated period because an amendment to the law entered into force which turned the Collegium of the IPN into the Council of the IPN, changing its competences and election procedure.  The result was that due to the complicated process it was not possible to elect members for more than a year. And only after the appointment of the Council of the IPN could the competition for the President be opened. So for altogether fourteen months the Institute had no leadership. The organisational structure of the Institute however is such that almost everything is dependent on the office of the President. 

How many documents are there now in the archive of the Institute of National Remembrance? What is the structure of these archival funds?

At present there are about ninety kilometres of documents deposited in our archive. About 450 metres of those are classified documents to which historians, researchers and journalists have no access, but the state attorneys can use them. These documents are accessible for the lustration procedure and the investigation of crimes.

Most of the documents pertain to the period of Communism, but it needs to be pointed out that also very important documents from the period of WWII can be found in the IPN archive. We have a number of valuable originals of documents from the time of the German occupation. We also have several tens of thousands of copies of Soviet documents, pertaining to the Soviet occupation.

As for the period of Communism, they are first of all documents of various repressive institutions. They are not only archival records originating from the Security service, military counterintelligence and military intelligence, but also from courts and prosecutors’ offices, i.e. all institutions which participated in political repressions. A large amount of written records of the Security service however was destroyed; we estimate that approximately half of this documentation was destroyed at the end of the 1970s - beginning of the 1980s. The best preserved are the funds from the 1950s and 1960s. A large part of the funds left by the Security service are passport documents, because the Passport office was part of the Security service. This documentation is often underestimated by historians but it contains a lot of information on individual persons.  

Łukasz Kamiński and Petr Blažek during the interview, 5 May 2015 (Photo: Peter Rendek)

We also have a large collection of photographs containing about forty million pictures. We also have more than a thousand films. It is a smaller part of those which were created. Films and photographs were very often destroyed. The film collection is very interesting. We have an interesting series of documentary films running together with a private television company; they are presented on our website. Similarly, not many wiretap recordings have been preserved. According to regulations from the 1960s, they were to be destroyed after transcription if they were not needed anymore for operative work. We do have a collection of acoustic recordings, but there are not many of them. The reason being also the problems of the Communist economy, due to which tapes were very expensive. So they were used over and over. Therefore, a recording was rarely kept, it would have had to be someting exceptional. We are trying to digitise all these audiovisual sources.  

What is the state of digitisation of the other documents at IPN?

Every year, we digitise several thousand archival units. This amounts to tens of millions of copied pages already. I think it is not necessary to digitise everything, that makes no sense. The cost of preserving the digital copies would be too high. We try to digitise what is most used by researchers in order to protect the originals of the documents. And then of course those which are in the worst condition. Currently, more than half of the documents which are kept in Warsaw are digitised and accessible for researchers in electronic form.

Does the IPN carry out the digitisation itself or does it use an external company?

We have our own digitisation team, a larger one in the central office and smaller ones in the branches. We have our own technology, data storage capacities and tapes for data storage.

An important task conferred upon the Institute of National Remembrance by law is international cooperation. What is the situation in this area? With how many institutions does the IPN have contracts?

We have several different activities in this field. First of all, we try to address Poles living abroad, especially in places where there are strong Polish communities, for example in France and Great Britain. Some of our educational activities are directed at them, we support Polish schools and promote Polish culture abroad. 

Secondly it is the cooperation with partner institutions which deal with the history of dictatorships, not only the Communist ones. We cooperate with a number of institutions abroad which deal with questions linked to WWII. Among them are Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and a many other. We also cooperate with institutions which deal with dictatorships of a different kind, for example we have supported the newly created Truth commission in Tunisia. Its representatives have come to visit us several times and we are now preparing an agreement for signature. They have emerged from another type of regime, but are facing similar problems which are of universal nature – how to teach about the dictatorship, how to administer archival documents etc. We have very good results with our Ukrainian partners. For fifteen years we have been publishing documents concerning common Polish-Ukrainian history. We have common research and education projects with a number of institutions. We also try to exchange copies of archival documents based on signed agreements. We now have several tens of them. We collaborate with Georgian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Israeli or American partner institutions from which we have obtained a large amount of copies of polonica and they in return have received copies of documents from our archive which are of interest to them.

Thirdly, we are active in supranational organisations, we are members of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience and the European Network of Official Authorities in Charge of the Secret Police Files.

The fourth task in this field is to present Polish history abroad. We try primarily to address elites at local universities and other important cultural places with selected historial topics. Of course we cannot do this in all countries where we would like, we have to choose which ones are especially important to us. We have prepared WWII, the Katyń crime, Solidarity – those might be topics which have the biggest response. Each year, we have tens of exhibitions abroad as well as several conferences which we organise either alone or with partner institutions.  

The Institute is also involved in the preparation of various teaching aids. What do you emphasize in this area?

We utilise traditional methods, such as exhibitions, methodological aids for teachers and various educational publications for students. In preparing them however we take care to avoid a procedure whereby the student merely learns answers to factual questions. We try to make students discover history themselves, to locate witnesses, to find historical events and documents on their own which pertain to their family and place of residence.

Next to these traditional methods we also try to come up with something new. Of course we utilize the possibilities of the internet, we have around thirty educational portals which enable the utilisation of audiovisual as well as classical written sources. They have been enjoying a lot of attention from the beginning, we have tens of millions of user visits. Several years ago we also launched an umbrella education portal Pamięc.pl where you can access, among other things, also almost all published issues of our magazines.

For several years, we also tried to invest money into the creation of a computer game. However our effort did not bring convincing results. It would be necessary to put more financial means into this project, leaving the question open whether it would have the desired educational effect. So we finally decided to utilise the classical board game. It turned out to be a very good idea which was very successful. Currently, we are witnessing a renaissance of board games in Poland. This has to do with our board game Queue (Kolejka) which became the most popular and best selling board game in Poland for the past several years.  Some more games followed which also enjoyed a good reception. For instance we have games situated into the period of WWII. Their success lies in the fact that they are created professionally. They are interesting games which have a simultaneous educational role. People have fun, they learn historical information at the same time and moreover families get integrated this way. Family members play the game and talk about family history. It is definitely a positive situation when parents and grandparents pass on their experience to the children this way, telling them what they or other family members went through in the past.

Culture and art are an important educational tool. I would like to mention at least one example. We became partners of the music project Doomed girls (Panny Wyklęte). These are recordings of young singers who were less than twenty years old when they got to know the stories of women who joined the anti-Communist underground. They composed the songs by themselves, on their own initiative, without anybody telling them. Their record was very successful, it has been selling very well for two years now. We have also organised a number of concerts accompanied by an exhibition which has been viewed by thousands of people. You can see that there are many possibilities for educational events and that different forms can be used. Sometimes you can hear people in Poland saying that today’s young people are not interested in history any more. I do not think so, you just need to find a way how to reach them.  

What are the relations between historians from academic institutions and the Institute of National Remembrance?

At the beginning, there was a generally somewhat reserved attitude of the academic community toward the IPN. Among other reasons, it also had to do with the financial resources which the Institute received. A certain doubt prevailed about the quality of projects, conferences and publications of the IPN, but this became history many years ago, as was demonstrated for example by the conference in 2010 which we organized in Łódź at the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the IPN. The topic of the meeting were the results of historical research and educational activities of the Institute. We also invited people who had a very critical relationship with the IPN. During the debate it became clear that if they criticized any publication they were in fact criticizing themselves because all collaborators of the IPN had studied at Polish universities and thus if they had any weaknesses, this was noting specific generated in the Institute but rather a result of their studies.

Currently, many current and former employees of the IPN work in different academic institutions, some of them in leadership positions. Now it is more adequate to speak about a symbiosis rather than a rivalry. Therefore I believe today that larger controversies belong to the past. We organize most of our conferences either together with the Polish academy of sciences or with universities. Approximately half of our books deling with the recent past are published by the IPN. Their authors however are not only historians working in the Institute but also authors from other institutions.

Approximately how many books has the IPN published since its establishment?

Around 1,200 titles. To be honest, I do not know exactly, we are counting them right now, so that we can present the number at our anniversary. Books are namely not only published by the central office in Warsaw but also by the branches. 

In recent years, it has been IPN’s legal task to work on lustration databases of victims and perpetrators of Communist crimes. How much data has been created so far? 

Lustrations are being carried out in Poland since 1997, that means since before the establishment of the Institute of National Remembrance. Lustration is conceived differently than in the Czech case. Each person applying for a respective public position in the state administration or self-administration (the scope of these positions is determined by law) must present a lustration certificate informing whether he or she was a collaborator or functionary of the Communist secret service, civilian or military. If someone admits to having been a secret collaborator, nothing happens. However if this person applies for a mandate in the Sejm for example, this fact must be stated on the election poster. Several thousand persons have already admitted their role as collaborators of the Communist secret service and presented a so-called positive lustration certificate. Should someone lie however, meaning that he or she would say that they did not collaborate and it would then turn out that the opposite was true, then this person would land in court and could be punished by a ban from holding a public office for up to ten years.      

Until 2007 the Speaker of public interest (Rzecznik Interesu Publicznego) was in charge of the lustrations, then a new lustration law as adopted which kept the same mechanism but broadened the number of positions which were subjected to this procedure. The law also stipulated new tasks and transferred the entire competences to the Institute of National Remembrance. So the IPN has been dealing with lustrations only since 2007. Around 200 employees are responsible for these tasks. They are entrusted with creating the catalogues you mentioned and also with the verification of the presented certificates.

Next to the verification of the presented lustration certificates we are working on creating four lustration catalogues which are accessible on the Institute website. Every year this means several thousand entries in each of these catalogues. The first is the database of former functionaries of the security authorities of the Polish people’s republic (PPR). Its creation is the easiest – we are in possession of their personal files. The second catalogue contains the names of functionaries of the Polish united workers’ party, its satellite political parties and state organisations who were in leading positions. They include for example the names of judges in office before 1989. Here the situation is more difficult, we reach back on other archives which are often incomplete. It is difficult to determine exactly who held the respective office at a given time. The third database then includes persons who were targeted by the security forces of the PPR. In contrast to the former catalogues the person in question must agree with his or her inclusion in this database, it does not happen automatically. The IPN writes to the persons in question and asks for their consent. The last catalogue contains around five thousand persons holding public office, including the President, Prime minister and the deputies. It is constantly updated and amended with data about new persons holding public offices which are stipulated by law. We are given thirty days for this. If somebody ceases to hold the office, the information about the available archival sources is deleted from the IPN archive. Altogether, we already have data on almost one hundred thousand persons in the catalogues.    

The interview took place on 5 May 2015 in Budapest.

Dr. Łukasz Kamiński (born 1973) – Polish historian and President of the Institute of National Remembrance. Graduated from the Historical Institute of Wrocław University where he then worked as an assistant. He works on the history of the opposition and resistance in society against the Communist regime in the years 1944-1989. HE is author or co-author of more than three hundred scientific and popularization publications. In 2000 he joined the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). Since 2006 he was Deputy director of the IPN’s Public education office, in 2009 he became its Director. In 2010 the Sejm of the Republic of Poland elected him President of the Institute of National Remembrance.

PhDr. Petr Blažek, Ph.D. (born 1973) – Czech historian and writer. He works at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and is Deputy director of the Centre for the Documentation of Totalitarian Regimes.