01/24/2015 01:33 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2015

Challenging the Warsaw Pact From Within

The Warsaw Pact was not without its internal rifts. When it came together in 1955, after news of West Germany entering NATO, the Soviet-sponsored security alliance included all European Communist countries - except Yugoslavia, which rejected Soviet leadership. In the early 1960s, Albania sided with China in the Sino-Soviet split and stopped cooperating with the Warsaw Pact. In 1968, Romania opposed the Pact's invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Albania took the opportunity to formally withdraw from the alliance.

But the most interesting challenge to the Warsaw Pact came from a relatively small number of individuals scattered around East-Central Europe who began to resist military service in the 1980s. The most concentrated resistance came from an organization called Freedom and Peace (Wolność i Pokój or WiP) in Poland. WiP was one of the largest independent peace movements in the region, and it maintained close relationships with peace movements in Western Europe and the United States.

WiP began as a movement in support of Marek Adamkiewicz, who was imprisoned for refusing to take the military oath. Adamkiewicz wasn't a conscientious objector. He wasn't opposed to participating in a Polish military. But he objected to the integration of Poland's army in the Warsaw Pact.

"It's important to understand why he refused this oath," recalls Jacek Czaputowicz, once a leading member of WiP. "The wording of the oath included: "I will defend socialism, I will defend peace in the alliance with the Soviet Union.' He said that this was not something he could accept. The Soviet army was staying in Poland without the consent of Polish society. It didn't defend peace in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Polish army was used against Polish society during Martial Law and, earlier, against Czech society in 1968."

I met Czaputowicz in 1989 as WiP was gradually coming to an end. He went on to serve in the Polish foreign ministry and today teaches at the National School of Public Administration in Warsaw. We talked in August 2013 about the early days of WiP.

"When you look at the secret police files, WiP was seen as a serious threat to the system, the main threat at the time," Czaputowicz said. "The Army was treated as the main instrument of Communists. People were refusing to go to the army. We eventually won because they changed the wording of the oath and introduced alternative service. But before that, when young people were against the army, the authorities decided to undertake activities to somehow detect WiP in every single Polish military unit and every commission. They had a big governmental body to deal with WiP and our program to change the military and the army from the inside and also from outside of course."

Even the Warsaw Pact took notice of the challenge. "In March 1989 they even introduced this program at the Warsaw Pact meeting," Czaputowicz told me. "The generals said, 'We have to deal with the refusal to serve in the military.' There were already people in Hungary, like Zsolt Keszthely, and in Czechoslovakia like Petr Obstil, who were doing the same thing as WiP members, refusing to go to the army. We defended these people. And this idea started to spread around the block. I remember an appeal about conscientious objectors initiated by Hungarian dissident Miklos Haraszti to the CSCE."

What was remarkable was the relatively small number of people involved. When Yugoslavia, Romania, and Albania challenged the Warsaw Pact, they were of course entire countries. But WiP managed to unsettle the alliance with 200 core activists and a couple hundred supporters. According to the secret police, about 145 Poles refused to serve in the army or demanded alternative service in 1987.

"But at the beginning, in 1986, it was about a dozen people who were arrested for refusing to take the oath," he remembered. "Then the authorities changed the military oath and the situation improved. The sentences we objected to in the oath concerned our alliance with the Soviet army, and it was changed because of our influence. People were released from jail. In 1988, alternative service was introduced. This new alternative service was very harsh and longer than military service, but it was something."

We talked about how WiP pushed Solidarity away from the clandestine model it adopted during Martial Law, why NATO proved more attractive to Poland than the CSCE after the Cold War ended, and the subsequent shift in Polish foreign relations away from the United States and toward Europe.

The Interview

I'm interested in your decision to become part of the opposition, in WiP. Was it a gradual decision or a sudden decision?

I was active when I was a student in 1970. In 1979 I was arrested for the first time. When you're arrested - that's when it becomes a crucial issue whether to become or not become an opposition activist. When you have to deal with the secret police you have to decide. You can withdraw and change your life, or you can stay in the movement. You make the decision when you are pressed by the police. They tell you, "This is illegal. You will ruin your career. You will lose your job or you will be refused a passport." So, if you continue, you take these risks.

At the moment, I was a collaborator of the Workers Defense Committee (KOR) and the Student's Solidarity Committee (SKS). The action where I was arrested was a demonstration organized in Warsaw to protest against the imprisonment of Charter 77 activists. It was during the trial when Vaclav Havel and others were sentenced. The Polish opposition organized this action. Some people organized a hunger strike. And we students organized this protest. This was a year before the rise of Solidarity.

During the Solidarity time, I was one of the leaders of the Independent Student Association (NZS). Students couldn't belong to Solidarity since formally it was a trade union and students were not workers. So we organized a parallel organization, NZS. During Martial Law, I was interned for one year in what was basically a prison. After being released, I was again active in the student union, which was clandestine. One of our friends, Marek Adamkiewicz, decided not to take the military oath. He was imprisoned for that very symbolic gesture. We as his friends from the student movement decided to defend him. On this basis we created WiP. Our first action was a hunger strike to support him.

It's important to understand why he refused this oath. The wording of the oath included: "I will defend socialism, I will defend peace in the alliance with the Soviet Union." He said that this was not something he could accept. The Soviet army was staying in Poland without the consent of Polish society. It didn't defend peace in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Polish army was used against Polish society during Martial Law and, earlier, against Czech society in 1968. After refusing to take the oath, Adamkiewicz was imprisoned for 2.5 years. He stayed for two years and was released with the amnesty.

After being active in WiP, I was also arrested and accused of organizing an illegal organization acting against the "Polish interest and alliances and weakening the defense capacity of the state," according to Polish authorities. I was arrested in February 1986 and released in September 1986 after seven months with the amnesty. A few hundred people were released from prisons at that time with the amnesty. I was again active in WiP, and also since 1987 I was a member of Walesa's Civic Committee.

When you were active in WiP, what did you think would be the outcome of that activity? Did you think that Solidarity and WiP's victory were inevitable?

When I look at these events from today's perspective, I'm surprised at how precise and correct our postulates were. We wanted Soviet troops withdrawn from Poland -- this was in the letter we sent to Gorbachev, which was published and distributed in 1987. We wanted Europe to reunite. We wanted the reform of the Polish army so that it would act in the interests of Polish society and not as the armed forces of the Communist Party. We wanted democracy in Poland. These postulates seemed very radical at the time. Many people in the opposition thought they were unrealistic, though it turned out to be realistic. But we didn't think that within a few months or years we would achieve these goals. What was important was to put this program on the table: to say what we wanted as a society. This was the reason we were treated seriously by Western politicians: because we were brave enough to put this program on the table.

We created a situation in which other people from the opposition could start negotiations and achieve an agreement - first, semi-democratic elections in which one-third of the Sejm and all of the Senate would be democratically elected, and then maybe to create something new under the umbrella of the CSCE. We thought about the dissolution of both the Warsaw Pact and NATO at that time. Our role was also important because of our relations with the Western peace movement, which was somehow treated in Moscow and also in Warsaw as good instruments for Russian policy because they protested against American troops in the West. For us, the peace movement was authentic. We maintained contacts and they supported our activity. That's when they stopped being useful for the Communists. They initially could say that these people were against Reagan's policies, but when they defended peace activists in prison in Poland, Moscow said that their policy was not consistent.

One of our important activities was the seminar organized in 1987 at a church in Warsaw. The title of the seminar was Bringing Real Life to the Helsinki Agreement, and it was based on the Memorandum prepared by the Western peace movement and politicians as well as people from the opposition in the East.

We discussed the issue and showed to the world that we were well organized enough to hold an international meeting with dozens of people from the West along with those from the East who got a passport. Many people were arrested even before we could have this discussion on the future of Europe.

After this seminar, which was in May 1987, there was a press conference by Jerzy Urban, the Polish government spokesman, who attacked us very strongly, "Wojciech Jaruzelski presented a plan to disarm part of Europe," he said, "and then WiP organized an event that destroyed this activity of the Polish government." So, we played this role in the discussions between East and West on the role of Western organizations and the role of the CSCE in particular.

It's interesting that there was some skepticism from Solidarity about the proposals of WiP. Was that something you expected? There were debates within Solidarity in 1980-81 about what was and wasn't realistic in the Polish context. Was Solidarity skeptical because the proposals were about international issues and Solidarity was focused on domestic issues, or was it the nature of the demands?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.