Jan Olszewski. Duty and independence

the Prime Minister of the independent Poland

Jan Olszewski was born on 20 August 1930 to a railway family that has been strongly associated with the tradition of Polish independence ever since. One of his grandfather’s brothers was killed in the January Uprising of 1863-1864 against the Russian invader. Stefan Okrzeja, the brother of his grandmother, formed the Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1905, he was executed for participating in the attack on the tsarist chief of the Warsaw police force, thus he became a symbol of  the struggle for both the national and workers’ cause. A second cousin, also named Stefan, who was born after the death of the former, was already a lieutenant-pilot in the reborn Republic of Poland. Due to these conditions, the boy grew up in a particular atmosphere that was quite typical for the entire generation.

by Justyna Błażejowska


Happy childhood and the horrors of the German occupation

He spent his childhood and youth in Bródno, in a railwaymen district on the outskirts of Warsaw, in a house built by his parents in the 1930s. In 1937, he began studying at a nearby primary school. Until the age of nine, he dreamed of working on the railroad, where a large part of the family was employed alongside his father, Ferdinand. The first happy stage of little Jan’s life ended up abruptly with the German invasion on 1 September 1939. Immediately after the outbreak of the war, his uncle Stefan, a squadron commander, died in the air battle for Warsaw.

German soldiers fighting the Polish resistance at Theater Square in Warsaw, September 1944 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2005-0034 / Seidel / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

From the very beginning, the Olszewski’s’ house was the seat of the Capital Committee of Social Self-Help, then the Central Welfare Council, and the underground Service for Poland’s Victory, the Union of Armed Struggle and the Home Army, the most important Polish military organization fighting against the occupiers. It served as a distribution point for the underground “Information Bulletin”,and  a place for lectures of the underground school of cadets. His father’s brother Remigiusz commanded the Home Army outpost in Okuniewo in the Mazovia region.

Jan Olszewski continued his education in secret classes. At the end of 1942 and the beginning of 1943, he joined the Gray Ranks, the underground scout organization. He belonged to the youngest Zawisza teams, and  was nicknamed “Orlik”. During the Warsaw Uprising he was appointed a liaison. His contribution was limited by the quick end of the fighting on the right bank of the Vistula river. After that, he only watched the destruction of the left-bank part of the city. “I realized the horror of the occupation by remembering my childhood when life was decent… The blow and confusion left a gloomy and nightmarish impression on me. Well…we managed to survive, but we had to,” he recalled years later.

Warsaw Uprising. Polish soldier in Holy Cross Church, 1944, photo: Eugeniusz Haneman (public domain)

His family suffered severe losses that were no exception: “My father’s two brothers took part in the Warsaw Uprising. One became handicapped, lost his arm. The second one survived, but buried his son. My […] three cousins ​​died […]. My uncle’s son also died. […] Another cousin was shot dead in Pawiak in 1943. Another did not return to Poland after the Uprising. […] My father’s youngest brother died of exhaustion in a[Soviet] transport to the East in 1945. It was because of the Soviets that [also] my grandfather passed away,” enumerated Jan Olszewski.

After the war – during the Communist terror

Jan Olszewski, a future lawyer, was immunized against Communism – as he himself admitted – due to three factors: the tradition of the Polish Socialist Party – persistently anti-Russian, if we mean Russia as a despotic state, the stories of his father – an eyewitness to both the revolutions of 1917 and the Bolshevik crimes and the Soviet occupation of the Eastern territories of the Commonwealth in 1939-1941, including the testimonies of relatives who came to Warsaw after the German Reich attacked the USSR. Moreover, Jan Olszewski was aware of the activities of the Soviet military counterintelligence Smiersz, which arrested members of the Underground State immediately after the Soviets entered the Praga district in September 1944. At that time, it was an obvious thing for him to move from the Gray Ranks to the anti-Communist underground. Soon, he decided that it was better to continue active resistance as part of membership in the youth circle of the Polish People’s Party, a party that gathered all opposition forces to the Communist power imposed from the East. With the introduction of Stalinism, an atmosphere of terror prevailed: “Everyone still had to be careful. The threat concerned me as well, of course to a lesser extent than people from my milieu,” admitted Jan Olszewski.

He was a student of a gymnasium and the Leopold Lis-Kula high school in Bródno. While still at school, he refused to join the Polish Youth Union, even though those with no “organizational affiliation” were discriminated against in every area of ​​life. In 1953, despite various problems of a political nature, he graduated in law from the University of Warsaw where he had studied since 1949. He attended the partly secret seminar of Professor Stanisław Batawia on the then forbidden subject of criminology. According to information that the Security Service obtained later: “After the first year of his studies, he had achieved such a position that, despite different views, he was respected among party and youth activists. Nobody wanted to attack him, although at times he was considered for expulsion from the university”. He was sent to work at the Ministry of Justice. In 1954, he left the Ministry after passing the exam for the so-called aspirant and joined the Institute of Law Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. A year later, he became involved with “Po Prostu” – previously a magazine of the Union of Polish Youth, later a weekly for “students and young intelligentsia” within the de-Stalinization transformation that soon became a symbol of the Polish “thaw”.

From journalism to a legal practice

At “Po Prostu”, he wrote articles together with Jerzy Ambroziewicz and Walery Namiotkiewicz. He was an increasingly well-known co-author of articles that broke taboos and caused great social agitation. The one that was especially notable – “Meeting the Home Army People”, talked about restoring the merits of a generation of Home Army soldiers, inhumanly repressed during the Stalinist period. As the editor of “Po Prostu”, Jan Olszewski experienced the most dramatic moments of October ’56. At the same time when Władysław Gomułka was elected the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party, the Soviet military intervention, which was prevented at the last moment, was then very probable.

Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw in 1954, during construction (public domain)

In autumn 1957, after the weekly was closed down, he earned his living from odd jobs for two years. It was forbidden to print, so he published short articles under a pseudonym or someone else’s name only sporadically – using old contacts -. He was active in the Crooked Circle Club, a place for a free intellectual discussion. He decided not to follow a journalistic career at any time in the future. At the same time, he did not want to return to academic work, despite receiving a proposal from the eminent sociologist Professor Stanisław Ossowski. However, in 1959 he passed his legal exam with excellent results and in 1962 started practising as an attorney. From the beginning, he assumed that he would represent people repressed “for their beliefs”. Such a choice was also due to… a particular family commitment. “In 1905, the Circle of Political Defenders was founded. […] It was led, unofficially of course, by Stanisław Patek […]. He defended Stefan Okrzeja, and delivered a defence speech at his trial which was noted in the annals of the Polish advocacy. He didn’t take a penny for it, they didn’t take money. I thought it was a debt and I had to pay it back. I said to myself: I’ll try.”

Jan Olszewski appeared before the courts of the People’s Republic of Poland until the end of Communism in Poland. He did it on behalf of both the most famous and completely anonymous activists against the ruling regime. He was subjected to ongoing harassment, both professional and personal: in 1968, sentenced in a fraudulent trial to eight months of imprisonment with suspension (finally – acquitted), from 1968 to 1970 suspended from the right to practice the profession – so that he could not defend students involved in the events of March ’68, disciplined, harassed, intimidated. He was always guided by the conviction that “everyone persecuted by the Communist system and repressed because of their public activity” deserved help. In political matters, he did not accept any fee. It was like that, although it took a great deal of his time and energy. After the imposition of martial law on 13 December 1981, he took part in “dozens, perhaps hundreds, of trials of Solidarity activists throughout the country.”

Goal – escape the Soviet trap

In the first half of the 1970s, he also focused on organizing the opposition movement in intellectual circles. He was initially in a small group of initiators, editors and signatories of protest letters against the government’s actions. Finally, he decided that it was time to start looking for “answers to the questions about the future shape of independence.” When, in 1975, the authorities announced changes to the constitution, consisting of the statutory strengthening of Poland’s dependence on the USSR, he took part in the so-called “Constitutional action”, which took the form of countless collective and individual petitions from a wide variety of backgrounds. As a result, together with Zdzisław Najder, he secretly founded the Polish Independence Agreement. Its existence was symbolically announced in the émigré press on 3 May 1976, on the anniversary of the 3 May Constitution established in 1791, and it existed for the next four years. It mainly focused on secretly commissioning expertise and its illegal (apart from censorship) duplication and on its program and ideas. Jan Olszewski himself wrote one of the most important texts in the underground circuit, “Obywatel a Służba Bezpieczeństwa” (“A Citizen vs Secret Service”).

Jan Olszewski. Lech Wałęsa and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Warsaw, 10.11.1980 (photo: PAP/CAF/C. Langda)

As one of only five attorneys, he defended participants of the social rebellion of June 1976 – a wave of strikes and street demonstrations throughout the country in response to drastic price increases. He later remembered how he was approached by Antoni Macierewicz, who, together with his colleagues from “Czarna Jedynka” – the 1st Romuald Traugutt Warsaw Scout Team, he made an “attempt to gather young intelligentsia in order to provide help” for the persecuted. Jan Olszewski saw it as a turning point: “We are moving from a marginal phenomenon, that is, from the intellectual opposition to the first attempt at creating a mass resistance movement.” That is why he actively supported the efforts of Antoni Macierewicz (who was a Warsaw Scout Team member in the past) and Piotr Naimski (formerly the commandant) to establish the Workers’ Defense Committee. It was meant to be an open structure that would protect its members and provide ever-larger aid. He himself did not enter the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR, Komitet Obrony Robotników) due to the principle that lawyers should not give the authorities an excuse to exclude them from the profession.

The Committee, transformed after a year into the Committee for Social Self-Defense “KOR”, included representatives of various generations, opposition and ideological backgrounds. In retrospect, Jan Olszewski explained what the fundamental dispute within the opposition was, which also influenced the functioning of the Committee: “It came down to the question of whether we represent a tendency that differs significantly from the tradition of “folk” Poland […] and whether our aim was to regain full independence, or […] we were trying […] to improve the reality, create a better version of the People’s Republic of Poland. […] We, in the independence milieu, were looking for a way to achieve true independence and get out of the soviet snare”.

From the rise of “Solidarity” to a political breakthrough

He was an adviser to the Gdańsk shipyard workers during the great strike in August 1980. He was the co-author of the statute of free trade unions, which soon took the shape of “Solidarity”. After returning from Gdańsk, he immediately became involved in the activity of a consultation point, opened with a view to providing advice on the formation of new structures. He contributed to the establishment of the Inter-Enterprise Founding Committee of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Mazowsze”, later known as the Trade Union “Mazowsze Region”. On 17 September, at a meeting in Gdańsk of delegates of workers’ teams from all over the country, he persuaded those present to adopt the formula of one nationwide organization bringing together all industries. He co-organized the registration procedure of Solidarity and Solidarity of Individual Farmers. He was an expert of the National Coordination Committee, National Commission “S” and the Masovian “S”. He was a member of the Program and Consultation Council of the Centre for Social and Vocational Works of the National Coordination Committee. His voice turned out to be so important that it could influence the development of events, e.g. during the so-called Bydgoszcz crisis, when the Solidarity side abandoned its intention to proclaim a general strike.

A hunger strike organised in Holy Cross Church in Warsaw by Worker’s Defence Committee members. October, 1979 / photo Leszek Krzyżewski, KARTA Archive

After the declaration of martial law, he became an advisor in the Secretary Office of the Polish Episcopate. He served the Church as an intermediary in contacts with the leadership of the underground. On behalf of the Archbishop Bronisław Dąbrowski, he intervened in the matter of repressed people to the authorities. He acted as a representative of auxiliary prosecutors in the trial of the murderers of the priest Jerzy Popiełuszko. He had far-reaching reservations about the increasingly intense tendency of the leftist elites of the underground Solidarity to reach an agreement with the Communists. He summarized his position in this way: “[I was convincing Lech Wałęsa] that he should not rush, because the course of events […] will certainly not work in favour of the authorities, on the contrary. For them, things are only getting worse, so trying to compromise prematurely means supporting something that is becoming weaker and weaker.” In 1988, he was one of the founders, next to  Lech Wałęsa, of the Civic Committee. Soon after, he refused to take up the position of the so-called social side of the position of the chairman of the Round sub-table for law and court reform. He only agreed to provide expert services during strictly technical talks. He did not want to run for deputy in the vote on 4 June 1989. Several years later, he explained: “The direct reason for my refusal to participate in such an operation was the conviction that it is simply not appropriate for anyone who truly represents independence, and recognizes the values ​​associated with Polish tradition”.

Two concepts: duty and independence

He did not run for elections until the first post-war free elections on 27 October 1991, within the Civic Alliance Center. Designated in December as prime minister by president-elect Lech Wałęsa, at some point he resigned due to the lack of agreement on the choice of individual ministries. Ultimately, however, on 23 December a government was established. The government’s actions turned out to be crucial for the functioning of the state in general. Among the greatest achievements are the budget, a new economic program or stopping the nefarious privatization of national assets.

Jan Olszewski (photo: dzieje.pl)

Jan Olszewski considered Poland’s membership in the North Atlantic Alliance to be the main postulate in the field of foreign policy. The condition for sovereignty and the possibility of accession was to get rid of the Russian troops still stationed in various parts of the country. Meanwhile, Lech Wałęsa proposed the NATO-bis concept to replace the dissolved Warsaw Pact. There were justified concerns that during his visit to Moscow, he would sign an international agreement with Russia with a provision on the transformation of post-Soviet bases into trade ventures with special status, effectively excluded from the jurisdiction of the Polish state. The prime minister sent an encrypted telegram with the position of the Council of Ministers and thus blocked these changes. The ad hoc coalition led to the collapse of Olszewski’s government on the night of June 4-5. Jan Olszewski emphasized in the evening televised address to the nation: “Former collaborators of the Communist political police may be a security threat to a free Poland. The nation should know that it is no coincidence that at the moment when we can finally break away from Communist ties, suddenly the government is dismissed”.

Soon he took over the leadership of the newly established party – the Movement for the Republic of Poland. He was elected to an MP twice more – in the third and fourth term (1997-2005). He participated in the work of the Social Constitutional Commission, co-created the Citizens’ Draft of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland of 1994. He ran for the presidential election of 1995, obtaining less than seven per cent of the votes. That same year he became the founder and chairman of the Movement for Reconstruction of Poland. From 2006 to 2010, he was an advisor to President Lech Kaczyński. He acted towards the liquidation of the Military Information Services – an intelligence and counterintelligence structure derived from the Communist military-security apparatus and the full liberation of the state from Russian influence.

Jan Olszewski (photo: PAP/Ireneusz Radkiewicz)

After the year 1992, for almost two decades he continued to focus his efforts on building the independent Republic of Poland. On 3 May 2009, he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle by President Lech Kaczyński. During his funeral mass in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Warsaw, Antoni Macierewicz reflected on Olszewski’s career in his funeral speech: “Before you died, you used to say: ‘I have no obligation to give up.’ These two concepts: ‘obligation’ and ‘independence’ best characterize your attitude in life and your path in the service of the homeland. […] You did not give up any possibility or any path to support independence activities.”


Author: Justyna Błażejowska – PhD in history, employee of the History Research Office of Institute of National Remembrance
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin