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TO KILL A PRIEST: The murder of Father Popieluszko and the fall of Communism

02 November 2006


Gibson Square £16.99 (1-903933-54-4)

THE POLISH secret police murder a priest in 1984; five years later Communism and their world collapse. Is there a connection? The sudden end of the system that clasped the eastern half of Europe in its embrace had many causes, but much research is still wanting.

Kevin Ruane is one of the most experienced and reliable BBC journalists to have worked in the USSR and Poland during the 1970s and ’80s, and this book is the result of one area of his reportage. His answer to the above question is: “Yes, the Roman Catholic Church — combined with intense Polish nationalism — was a major contributor to, even a trigger of, the political events here recounted.”

He was an eye-witness of, and at times a virtual participant (the Polish resistance trusted him with privileged information) in, the story he unfolds. It is a tragic tale: the short life of a priest, Fr Jerzy Popieluszko. Originally a student of no particular distinction, he became a political symbol and an activist almost despite himself. Then he fell victim to a brutal, though bungled, attack by the most reprehensible elements in the old Poland.

The ensuing trial of the perpetrators and the attendant worldwide publicity were, in Ruane’s view, unquestionably a key factor in the toughened determination of Solidarity, the Roman Catholic workers’ trade union, not to die when it was banned by the imposition of martial law in December 1981. Ruane, I believe, is right. His description of how the ban failed to curb free speech in the pulpit is convincing.

The last two-thirds of this book of almost 400 pages recount in detail the murder of Fr Popieluszko; the subsequent investigation, often so complicated and dishonest that attempted cover-ups had themselves to be covered up, and then disguised a second time; and the endless contortions of the trial itself.

The research and reconstruction that have gone into this convoluted story do not always make for easy reading (and the sequence of Polish names is an added complication), but they are exemplary. Ruane exposes the former Polish regime as rotten, both on the surface and at its very core. The skulduggery of those who upheld it led, inevitably, to the demise of the system, which is recounted briefly at the end.

It is slightly strange that this book should appear 20 years after the main events it records; but it is very right that the world should forget neither the heroism of Fr Popieluszko nor that of the great band of Solidarity activists who ousted the communists.

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