In the Collegium Maius of Cracow University, where Copernicus studied nearly five centuries ago, there is a Latin inscription that President Charles de Gaulle may have noticed on his visit there in September. In scarlet and gilt letters, it says: “To every action there is an opposite reaction of equal force.”

Newton’s law of physics is a law of politics in Poland today. The action of the bureaucracy is met with the equal reaction of the citizen, and in many other areas of social and political life, force and counterforce are balanced: censor and writer, ideologist and pragmatist, industrializer and peasant.

These unresolved conflicts between the rulers and the ruled are by no means unique to Poland. Czechoslovakia currently is rerunning, like an old television film, the same struggle of writers against the regime that Poland has had. In the Soviet Union, fifty years of Communism have not reconciled city and countryside, Marxism and efficiency.

Communists and Catholics

But only in Poland is there an institution that can gather together these strands of criticism, resistance, and opposition. Only in Poland is there a competing center of power, officially, although reluctantly, sanctioned by the regime. That is the Roman Catholic Church.

For a thousand years, the church has been a fundamental part of Polish life. Its priests gave village and farm children the little education they received. Its primates served as regents during the periods when nobles were electing a new king. Its hymns and traditions kept the Polish national idea alive during the long years of partition and occupation.

When a Communist government took power in the post-war ruins of Warsaw, there were many scores to settle with the church. True, most priests had not collaborated with the German occupation as the Slovakian and Croatian Catholics had done. But in the eyes of the new leaders, the church stood for the Poland of the barons and the cavalry officers, the rulers between the wars. The Communists thought that discriminatory laws, confiscation of property, and large-scale arrests of priests would take care of the church, just as the forced creation of 12,500 collective farms was supposed to take care of the peasants.

By 1956, it was clear that neither course was working. Wladyslaw Gomulka returned to power that October with a reform program that gave the church as important a place as the peasantry. The peasants won the dissolution of the collectives; Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, the Polish Primate, was guaranteed freedom to preach and give religious instruction. In exchange, he was to ensure the tacit support of the nation’s Catholics for Gomulka’s independent Communism.

The bargain held long enough for Poland to be spared a revolution like Hungary’s. But within a very few months, both church and state began backsliding. The Cardinal refused to accept the regime’s definition of what was religion and what was politics. He delivered speeches of protest instead of sermons. At the same time, the state resumed its old tactics, harassing priests, restricting religious education, cutting church programs.

And the argument continues. On one side are the two million Party members, on the other, the thirty million, or twenty-five million, Catholics (depending on whether one accepts the church or the government estimate).

The two million Communists rule the country. They directed the rebuilding of Stettin and Warsaw, the construction of the Lenin steelworks at Nowa Huta, the quadrupling of high school and university facilities. They take credit for the fact that Poland is the world’s ninth largest steel producer, and that Polish machinery goes aboard Polish ships to Africa and Asia.

Their power is visible in the cities and villages in the person of the policeman in the light-blue uniform or the teen-age soldier in ill-fitting khaki. It is audible on the nearly deserted streets of Warsaw late at night.

In the distance, you hear the roar of some great machine, as though a giant vacuum cleaner were approaching. Then the machine appears. It is in fact a dozen motorcycles with flashing blue lights and white-helmeted riders in white imitation-leather coats. They surround the black Soviet Zil limousine of a party functionary. His bald head is scarcely visible through the back window. The machine grinds slowly down the dim boulevard. Its purpose is more than transportation or security. It is a display of power.

The Cardinal has no motoreyeles

Compared with this display, the village religious processions seem frail indeed, as do the other public exhibitions of the church’s power: flickering candles on little shrines cut into the old city walls, tall roadside crucifixes draped with evergreen garlands and fresh flowers. The Pope has no divisions; the Cardinal has no motorcycles.

But in the summer of 1966, when regime and church were competing like political parties for crowds, the decision went to the church. At issue was the celebration of a thousand years of Catholicism in Poland. Throughout the country, the regime staged rallies to draw crowds from the church observances. The church’s attendance was hardly hurt, but the regime’s audiences in many cases turned out to be embarrassingly small.

It must be tempting in such a dilemma to prescribe the arrest of a few priests and the dispatch of a few truckloads of police to break up the religious gathering. But this the regime cannot do, any more than the church can use its position to preach Gomulka’s overthrow or hide dynamite in the belfry.

As for the individual, there is no way for anyone to know whether his zealous church attendance is a vote against the regime or the exercise of his constitutional right to worship.

This uneasy balance between the state and the church (with the church representing other currents of opposition as well as its own) constitutes the Polish equilibrium. Gomulka is limited more than most leaders in East or West in the decisions he can make toward either more liberal or stricter rule. On the one side there is the Soviet Union, guarantor of Poland’s borders with Germany and underwriter of Polish Communism. On the other side are the Cardinal, the intelligentsia, and the owners of millions of little farms.

How the Polish equilibrium works can best be shown by scenes from a 1500-mile tour of Poland, a trip I made partly on my own, and partly as a reporter in General de Gaulle’s entourage.

The peasants’ way

At Buk, 250 miles from Warsaw and about 18 from Poznan, horses and wagons clustered in the cobblestone market square point the way to the town restaurant. It is 10 A.M. on a gray Wednesday. The restaurant is filled with farmers, townsmen, and two men in uniform — the policeman and the stationmaster.

Liter mugs of nut-brown beer circulate, along with glasses of Indian tea and gritty coffee. The walls — lavender, peach, apple green, and brown — are posted with price lists. Bread and butter and coffee, 11 zlotys. Kielbasa sausage, 12. The luncheon special, 20; a bottle of clear vodka, 58. At the official rate of exchange, a zloty is worth about four cents, but this statistic is meaningless in Buk. What counts is the fact that the average monthly wage in Poland is 2000 zlotys; in the countryside, it is said to be slightly less. Yet the policeman and his farmer companion pay a bill of close to 70, a day’s pay, for a late breakfast.

The farmers of Buk are well shod in shoes or leather boots, which sell in the shop next door for 300 zlotys. Along the stone streets, flowers fill the gardens of the well-kept houses, and in the outskirts, dozens of new brick and cement-block homes are going up, gray and raw while they await their stucco coats.

Only two cars, humpbacked Warsawa taxis, sit in the market square. In Buk as elsewhere, the horse is king, in teams pulling plows, or trotting smartly down the E8, the Warsaw-Berlin highway, or grazing in the fenced-in little patches of Polish countryside.

The contents of the rubber-tired wooden wagons tell the secret of how Buk pays its vodka and shoe bills. Fruits and vegetables, heading for market. In Buk, and in the tens of thousands of other little towns, the private farmer can sell his produce on the free market, then turn over what he cannot sell to the government, which guarantees to buy it at set prices.

One recalls Lenin’s words: “As long as we live in a small-peasant country, there is a surer economic basis for capitalism in Russia than for Communism.” Or Stalin’s: “The collective farms constitute the principal base for remolding the peasant, for changing his psychology in the spirit of Socialism.”

In Poland, after twenty-three years of Communist government, there has been no great leap forward on the countryside. Eighty-seven percent of the farms are private, and in Buk, the poster proclaiming the fiftieth anniversary of the great October Revolution is nearly concealed by the fruit and vegetable crates piled in the marketplace for sale.

Vodka and cynicism

“What’s the Polish national dish?” said the young writer in a Warsaw restaurant in the reconstructed Old City. “Here, have some,” and he passed the vodka bottle. A perspiring violinist played “Granada” in honor of the Western visitors, and the murmur of dozens of conversations filled the room.

The theme at this table was survival, economic and intellectual. How to hold two jobs successfully, how to get around the government rules that limit apartment space to nine square yards a person, how to get hold of a car or enough foreign currency to finance a week’s vacation in Paris.

“The passport is no problem,” the writer said. “You can get one for the asking, as long as you haven’t been prominently in some kind of political trouble. But our ridiculous money — it can’t be spent anywhere. The answer is to have friends, as I do in Paris, and as others do in Sweden or London. Then we can get out, then we can breathe.”

Why not simply remain in Paris or Stockholm? The answers are complex. There is the emptiness of exile life, the comforts that many intellectuals enjoy in Poland, the hazy, ill-defined nationalism. They stay in Poland because Gomulka’s retreats from his promises of 1956 have by no means been complete. But they must escape, nevertheless, into vodka, cynicism, or the cult of the West, because the retreats that have been made are as great as they are.

Nowa Kulturna and Przeglad Kulturalny, the two best-known journals of ten years ago, have long since been suspended and replaced with the safe but dull Kultura. But dullness has diminishing returns, and in recent years even Kultura has become more lively, and as a result more controversial.

The New York Times and the Paris Herald-Tribune used to be sold at hotel newsstands. Now only the bloc papers and the Western Communist organs are there. But PAP, the Polish news agency, provides Polish readers with a more complete, more objective picture of the West than it used to. Some of Radio Warsaw’s commentaries are thoughtful and balanced, as long as they stay clear of the topics that require a formula response, such as Vietnam and Germany.

The art of the Polish poster continues to thrive; Warsaw billboards look like disorganized exhibitions of action painting. If playwrights are restricted, set designers are not, as the scenery for the performance of Faust seen by De Gaulle showed. The stage of the Teatr Wielki operated on three levels. Huge abstract net panels caught projected light patterns: trees and windows for outdoor scenes and mathematical equations for Faust’s study.

A final benefit of 1956 is the cultural exchange programs still in force with the West. American and English books on subjects from warfare to computers are on sale in the Warsaw shops. But, on the onehundredth anniversary year, it takes some looking to locate a copy of the works of Karol Marks and Fryderyk Engels.

The red and buff streetcar rolls through the old Free City of Danzig and out along the Baltic. Günter Grass described the routes in painstaking detail in his novels about Danzig in the war years. Grass’s geography still holds; the No. 2 goes to Oliwa, in the suburbs. It passes a German cemetery, weeds grown high, and well-kept little flower and vegetable gardens, where the apartment dwellers of Danzig, like those of other European cities, spend their summer weekends. But in Poland there is a difference. A man boards the streetcar with his crate of apples, grown on his one tree, for sale in the Sunday market.

The churches of Danzig

In Oliwa’s spare thirteenth-century cathedral, the crowd presses to the whitewashed walls. Polish Catholics have come to pray and see the French President kneel next to the vacant seat of the Polish President. As the congregation responds in Latin to the Mass and sings in Polish the hymns asking God’s protection and help, priests in white lace take aim on the General with 35 millimeter cameras, and in one case with a movie camera and microphone.

The Danzig newspaper, Dziennik Baltycki, has ignored De Gaulle’s visit to the cathedral. The Polish government, until that point busily trucking journalists to the De Gaulle appearances, has discovered that the press buses will not be available so early on a Sunday.

Instead, the journalists get a little lecture: the church has a real place in Polish society, and the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But the church cannot mix in the affairs of state. As Poland develops and casts off the ways of the past, the cathedrals will remain as interesting historical buildings. By then, the old ladies who attend services will be gone.

At Oliwa, there are 4000 in the church and 3000 outside. Many are there only to see the General, an old priest says with a trace of annoyance.

“We rarely have the crowds outside,”he continues. “But we do nearly fill the church on an average Sunday. By that I mean for each Mass. We have seven.”

The story is the same in Poznan, Cracow, and Warsaw. On Sundays, the churches are full; on religious holidays, they are packed. On any afternoon or evening, a visitor can see that the church is alive, active, and young. Children in black satin smocks show up for religious instruction after school. Candles are always being lighted, people praying.

At services, hymns are sung with the vigor and emotion of protest songs, for that is what they are. The old ladies are in the congregation, of course, as they are all over Europe. But the young men and women are there too. Several informal counts in churches showed that six out of ten appeared to be forty or under. They read church newspapers, marry in the church, are buried by the church.

Yet: “A situation where any institution would become a state within a state is out of the question in this country,” a government newspaper wrote recently. “These are not medieval times.”

De Gaulle at Auschwitz

At the end of a rusted rail line, kerosene fires flicker atop the crumpled concrete of the Auschwitz crematoriums. The brick chimneys in rows mark where wooden barracks stood. The permanent barracks of raw pink brick still stand, bounded by barbed wire that stretches off into the mist. Most of the four million who were killed here were Poles; most of those were Jews.

At the stone monument to the four million, General de Gaulle lays a wreath, and then pauses, head slightly bowed, while his host, President Edward Ochab, looks on expectantly, and the television crews and reporters wait to record his words.

From Westerplatte, where the first shots of World War II were fired, to Zabrze, in the former German province of Silesia, De Gaulle’s tour was planned by the Polish government with one aim: to remind the General and the world of the aggression of Germany and its cost in leveled cities and mass murders.

But France needs no such reminder, even though its losses were not as great as Poland’s. There are plaques on Paris’ streets as well as Warsaw’s commemorating the execution of resistance fighters, and thousands of Frenchmen died at Auschwitz.

The difference is that De Gaulle and other post-war leaders of France have been inclined toward a policy of reconciliation with Germany, whatever the hate that remains in the breast of the average Frenchman, and that Gomulka and the other leaders of Poland have done all they can to keep this hate alive in their country. It is one of their strongest links to the people, who know that Premier Jozef Cyrankiewicz was an Auschwitz inmate, and that Gomulka led resistance attacks in Warsaw. It is at the same time a rationale for the alliance with the Soviets.

Charles de Gaulle stood for some moments before the Auschwitz monument. Then, without a word, he turned, walked swiftly along the row of plaques, and went back to his car.

The equilibrium prevails

De Gaulle makes no policy move without careful preparation, even though he may, as in Quebec or Silesia, give the appearance of spontaneity. He came to Poland because lie thought he saw an opportunity in Poland’s particular balance of forces.

Gomulka, for his part, felt safe in inviting De Gaulle, despite the risks of what he might say. The first Western leader to visit Poland since the war, De Gaulle is also the only one with a thought-out plan of detente with the East, and the only one with credentials acceptable to the Communists on the issues of Poland’s borders, and on Vietnam: he recognizes the Oder-Neisse Line and opposes the war.

The General did speak out. He offered the Poles a role in his grand European scheme from the Atlantic to the Urals, and for the first time divided Europe into three parts, East, Central, and West, to give Poland a place of its own between the extremes. He urged Poland to seek wider horizons, which meant to detach itself, if only a little, from the Soviet Union, as France has done from the United States.

Gomulka rejected the General’s offer in a tight, controlled, and biting speech before the Sejm, the Polish parliament. Gomulka made it plain that Poland’s conception of Europe begins and ends on its East and West borders. On one side is the Soviet Union, cornerstone of Polish policy. On the other is East Germany, Poland’s guarantee against German expansionism.

And there the matter stands. Poland, with a 700-mile border with the Soviet Union, is not trading the security of its alliance with Moscow, no matter how confining it might be, for the promises of an old man from Paris. Did De Gaulle misread the Polish equilibrium?

Waiting for the new men

The answer lies in whether the General expected immediate results, or whether, as French officials stressed in their briefings, his aim was to plant seeds for the future, to point Poland toward a path it will not be able to take until East-West detente is more advanced.

In the future, after the seventyseven-year-old Dc Gaulle and sixtytwo-year-old Gomulka and sixty-sixyear-old Wyszynski are gone, Poland will have a new regime and a new opposition, and perhaps a new balance. On the government side will be the young engineers, plant managers, economists, and university men. Their French or English is as good as their Russian. Their experiences in the war and German occupation are for the most part childhood memories. Their plans for curing Poland’s economic and political illnesses, with a few modifications, could have come from Sweden or the Labor Party.

On the church side, there will be the young prelates schooled in the spirit of Pope John and trained in the sooty industrial parishes. Poland must wait until the new men come to power. Waiting is something this nation knows how to do: 150 years of partition, 7 of German occupation, and 23 of Communism.

Donald R. Shanor


Charles McDowell, Jr., writes from Washington for the Richmond TIMES-DISPATCH. John Hughes’s coverage, of Indonesia for the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR won him this years Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Barry Lando, a contributing editor at TIME, has spent a number of years in Latin America as a student and as a reporter. Donald Shanor is the Chicago DAILY NEWS’S Bonn correspondent.