Accessing the Documents

  1. General information

With the collapse of the Communist system in Poland, a number of questions arose on how to deal with the documents of the former communist secret police (abbreviation in Polish: Bezpieka, or SB/UB). There were even suggestions that all such documents should be destroyed to distance the country from the past. The specific nature of the Communist security services was to provide permanent surveillance over the lives of the citizens of the totalitarian state. As a matter of course, the security apparatus was interested in all aspects of citizens’ individual and group activities.

Documents produced by the former security apparatus of a totalitarian regime are of a specific nature. First, they provide the evidence for the functioning of the totalitarian regime in a given country (both in terms of factual history and socio-political history as well as the structures of the regime); secondly, the Bezpieka’s documents provide important evidence in the prosecution of criminals (individuals who committed war, Nazi or Communist crimes, crimes against humanity, etc.); thirdly, they are an important source of knowledge about the operations of the security apparatus itself. In the case of IPN, the archival resource of that institution comprises not only documents produced and collected by the state security agencies, but also materials produced by civilian courts and prosecutor’s offices, military courts, institutions of the prison system, and others. Obviously, materials produced by the Communist security bodies form the majority of the documents. In total, out of 94 kilometres of files held in the IPN archives, records of the Communist security bodies represent more than 80%.

In establishing the Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation under the Act of 18 December 1998, it was the legislature’s intention, inter alia, to compensate the victims of political repression by the Communist special services. Among other forms of compensation, efforts were made to prosecute the perpetrators of Communist crimes in courts and to ensure proper conditions of access to documents produced by the Communist bezpieka and concerning oppressed persons. The new Act of 18 October 2006 expanded the permission to disclose information about documents of the state security authorities originating in the years 1944-1990 and the content of those documents, and a later amendment entered into force in March 2007 to guarantee public access to the archives of the Communist political police. These new powers expanded the IPN’s original remit.

IPN operates through 10 Branches and 7 Delegations in the main Polish cities. Apart from the Archives and the Chief Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes, its other major units consist of the Office for Commemorating the Struggle and Martyrdom, the Office of Search and Identification, the National Education Office, the Historical Research Office and the Vetting Office for background checks on persons applying for major state positions. The documentation gathered in the Archives serves as the main data source for the operation of all these units.

2. Access to Documentation

Substantial changes in access to documents took place after the entry into force of the two amendment of the IPN Act on 15 March 2007 and the Act of 18 October 2006 on disclosing information on, and the content of, documents of state security agencies between 1944 and 1990. The right of access to documents accumulated in the IPN Archive became in fact a common right, i.e. enjoyed by all citizens equally. The provisions of both Acts expanded the group of persons who were granted the right to inspect documents upon application, to include both victims of the operation of the communist secret police organs and persons who worked in the structures of the security apparatus.

If documentation does not exist to show they were collaborators or officers of the State Security organs, applicants who have been granted the right to inspect the documents relating to them may stipulate that the information gathered on them in the course of operational or reconnaissance activities of the state security apparatus shall not be available for research or publication purposes for not more than 50 years after their creation. In addition, they may stipulate that revealing their ethnic or racial origin, religious beliefs, or information disclosing their health, sexual life, material status or property shall be prohibited.

However, everyone can apply to the IPN to view personnel files concerning employees or officers of the State Security organs. Everyone may also apply to be issued a certificate on whether the personal details of the applicant are identical to the personal details in the IPN catalogue of officers, collaborators and candidate collaborators of the state security organs. This catalogue has been accessible since 26 November 2004.

Everyone is also entitled to access documents concerning persons currently holding public office. IPN has a statutory obligation to publish information about the archived documents of persons holding public offices in a “Public Information Bulletin”.

Everyone is also entitled to apply to IPN to be granted access to copies of files of a legally binding verdict of the Court concerning the vetting of candidates for public office.

In addition, journalists or academics can request to have access to files. Applications from academics have to bear the seal of the scientific institution and applications from journalists have to include written authorization of the editor or publisher. The application can be made to the Director of the relevant Branch of IPN, or to the Director of Warsaw Branch of IPN if the applicant does not live in the country.

The policy of open access to the archives of Communist security services intersects with activity aimed to identify and delimit areas which are still classified as state secrets. When IPN was established, the legislature assumed that the Institute’s archives would also receive documents the disclosure of which would be dangerous for the currently functioning state. Therefore, a “dedicated secret set” of documents was established in the IPN Archive. It contains selected files of the Communist special services, to which no access is allowed except for designated IPN employees and current state special services. Also, the restriction to the secret set does not apply to public prosecutors conducting investigations into Communist crimes, prosecutors in charge of vetting public persons and Courts giving judgments.

A new Amendment of the IPN Act on 29 April 2016 created an obligation for the Head of the Security Agency, Minister of Defence and Chief Commandant of the Border Protection Guard to review the documents in the IPN’s restricted section in consultation with the President of the Institute of National Remembrance within 12 months of the entry of the Law into force. A portion of formerly top secret documents was then declassified and became available for open access similarly to other documents mentioned earlier. As such, all records except for those classified as top secret can be accessed by researchers.

Our North Korean Index contains the column “Identifier” with an archival signature under which the file is registered and can be accessed in the IPN Archive.