Poland: A Wise Fool’s Paradise?

“Hundreds of years ago, Polish kings were honoured here at Wawel,” the prime minister began. “Today, on the anniversary of the first free elections in Europe – elections suppressed for so many years by communism – today, here at Wawel, leaders of European nations have come to pay tribute to the great ideas of freedom and solidarity, and the heroes who dedicated their whole lives to that freedom and solidarity.”

As the sonorous words echoed across the castle courtyard, there was one guest, albeit uninvited, who was especially engrossed in the high-flown rhetoric. Invisible to the assembled dignitaries, he nonetheless loomed over the event (as indeed he does over all turning points in Poland’s history) with all the intensity of a Shakespearean spectre.

Most probably he was perched laconically from a balustrade on one of the upper arcades. After all, it was his master, King Sigismund the Old, who had rebuilt the castle that hosted last week’s celebrations. The uninvited guest was, of course, Stańczyk, jester to a trio of Polish monarchs.

Stańczyk was a brilliant wit, but he was also trusted as an uncannily prescient advisor – a man who had a matchless grip on Polish affairs. He endures as a seer-like figure in his country’s literature, appearing in paintings, plays and cinema too.

But what would the jester have made of all the grand words spoken on June 4th? How would he evaluate the achievements of his country over the last twenty years, now that Poland is finally freed from its Soviet shackles?

Only a genuine fool would dismiss Poland’s part in the downfall of communism in Europe. As William Brand reflected in these pages earlier this month, “Gorbachev had opened the door, but it took the Poles to work up the courage and cut the deal — the ‘Contract’ – that allowed them to walk through, into the unknown and into the future that gave us the world we know today.” Timothy Garton Ash, one of the few Western witnesses of the Solidarity Revolution, told Radio Polonia that the peaceful 1989 victory was “Poland’s gift to the world.”

Yet of course, the paradoxes of last week’s ceremonies could not have been lost on Stańczyk, nor were they on the Polish voters themselves, who maintain a healthy cynicism towards their political elite.

After all, June 4th was supposed to be a tribute to Solidarity, the movement that had emerged in the shipyards of Gdańsk back in 1980. And yet Prime Minister Tusk had lost his nerve at the last moment and transferred the celebrations to Krakow, fearing that unemployed shipyard workers would raise the Solidarity banner in anger before all the high-flying guests.

And so we had plenty of former communists in the front row at Wawel, including veterans of the Round Table Talks of ’89 like Miller, Oleksy and Kwaśniewski, yet precious few of the Solidarity association, which held a parallel conference later in Gdańsk.

Perhaps predictably, given the long-running animosity between the President and the Prime Minister, Lech Kaczyński opted to veto the Krakow ceremony, heading straight for Gdańsk – hardly a show of unity on such a significant day.

Of course, at the last minute, Wałęsa – the irrepressible icon – did attend. But what a sorry state Wałęsa seems to be in at the moment. Accused of being a communist informer, accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, accused of destroying his own secret police files – the list grows ever more humiliating. According to surveys, most Poles seem prepared to forgive the embattled leader his alleged transgressions, but one wonders how long the endless flow of accusations can go on without descending into complete farce.

A Trying Twenty Years

Speaking to this paper in April, historian Adam Zamoyski remarked that “until 1989, writing Polish history was a bit like delivering a eulogy at the graveside of a much-loved but slightly hopeless friend.” And yet owing to the miraculous transformation of the last two decades, he posited that “now, as you contemplate Polish history, you don’t naturally think ‘where did we go wrong?’ Because actually, things have turned out quite well.” Similarly, historian Anne Applebaum noted that one Polish colleague had concluded that the last decade had been “the most successful in three centuries”.

Certain achievements cannot be denied. After 600 percent inflation in 1989, Poland has pulled itself out of the Cold War quagmire. And so far, it seems to be weathering the recent recession better than some of its Western neighbours.

Speaking to a group of journalists and academics in Krakow last month, Timothy Garton Ash reflected on how “totally, unimaginably different” the country was in the grey days of 1979.

“If you had told anyone that thirty years later, Poland would be a free country, a liberal democracy, and a member of Europe and NATO, people would have thought you were mad.”

It is also worth remembering that aside from the lack of blood spilled in deposing the old order, there were no showdowns with Poland’s neighbours either. When empires fall, all hell can break loose, as witnessed in the bloody plight of Yugoslavia. Throughout the 1930s, Poland’s relations with Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Germans were explosive. The war saw an all-time nadir. Yet in ’89, after the Soviet freeze, there were no calls for a return of former Polish cities such as Wilno (now Vilnius) or Lwów (now Lviv). Indeed, Poland championed the independence of Lithuania and Ukraine, a policy that had been supported by émigré publications such as the French-based Kultura. Likewise, the concept of German tanks rolling into Poland, or vice versa, seems absurd today. After centuries of war in Europe, something has been achieved.

But it has not been an easy twenty years. Poland’s economy may have come on in leaps and bounds, yet the average wage remains dramatically lower than Western European norms. The two or so million Poles who left their country since joining the EU in 2004, largely did so out of desperation.

Even in the late 90s, there were ominous articles about the “brain drain” of talented Poles who left their country in the hope of a more prosperous life abroad. And it remains to be seen how many emigrants will return. But ultimately, the traffic of the last twenty years is still overshadowed by not so much a “drain”, as the slain. The extermination policies carried out by the Soviets and Nazis against Polish Catholic and Jewish elites created a huge vacuum. Even the Warsaw Rising alone, which saw the annihilation of the capital, has been likened to the decapitation of Polish society. Likewise, during the 1930s, assimilated Jews accounted for about a third of the country’s lawyers and doctors, not to mention a galaxy of brilliant writers and artists. This created friction from the less tolerant spheres of Polish society, but the loss cannot be understated.

This brings us to another painful issue. Relations between Poles and Jews were strained in 1939, but today émigrés of many backgrounds share the same goal on one key issue. Countless properties were seized by the Nazis and Communists, but today, Poland remains the only Central European country not to have created a coherent policy on restitution. At present there are about 89,000 unresolved cases, ranging from city mansions to country estates to factories. As a result, there are men who fought for Poland, both Catholic and Jewish – now in their eighties – who will probably never see closure on the matter.

“Consecutive Polish cabinets told us not to rush them,” a U.S. Congressman told the Gazeta Wyborcza daily. “And so we’ve been waiting for almost twenty years.”

One group that has been uniquely successful in restoring property, and yet one which is now sailing on uncertain waters, is the Church. For better or worse, the Church is losing influence today, after an unparalleled high in the wake of the election of the Polish Pope in 1979. An old quip told by the intelligentsia runs that the Polish Church always functions best under relative oppression. That relative oppression has gone now and the Church is no longer the shepherd of the nation. A recent survey by SMG/KRC revealed an unprecedented low in loyalties to the Church, with only three percent of Poles between the age of 24 and 34 wanting to live their lives as Catholics. Likewise, 34 percent declared that the pursuit of luxury was a key goal.

Between 1945 and 1989, the Polish Church was blessed with a series of outstanding personalities, beginning with Cardinal Sapieha, and leading on through Cardinal Wyszyński, Pope John Paul I and Father Józef Tischner. After the retirement of Cardinal Marcharski in 2004, the Church seemed robbed of much of its gravitas. Indeed, the most memorable figure today is arguably a man who has striven to reveal the flaws of the institution, owing to his campaign to demask former communist-era informers. Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, himself twice beaten by the Communist security services, has made more enemies than he has friends.

The spectre of collaboration continues to be one of the most controversial issues in the new Poland. Unlike in Germany, there was no wholesale opening of secret police files in 1989, meaning that many supposedly compromised figures remained in positions of power. Recently, Jarosław Kaczyński’s government tried to make public figures, including university professors, sign confessional forms, but the policy met with much opposition. Governments were accused of using files to throw mud for their own political gains.

These problems are in many respects an echo of the so-called Gruba Kreska (Thick Line), which was declared back in 1989. The announcement that former communists would be granted a fresh start was music to the ears of the former elite.

“The minute the Gruba Kreska was announced, they suddenly came out from under the beds and their hiding places, and began merrily asset-stripping and accommodating themselves to the new system,” historian Adam Zamoyski reflected.

“You don’t need to carry out great purges” he argued, “just to say: ‘These people are persona non grata,’ and give them to understand that if they ever try anything or raise their heads they’ll get walloped.”

However, the former communists weren’t the only group to take rich pickings from de-nationalized businesses. They also helped foreign investors to do likewise. Everything from banks to breweries came up for grabs. The result is that the majority of large Polish companies are now owned by global concerns.

It remains to be seen whether this will benefit Poland in the long term. The same can be said of Poland’s consistent backing of American and British initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 1992, Minister Radek Sikorski had a surreal chance encounter with former Communist leader General Jaruzelski:

“You denounced us for taking our orders from the Soviet embassy,” Jaruzelski’s colleague told the young minister, “and now you people go to the U.S. embassy to get yours. So what’s changed?”

Well of course, quite a lot has changed. And speaking generally of the shock measures applied to Poland in the wake of 1989, it is all too easy to point the finger now that we have the benefit of hindsight. “Maybe mistakes had been made,” Garton Ash said of the revolution. “Maybe things could have been done better – but no one had ever done this before.”

See also: 20 Years On
Zamoyski: Reflections on the Bloodless Revolution

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