17 July 2017
I have recently visited Poland and wanted to record some impression while they are fresh in my mind.
I had previously visited Poland in 1989, which was only a few months before the Berlin Wall came down with the collapse of the USSR under Gorbachev. This had immense implications for Poland, and a few historic aspects need to be understood. Poland had been strengthened by the Versailles Treaty at the end of WW1, and had been given the port that the Germans had called Danzig, which was named Gdansk. This had cut off a part of Germany and Hitler had raged about the ‘intolerable Polish corridor’ that separated a small part of Germany from the rest of it. From the Poles point of view, Gdansk was at the mouth of the major river system of their whole country and allowed them access to Baltic Sea, without which they were landlocked. Historical Poland had had a slightly tenuous existence as it was between neighbours more powerful than itself, Russia, Prussia/Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and before that Sweden. Historian AJP Taylor had called Poland ‘the historic whipping boy’ of Europe.
Britain and France had imposed Poland on Germany and Russia at the Treaty of Versailles after World War One, but neither Germany nor Russia was happy about that. Poland believed it was safe, guaranteed by Britain and France. Hitler, chancellor of Germany from 1935, rearmed. As is well known, Britain and France were slow to respond, gave up part of Czechoslovakia to buy time and has no real capacity to support Poland. Unknown to the West, Hitler organised the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1935, which simply divided Poland in half, Germany and Russia taking half each. Poland was to cease to exist. Germany launched Blitzkrieg on Poland on Sept 3 1939, which started WW2. Less well known is that the Russians invaded soon after, taking their half and the Polish government fled into exile. Total surrender and partition had occurred by the end of October.
As the Germans retreated before the Russian advance in 1945, the Polish Resistance managed to put some units of troops together to help the Russians fight the Germans. The Russian accepted their help, then arrested the officers, and offered the men to join the Russian army or face possible arrest themselves. They were not going to allow Poland to rise as a result of the war. In the post war negotiations all of Poland was within the Russian occupied zone, as was the Eastern part of Germany. There was little the British or American could do about it, so Poland was within the USSR and a compliant Communist government was set up. Poland existed within considerable constraints but could use its own language. This was better than the Nazi era, where Polish language teaching was forbidden and the elite were murdered so that Poland would have no resistance to its incororati0on into the German Third Reich.
Poland had historically been very tolerant of Jews and had had a large population of them prior to WW2. Poland was to be subjugated but from a Nazi point of view ordinary Poles were back in the queue for the gas chambers behind the Jews, Gypsies, Communists, political elites, homosexuals, people with disabilities and Slavs. The Polish people were faced with an inevitability, join Germany or die. Most Poles would rather be incorporated in another country than die. The Germans forbade teaching of the Polish language and changed the school curricula.
The Russians after WW2 set-up a puppet state, but the fact that a Polish state existed gave hope to the Polish people who retained their language and the dream of their own independent country.
I has hastily arranged a tour of Eastern Europe in 1989 as it appeared that the USSR was going to collapse, and I wanted to see what it was like. This trip was very interesting, even though I had only had a few days in Lithuania, Poland and East Germany. In these countries, and in Russia and Ukraine, the sense of the inevitability of the fall of the USSR had been palpable. The exchange rate on the black market had been 9x the official rate, and any waiter, street trader or hotel room cleaner had been happy to exchange at the better rate, despite the forbidden nature of this and the supposed ability for it to be checked. I did not see one building crane operating in Russia or Ukraine. Both the Lithuanians and the Poles were showing their flags and stressing within the crumbling constraints that they were not part of Russia and did not want to be. The Poles were outgoing in social situations with a hearty pub life, had a lot of flags flying and showed off their cultural assets with as much pride as possible. The Museum of Chopin in Warsaw and the Jagellian University in Krakow, claimed to be oldest University in Europe at 1369 were quietly marketed. The effect of Communism was evident however. In Krakow there was a boat cruise on the river, only available at 10am and 3pm. We had arrived at the wrong time for this, but an American couple arrived at the same time. A man was sitting on the foredeck smoking a cigarette, looking very much as though he had nothing to do. The American hailed him and had soon chartered the boat for what was a few dollars. He said that we were welcome. We were delighted and threw in a bit more than the normal ticket price. When we thought it, the American understood that Captain was not doing anything, did not have to pay for the fuel, and our hiring would go straight into his pocket.
So Poland is new. It has a long history that it dates from 953, but it only regained its independence with the collapse of the USSR in 1989, and has the enthusiasm of a teenager. It has spent a lot of money on its infrastructure with new complexes around modern railway stations, and significant building dome with imaginative architecture, not just a view to function. Museums have had a lot of attention, some made with a meticulous effort to make complex history accurate and accessible, such as the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, and others dealing with historic injustices, But other museums have lapsed into jingoism, such as the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising in Warsaw, which links this heroic doomed uprising, which won control of a few streets in Warsaw for 6 weeks in 1944 to the Polish contributions to the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Krakow, which as an ex-capital and unbombed in WW2 is probably the most historic town in Poland. It has a large Market Square and when they found some archaeological remain they dug up most of the square, displayed the archaeological site with a lot of artefacts, explanations and A-V displays, and replaced the Square so that from above one would not even know that the new Museum was there. The concentration camp at Auschwitz, where over 1.3 million Polish Jews were murdered now has far more tourists, and is a massive educational project, helped by a committee which was initially largely staffed and driven by survivors. Palaces that either were not opened or were not publicised in 1989 now are a source of great pride and tell of their Kings and conquests. Restoration and rebuilding have had no expense spared. The Palace in Warsaw has stucco and gold-plated angels at a Versailles level, but only completed in the 1990s. The enthusiasm is palpable.
At a more mundane level, Poland is still a relatively poor country and prices are significantly lower than in Germany though everything is available. At a hostel where there were a lot of foreigners, I asked a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties were she was from. She said, ‘Poland’. I said ‘You are lucky’. She did not seem to think so. Many young Poles cannot get jobs and look to Germany or the UK as possible destinations.
But it is not all roses and interesting cheap holidays. The current Polish government has made a large turn to the Right. It recently passed a law that any of the Supreme Court judges can be dismissed at will, which undermines the separation of politics and law. Civil rights groups are very concerned about this. By chance, just after his tour, the Guardian’s well informed columnist, Kate Maltby has pointed out that when the Royal Family, Harry and Kate, visited Poland they were taken to the jingoistic Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, rather than the accurate Museum of the Second World War. The most charitable explanation of this would that it is in Warsaw and more geographically convenient. We hope so.