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Neo-Pagan’ Poland

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has a Law of the Infinite Cornucopia. This states that there is never a shortage of arguments to support whatever doctrine you want to believe in for whatever reasons. The historian’s version of this law is that causes can invariably be found for any event or phenomenon, however extraordinary or unexpected. Whatever happens will be explained.

The election of Aleksander Kwasniewski as president of Poland, on November 19, 1995, perfectly illustrates this law. Numerous articles have immediately explained, with clarity, vivid supporting detail, and persuasive arguments, why “Poland chose” a former communist apparatchik in preference to the former Solidarity leader, Nobel Prize-winner, and incumbent president, Lech Walesa. Never mind that if just 2 percent of the votes had gone the other way we would have read numerous articles explaining, with equal clarity and persuasiveness, why Poland had reelected Walesa. Thus is history written.

Yet this was an astonishing result. Six years after the end of communism, the country which had the strongest anti-communist opposition and the weakest communist party in the Soviet bloc has both a government led by former communists and a president who is one. Anyone who had predicted this in the autumn of 1989 would have been laughed out of the room. But then, so would anyone who had predicted in the autumn of 1983 that within six years Poland would have a Catholic prime minister. Or, for that matter, anyone who had suggested in 1977, when the twenty-two-year-old Aleksander Kwasniewski joined the ruling communist party, that the party—state would soon be engulfed by a ten-million—strong national movement called Solidarity. The kaleidoscope keeps turning. Each turn is a surprise. And each turn changes our view of the past as well as the present.

1.

Now for those explanations. First, there is a regional pattern. Much of Central and Eastern Europe today is under post-communist rule, by which I mean the elected rule (alone or in coalition) of parties that directly succeeded the pre-1989 ruling communist parties or of people who were members of those parties until the end of communism. In Central Europe, the Czech Republic is the only clear exception. There are major differences between, for example, the countries, like Poland and Hungary, which had intervening periods of transformation under liberal or conservative governments, and those like Romania which went straight from the communist frying pan into the post-communist fire. Polish and Hungarian communists in the 1980s were, in important ways, already less communist than their Czech comrades—let alone their Russian ones. And so on.

Nonetheless, there is a pattern. Post-communist parties inherit nationwide organizations, offices, personnel, and funds, which are usually enhanced, at the end of communism, by appropriating the property of the party-state. The “privatization of the nomenklatura”—itself one of the reasons communists gave up their monopoly of political power so relatively quietly—produces a new class of communists-turned-capitalists. Actually, Milovan Djilas famously described the nomenklatura itself as “the new class,” so this must be the new new class. They back their old new party by funding or fixing, and through the press, radio or television stations that they own. Former communists also have the habits and discipline of doing patient, boring political groundwork, which former dissidents and intellectuals generally do not.

To be sure, the business of democratic politics differs from that of communist politics. But there are people slightly lower down the communist hierarchy who very rapidly adapt to the rather different techniques of acquiring and exercising power in a modern television democracy. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks; but the young dogs learn them in no time. After all, the younger functionaries joined the party in the 1970s or 1980s not because they believed in communism but because they were interested in making a career, and in the real politics of power rather than the intellectual and moral “anti-politics” of dissidence.

Among the voters, they have a hard core of the old faithful. Then they pick up votes from those who have suffered from the transition to a market economy: the unemployed, workers in large state-owned factories, the middle-aged and small-town dwellers who have difficulty adapting to new ways, impoverished pensioners. When people had the basic, minimal security afforded by a police welfare state they longed for freedom; now that they have freedom they yearn for the old security as well. Post-communists promise that the state will provide more housing, employment, and social security, while preserving the gains of freedom and the market.

Kwasniewski’s victory partly fits this broad pattern, but it also has unique Polish features. His Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD) incorporates the so-called Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland—the direct successor to Poland’s ruling communist party—whose leader he became in 1990. Although not without internal tensions, the Alliance is much the largest, bestorganized, and best-funded party in Poland. Its backers are classic exemplars of the new “new class,” corrupt apparatchiks turned corrupt businessmen. During the campaign, it emerged that his own wife had a large holding of shares in one of these nomenklatura capitalist companies. Kwasniewski gave several implausible explanations of why he had not declared this holding in his parliamentary statement of member’s interests—including the suggestion that he and his wife had separated their finances.

Unlike the case in many other post-communist countries, his candidacy was not outrageously promoted by the news and current affairs programs of public television, which rather favored the incumbent President Walesa. However, Kwasniewski did enjoy the support of papers such as the bestselling satirical weekly Nie (“No“), the organ of Jerzy Urban, formerly General Jaruzelski’s spokesman during martial law.

Kwasniewski’s campaign was a masterpiece of 1990s designer electioneering, from his immaculate suits and ties to the perfect delivery of his television sound bites. A friend who commutes between Paris and Warsaw told me that it was, in this respect, quite as professional as the presidential campaigns in France. Perhaps this is not surprising, since a leading French advertising man, Jacques Séguéla, was advising him. Séguéla, who has previously advised François Mitterrand (he claims to have been behind the slogan “La Force Tranquille”) and was recommended to Kwasniewski by the Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, says he helped to invent Kwasniewski’s two main slogans—“Let’s Choose the Future” and “A Common Poland”—and to prepare him for his crucial television debates with Lech Walesa.* But Kwasniewski also toured the country assiduously, making warm but vague promises of good things like more housing (a major worry for the young), social security, and pensions—things on which, incidentally, the Polish president has little power to decide, even taking the broadest interpretation of his rather ill-defined constitutional powers.

However, the composition of his vote does not entirely bear out the standard interpretation of post-communist returns. It is true that, for example, Walesa got slightly more votes in cities and large towns—where the effects of economic growth have been more tangible—and Kwasniewski got slightly more in small towns and the countryside. But his was not simply the vote of “losers” from an economic transformation out of which his close associates are, after all, among the greatest “winners.” Voting for him people also chose a personification of success. And he benefited from a “feel-good factor” in a country which has the fastest economic growth in Europe: 6.5 percent in the first half of 1995. The liberal architects both of Poland’s market reform and of its recent growth, such as Leszek Balcerowicz, now leader of the opposition Freedom Union party, wryly observe that Kwasniewski reaps the harvest of the changes they introduced.

Moreover, Kwasniewski got significantly more votes from the young and Walesa more from the old. Here was the great role-reversal. The former communist became the man of the future, making Walesa look like a man of the past. Just forty-one years old (to Walesa’s fifty-two), sun-tanned, fit (he dieted specially for the elections), snappily dressed, better educated (although it emerged during the campaign that he had lied about having received a master’s degree from Gdansk University), smooth-talking, yuppielike, “Olek” Kwasniewski sold himself as modern, forward-looking, Western. Perhaps inspired by M. Séguéla, his supporters even called him “the Polish Kennedy.” And the whole message was “choose the future.”

2.

Yet how could people so rapidly forget the past? In Hungary one might understand it more easily: 1956 was a very long time ago, and by the 1980s the party’s iron fist was hidden deep inside a thick velvet glove. But not in Poland, where just a few years ago the same Aleksander Kwasniewski was, as editor of a communist youth newspaper and then as minister for youth, justifying the imposition of martial law, the internment of political opponents, and the banning of Solidarity.

Well, first of all, a lot of people have not forgotten. Many voted for Lech Walesa simply in order to stop a former communist from becoming their president. Conversely, some of Kwasniewski’s party electorate voted for him precisely because he is a former communist. Indeed, for all the slimming and sun-tanning and smart suits, Kwasniewski, with his hatchet jaw and slab cheekbones, still has something of the face and posture of the Stalinist worker-hero in Andrzej Wajda’s film Man of Iron. (People are now speculating about a sequel. Man of Silicon?)

For the young, however, communism and Solidarity are already ancient history, something they are forced to learn about from boring textbooks. Here the post-Solidarity leaders are victims of their own success. So rapid have been the changes, so selfevident has freedom become in just six years, that the young can hardly remember anything else. On election day, I had lunch with a friend who was a samizdat publisher in the 1980s. “Yes,” he reminisced, “of course in those days you never used to phone beforehand, just appeared at the door.” “But why didn’t he phone?” asked his fourteen-year-old daughter. Long pause. “Oh, you mean because the phone was bugged?” With some young voters, there was an element of conscious revolt. Just because the parents identify so strongly with the post-Solidarity tradition, the children vote against it.

There remains, nonetheless, a question. In 1989, Solidarity leaders negotiated with Polish communists at the Round Table, and made a power-sharing deal summed up in a famous headline in the Solidarity paper Gazeta Wyborcza: “Your President, Our Premier.” The Warsaw Pact still existed and this seemed the most the Soviet Union would accept. In a spirit of liberal Catholic forgiveness, and having in mind the model of post-Franco Spain, the Solidarity premier Tadeusz Mazowiecki drew what he called a “thick line” under the past. No recrimination! But did that line have to be quite so thick? And was it still right a year or two later, when the Soviet constraint had largely disappeared, to continue without any systematic purges from public life of former senior communists responsible for oppressive policies or secret police collaborators (such as happened in Czechoslovakia and East Germany), without Latin American-style truth commissions, tribunals (except one specifically on the responsibility for martial law), or other symbolic steps to remind the public, and particularly the young, of what communists had done to Poland?

This question has divided the post-Solidarity opposition. The right says the revolution should have been completed: not with the guillotine, to be sure, but with purges. Then Kwasniewski might not have got back. One of their representatives put it graphically on election night. In eighteen post-communist countries, he said, there has been no de-communization and post-communists are back in power; in two, the Czech Republic and East Germany, there has been decommunization and they have not. (The figures don’t quite hold up, but one gets the general point.)

At the other extreme is the former dissident and now editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Adam Michnik, who has counted Kwasniewski among his friends since 1989, contributed a postscript to the French edition of General Jaruzelski’s memoirs, and in September published a highly controversial article arguing that the time had come for the post-communist and the post-Solidarity sides to sit down together and try to agree on a common version of the history of Poland under communist rule. The significance of the article was less what it said than the fact that it was signed jointly by Michnik and Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, a post-communist member of parliament who soon thereafter became head of Kwasniewski’s campaign committee.

Michnik argues that somebody had to break through the social ostracism of the post-communists, which he dramatically describes as “apartheid.” (But are the former communists now the blacks or the whites in that metaphor?) He also points out that in spite of de-communization the postcommunists got nearly a fifth of the vote in East Germany in the last parliamentary elections (not far short of what they got in Poland), and suggests that we should wait a little longer to see what happens in the Czech Republic.

On balance, it seems to me that this very conciliatory “Spanish” approach to the past has facilitated the return of the post-communists to power in Poland, although of course one can never prove that a tougher, more “Czech” or “East German” approach would have prevented it.

3.

Absolutely peculiar to Poland was the role of the Catholic Church. The Church threw its immense authority and influence not so much, initially, behind Walesa—for in the first round there were other conservative Catholic candidates, such as the exceedingly devout president of the National Bank, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz—as emphatically against the atheist post-communists. In the late summer, a message from the Episcopate, the council of bishops, warned against “choosing for the highest positions in the fatherland people who during the period of the totalitarian state were involved in exercising power at the highest party-government level.” The Church’s opposition was further sharpened by the post-communists’ support for liberalizing the law on abortion, and by their resistance to ratifying the concordat already negotiated with the Vatican, which, they argue, would give a privileged status to the Church’s work in what they want to be a secular state.

The Primate of Poland, Jozef Glemp, denounced the representatives of what he delightfully called “neo-paganism.” (In a subsequent interview he averred that “neo-pagan” is a purely descriptive term for non-believers. Such people could not, he carefully explained, be described as “pagans,” since “a pagan has a specific faith.”) Before the second-round run-off, the Church came very close indeed to telling the faithful to vote for Walesa, who famously wears a badge of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa on his lapel. The bishop responsible for the pastoral care of farmers sent a special letter to country and small-town dwellers, headed: “Don’t abandon the fatherland in need!” At the entrance to Saint Stanislaw Kostki, the famous Warsaw church of a Solidarity priest murdered by secret police in 1984, I found a Walesa election poster displayed beneath the timetable of services. On the very eve of the election, Primate Glemp called on the faithful to pray for “the elections, President Walesa, and the fatherland.”

And still Walesa lost—especially in the countryside and small towns. In spite of the Church’s appeals; or perhaps even because of them? Three quarters of those asked in one pre-election opinion poll said that the Church should not try to influence the election result. After the election, the secretary-general of the Episcopate, Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, told me that he thinks people may well have resented what he called the Church’s “paternalistic” approach and that he is sure many good Catholics voted for Kwasniewski. As for young Poles, I suspect many of them will have said: “Neo-paganism? Mmmm, yes please!” It would be a fine irony if it was the Catholic Church which won the election for the neo-pagan.

Yet part of the responsibility must also lie with the whole post-Solidarity side of Polish politics, divided into many, mainly small, parties, with several different presidential candidates, and as much occupied with fighting among themselves as with serious nationwide politics. They have, in fact, done much worse in this respect than their counterparts in Hungary or the Czech Republic, where the liberal and conservative parts of the political spectrum are consolidated into fewer, larger, better-organized parties. Why? Partly because such falling-out is what tends to happen after a revolution, and what Solidarity did in Poland over the whole period from 1980 to 1989 was a revolution, albeit of a new kind. Just because before 1989 people had been more united than in Hungary and the Czech lands, they are more disunited now.

Yet watching and listening to these theatrical (and sometimes highly enjoyable) quarrels, I cannot resist the thought that it also has something to do with older Polish traditions. First there is the early modern tradition of the so-called noble democracy, with its endlessly disputatious “little parliaments” and with the gentry, great and small, quarreling on the election fields of the Polish kings, perhaps even coming to blows, then as theatrically making it up over innumerable beakers of hooch. Then there is the tradition of the intelligentsia, which the urbanized heirs of the gentry became. This heritage was vividly represented in Warsaw at election time by a fine exhibition of intelligentsia family photographs, spanning five or six generations, from the great-great-grandfather who lost his estates after fighting against the Russians in the January uprising of 1863 to the latest proud scion of the family graduating from Warsaw University in 1987. Such traditions do not translate easily into the workaday, opportunistic politics of a television mass democracy. Former communist hacks, unburdened by pride or principle, take to it much quicker.

Last but by no means least, there is Lech Walesa himself, who has spent much of the last five years destroying his own monument. Already in 1990, he alienated many former associates and supporters with his “war at the top” of Solidarity, and his demagogic campaign for the presidency. As president, he has been erratic and often authoritarian in his style. He once suggested that he would change prime ministers “like car bumpers,” and he has, in fact, several times destabilized the parliamentary government. He has surrounded himself with a court of mediocre and even shady advisers, some with rather dubious ties to the security services and the army. Most distrusted of all was his former chauffeur, Mieczyslaw Wachowski, until recently his senior Minister of State. Above all, though, the former electrician and workers’ leader has failed to become statesmanlike. Not just the Warsaw intelligentsia, whose condescension he so fiercely resents, but many ordinary Poles I have talked to feel that his often undignified manner and broken, ungrammatical Polish did not fit him to represent a proud nation in the world.

Earlier this year, his standing in the opinion polls fell to as low as 6 percent. Then, having changed his staff—Wachowski and others departing—he tried to adopt a more restrained and presidential style, while, at the same time, successfully polarizing the campaign as a historical struggle: Lech against the Reds. This brought him a remarkable recovery, back up to a third of the vote in the first round, with the alternative candidate of post-Solidarity liberals and social democrats, the veteran dissident Jacek Kuron, getting less than 10 percent. Then most of the post-Solidarity side rallied round Walesa. For someone who remembered Solidarity, it was touching to see him together again with former advisers such as Bronislaw Geremek and Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

But Jerzy Urban could quote in Nie, his satirical weekly, all the devastatingly critical things Walesa’s former colleagues had said about him over the last five years, giving this mini-anthology the characteristically sarcastic headline: “Walesa’s a monster, so vote for him.” And many voted for him only as the “lesser evil,” with a heavy heart. “I don’t want to but I must,” said one voter interviewed on television, ironically using Walesa’s own words when he announced that he would stand for president in 1990. “For Walesa?” asked the interviewer. “Unfortunately!” A friend of mine told me: “All right, I’ll drink half a liter and then go and vote for him.” In the event, we got him there on slightly less.

It was very close. When voting ended at eight PM, Polish television’s exit polls put Walesa ahead at 51.1 percent to Kwasniewski’s 48.9 percent. Jubilation and the old street chant of “Lech Wa-le-sa! Lech Wa-le-sa!” from the President’s campaign headquarters; defiant chants of “Olek! Olek!” from Kwasniewski’s. Every half hour television gave a later exit poll result. At ten-thirty PM the final, cumulative exit poll, up to the close of voting, still put Walesa ahead, but now by just 50.2 percent to 49.8. Then, at nine minutes past eleven, came the first unofficial result from slightly more than a thousand polling stations: 51.3 for Kwasniewski, 48.7 for Walesa. The final official result was 51.7 to 48.3, with an impressive turnout of 68 percent.

Opinion polls between the two rounds of voting had shown that Walesa lost heavily from a rude, unstatesmanlike, and incoherent performance in the first of two television debates between the candidates. It is therefore quite possible that if he had done better and Kwasniewski worse in that one television debate, the result might have been the other way round. And then, of course, we would all have knowingly explained Walesa’s triumph, sagely identifying the deeper forces, structures, and patterns.

4.

So there they are, back on top, the men and women who lied to us for so many years, the cynics, opportunists, and careerists, still with their apparatchik’s jowls and their carpet-brush haircuts. Yes, often the very same people. That professor of sociology who went around the world selling martial law while his colleagues were thrown into camps. That “expert” on international relations who traveled abroad to talk about peace and the environment while Professor Geremek had to sleep in the crypt of a church to avoid arrest by the secret police. And lower down, in the regional and local governments, hundreds of much cruder specimens. What’s more, many of them have become privately rich as well as again being publicly powerful. Look at the millionaire Jerzy Urban, for heaven’s sake!

A memoir written a few years ago by the now-outgoing foreign minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski—one of three so-called “presidential” ministers to resign following Walesa’s defeat—was entitled It’s Worth Being Decent. This from a man who was a political prisoner both in Auschwitz and in Stalinist prisons. But fifty years later, the message for a young Pole would appear to be: It’s worth being an opportunist.

Morally, as well as aesthetically, the triumph of the post-communists in Poland is deeply distasteful. But is it dangerous? Not, I believe, so far as their aims and policies are concerned. The leader of Russia’s communist party, Gennady Zhuganev, congratulated “the Polish working masses” on their victory. But you won’t catch Mr. Kwasniewski talking about “working masses.” Instead, he will do everything in his power to live up to the congratulations he received from Poland’s other big neighbor, Germany, and especially those from the new leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, Oskar Lafontaine. Kwasniewski and his friends want desperately to be seen not as eastern post-communists but as regular western social democrats. The president-elect immediately reaffirmed his commitment to Poland’s seeking membership in the European Union and NATO. Within days, the government was going ahead with the distribution of coupons for the long-delayed mass privatization.

Nonetheless, there is a danger, or rather two. Both are neatly encapsulated in a post-election message from the Polish episcopate. Besides thanking Divine Providence for the gift of freedom and sovereignty to this generation of Poles, and offering a sociological analysis of the election result, the bishops write: “It is disquieting to see the taking of all power in the state by one ideological option, which it is impossible for believers to accept.” The first danger is indeed that post-communists will be unable to resist the temptation of running an elected one-party state, adding the three key “presidential” ministries (foreign, defense, interior) to their bag, taking control of state television and the national bank, offering lucrative privatization and other concessions (such as the imminent multi-million-dollar deal for mobile telephones) to their old cronies (who in turn may provide nice little nest eggs for the politicians’ wives), and so on. From Leninism to Italian-style tangentopolism.

The second danger, however, is represented rather than identified by the bishops’ letter. This is that a great many Poles will simply not accept what is, after all, the result of a fully democratic, free, and fair election, especially if people like bishops tell them that it is unacceptable. Certainly Lech Walesa is loath to accept it. The day after, he conceded defeat with very bad grace. Back in 1990 he began his presidency with a symbolic act: refusing to take over directly from the outgoing communist President Jaruzelski. Instead, he received the insignia of office from the last Polish president-in-exile, in a direct line from the government of Poland’s pre-war Second Republic, which re-formed in London during the Second World War. Now he says he will not himself be present to pass on those insignia of office to Kwasniewski. (Perhaps ex-President Jaruzelski will step into the breach?)

Walesa also quoted a famous remark of Poland’s inter-war leader, Marshal Pilsudski: “To be defeated and not give up, that is victory; to win and rest upon your laurels, that is defeat.” But Pilsudski was referring to a defeat in war or at the hands of a foreign oppressor, not to losing an election. Walesa’s camp subsequently launched a campaign which collected more than half a million individual appeals to challenge the validity of the election. The Supreme Court has now rejected these appeals, but the action remains a significant omen.

Meanwhile, the leader of the now clearly right-wing “Solidarity” trade union, Marian Krzaklewski, said that he would again start singing the version of “God who protects Poland” that goes “return to us, Oh Lord, a free fatherland.” Almost as if the Russians had invaded! But Krzaklewski is a man who can organize street protests and strikes.

The post-election cliché is that the election revealed a country cut in half: “two Polands.” Yet both electorates were actually quite mixed. The danger, though, is that an attempt could now be made to convert a temporary reality into a more lasting one, with the pink state on the one side and, on the other, a large right-wing extra-parliamentary movement around Lech Walesa, supported by the Church and Solidarity, and simply not accepting President Kwasniewski as the legitimate head of Poland’s Third Republic.

Kwasniewski and his colleagues see this danger, and are desperate to avoid it. The President-elect constantly repeats that there is one common Poland, with room enough for everyone; that he wants to be the president of all Poles. He has demonstratively resigned from his own party. The prime minister begged Mr. Bartoszewski to stay on as foreign minister. As I write, they are reportedly searching for credible non-party candidates to take the foreign, defense, and interior ministries. But who will accept their offer?

Yet even if there were to be such a large and angry symbolic divide, would this be so disastrous? After all, Italy lived for decades with a great divide between Christian Democrats and communists, while France has been replaying the French Revolution for the last two hundred years. Unfortunately, Poland is somewhere else. Here is a country teetering in the doorway to what it has longed for but never achieved throughout its modern history: not only freedom and sovereignty but freedom and sovereignty secured in the larger frame of Europe and the West. There are many in the West who would not be unhappy to slow down or even backtrack on the commitment in principle to bring Poland into the EU and NATO. The mere word “communist,” even with the prefix “post-,” in Western headlines about Kwasniewski’s election, is already a further cause for hesitation. Anything that looks like bad old communist ways, or a great divide, or the dreaded “instability,” will make things worse. At this critical juncture, in its notoriously vulnerable geopolitical position, Poland simply cannot afford the historical theatrics, the demonstrations, and the barricades that France and Italy can and regularly do afford themselves.

There is therefore a major challenge here to Poland’s political class. The post-communists in power will have to exercise considerable self-restraint to ensure the conditions—not least in the press and television—for a mature, peaceful political struggle. This election was just that: calm, quite well-run, with the extremist candidates eliminated in the first round and a high turnout. Now all eyes turn to the parliamentary elections, due in 1997 at the latest.

For their part, the disunited forces of the post-Solidarity opposition have to organize for those elections. They could go several ways. As I have suggested, one is a single anti-communist bloc: “something like the SLD [the post-communist party], but on the right,” as Walesa’s spokesman put it. A very different option being considered by some is that of a grand coalition, with representatives of the liberal post-Solidarity strand going into coalition with the post-communists, as the Hungarian Free Democrats have already done. But the dangers of that are also obvious.

Most desirable might be a consolidation of the opposition into, say, a larger conservative/Christian democrat alliance and a centrist liberal democrat party (for otherwise the post-communists will be the only representatives of liberalism in the American sense). These parties or alliances would have rather rapidly to acquire those techniques of mass television democracy which Kwasniewski has mastered so well, to build up nation-wide organizations, find more money (but from where?)—and a French PR man might not be amiss. This is, however, a very tall order.

5.

It is now commonplace to observe that Poland has become a “normal country.” But what does this mean? Certainly, to arrive in Warsaw these days is more like arriving in Lisbon or Naples that like arriving in Warsaw before 1989. A handsome modern airport. No need for a visa. When a passport officer calls Polish passport-holders to a separate gate, you simply can’t tell the difference, in dress, accountrements, hairstyles, and so on, between the two lines: Polish and Western. A relatively clean taxi, and you are actually charged the local currency price on the meter. Familiar shops, goods, cars. The same TV commercials. Smart offices. Mobile phones. Professional friends who are now overworked and defend themselves with answering machines. More and real money, but also more money worries: “Half our income goes in tax, the other half on school fees!” Great contrasts between rich and poor.

Of course if you dig just a little deeper you find extraordinary things. The man in the Mercedes is a former Politburo member. Your mobile phone salesman is a former secret policeman. In the countryside, you see peasant houses out of Brueghel. Priests denounce “neo-paganism.” But Europe, our “normal,” “western” Europe, is also full of extraordinary things. Between observing the Polish elections and writing this article I had to go to Naples for the Premio Napoli awards. The Grand Hotel Vesuvio was even more luxurious than the Hotel Bristol in Warsaw, but driving through the city I could see the dreadful slums—far worse than anything in Warsaw—where people still go in fear of the Camorra. Among the Premio Napoli prize winners was a Jesuit priest being honored for his fight against usury. (“Why don’t you in Britain have a law against usury?” he asked me.) The popular post-communist mayor of Naples was asked at the televised prize-giving ceremony what he thought of his rival, post-fascist Signora Alessandra Mussolini (daughter of you-know-who), and, incidentally, whether it was true that they have been romantically involved? While denying romance, the mayor said that Signora Mussolini had made a very positive contribution to solving some problems in the city. All normal?

So the spectrum of contemporary European “normality” is very wide, and Poland is now definitely within it. But there is another measure of “normality”: diachronic rather than synchronic. What has been normal for a country historically, over, say, the last two hundred years? By that criterion, Poland today is quite spectacularly abnormal. This country is free, sovereign, and prospering? Germany is its best ally in the West? It is not immediately threatened even by Russia? Surely we’ve got our countries mixed up. I asked the distinguished Polish historian Jerzy Jedlicki when before in its history Poland had been so well placed. Scarcely hesitating, he replied, “probably the second half of the sixteenth century.”

Poland’s transition from normal abnormality to abnormal normality is already a fantastic achievement. The challenge for the next five years is to secure it, internally and externally—which means, in the EU and in NATO. Only if that is done will we, and the Poles themselves, begin to see what the Polish version of European “normality” really looks like. This new Polish normality, if achieved, may well not be as interesting as the old abnormality. Indeed, it may at first look like a cheap copy of the West. But if that is freedom’s price, it is surely worth paying. And anyway, who knows what it will be like? As a distinguished British historian has wryly observed: History is full of surprises, and no one is more surprised by them than historians.

December 14, 1995

  1. *

    M. Séguéla told me in a telephone conversation that he likes to advise on an election campaign every year or two, as a “hobby.” Besides Mitterrand and Vranitzky, his advisees have included the Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev and the former Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall. He finds “Alexander,” as he calls him, to be young, clever, courageous, and médiatique, something between a Kennedy and a Bill Clinton—whom M. Séguéla describes as “a great president,” although adding cautiously “at least from the point of view of communications.”

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