Poland’s normal condition seemed to be that of occupation, backwardness, frustration, and alienation from the foreign-controlled state. The virtues for which it became famous were endurance, cultural vitality, and heroic but doomed resistance. Pierced by foreign arrows, its white eagle bled to produce the national colors of red and white. Its heroes were martyrs. Even a historian as sympathetic to the Polish cause as Norman Davies could write in 1983 that “Poland is back in its usual condition of political defeat and economic chaos.”
Anyone looking at Poland today must conclude that the country’s basic situation has been transformed. Poland is now a free country. As sovereign as any other European state on a close-knit continent, it has enjoyed unprecedented security in NATO since 1999 and been a full member of the European Union since May 1, 2004. Some analysts already identify Poland as one of the “big six” inside the EU of twenty-five member states, along with Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Spain. Its gross domestic product has grown by some 50 percent since it recovered independence in 1990. Young Poles—and more than 40 percent of the population is under thirty—travel freely throughout the world. Hundreds of thousands of them are now seizing their new opportunities to work in EU states such as Britain. If I step out of my door in Oxford, I am more than likely to meet a Polish student, either studying here or working in a local café.
When I first traveled to Poland in 1979, the memories of Nazi occupation and Stalinist persecution still haunted the country. I came out of a restaurant in Warsaw one evening to find that someone had deliberately let the air out of the front tires of my car. “Oh, they must think you’re a German,” said my host. Among today’s teenage Poles, those memories weigh so lightly that the slang phrase for requesting an SMS text message on your cell phone is “Send me an SS man.”
If you ask when Poland’s historic turn for the better began, one answer would be mid-morning on Thursday, August 14, 1980, when a young, unemployed electrician called Lech Walesa jumped over the wall of the Lenin Shipyard in the Baltic port of Gdansk, and seized the leadership of an occupation strike that gave birth to a movement called Solidarnosc. Walesa himself gives a different answer: October 1978, when Karol Wojtyla, the cardinal archbishop of Kraków, was elected Pope John Paul II, and the spirit of resistance was strengthened not only in Poland but throughout central Europe. Infuriating Mikhail Gorbachev, Walesa attributes the historical credit for the end of communist rule in Europe as follows: 50 percent, the Polish pope; 30 percent, Solidarity and other central European liberation movements; 20 percent, Gorbachev and perestroika.
“Kurcze, panie!” (politely translatable as “bloody hell, mister!”), he tells me, “I see in those events the hand of God!” If he’d tried to get to …