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.”1
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.2
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.”3
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!”4 If he’d tried to get to the shipyard a few hours earlier on that morning of August 14, 1980, at 6 AM, as he and his mates had originally planned, the secret police would probably have arrested him, but he was late. He can’t remember why. Then the strike nearly collapsed, but that was good too, since they ended up with a much better strike committee. He gestures energetically with his whole arm, while emitting his characteristic explosive sigh of wonder. “And later, in the struggle, what scrapes there were…. Who on earth could have fixed it like that?… Only the hand of God!”
Vigorous, thick-set, ruddy-faced, and still sporting his famous walrus mustache, Walesa at the age of sixty-two increasingly resembles one of those portly, saber-wielding eighteenth-century Polish noblemen you see on antique paintings of the country’s first experiment in democracy. The former Solidarity leader and former president of Poland still talks nonstop, and his language is, as it ever was, vivid, inimitable, and almost untranslatable. Amid the flow there are not just wonderfully comic passages but also flashes of down-to-earth wisdom and shrewd political judgment. They remind you that, at his best, Lech Walesa has been a popular leader of rare natural genius.
Whatever the just apportionment of historical credit for the end of communism in Europe, the pioneering contribution of Solidarity in August 1980 was significant enough that twenty-five years later, in August 2005, planeloads of past and present political leaders disembarked at Lech Walesa International Airport in Gdansk to celebrate the anniversary. Those who came to pay tribute included Václav Havel, Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, James Baker III (on behalf of two presidents Bush), Zbigniew Brzezinski, the German president, the Serbian president, and the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso.
They spoke in front of a large photo-montage which showed a domino covered with a photo of Lech Walesa held aloft by his fellow workers in 1980, knocking down dominoes representing Poland in 1989 (the inauguration of the first non-communist government in the Soviet bloc), the Velvet Revolution in Prague (Václav Havel shaking his keys on Wenceslas Square), the orange revolution in Ukraine (Yushchenko), and, finally, a largely concealed domino depicting another revolutionary crowd whose national identity I could not quite make out but may have represented Belarus. Many speakers expressed their solidarity with the oppressed people of Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, and the hope of a comparable change there.
This “domino theory” version of the last quarter-century had more than a touch of Polish messianism, as did the accompanying slogan, “Today was born in Gdansk.” In truth, the series of successes had many fathers, as Gorbachev and others would point out. Yet with hindsight, we can justifiably say that the Polish revolution of 1980 to 1981 was the first velvet revolution. Despite the martial law imposed by General Wojciech Jaruzelski in December 1981, Solidarity survived—though only just, with many of its leaders arrested—and then revived through a further wave of strikes in 1988, to give Poland the first of the peaceful, negotiated central European revolutions of 1989, with their accompanying round tables, at which communist rulers and opposition leaders negotiated a peaceful transition to democracy. Saakashvili and Yushchenko acknowledge the importance of the 1989 example in inspiring the latest wave of what are sometimes called “color revolutions,” from the toppling of Milosevic in Serbia in 2000, through Georgia’s “rose revolution” in 2003, to Ukraine’s “orange revolution” in 2004.
So there was much to celebrate in Gdansk in August 2005. But behind and beyond the celebration, the new Poland has mixed feelings about its recent past, and fears about the future. Wandering away from a triumphal mass near the Gdansk (no longer Lenin) Shipyard, I made my way back to Gate Number 2, from the top of which Walesa used to make his funny, inspiring speeches to the crowd. The blue-gray gate was again decorated with images of John Paul II and the black madonna of Czestochowa, red-and-white flags, and flowers, much as I remember it when I arrived in August 1980 to witness the historic strike. But three things were different. To the right of the entrance there was now an ATM machine. Behind the gate there was a vista of decaying buildings, rubble, and weeds—for less than three thousand workers are still at work in a shipyard (now owned by a company called EVIP) which in its communist heyday employed more than 15,000. And in front of the gate there stood a large wooden stocks, of the kind used in past times to pillory criminals. Its three head-holes contained straw men wearing dark suits, white shirts, and photos as faces. Underneath was written “Marek Roman, Chairman of the EVIP firm—thief,” “Janusz Szlanta, former chairman—thief,” “Jerzy Lewandowski, current chairman—swindler.” In the background, the choir sang of peace, forgiveness, and love.
During the two months following the Solidarity anniversary, the Poles elected a new parliament and a new president. In September 2005, with an electoral turnout barely exceeding 40 percent, they gave most votes to a center-right party called Law and Justice, with the more libertarian Civic Platform party coming in second. The Left Democratic Alliance, led mainly by former members of the communist party—known as “post-communists” since 1989—had been the dominant party for over ten years; in the September vote its representation in parliament was slashed from 217 MPs to 55. A month later, in the second round of separate elections for president, electoral turnout was just above 50 percent. A majority of those who did bother to vote chose the candidate of Law and Justice, Lech Kaczynski, over the leader of Civic Platform, Donald Tusk.
These two large parties of the center- right, Civic Platform and Law and Justice, then failed to agree on a coalition government, which both had previously said they would form. Instead, Law and Justice created a minority government, which will rely for parliamentary support on two parties of the more extreme, populist, Catholic right, the so-called Self-Defense movement and the League of Polish Families, which oppose both economic and social liberalism, and are deeply suspicious of the European Union. The prime minister is a rather sepulchral former schoolteacher called Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, but everyone knows that the power behind the prime ministerial throne is the leader of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski—the twin brother of Lech Kaczynski, the new president.
We therefore have the unusual spectacle of a major European country effectively run by twin brothers who look so nearly identical that it’s easy to mistake one for the other. (Lech has a distinguishing mole on one side of his nose.) They were born in 1949. Their parents had fought in the anti-Nazi and anti-communist resistance during and immediately after World War II, and passed that potent heritage of patriotic struggle to their sons. When they were twelve years old, the blond twins starred in a children’s film called Two Who Stole the Moon. The DVD version has become a best seller in Poland. I bought a copy when I was in Warsaw, and Jacek and Placek, as they are called in the film, are indeed a charming pair of naughty boys.
Both brothers became seriously engaged in Poland’s anti-communist opposition from the 1970s onward. Jaroslaw, who stayed in Warsaw, participated in one of the leading groups of the democratic opposition, the Committee for the Defense of the Workers, KOR. Lech moved to Gdansk, where he studied law and became involved with helping workers on the Baltic coast to organize independent trade unions against the communist state. Some friends called him Leszek, to distinguish him from the other Lech in their group—the electrician Lech Walesa.
Lech Kaczynski took a doctorate in law, was a Gdansk activist of Solidarity, and remained active during the years of underground resistance after martial law was imposed in December 1981. I remember him from the strike that took over the Gdansk shipyard in 1988. This prepared the way for the round table talks of 1989, in which he also participated. After the end of communism, he supported Lech Walesa’s successful bid for the presidency in 1990, but then split with him in an acrimonious dispute over personalities and positions. Ever since, he and his twin brother have been active on the post-Solidarity right wing of Polish politics, trying to put together a party that could win. “All their lives they have been working to gain power!” exclaims Walesa, with a snort. Now they have succeeded.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski is forty-five seconds older than Lech, and a skilled, uncompromising, behind-the-scenes political strategist. His younger and generally more conciliatory brother is said to be in awe of him. After being elected president, Lech concluded his acceptance speech by addressing his elder brother and party leader in the style of a soldier’s report to his commanding officer. “Mr. Chairman,” he said, “I report: mission accomplished.”
A wordplay on an abbreviated version of their name, kaczor, meaning duck (or, strictly speaking, drake), opens the way to many popular duck jokes, especially among younger, more liberal or left-wing Poles, who circulate them by e-mail, or by “SS man” text messages on their cell phones. Poland, one might say, is now in its version of Duck Soup. It has gone from Marx to the Marx brothers. A few commentators in the German press have taken this turn of events less humorously, suggesting that the new president is not just a conservative Catholic nationalist, a strong opponent of both abortion and homosexuality, but is also tainted by anti-Semitism. Jewish friends of mine who have known Lech Kaczynski for thirty years, since his early dissident days, fiercely dismiss the revival of that old anti-Polish stereotype. In Kaczynski’s case, they say, it’s simply not true. Indeed, they suggest that his embrace of Catholic nationalism is at least as much tactical and strategic—seeing this as the only way to build up an effective right-wing party in Poland—as it is based on any profound personal conviction.
It is fair to say, however, that the new president harbors traditional suspicions of both Germany and Russia, not to mention the European Union. He speaks no foreign languages and was notably reluctant to seek contacts with foreigners during his time as mayor of Warsaw. He is, moreover, much given to conspiracy theories about both domestic and international politics, seeing the hidden hand of security services where others cannot detect it. As the American scholar David Ost observes, adapting a famous analysis by Richard Hofstadter, the Kaczynskis and their allies represent “the paranoid style” in Polish politics.5
A quarter-century after the “Polish August” of 1980, Poland is therefore led by twin brothers who are authentic representatives of the right wing of the Solidarity tradition, but who have come to power by exploiting the discontents of those unhappy with what has happened since Solidarity triumphed in 1989. They string these discontents together into a narrative very different from the success story told so eloquently by the post-Solidarity and post-communist liberals who have led Poland for much of the last sixteen years.6 In fluent English, French, or German, people like Bronislaw Geremek, the brilliant historian, former Solidarity adviser, and foreign minister from 1997 to 2000, and Aleksander Kwasniewski, the country’s articulate and sure-footed post-communist liberal president for the last ten years, have tirelessly explained to the world how Poland has pioneered the peaceful transformation of communism into liberal democracy and replaced the old command economy with a fluorishing free-market system, while achieving European standards of respect for human rights. Whatever its omissions, this success story has itself contributed materially to Poland’s external successes in joining NATO and the European Union, and in attracting foreign investment.
Yet even the most upbeat Polish liberal must acknowledge that the human cost of the transition to capitalism has been high. The privatization of state enterprises and the introduction of market prices, as well as competition from imported Western goods, resulted in many Poles losing their jobs. Unemployment is now around 18 percent. Poland has the lowest recorded proportion of people in paid work in the European Union, with just half (51.7 percent) of those between the ages of fifteen and sixty-four being employed.7 Among those who have lost most are those who contributed most to Solidarity’s victory: the workers. The Polish revolution of 1980 and 1981 was probably the closest thing we have seen to a genuine “workers revolution.” In a speech delivered on the anniversary, Bronislaw Geremek reflected that while Poland’s feuding eighteenth-century nobles destroyed the country’s self-made “noble democracy,” its twentieth-century workers dismantled the Soviet-imposed “workers’ state.” But if you talk to the workers and unemployed former workers of the Gdansk shipyard today, most of them are angry and disillusioned.
While some Poles have got richer, many have got poorer. A recent report by the World Bank suggests that growing inequality has contributed to an increase in the number of those below the poverty line.8 Walesa puts it very simply: back then, people had security but no freedom, now they have freedom and hanker after security. Then they had enforced equality, now one person is a millionaire while others are in the gutter. And, he adds, “that millionaire probably didn’t make his money in the cleanest way….”
As elsewhere in the post-communist world, today’s Polish fortunes often started in the legally unclear period when the communist command economy was dismantled and a variety of ambitious people, some of them post-communists or with good connections to the security services, grabbed for the goods. If the reality was often murky, the perception, especially on the part of the “losers” from the transition, is even darker. As those neo-medieval wooden stocks (“current chairman—swindler”) in front of the Gdansk shipyard illustrate, it’s an article of faith for many ordinary Poles that anyone who is rich must be a thief or a cheat.
This connects with two other popular discontents that the Kaczynski brothers have articulated. The first is a sense that not enough was done after 1989 to make a public reckoning with the communist past, purge the security services, and remove from public life people who took part in repression by the communist regime. Poland had no South African– or Latin American– style “truth commission.” Its equivalent of Germany’s “Gauck Authority,” which gives victims access to their secret police files, only started working about five years ago. Meanwhile, Poland’s young democracy has been shaken by charges that senior figures in public life had earlier collaborated with the communist security services. One post-communist prime minister, Jozef Oleksy, resigned as a result of such charges.
A second, related, theme is that of a crisis of the Polish state, which is seen to be weak, bloated, inefficient, and very prone to corruption. The new prime minister has talked darkly of a “Bermuda quadrangle” of corrupt politicians, secret police operators, businesspeople, and criminals. The main political target here is the postcommunists, who, while behaving sensibly and responsibly in foreign relations, were involved in a depressing series of money-for-influence scandals at home. The most notorious is the so-called Rywin Affair, or “Rywingate,” in which a film producer promised that the “group holding power” (a phrase that has become notorious in Poland) would change a planned law governing the mass media in return for a $17.5 million bribe.
The Kaczynski brothers and their advisers have deftly combined these popular themes in their calls for a “moral revolution” in Poland. Lech Kaczynski is a law professor, with a respectable record as minister of justice and head of the national audit office; and the claim implied by the very name of their party—Law and Justice—is that the brothers will restore law to the Polish state and justice to Polish society. In fact, they go a step further. One of their most successful election posters showed Lech Kaczynski as a benign, avuncular, professorial figure, wielding a pen in a book-lined study. Underneath it said “President of the Fourth Republic.”
This was a brilliant piece of political marketing, but a genuine conservative should have known better. Most Poles describe the sovereign, democratic state that emerged after 1989 as “the third republic,” thus denying the post-1945, communist Polish People’s Republic the dignity of being a real Polish rzeczpospolita at all. People disagree about when exactly the third republic began. Was it June 4, 1989, when the country’s first semi-free elections spelled the effective end of communism in Poland? Was it September 1989, when the Solidarity adviser Tadeusz Mazowiecki formed the country’s first non-communist government since 1945? Was it January 1990, when the constitution was changed to restore the old title, Republic of Poland? Was it December 1990, when the new president of the new republic, Lech Walesa, chose to receive the insignia of office not from his de facto predecessor, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the architect of martial law and last president of the Polish People’s Republic, but from the president of the London-based government-in-exile, the legal heir to the second republic founded in 1918?
Whatever the exact birthdate, a new constitution introduced in 1997, and approved in a national referendum, treats the third republic as something already existing and meant to last. The Kaczynski brothers now want to change that constitution, but there is nothing in their proposed changes, even assuming they can get them through parliament, to justify the claim that these would create a new republic.
As an election-winning device, however, the slogan of the “fourth republic” spoke very effectively to a widespread discontent with the entire political system of the third republic, and the “political class” of people who have been in charge. According to the CBOS polling organization, more than two thirds of those asked say they are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in Poland. As many as 40 percent now agree with the statement that “a strong man in power can be better than democratic governments”—the largest proportion since the recovery of independence.9 The low electoral turnout also reflects this disillusionment.
One problem for the Kaczynskis and their political allies is that, for all their claim to be a new broom, they have, from the outset, themselves been part of this discredited political system of Poland’s third republic. Their reign has started badly, with failed, ill-tempered coalition talks that exemplify precisely the undignified scramble for power and privilege they claim to be leaving behind. Already the first stories of corruption scandals among their entourage are emerging in the Polish press. Meanwhile, their promised “moral revolution” is supposedly to be carried out through a purge of the police and security services, the publication of official lists of all collaborators with the communist secret police, and the automatic disbarment of those collaborators from public office for a period of ten years. More trials of senior communists are likely. When I spoke to the now eighty-two-year-old General Jaruzelski, he told me, with weary acidity, that he expects to spend the rest of his life “in the dock.”10 In the election, he observed sharply, the Law and Justice party had made promises of material improvement that it could not keep, “and if the people cannot have bread, they must have circuses.” He expects to be part of the circus.
Another aspect of this “moral revolution” may seem more familiar to American readers. Polish conservatives heavily emphasize religious and social issues, particularly opposition to abortion and homosexuality. As mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczynski banned an “equality parade” for gays and lesbians, and other mayors have now done the same, provoking protests. The Solidarity trade union organization at the Gdansk shipyard came out in defense of an “equality parade” in its city, while in the western Polish city of Poznan, a judge ruled that the local ban was illegal. Meanwhile, Polish conservative members of the European Parliament have horrified some of their colleagues with an exhibition in the European Parliament building in Brussels comparing abortion to the killing in Nazi concentration camps.
The United States has its famous divide between “red” and “blue” states. On a map of the presidential election, Poland is divided between “orange” and “blue” regions. Orange stands for the more liberal parts of the country that preferred Donald Tusk; the more conservative blue areas lean to Kaczynski. The western and northern parts of the country, including Szczecin on the German border and Gdansk on the Baltic Sea, are mainly orange. With the major exception of the capital, Warsaw, the central, east, and southeastern parts of Poland are largely blue. To some extent this is a socioeconomic divide, since the east and southeast are poorer. But historians point out that during the period when Poland was partitioned, the now orange parts of the country were mainly under German rule while those now mainly blue were under Russia and Austria. Not for the first time in post-communist Europe, very old dividing lines reemerge on new political maps, as if drawn there in invisible ink.
As with the red–blue division in the United States, the reality is of course more complex, both geographically and sociologically. But after these elections there is a stronger than ever sense of “two Polands”: one more liberal, metropolitan, tolerant, and open to the outside world, the other more conservative, religious, provincial, and inward-looking.
What will this third-and-a-bit republic be like under the Kaczynski twins? At best, the twins and their camp could do something to strengthen the state administration and the rule of law. They could clear up the nagging problem of the communist past, if only by demonstrating that not much can be done about it now. They might build from the hodgepodge of unstable right-wing groupings a stable Polish version of a Christian Democratic party, rather as José María Aznar did in the Spanish Partido Popular. At best, they might also enhance the country’s economic dynamism with slightly lower taxes, while holding down its outsize budget deficit, and maintain Poland as a realistic and constructive, if socially conservative, member of the European Union.
At worst, they could preside over a weak minority government, rapidly generating a new round of scandals; pursue an unjust witch-hunt instead of a scrupulous reckoning with the communist past; slow down economic growth and deter foreign investment by nationalist protectionism; and ruin Poland’s chances of being accepted as one of the “big six” member states shaping the future of the European Union. Sooner or later, they could go the way of their predecessors in government, battered by defections and then punished by disgruntled voters.
Measured by the standards of the last two centuries of Polish history, these are hardly dramatic alternatives. Even if the Kaczynski twins do their worst, the country’s independence, political freedom, and security are no more under threat than that of Italy and Spain. Young Poles instinctively understand this, which is why they react with a mixture of protests, moving abroad, and duck jokes.
Peoples can be luckier than people. But in a given time, what matters most is the happiness of the individual people who make up a given people. Honesty demands a plain acknowledgment that for millions of Polish men and women, especially among the workers, the poor, the old, and those living in the south and east, the years since 1989 have been painful and disappointing. For them, the reality of freedom has proved very different from the dream.
There is, however, another side to the story. One of the unexpected delights of the Solidarity anniversary reunion was to meet not just old friends and acquaintances, but their children—now, like my own, in their early twenties. Back in 1980, my Polish friends and I lived in different worlds. Not just the political possibilities but the life chances, in the broadest sense, of a young Pole were incomparably more limited than those of a young Brit. In the generation of our children, that is no longer true. Today, the life chances of an enterprising young Pole are altogether comparable with those of a young Brit, and by no means only for those from a privileged background, as I see every day among the Polish students and student-workers in Oxford. Something has been won.
February 9, 2006
Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland (Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 462. ↩
Britain has been especially welcoming to workers coming from the so-called “new accession countries” of central and eastern Europe. Of the more than 290,000 people who have formally applied to work in Britain since their countries joined the EU on May 1, 2004, some 170,000 come from Poland. See the report in The Guardian, November 23, 2005. If all 290,000 are actually working in the UK, that would be equivalent to 1 percent of the country’s total workforce. ↩
This was told to me by friends in Warsaw, talking of their own teenage children. It is confirmed in a fascinating guide to the new slang used by young Poles: Bartek Chacinski, Wypasiony: Slownik Najmlodze Polszczyzny (Kraków: Znak, 2005), p. 36, using the Polish phonetic spelling “esesman.” ↩
Conversation in London, November 10, 2005. Subsequent quotations from Walesa are also from that conversation. ↩
See David Ost, The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe (Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 187, 229. ↩
Of course the word “liberal” now means very different things in different European and North American contexts. But most of these politicians have generally endorsed some combination of economic liberalism (with a strong belief in free markets, sometimes known as “neoliberal”), political liberalism (more or less “left liberal”), and cultural liberalism (about beliefs and life styles); so “liberal” seems an appropriate shorthand term. ↩
The real employment figures, including the black economy and those working abroad, are probably somewhat higher. ↩
World Bank, Growth, Poverty and Inequality: Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (2005), drawing on World Bank, Growth, Employment and Living Standards in Pre-Accession Poland (2004). ↩
Surveys conducted by CBOS, available on www.cbos.pl, and see Gazeta Wyborcza, December 16, 2005. ↩
Conversation in Warsaw, November 5, 2005. ↩