An invitation to learn of Poland's rich history, its cultural depths
An invitation to learn of Poland 's rich history, its cultural depths
Twenty years after the fall of communism, Poles want to tell their own story, writes ENDA O'DOHERTY in Krakow
IF WE do not know by now it will certainly be very clear to us by, say, November that we are in the 20th anniversary year of the democratic revolutions that brought down communism in central and eastern Europe in 1989. For those whose interest in these events tends towards the minimal, we will have the short version: the Berlin Wall “fell” and freedom was, somehow, “reborn”, not just in the eastern part of divided Germany but in other communist countries – Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic states then incorporated into the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Romania, and eventually, though in this case accompanied by considerable bloodshed, in the individual states of what had been federal Yugoslavia.
Those who have the stamina for a slightly longer version of this history of the period might wish to ponder the role of the Soviet Union in the unfolding of events, and particularly the somewhat surprising development of a very new reluctance on its part to interfere in the affairs of its neighbours. And if we are genuinely interested, we will read or listen on until we realise that the various paths to democracy and what is called the free market in these countries which we tend to lump together as “eastern Europe”, exhibit differences as well as similarities, as indeed do the histories and cultural traditions of the individual countries themselves.
Poland , the largest of the resulting democracies, is taking imaginative steps to ensure that its own story is heard alongside what we may expect to be the dominant narrative of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a programme called Solidarity Express. This has brought to the country about 210 guests from Europe and beyond (50 journalists and 160 young people active in volunteering and socially oriented work) to experience for themselves the meaning of the Polish transition to democracy through a series of meetings and presentations in three centres – Krakow, Warsaw and Gdansk.
Poland is commemorating not just one anniversary this year, but two. In late 1989, the long struggle of the Solidarnosc trade union movement bore firm fruit after the partially free elections of the summer. An opposition figure, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, became the first non-communist head of government in any of the countries of central and eastern Europe since the late 1940s. Poland ’s other significant commemoration is the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the second World War, with the German attack on Poland on September 1st, 1939. As Poles will tell you, whatever about the Berlin Wall, they were the first to depose communism 20 years ago, just as 70 years ago they were the first to fight, or be forced to fight, German national socialism.
Their army’s resistance on that occasion was heroic but brief, though Polish servicemen were later to contribute significantly to the Allied war effort, most notably perhaps in the Battle of Britain, while partisans waged a desperate struggle at home.
Educated Poles have a firm grasp of history, and are keen to relate details of their country’s battles and, more often than not, defeats. Touring Auschwitz with the Solidarity Express group, or visiting the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising in the capital, it is impossible not to be moved both to pity and admiration of those who suffered so much and struggled so much against implacable evil.
But Poland must be understood as something more than a victim nation. Though it was frequently dominated and abused by its neighbours, and even ceased to exist as a separate state for more than 120 years, it had once been a great regional power, dominating all the space from the Baltic to the Black Sea . The richness of its history and the depths of its reservoirs of culture are evident everywhere in the beautiful city of Krakow, built at the intersection of the valuable amber and silk trade routes, formerly the royal seat and still a notable academic and ecclesiastical centre – Karol Wojtyla, the late Pope John Paul, was a priest and archbishop here.
It is evident in the pride of lineage and intellect of the university, whose professors were arrested en masse in November 1939 by German police and SS – a scene memorably and shockingly portrayed in Andrzej Wajda’s magnificent film Katyn. It is evident too in the humanity, sweetness of character and intellectual balance of Krakow MEP Roza Thun, who has been both guide to Poland ’s history and guardian angel for the massed young troops of Solidarity Express.
It is clear that Poland , a nation of almost 40 million people, will have a considerable role to play in future both in the European Union and in partnerships of all kinds with near neighbours Ukraine and Belarus .
In the scale of its commemoration programmes, not least in meeting the huge logistical challenge of the Solidarity Express project, it is showing that it is not just one of an imagined mass of poor, amorphous eastern European nations to which things were done, but that it has its own voice and its own story, which it would like to invite us in this special year to take some time to listen to.