Empire to Republic | A Country on the Move

Through history’s adversity, the Polish have shown enormous resilience. Free and thriving today, their country is trying to find its place in the world.

A century ago, Poland was so poor that the government decided to build a ship-port in Gdynia in order to help their people emigrate across the Atlantic. Until recently, “Polaks” were still the synonym of poor migrants. But in the last three decades, the situation has changed dramatically.

Twenty-five years ago, Poland was poorer than neighboring Ukraine. But there was one important difference: It had a clear and ambitious plan to escape the geopolitical fate that still haunts Kiev. Poland is a country whose population has traveled, and in vast numbers – most recently to the UK, where Poles became the largest group of immigrants. Over the last hundred years the whole country moved geographically, foregoing territories to the east and acquiring several to the west, but more importantly, it traveled mentally from an Eastern to Western identity.

Every voyage involves a degree of turbulence. And Poland traveled a lot. It is fascinating to compare historical maps and see how this country literally moved, much more that other nations in Central Europe. Not only did the borders move, but often large parts of the population did as well – forced by wars, famine and more recently, by the opportunity to study or work abroad in Europe.

Today, after making up half of the economic gap to Germany in GDP per capita, a clear sign of the prosperous times in its history, Poland is also causing major concerns over rule of law and the country’s political direction. The nation, whose recent leaders – have been among the most pro-European – both the current president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and Europhile Pope John Paul II were Polish – is led today by a clearly Eurosceptic party, even though polls show the society clearly pro-EU, with no major shift against the common European project.


Poles are passionate about history. They look to their country’s heroic past for inspiration, often idealizing both the nation and its leaders. Given the number of past failures and damage dealt by its neighbors, it is miraculous that, overall, the society is reconciled with all but one European country, Russia.

Today, its pro-European sentiments are reflected not only in the attitudes toward the EU as a whole, but also toward Czechs, Italians, Americans, English, Slovaks and Hungarians. Interestingly, according to another poll the same year by the Institute of Public Affairs, Körber-Stiftung and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Poles like Germans more than Germans like Poles – 56% and 29% respectively. Attitudes toward Austrians, last measured nationally in 2015, were also among the most positive. Russians, of all European nations, were among the most disliked.

Marshal Józef Piłsudski (left) engineered the May coup (May 12-14, 1926), to install a new government to ward off threats to Poland’s independence by Germany and the USSR. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (right) was the 1943 heroic act of Jewish resistance against the Nazis.

Poland reappeared on the map of Europe a hundred years ago: The end of World War I meant also the end of the European land-based empires, of Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany. Poland, partitioned by these three in 1795, re-emerged in 1918 as an independent republic under Józef Piłsudski. After struggling for independence for the whole of the 19th century, it was reborn. Even today, the joy of Polish Independence Day, celebrated on November 11 (Armistice Day in the US) speaks deeply to the Polish soul. It had sought better fortunes during the Napoleonic wars. Yet it was not the French but the American peace plan for Europe that brought Poland self-determination, as outlined by Woodrow Wilson in 1918.


The determination and passion for independence were clearly not enough to succeed. Józef Piłsudski, a revolutionary leader released from Prussian prison, became the central figure of national rebirth. His two biggest headaches were reunification of the country and the newly established Red Army with an appetite to conquer the whole of Europe. Germany had set him loose hoping to create a buffer zone to protect them from a Russian invasion. They did not expect him to succeed in creating a Polish nation state. Piłsudski did both. The first task was long term and uneasy, involving disparate legal and inheritance systems, in which ownership, birth certificates and other documents issued to members of one family were from two or more different countries. Economics and administration were very much different in three sectors of Poland – even today western parts of the country are much more industrialized, the southern part more advanced in farming and the eastern part largely underdeveloped.

On taking over power in 1918, the new Polish government had to deal with the legacy of nine legal systems, five currencies and over fifty types of rail systems, all of which were to be consolidated into one. Looking at today’s motorways and railroad maps, one can still see nearly exactly where the border lines were drawn. Thanks to social and economic agility, Poland has gradually overcome differences, and in the last decades has flourished because of diversity inherited from the past.

The interwar resurgence owed much to the cultural and national memory that survived generations of occupation. For instance, the principle of self-determination: One good example is the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts, founded in 1860 by private individuals, collected donations for nearly 40 years to build today’s National Arts Museum Zachęta, rivaling fine-art galleries in Vienna, Berlin or Paris. Open to the general public and credited today with the popularizing of fine art, it was the scene of the assassination of Gabriel Narutowicz, the first president of Poland for only five days, who, on December 16, 1922, was shot dead during his visit to the gallery.

The death of this liberal-minded politician, diplomat and scientist at the hand of a painter, Eligiusz Niewiadomski, reflected the growing polarization of the society that emerged as frequent clashes between left and right. Four years later, as the political and economic crisis intensified, Piłsudski took control, overthrowing democratic authorities and installing an authoritarian regime that lasted for the next thirteen years until the Second World War.


The short period of democratic rule had been challenged from within, by the political culture, and from without, by the threat of invasion from the east, pressure that helped to spur Piłsudski’s release from the Prussian prison. German calculations proved correct. In 1920 Soviet commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky launched an attack on the Polish capital with an army of over 100,000 and was close to capturing it when Piłsudski was able to raise an army and outflank the Russians, successfully defending Poland and, in effect Germany, from invasion. Later attacks were similarly unsuccessful until the Soviets conspired with Germans to attack Poles from two sides in 1939.

Polish memory of this tragic history – of its dependence on larger powers, its history of defeats and the struggle for freedom – is enduring and has pushed many Polish leaders toward grand strategies on a European scale. Right after partition in the early 19th century, efforts had already begun to resecure statehood in a Polish-Lithuanian federation. Adam Czartoryski, aristocrat and diplomat who also served as adviser and minister to the Russian czar hoped for reforms that would ensure both civilizational progress and geopolitical stability. His efforts ultimately failed when the Congress of Vienna 1814/15 brought no solution to the Polish question.

The interwar period came up with the idea of Intermarium that is memorable particularly today.

The interwar period began with the Intermarium (“between the seas”), that in the early years launched a federation around Poland (from the Baltic to the Adriatic and Black Sea) that was intended to guarantee stability in the Central European region and insulate it from eastern ambitions.

Lech Wałęsa (left), a trade union activist, was instrumental in the 1980 Gdańsk Agreement between striking workers and the government. He co-founded the Solidarity movement. On the right, the “Polish” Pope John Paul II visits Poland in 1987, tacitly calling for more openness.

However, the rapid growth of Soviet Russia and a lack of political will among potential allies led the project to be abandoned. It is remarkable that this perspective was transformed into a politically loose cooperation after 1989, then consolidated within the EU. The Visegrad Group gathers together Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia with the aim of greater internal cohesion and coordination with EU policies. The greatest challenge came with the refugee crisis in 2015 when Visegrad became the loudest opponent of the EU’s proposed allocation plan. Yet it survives, and even serves as a platform for new initiatives, some involving Austria, such as the Three Seas Initiative to improve infrastructure connections in the EU member states in Eastern Europe.

With all the devastation, the dreadful years of totalitarian regimes did not break the spirit of the nation. During subsequent occupations from 1939 by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the invaders faced stark opposition and insurgent forces. In 1944, Warsaw resonated with the same political aspirations as France, fighting to liberate itself ahead of the Allies’ arrival. Unluckily for Poles, Stalin preferred a Warsaw destroyed by Hitler and watched from across the river as the city burned.


The war nearly destroyed Poland and the Soviets prevented the country from participating in the Marshall Plan; it received next to no support to rebuild. As late as the 1990s several cities, notably in the west of the country, were left in ruin with no plan or resources until the EU brought financial and, more importantly, a geopolitical framework that would guarantee further economic growth of Poland. Since then, the country’s economy has grown uninterrupted for the last 25 years, even during the financial crisis of 2008.

So Poles have resorted to collective and individual efforts. Despite a lack of resources in the early communist years, so-called voluntary brigades were assembled all over the country that would commit their free time to rebuilding the capital.  Despite the hardships in the later stages of communist rule, the society increasingly flourished while becoming more and more homogenous.

In March 1968, in response to a wave of anti-government protests, also observed across Central Europe, the shameful anti-Zionist narrative by the nationalist communist leader, Władysław Gomułka, set off a wave of state-sponsored anti-Semitism and many Jews and their families decided to leave for Israel. Despite having provided aid to persecuted Jews during the war, Poland now voluntarily expelled not only an important part of its population, but one of the key elements of its past multicultural identity. Only in recent years, has the memory of co-existence been embraced again in Poland, with a new museum of the history of Polish Jews that was named the European Museum of the Year in 2016.

The museum’s avant-garde architecture, along with others built after joining the EU is in stark contrast to socialist blocks of flats in the vicinity. In fact, much of Poland’s urban landscape is even more eclectic. Another is award-winning Philharmonic Hall in the northwest city of Szczecin, with a futuristic digitally vibrant facade next to German gothic, encapsulating the memory of a nation whose substance has been reshuffled so often in the past. Even the mountain landscapes, typically associated with traditional wooden huts, are sometimes intersected by stark pyramidal silhouettes of modernist hotels built in the 1960s and 1970s, as in Ustroń on the southern border.


A decade later, the Solidarity movement was formed, with one million joining in protest for reforms, in defiance of the police state and the Red Army barracked in the country. Lech Wałęsa, a shipyard worker and leader of the movement, has become the most recognizable Polish figure, next to Pope John Paul II, and by the end of the 1980s, the communist era was over.

Yet, the new beginnings were an uneasy time, and until the 1990s Poland fought with hyperinflation and massive unemployment as high as 20%. The NATO (1997) and EU (2004) accession were considered priorities for both geopolitical and socioeconomic reasons. With the new funds, the country finally had the time and resources to build up its infrastructure and overcome the dependencies of the past.

Over the past 25 years, Poland’s economy has doubled in size, gradually closing the gap with its rich western neighbors. Warsaw is booming.

In the last decade, the story of Poland has been one of success that even regional grievances with Russia over its new territorial grabs would not spoil. Even the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, taking the lives of nearly a hundred politicians, diplomats, clergy and civil servants, including then President Lech Kaczyński, did not divert the democratic path of the country.

The question remains how much the current illiberal turn by the PiS government under Jarosław Kaczyński, brother to the deceased president, will jeopardize the collective struggle for a prosperous and democratic Poland. It is worrying that the current political leadership embraces a sort of political fatalism that often proves to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The inner tensions and turbulent history may nurture the belief that Poland is caught in a fatal cycle of repeating the past. However, the current geopolitical situation, matched by economic and civil agility, may pave the way for a completely different future. This remains to be seen.

But even with the current tensions, the dynamism and contradictions of Poland make it a captivating place. Its economic strength has made it a destination for millions of economic migrants, mostly from Ukraine, but also from farther afield. It is certain that Poland will change once again, writing another fascinating chapter of its story.

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