Poland's Lessons — History and Geography is not destiny

Whatever its challenges, Poland has become a normal country, and quickly. No wonder than more than 80% of Poles say they are satisfied with their lives, up from only half in 1990.

18 April 2018 ·   10 min read

Poland's Lessons — History and Geography is not destiny

Despite the absence of a state for 123 years until 1918, the horror of World War II when it lost 85% of its capital and one-third of its population, and the trauma of the Soviet period, since 1990 Poland has become a normal country, and quickly. In so doing it shows that history, like geography, is not destiny.

The Great shipyards of GdaŃsk on the Baltic gave birth to the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland in 1980. Despite its banning and the systematic state persecution of its members, by June 1989 the movement had triumphed over the Soviet-backed Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) in the first partially free elections after World War II.

The union leader Lech Wałęsa, instantly distinguishable by his walrus moustache, became president of Poland in 1990. He did not exaggerate when he said that “by knocking the teeth out of the Soviet bear, we helped other nations win their freedom”. Solidarity’s victory precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall and widespread political and economic change across the Soviet-controlled East bloc.

Today Gdańsk is the home of a revitalised shipping industry. Poland is the second biggest manufacturer, after the US, of motorised yachts. At the Northern Shipyard, now under private ownership, ocean going trawlers, Thames River ferries, oil platform tenders and shiny red Arctic supply vessels are under various stages of construction.

Outside the famous ‘Gate Number Two’ to the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard, above, the scene of much strike action in the 1980s, is a memorial to the workers who lost their lives in the fight for democracy. Just inside the gate is the European Solidarity Centre, comprising a library, memorial and museum to the movement, built to resemble a rusting ship under construction. Conference goers and bands of schoolchildren are among the half a million annual visitors enjoying a cutting-edge presentation of Polish and Soviet history. Nearby is the similarly ultra-modern museum to the Second World War, a detailed reminder of Poland’s catastrophic 20th century of totalitarianism, widespread destruction and dictatorship, but one which ended relatively well and has continued in that vein.

Wałęsa, who had been dismissed from his job on account of his political activities, famously scaled the gate to organise the workers. The strike eventually took in one-quarter of the country’s workforce paralysing an economy already hard-hit by the failures and inefficiencies of a centrally planned economy, including food shortages and falling production. Today Gdańsk’s distinctive skyline of cranes at the dockyard has given way to glass and steel of a services economy, driven by high-tech skills, tourism and finance.

Downtown is Gdańsk Science and Technology Park. Set up in 2006 in one of the 14 Special Economic Zones countrywide, it houses 80 start-ups, mostly in the sectors of ICT, biotech and energy. Inspired by visits to Silicon Valley and Seattle, this technology “ecosystem” aims at connecting bright minds with the necessary capital and experience to translate good ideas into sustainable businesses. To facilitate this process, the cost of rentals is subsidised by as much as half. Warsaw recently unveiled a further €800-million incentive scheme for start-ups.

Overall there is an ambitious plan to turn Poland, now the sixth largest economy in the EU, into one giant SEZ. Currently 241,000 work in the Business Services Sector across 1,100 centres, around 50 of them with more than 1,000 employees. The government has its eye on attracting a big slice of the ‘KPO’ (Knowledge Process Outsourcing) market, given its advantages especially of location and the widespread use of English. Poland enjoys 1.35-million tertiary students, graduating nearly 350,000 annually, 90% of whom possess a proficiency in English, even though Poland’s BSS sector operates today in 42 languages. This is but one aspect of its internationalisation. Poland’s airports serviced 34-million passengers in 2017, more than twice as many as Romania, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Hungary. The road and rail network has radically increased in three decades, with the road budget alone nearly €20-billion for 2016-18.

The revitalisation of Gdańsk is a metaphor for Poland’s transformation over the last quarter-century. After 1990 it quickly stabilised the economy, growing at an annual average of 3.6% since then. Following its membership of the European Union in 2004 it has enjoyed highest rate of growth among the 28 EU countries. It now ranks in the top 25 largest economies world-wide.

The effect on the standard of living of the last three decades has been staggering. The average wealth of Poles has vaulted nearly three-fold (in real terms; seven in nominal amounts) in 30 years, to over $14,000, driven by a young, well-educated workforce and policy to match. Little wonder that Poles repeat over and again: “We have progressed more in the last 30 years than the previous 300.” The transformation has been the net effect of sustained economic growth.

While inequality concerns, and politics are restive, no Pole would exchange the present for the past.

This turnaround story would be remarkable for any country, the more so for one which had “lost” one-third (an estimated 11.5-million people) of its population in the Second World War and its aftermath, including those Germans expelled (1.5-million), the annihilation of 2.9-million of the once 3.5-million-strong Jewish community, and three-million additional deaths from combat, starvation and disease. No country suffered proportionately more.

The horror of the war defines the past.

The Warsaw Uprising is symbolic of this awfulness. With the Germans in full retreat from the advancing Soviets in 1944, the Polish resistance prepared for the liberation of the city. On 1 August 1944 an anti-German uprising started. On learning of the uprising, Stalin halted his forces in the city on the other bank of the Vistula. Although supplied from the air by the Allies (including a contingent of South African pilots), which kept the uprising alive for 63 days, eventually it collapsed with the deaths of 150,000 Poles.

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In an echo of the failed Warsaw Ghetto uprising the previous year, German retribution was brutal. The capital was to be razed to the ground and every inhabitant killed or expelled on Hitler’s order. The Soviets only marched into the city in January 1945.

Some 300,000 of Warsaw’s Jews were transported from the Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp 80kms north-east of the capital, this decision sparking the original uprising by the remnants of this community in April 1943. They had nothing to lose. Today a monument in the style of a cattle truck marks the Umschlagplatz, the railway station in the Ghetto from which they made their journey to Treblinka, now surrounded by Soviet era blocks of flats. Carved with more than 3,000 Jewish forenames, it includes a chilling verse from Job: “O earth, cover not thou my blood, And let my cry have no resting-place.”

Treblinka operated between July 1942 and October 1943 as part of the Nazi’s Final Solution. More Jews, as many as 900,000, were killed there than at any other Nazi extermination site apart from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, west of Krakow, there are no buildings remaining at Treblinka. With Warsaw’s Jews murdered, the camp was dismantled and the ground ploughed over in an attempt to hide the evidence of the genocide.

Treblinka was only a death camp. There was no other purpose in being sent there. The men and women and children were separated on arrival from Warsaw at the rail-siding. They would be stripped immediately, walked a short distance on a cobblestone path built by the prisoners to have their hair cut, and then it was just another 100 metres just to the gas chambers. A small number of Jewish men were detailed as slave-labour units or Sonderkommandos, forced to bury the bodies from the gas chambers in mass graves. With the Nazis increasingly concerned as to the physical record of their depravity, the bodies were exhumed in 1943 and cremated on large open-air pyres. A nearby penal labour camp supplied the wood. The remains were buried in large pits dug by giant mechanical shovels. At its peak, Treblinka processed 15,000 daily arrivals.

In an austere scene today Treblinka is surrounded by serenely beautiful fir tree forests, almost providing scale to those murdered, the only sound the wash of wind. The site of the gas chamber is marked by a memorial, the area marked by thousands of jagged rocks depicting the victims, some stencilled with the names of their villages: Tłuszcz, Solec nad Wisłą, Końskie, Sandomierz, Mordy, Srarżysko-Kamienna … Warsaw’s Jewish population had increased to 450,000 as refugees flocked from other areas.

Hitler’s plan was to eliminate the Polish nation. Then, following the disaster of the war, Poland exchanged one uninvited totalitarian system for another: the hated Soviets.

Poland was a long a victim of bad geography. ‘We say the Germans wanted to kill our bodies,’ observes Wojciech Romejko, a Gdańsk historian, ‘and the Soviets our spirit.’ The Soviet plan was to maintain Poland as a bulwark against the West, a territorial centre-piece of a military alliance signed at the then Governor’s Palace in the capital in 1955, hence the term “Warsaw Pact”.

Although Poland has enjoyed a tremendous contemporary period of prosperity, the past continues to shape the politics of the present. Despite its obvious comparative benefits, there is today a crisis of democracy in Poland, with an increasing lack of respect for constitutional niceties, an absence of dialogue, polarisation and nascent xenophobia.

Since taking power in 2015, the Law and Justice (PiS) party has enacted numerous measures to increase political influence over institutions of state, including highly controversial judicial reform bills put forward by PiS allowing executive authority over judicial appointment, which have forced about 40% of incumbent Supreme Court justices into retirement, a law on restrictions on public gatherings, and another to create an agency to centralise control over public and European Union funding for NGOs. As a result, in December 2017, the European Commission launched proceedings against Poland under Article 7.1 of the Lisbon Treaty, citing the judicial reforms as a “clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland”.

Killion Munyama has an unusual vantage. A Zambian, born in the southern province of Monze and brought up on a farm, he came to Poland on a scholarship in 1981 to study finance. Returning briefly to Zambia in 1988 he worked in the government, but returned to Poland four months later to study for a PhD in Poznan on the effects of IMF policies in Zambia.He drifted into politics as delegate to his local council of Grodzisk Wielkopolski in 2002. In 2006 he joined the Civic Platform centre-right party, and was elected to the Greater Poland Regional Assembly. In the 2011 national elections he was elected to parliament, being re-elected in 2015. He now serves on the public finance committee and is a delegate to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

The shift to the right in contemporary Polish politics, he says, is down to a number of factors. “First, we have had coalition governments since 1990, until 2015.”

This is because the left made a strategic blunder in attempting to put together a coalition, which required a minimum of 8% of the vote to take up seats in parliament. They got 7.9%.

“Second, while we (in Civic Platform) would have made an alliance with the left to form a government, the Law and Justice party had to make a pact with parties on the right. This has, third, given opportunity to a long-held desire among the majority of Poles to ‘eliminate leftists from politics’.”

This partly reflects the experience with communism. “It did a great deal of damage to people and has shaped their way of thinking,” observes Munyama. “What you see now is a reaction to those times, and to the deep social and religious conservatism of the society.”

While Poland wears its many charms lightly, there is a heavy history, which occasionally is vented in irrational outbursts.

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The only thing that can be said for certain about Polish politics, is that most contests happen on the right-end of the political spectrum, between centrist and right-wing parties. Still, things are confused. The ruling Law and Justice Party, while politically conservative, is socially progressive, promoting a wider and better funded welfare system. Such contradictions are not a recent phenomenon. Solidarity, a trade union, came to the struggle with an interest in workers’ rights, but overturned a communist government. Indeed, all that most Polish politicians and the public seem to agree on is their dislike for the left, which gathers less than ten percent of the vote, a legacy of the recent communist past.

Poland also shows what is possible when political will matches the needs.

Leszek Balcerowicz was a 41-year old economics professor in 1988 “with a hobby of economic reform”.

“We all thought,” he says from the Warsaw School of Economics, “however that Poland would persist as it was. However the basic conclusion we reached was that economic liberalisation matters for results from reform; the variable is whether the political regime allows the necessary reforms to happen. Without political liberalisation there could be no changing the economic structure.

“When I was asked by the Prime Minister in 1989 to take over the reform project, I was on my way to take over a visiting post in the UK. I agreed because it was my hobby,” he smiles, “because we had a team of ten people assembled, we could take a radical and risky approach, and I would also have a say in the ministers chosen.”

His group took over “the commanding heights” of the economy, starting the project in September 1989 amidst hyperinflation and falling production. With a deadline of 1 January 1990, the team produced a 10-step plan “which sought to answer two basic questions: what are your targets, and what is your model”.

“The first was clear. We had been diverging from the West for years. We needed to catch up. That could only happen through faster economic growth, and that demanded open markets, moderate taxation, and private investment. To do this, we needed to be very fast and move on a broad front.”

Balcerowicz and his team realised that they could use the political moment to their advantage. ‘We also relied on psychology, never believing that Homo Sovieticus would not change, and that incentives could work.’

On reflection, the Professor would “change some things faster, such as the inherited welfare system, which became a drag. We should also have done a flat tax quicker.” But he is, overall, “very happy. We have enjoyed the best period in our history because for the first time we began to adapt the Western model of competitive elections, the rule of law, and market economics. This has resulted in us converging with the West for the first time in our history.”

The domestic political career of Lech Wałęsa, the man who headed up this extraordinary period of change, quickly disintegrated. His five-year government had seven prime ministers, losing the 1995 election to a candidate from the post-Soviet camp. “His government was unstable,” says Dr Munyama, “which is to be expected perhaps from a broad-based movement like Solidarity.”

Wałęsa was then wiped out in the 2000 election with just 1% of the vote. “Yet the folk-hero Wałęsa is still going strong, however, shifting his political influence behind the centrists in the Civic Platform, the 1983 Nobel peace laureate proving a popular speaker especially abroad. He expresses concern about the direction of Poland’s current politics. The whole world is looking for new solutions … which is why they choose strange politics; in Poland like in the US and France where Macron was elected even without a party. People are dreaming about finding new solutions because the current political structures did not solve their problems.”

Whatever its challenges, Poland has become a normal country, and quickly. No wonder than more than 80% of Poles say they are satisfied with their lives, up from only half in 1990.

In so doing it has proven it is possible to overcome bad geography. The method of doing so has in part been down to an iron will, sound economic policy decisions, and high-levels of education. History, no matter how traumatic and devastating, is thus not necessarily destiny. And the last 25 years has also shown that democracy is not just about the ends, even though it provides the tool to ensure the rule of law, efficient government, fairness, freedoms and rights including sound governance and development. It is also important in terms of the means itself, the inclusive manner in which the processing of choice is conducted.

This article was originally published in The Daily Maverick.