All Quiet on the Western Front

Has Poland made it to the West?  Following the attacks on the Hungarian Nobel Prize laureate in literature, Imre Kertész, Eastern and Central Europe is wondering how western it really is. Is Poland part of Europe? Has it made it to the West?  These questions keep coming up again and again.  Yet they are regarded almost as an affront on the Vistula. The Poles have always considered themselves Europeans. Writers and intellectuals have been saying so for decades:  Poland has to return to Europe where it has always belonged culturally.  Sympathies for the West have always been strong here.  At the same time, many Poles suspect that the West does not regard Poland and East Central Europe as true Europe. They suspect that western societies see this part of the world as insufficiently civilized or not quite European. It was this perspective that prevented the West from feeling fully responsible for the fate of these not quite Europeans to the east of the rivers Oder and Danube. That’’s the rub.

These days Poland is a democratic country in which the rule of law prevails, barely deviating from the western democratic norm. Elections are held regularly, there have been no allegations of vote-rigging and if – albeit rarely – some irregularities do occur, they are immediately pounced upon by the free press and opposition.

An overwhelming majority of Polish society takes it for granted that their country abides by democratic values. Until recently, a representative of an opposition party was in charge of one of the intelligence agencies, the central anti-corruption office. Such a thing is rare even in well-established democracies.  Public supervision of those in power is robust and effective.  An independent press monitors politicians, sometimes excessively so.  Parliamentary committees are constantly being set to probe into a variety of individuals in front of TV cameras, almost to the point of saturation.  The Rywin affair of 2002 – which involved corrupt deals around a new media bill – has undoubtedly triggered monitoring mechanisms that are still effective today, though not always to the same degree.

Any suspicion that the ruling parties might be about to succumb to totalitarian tendencies provokes a strong reaction from journalists and public opinion. When the Kaczyński brothers’’ national-conservative party was suspected of having succumbed to this temptation, it found itself pushed into opposition.  Donald Tusk, the current Prime Minister, takes resolute action whenever any suspicion of corruption arises.  A mere whiff of suspicion, created by the affair around the new law on gambling, was enough for Tusk to dismiss all suspected ministers, including one of his own deputies.  His sole consideration was to enforce ethical standards of democracy even at the price of destroying personal friendships.  The slightest suspicion that secret services might be getting out of control is enough to set off a media alarm. Admittedly, the authorities have so far failed to curb corruption.  However, no democratic state in the world is wholly immune from this affliction, including at the highest echelons of power. Nevertheless, even this problem is being dealt with vigorously.

The Catholic Church is highly influential in Poland.  Yet the separation of church and state is observed, just as in other European countries. And although the Catholic ethic is dominant, other views are also heard in public, for example those of feminist groupings.  Polish Catholics tend to detest homosexuals but this attitude rarely takes a repressive form, in spite of the divided opinions on the Gay Pride parade among the citizens of Warsaw.

Polish civil society is gaining strength although it is not yet as developed as in the West.  A great number of NGOs has sprung up.  However, as in other countries, active interest in politics is generally low.  Many believe that it is not the European Parliament but the large countries of old Europe that wield power in the European Union. And while the population supports the ruling liberal party, liberal visions of governance are unpopular.  As elsewhere in the world, most people still harbour the dream of a capitalist welfare state.  The idea of a social market economy, a legacy of the Solidarity movement, still plays an important role in Polish awareness.

Furthermore, with regard to relations with its neighbours Poland has taken radical steps to come to terms with its own past.  The taboos surrounding the difficult Polish-German, Polish-Jewish and Polish-Ukrainian relations are being broken and the issues are increasingly being debated in public.  Former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski publicly asked the Jews’’ forgiveness for the Polish participation in the Nazi massacre in Jedwabne.  And historians have shed light on the painful truth about the post-war fate of Germans in Silesia, Masuria and Pomerania. Anti-Semitism, widespread and traditional in the 19th and 20th century, no longer dominates in Poland although it is true that anti-Semitic sentiments are still voiced on the internet, in graffiti and at football stadiums.  However, anti-Semitic and nationalist movements are only marginal phenomena that don’’t carry much weight in present-day Poland.

Donald Tusk’’s liberal party (the Civic Platform) enjoys unprecedented support even though it cannot yet boast any obvious achievements.  Many Poles have voted for it simply to block the Kaczyński brothers’’ party.

Soon after 1989 many citizens were sceptical towards western capital but most of them have by now relented.  Young Poles hold jobs in branches of western companies and don’’t mind having a Frenchman, a German or an Italian for a boss, as long as they are treated decently and paid well.  There has been a considerable decline in xenophobic tendencies as well.  For example, a black Ghanaian is in charge of a key cultural institution in Gdańsk and nobody seems to mind.

At the same time, many Poles feel that the West (including America) still does not regard Poland as part of the real West.  This feeling intensified in the wake of the failed Polish-American missile shield talks.  More and more people emphasize that even 20 years after 1989, NATO has yet to establish proper defence bases on Polish soil and that the alliance exists on paper alone.  This response reflects the feelings in an economically relatively weak country fearing an economic superpower that can dictate its terms to Europe. The gas pipeline, which the Germans and Russians are planning to construct under the North Sea to bypass a burdensome Poland, is a burning issue for many Poles who believe – even though the pro-European ruling party is trying to soothe such voices – that Germany is seeking cooperation with Russia behind Poland’’s back.  The new EU budget commissioner Lewandowski, an unambiguously pro-Western politician, has spoken of an upsurge of national self-interest within the EU which makes it difficult for Europe to become a real homeland of homelands, to quote Václav Havel.

The key question for the Poles today is not whether Poland has become a truly Western country.  For them the issue is when their country will be recognized as such.  In other words, when will Western societies be willing to say loudly and clearly:  You belong to us and share our values. You are like us and you can count on us in times of need.  In Poland many people still believe that their love of Europe remains unrequited.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

The essay appeared in the daily Die Welt, and an abbreviated version of its Slovak translation was published in Fórum, a weekly supplement of the daily  SME.