The Trouble with Poland

“We are only demanding one thing, that we get back what was taken from us….If Poland had not had to live through the years 1939-1945, it would be a country of 66 million.” Thus spoke Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski on the eve of the last European Union summit, when he sought to gain greater voting weight for his country within the EU by invoking the memory of Hitler’s war against Poland.

Kaczynski’s words, however, stand in contradiction with what happened in Paris this July 14th. For on Bastille Day, a small Polish contingent marched down the Champs de Elysée alongside the forces of 26 other EU national contingents, including the Germans, in a display of European unity.

This contrast perfectly summarizes today’s confused Poland – a country that boasts one of the highest levels of popular acceptance of the EU among all member countries, yet is the place where defense of the “national” interests is practiced most fiercely. Poland today is no longer “God’s Playground,” to use Norman Davies’s famous phrase. Instead, it seems more like a child’s playground: a strange mixture of inferiority and superiority complexes. The problem is that Poland’s unjustified lack of confidence is leading to an extremely unpleasant form of intolerance toward others.

To understand what went wrong with Poland, a comparison with Spain might be useful. In the nineteenth century, Europe’s southern and eastern extremities were united by common decay. Poland had disappeared as an independent nation, the victim of its powerful neighbors’ greed; Spain was a country that no longer mattered. This dual decline was a subject frequently discussed by historians across the continent. They generally emphasized the failure of both countries to adjust their political systems to the requirements of the times.