Fifteen months after losing its president in a tragic plane crash, Poland takes stock of its past -- recent and not-so-recent -- and looks to a future that is once again charged with a sense of opportunity for a nation still looking to fulfil its potentia
WARSAW – About 50 children are waiting single file outside the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Since it first opened on July 31, 2004 – the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising – visiting the museum has become a typical patriotic event for people in Poland. More than 2 million have already toured the 3,000-square-meter exhibit.
The interactive museum does a spectacular job of revisiting the 63-day rebellion launched in the summer of 1944 to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany. It was a David and Goliath-like struggle, only unlike in the Biblical story, the underdog lost. Abandoned by the Allied Powers and betrayed by Joseph Stalin, the Polish resistance army was brave but powerless in the face of Adolf Hitler's war machine, which annihilated the rebellion. The Nazi cruelty came to a climax when Hitler's troops wiped out Warsaw.
The star attraction of the exhibit is a 3D movie that lasts about 10 minutes and shows shocking images of Warsaw just after the Polish resistance's Oct. 2, 1944 surrender. For those who have just paced up and down the city's beautiful old town, which was rebuilt exactly as it was before WWII, those archive images represent something unreal, something almost unbearable. But they've also helped move a new generation of Polish youth – helping puff up their national pride.
The museum does not, however, just stick to a romantic view of its traumatic past. It certainly glorifies heroic deeds. But the museum also questions the relevance of the uprising. And that is something new in Poland. The question is this: Given that they weren't likely win, was the sacrifice made by Warsaw and its inhabitants worth it in the end?
The museum also makes no qualms about vilifying both the Nazi regime and Stalin. Yet seven years after its opening, bilateral relations between Poland and Germany have never been so good. And despite problems that followed the Smolensk air disaster, relations with Russia are warming as well.
A more recent tragic watershed
The Smolensk crash, which took the life of then Polish President Lech Kaczynski, occurred in April 2010. Because it took place on Russian soil, responsibility for investigating the accident fell to Russia. Some Polish observers feel Russian authorities were too lax in their inquiries, especially when it came to investigating possible errors committed by Russian air traffic controllers.
Poland's also on better footing with its European neighbors to the west, which wasn't always the case. Poland joined the European Union (EU) in 2004. But in 2005, Kaczynski, a prominent member of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), won the presidency. Together with his identical twin brother Jaroslaw, Kaczynski espoused a pre-war chauvinism, anti-German and anti-Russian feelings and nostalgia for bygone days. The good news is that this era is in the past. Today there is a broad consensus that Poland did the right thing by throwing its lot in with the EU. Even the elite, who sometimes advocate nationalism or authoritarianism, have accepted new constraints imposed by the EU.
"The Kaczynski brothers saw everything from a political perspective. The economic reforms Polish society badly needed were always delayed," a Gdansk-based company director explains.
"This constant verbal sparring with Germany and Russia was a nuisance," says one Warsaw-based manufacturer. "In the end, we knew that it was damaging Poland's reputation abroad, especially in Europe. And Poland could not afford to indulge itself in that."
In 2007, the PiS lost control of the government to the Civic Platform party (PO), led by Donald Tusk, who now serves as the prime minister. And in August 2010, when Poland was in national mourning following the death Lech Kaczynski, the pro-European PO managed to win the presidency as well. The current president is Bronislaw Komorowski.
Although Poland is still adjusting to last year's tragic plane crash, political analysts are already beginning to talk about a "new era" of political stability. Jacek Koltan, a political expert working at the European Solidarity Center Foundation in Gdansk says: "We will reach the final stage of the democratic transition. Poland's success story is on its way."
In the heart of Warsaw, a small group of people who still support the Kaczynski brothers are camping in front of the palace where their hero, Lech, lived before his death. Passers-by pay little attention to the streamers and leaflets they are distributing. "There is nothing else we can do," admits Jacek, an unemployed PiS supporter. Jacek is one of those who still believe that the Smolensk air disaster was in fact "a Russian conspiracy."
The inquiry reports clarified the circumstances surrounding the accident: there were several human errors under difficult flight conditions. "The majority of Polish people have accepted that explanation," a government spokesman says.
Poland seems to have turned the page, and is now forging ahead thanks to increasingly positive economic conditions. Out of all the EU countries, Poland fared best during the recent global recession. After a modest economic dip, the Polish economy is once again humming along, and looking forward to an added boost next year, when – together with Ukraine – Poland will host the 2012 European football championship.
Point of pride
For the first time, it has also just assumed the EU's rotating presidency, a position it will hold for the next six months. The EU presidency is clearly a point of pride for many Polish politicians and diplomats, who see it as a crowing achievement.
"I didn't want to listen to those in Brussels who kept repeating that a country only becomes a full member state of the EU when it holds the EU's rotating presidency," says Joanna Skoczek, a charming and energetic woman who helped Polish organize for the presidential post. "But as soon as I started preparing this major event, I understood the meaning of that statement."
Warsaw is prepared to be "realistic" as far as its ambitions for the EU presidency are concerned. During their time in power, the Kaczynski brothers acted -- presumptiously perhaps -- as if Poland was already a big name in the EU. Bronislaw Komorowski and Donald Tusk, in contrast, are famous for being pragmatic. They understand that Poland, which is still an emerging country, belongs to the middleweight category.
Joanna Skoczek sees the next six months as a political test: "For the very first time, we have to defend first and foremost the EU's general interest and to set aside our own interests."
Critics lambaste the government for not having a political agenda. They fear that Poland will let the next six months come and go without really accomplishing anything. Polish leaders, however, say they do have a powerful message to convey. "We want to promote the idea that European countries stand together," explains Artur Harazim, Polish director of the European policy Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Accompanied by his coworker, Dariusz Laska, Harazim welcomes us to a prestigious Warsaw restaurant called Rozana. The reception hall and staircase banisters are covered with pictures of key political figures. There is one of Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor from 1982 to 1998, embracing former Polish President Lech Walesa (1990 to 1995). Another photograph features Walesa with Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the USSR. They look like mischievous accomplices.
Many photos refer to the Cold War's happy ending. "We know what we owe Europe," says Laska. "But we also know that Europe owes something to the Polish people: peace and security. This is also the opportunity to not spend a lot of our money on defense."
Read the original story in French.