Remembering Tadeusz Mazowiecki

I first visited Poland in September 1989 in what were interesting times. The place was in many ways bleak, the shops were empty and many people appeared worn down by the daily battle to put food on the table in an economy of endemic shortages and a currency that was practically worthless. The first signs of change, and hope, had however already appeared. The previous month Tadeusz Mazowiecki, whose funeral was held in Warsaw yesterday, had been sworn in as the country’s first non-Communist Prime Minister since 1948.  This followed what seemed at the time a bold experiment. Following round table discussions between the Communists and the Solidarity opposition in the spring of 1989, it had been agreed that partially free elections to the Parliament or Sejm would be held. A third of the seats would be contested with two thirds reserved for the Polish United Workers’ party (PZPR). The elections were held on Sunday 4th June 1989 and resulted in a Solidarity landslide. Two months of delicate negotiations later, Mazowiecki formed his Solidarity government.

He seemed an unlikely politician, with the air of a professor unwillingly dragged from his study, uninterested in power for its own sake but taking on this difficult and challenging job out of a sense of duty to his country. It was his government that set in train the reforms that have let Poland to where it is now, a country that is far from perfect but which is a stable parliamentary democracy, one with institutions strong enough to survive the decimation of the Polish elite in the Smolensk disaster.

What Mazowiecki had to do quickly made him unpopular. He appointed Leszek Balcerowicz as Finance Minister and, on January 1st 1990, the free market shock therapy that was intended to bring the country back from the brink of bankruptcy began.  Later that year, as more and more people felts the effects of the shock therapy, Mazowiecki stood against Lech Wałęsa for President. This proved a humiliation for him as he came third in the First round, behind a Polish-Canadian businessman of dubious background called Stan Tyminski. This marked the end of Mazowiecki’s career in Polish domestic politics and it was others who carried the reforms on.

A quarter of a century on then, Poland has institutions whose functioning was barely affected by Smolensk. Smolensk is in many ways a measure of the success of the last twenty for years yet it has become a rallying point for people who ultimately reject all that has happened in Poland since 1989. A section of the nationalist and integrist right is convinced that what happened in 10th April 2010 was no accident, but murder by the Russians, probably in a conspiracy with the current liberal right of centre Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Their views are unsupported by evidence and seemingly impervious to reasoned argument. In fact the groups that propagate these views have all the essential characteristics of cults. Not for nothing have Polish commentators coined the term ‘religia Smoleńska’. Many of these people also argue that the Third Polish Republic formally inaugurated in 1990 needs to be replaced by a Fourth Republic. They suggest that what happened in 1989 was at best a messy and unsatisfactory compromise, at worst a sell-out to the Communist and a betrayal of national interests. They argue that, in the wake of Solidarity’s overwhelming victory in the 1989 election, maximalist demands should have been pursued and the Communists swept from power.

This view is both unrealistic and anachronistic. In the summer of 1989 no-one foresaw the dramatic events of the Autumn when, in the space of two months, Communist regimes fell from Sofia to East Berlin. No-one knew how the Soviet Union would react and everyone was aware that there were several thousand Soviet troops stationed in the country. There were significant dangers in the Solidarity negotiators overplaying their hand. What they did was come up with a formula ‘Your President, Our Prime Minister’ which kept the Communist Wojciech Jaruzelski as head of state while deftly removing from him the levers of power. The reforms could begin and the Soviet Union was reassured. A difficult hand had been played with great skill.

With the exception of the nationalist fanatics whose electoral base is, one must hope, in long term  decline, Poland is actually quite a normal country these days. Large crowds came to say farewell to Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Perhaps they had finally learned to love a man who governed them out of a sense of duty and not through personal ambition, a man they could contrast with today’s politicians who many Poles see as venal and corrupt. Their low opinion of career politicians is something they share with people in many other countries and another sign of Poland’s normality. Maybe that too is part of Mazowiecki’s achievement.


Remembering Wołyn

In 2010 I visited the Polish city of Szczecin for the first time. While I was there I read a curious story in the local newspaper. It concerned a village near Szczecin whose inhabitants were unhappy at the state of their roads and the apparent unwillingness of the local authority to spend any money improving them. They wrote to the local mayor who replied that the villagers, largely people of Ukrainian origin, were UPA terrorists and didn’t deserve good roads. In answering the question what was the UPA and why Ukrainians were living in a former German village in Pomerania I discovered a tragedy that is largely unknown outside Poland and the Ukraine, a series of events that may be little more than a footnote in the unfathomable catalogue of human suffering that was the Second World War but which have left lasting scars. President Komorowski was in the Ukraine this week to participate in a number of events, including a deeply moving Requiem Mass for the victims, that were meant to promote reconciliation between Poles and Ukrainians. Sadly, even seventy years on, not everyone is ready to extend the olive branch as the attack on Komorowski by a nationalist armed with an egg demonstrates. The events that have been commemorated are known as the Volyhnia Butchery or in Polish the Rzeź Wołyńska.

The nineteenth century was the age of the nation builders and it was intellectuals such as the writer and poet Ivan Franko (after whom the city of Ivano-Frankivsk formerly Stanisławów is named, who forged a Ukrainian nation from a people previously known as Ruthenians. A nation, from the perspective of the romantic nationalists needs a homeland and this was where the problems started. All of the territories inhabited by Ukrainians had historically formed part of other states and had significant non-Ukrainian populations. Many of them lived in Eastern Galicia, a territory that belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire . Galicia was largely rural, grindingly poor and inhabited by a bewildering array of nationalities, including largely non-assimilated Jews, Germans, Magyars, Czechs and, the largest group, Poles. These territories had formed part of the Polish state that had disappeared from the map in 1795 and it was fairly clear that, if Poland ever regained its independence, they would have a claim to this territory. The same applied to Volynhia which before 1914 was part of the Russian Empire. It was here that conflict was to reach a tragic peak in 1943.

Open conflict between Poles and Ukrainians began after the collapse of Austria-Hungary when both Poland and the Ukraine emerged as independent states. The Ukrainian state was destined not to last long and the outcome of the Polish-Soviet War which ended with the Riga Armistice of 1921 was a division of the lands may Ukrainians regarded as theirs between Poland and the Soviet Union.

Relations between Poles and Ukrainians in the new state were unhappy. The policy of the Polish government was less than enlightened , particularly after 1935 when ham-fisted attempts were made to ban the Ukrainian language and close Orthodox churches, while the policy of polonising the eastern borderlands with Poles resettled from elsewhere in the country was widely resented. The Soviet Union wasted no opportunity to cause trouble posing as the defenders of the rights of the oppressed Ukrainians against the Polish landlords. This was totally hypocritical. The Ukrainians in the Soviet Union suffered one of the twentieth century’s greatest peacetime tragedies, the great famine or holodomor as Ukrainians call it, which followed Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture and led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. Several countries have recognised this as genocide. It sealed the hatred of many Ukrainians for their Soviet rulers and explains the willingness of many to side with Nazi Germany.

Unsurprisingly these events led to a significant radicalisation of Ukrainian nationalism. There had been Ukrainian terrorist activity in Poland before the warm including political assassinations. After the outbreak of war in 1939 and the dismemberment of Poland radical Ukrainian nationalists, under the leadership of Stepan Bandera  saw an opportunity. The aim was to cleanse the area of Poles prior to creating an ethnically pure Ukrainian state after the war.

The tragedy of Volhynia or Wolyn unfolded in 1943 as armed bands of Ukrainian nationalists, members of the UPA or Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army, murdered some 70,000 Polish civilians. The wave of killings spread west through Galicia with isolated incidents within the post-war frontiers of Poland.  Accounts of the savagery make difficult reading. The victims were unarmed civilians with women and children disproportionately represented. The killing reached a peak in July 1943, which is why President Komorowski was in the Ukraine this week.

At Yalta the westward shift of Poland was agreed about this still left some 750,000 Ukrainians within Poland, mainly in the Bieszczady mountains of the South East. UPA units remained active, resisting Communist rule. Early in 1947 they assassinated the Polish general Karol Świerczewski in an ambush. This was the cue for the final act of the tragedy as the Polish government launched Akcja Wisła or Operation Vistula, the burning of Ukrainian villages and the forced resettlement of Ukrainians across Poland but mainly in the so-called recovered territories. So it was that a Pomeranian village became a little Ukraine with terrible roads.

I visited the Ukraine three years ago, Czernowitz, Kamieniec Podolski .and Chocim, places with a great historical resonance. My Polish wife had always been very wary of going, fearing that Poles could not expect a warm welcome. She was pleasantly surprised  at the friendliness and warmth of many of the people we meet. And there are plenty of Ukrainians in Poland, many of them admittedly working illegally. Many middle class households in Warsaw could barely function without their Ukrainian cleaning ladies. The two nations are neighbours and will be for some time yet. It is time for reconciliation even if some nationalists still don’t understand. If President Komorowski’s visit has furthered the process his dry cleaning bill is a price worth paying.


Silesia – Land of Dying Country Houses

On Polish TV News a couple of days ago, there was a report about the fate of hundreds of historic houses in Lower Silesia, in South west Poland. The reporter spoke to Polish architectural historian Wojciech Wagner who was the co-author with two English colleague of a book on these decaying houses, many of which are of great architectural and historical significance.  The position was critical when the book was published in 2009 and is now worse. Wagner is now deeply pessimistic about the prospect of saving much at all that is of value. We bought the book during a stay at the restored palace of Lomnitz/Lomnica in 2011. Reading it gave me a full appreciation of the scale of the tragedy of which I was previously only dimly aware. I wrote about the issue in 2011 and post the piece below. In hindsight I was over optimistic,


This was a wet summer in Poland and it was no surprise to arrive at Schloss Lomnitz in pouring rain. It was a scene somewhat removed from the sun drenched vistas offered in the hotel brochure. This was not the only dislocation we felt on arriving here. The Schloss and its attractive grounds seem almost to inhabit a different world from the rather scruffy village of Lomnica in which it stands. Most of the guests are elderly Germans and, on arrival with my Polish wife, we were greeted in German.  The Schloss is actually two Schlosser, a large and attractive building with two towers and the widow’s house “Witwenschloss” alongside which has been converted into a most appealing (and for western pockets inexpensive) hotel and restaurant. For the guests the place is an oasis of “Deutschtum”  some 50 miles beyond the Oder-Neisse border.

It is a place that could not even be imagined only twenty years ago. The owner Ulrich von Kuster, a judge in Gorlitz and descendent of the pre-war owners, grew up in West Germany after the war and knew of Lomnitz only from the stories ad reminiscences of elderly relatives. The fall of Communism  gave him the opportunity to realise a dream he had nurtured from a young age, of reacquiring the ancestral home. What he found on his first visit was decaying and partially roofless ruin. Having been used as a school and as the offices of a collective farm for some years the buildings had eventually been abandoned. The Schloss was to consume every minute of his free time and most of his money for the next decade.

While Lomnitz is possibly unique in being reacquired by the family who previously owned it, and unusual in being so beautifully restored, its fate during the years between 1945 and 1990 was sadly typical. Throughout Silesia there are hundreds of ruined and decaying country houses, many of them documented in a report published in 2006 by Save Europe’s Heritage. Their fate was sealed in 1945 with the Yalta decision to shift the Polish_German border some 200 miles west to the rivers Oder and Neisse.  In socialist Poland they were doubly disadvantaged as relics of an oppressor landowner class and also of a German past that in the new Poland became taboo. While a number of them found a use the majority were simply left to rot.

The “Recovered Territories” “Ziemie Odzyskane” were to be the founding myth of the Polish Peoples Republic and essential to its self-definition. The Communists needed ideological ballast for the westward shift of the country and also for the official fraternal friendship with the Soviet Union which all adult Poles in 1945 knew principally as an implacable enemy of Polish aspirations to statehood. By coincidence the post-1945 frontiers of Poland were similar to those of the Polish kingdom of the 11th century and the notion of the ancient Piast lands returning to the Polish motherland after centuries of German occupation served the party’s purpose. It was for this reason, too, that the Polish eagle lost his crown, which it did not recover until 1990. The expulsion of German populations was followed by the resettlement of Poles repatriated from beyond the Bug and the wholesale rewriting of history. Every town village and hamlet was renamed and the old German names subjected to censorship. Libraries were stripped of pre-War maps, German inscriptions on buildings removed, ethnographic museums established to promote the new history. Historic buildings were demolished or left to rot as the authorities treated the area’s rich cultural and architectural heritage with contempt. Particularly scandalous was the wholesale destruction of German cemeteries.

On our second day in Silesia we drove to Lubomierz (formerly Liebenthal) a small town some 10 miles from Jelenia Gora. This is famous in Poland as the setting for three hugely popular comedy films about post-war repatriants and specifically about two warring peasant families who find themselves neighbours again in their new home. Pawlak and Kargul the quarrelsome heads of the two families are commemorated in a small museum, with a piece of the celebrated picket fence where the neighbours met to argue. These films, directed by Sylwester Checinski and made between 1967 and 1975, and which are still entertaining, also served an ideological purpose comparing the good life in Lower Silesia with the immiseration and backwardness of the old home in pre-war Eastern Poland. The first of the trilogy “Sami Swoi” shows the arrival into a Lubomierz that still has German shop signs and street names. The fertile land and solid buildings are compared to the thatched huts in which they allegedly lived before the War. The Polish claim to the land is put into the mouth of  Pawlak who says “To nasza ziemia” “This is our land”.  Theirs was to be a good life in these newly polonised territories.

The reality was less happy. The settlers found themselves in an alien landscape, their communities often broken up by the forced resettlement and their earlier life as much of a taboo as the real history of their new home. Everyone, of course, knew that, notwithstanding East German recognition of the “Peace Frontier” West Germany had not abandoned its claim to the 1937 borders. All this added a sense of impermanence to the disorientation. Little was invested for many years and this, at least in part, explains the ramshackle appearance of many Silesian villages. Lomnica is typical in this regard.  It is only in recent times that communities with a sense of permanence have been able to establish themselves.  And acquiring a sense of permanence has required an engagement with the past.

Certainly in Germany the past never went away and Heimatverbande kept alive the memory among children and grandchildren as well as among those actually expelled.   The year 1990 marked a new  opening of Poland to Germany and the Germans.  This partly took the form of nostalgia inspired  tourism to the old Eastern territories which was regarded with sullen suspicion by many. But there were also official initiatives to promote neighbourly contact and reconciliation. A good example of this is the splendidly restored residence of the Moltke family in Kreisau/Krzyzowa , centre of the aristocratic resistance to Hitler and scene of Helmut Kohl’s meeting with Tadeusz Mazowieicki  in the autumn of 1989. It is now a conference centre concentrating on meetings of young Poles and Germans to foster mutual understanding and reconciliation.  Positive engagement with the local community is certainly part of the von Kuster’s vision for Lomnitz.  The von Kuster children attended the village primary school  and are growing up bilingual.

Many Poles are taking a more nuanced and relaxed attitude to the past.  Some, of course, are exploiting it as business opportunity. There is a thriving market in old maps and town plans, coffee table books and of course there is money to be made from catering for the tourists.  This is particularly true of the Hirschberger Tal, a land of palaces and castles under the brooding presence of the Scheekoppe and the mountains that so inspired Caspar David Friedrich. For the southern part of Silesia is not only rich in history, it is also beautiful. Historical circumstance has made it a backwater but serious efforts are now being made to market the region inside and outside Poland. Nostalgia or “Heimweh” tourism must inevitably die out and it will be necessary for Silesia to become more widely known so that Lomnitz and other beautifully restored castles may continue to flourish.

We left Lomnitz on a sunny Sunday morning. As we turned onto the Jelenia Gora road we could see the proud summit of the Schneekoppe, previously, shrouded in mist. We knew that this was a place to which we would return.