Monday, 4 April 2011

Response to Timothy Garton Ash's article about Poland in The Guardian

The British newspaper ‘The Guardian’ is doing a week-long focus on Poland as part of its interest in ‘Europe’ (a term which in GB means continental Europe.) 
In the article ‘Poland: a country getting to grips with being normal at last’ Timothy Garton Ash, writes about his impressions of the changes in Polish society within the past twenty years and the possibilities how it may turn out.

I shall come to a few points he raises, but first I wish to note something.

He wrote the article in Warsaw.  Many of the comments on the page are by those who live in Warsaw or have been there.  Nothing wrong with that.  Most people know the capital city of any country better than the other towns.

In trying to understand Poland, however, one needs to know much more than the life in the capital city.  Some people (on the comments board) have noted the urban/rural divide in Poland.  That is true and others who live in rural areas can contribute much more about that.

What I can say more about is another aspect of Polish history.  A difficult one that still causes resentments across both sides of the Oder/Niesse border.  I mean, the forced transfer of ethnic Germans.  From Lower and Higher Silesia around 5.2 million ethnic Germans were forcefully repatriated to the newly defined Germany.  These were replaced by less than 2m Poles from the areas of former Poland that were now in the Ukraine and Lithuania.

The Poles who arrived in the former German city of Breslau, now named Wrocław, found a city in ruins following the Siege of Breslau where they suddenly had to make their homes.  

Many of the Poles who were deported to the 'Recovered Territories‘ (Lower and Upper Silesia as well as the former East Prussia, part of which was in the area which is now north of Poland) were used to a rural life and found themselves settling into buildings where Germans used to live, or were still living in.  That these 'recovered territories‘ hadn’t had ethnic Poles living in them as a majority for hundreds of years meant that those who were deported there didn’t treat the place as their home.  It was Stalin who had decreed that this area was now to be Poland (assented to by Churchill and Truman).  There are many stories I’ve heard of Poles not looking after the buildings in which they now lived in.  They believed that the Germans would come back, so saw no need in investing in the buildings.

That the Federation_of_Expellees occasionally agitate for compensation or even the return of houses and even territories to Germans causes all manner of worry for some Poles.  Of course, one should bear in mind that about 3m non-Jewish and 3m Jewish Poles died during WWII, and that both non-Jewish and Jewish Poles had themselves been deported during that time!

What you should understand is that, after the trauma of WWII, millions of Poles found themselves forced to live in a place they or their families had any contact with, sharing their communities with people they didn’t know; people from different social status‘ (from peasants to professors from L’wów).  A ‚home‘ it was not.  Some say that it took Vraclavians until 1997 to accept Wrocław as theirs, following the great flood of that year.

So, Poland is more than Warsaw.  It is home to inner-tensions which are more than about west and east, between capitialism and communism.  It is more than about tensions between urban and rural dwellers.  It is even more than about historical tensions with Germans, Russians or Ukrainians.

It has a tension with itself.  Like with the second republic, Poles had no say with the creation of their country (tell that to those who agitate the same point about certain areas in the middle east!)  People living in Poland (and bear in mind that German, Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Silesian, Kashubian and Mazurian minorities still exist here) found themselves put together in a new state.  Though not a national group, a massively reduced group of Jewish people; reduced of course due to the Shoah but also due to the state pogrom of 1968 ) may have shared suffering, but this suffering was different, and this suffering causes division (certainly, the passing of years and various initiatives have helped, but the division is still there).  A division which to some extent is brushed under the carpet of national mythology.  A division caused by the Polish civil war and also the establishment of communism.

'Who are we?‘  is the question which nations tend to ask.  Ash’s article shows that this question is still asked by people in Poland.  The 're-branding of Poland‘ as mentioned in the article came up with a new motto: 'Creative tension‘.

There is certainly enough tension in Poland!  Witness the reactions to the Smolensk tragedy, mentioned in the article.  I’ll quote Ash (hope he doesn’t mind!):

“There is the "normal" of contemporary Europe: the consumer society you see on the streets of central Warsaw and the TV screen. And there is the "normal" of most of modern Polish history: partition, occupation, unfreedom, ethnic conflict, economic distress, the blending of patriotism, romanticism and religion.”

Could this tension be creative in Poland?  Could such tension produce an outpouring of emotion which would then be cathartic?  Ash also uses the words ‘cognitive dissonance’.

Wikipedia defines cognitive dissonance as meaning "an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions.  Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying."

There are organisations in Poland who try to speak about difficult historical events and enable the different sufferings suffered by different ethnic groups to be recognised by each other.  One such is Karta (sadly, the site is only available in English).  They do many projects, which includes events whereby ethnic Germans visit the places they used to live in in what is now Poland, and talk with elderly Poles who live there now, Poles who were themselves deported from the east.  A wise man said that ‘reconciliation can happen when one recognises the suffering of the other’.  Karta enable that to happen.
The Edith Stein House  is another organisation that carries out projects based on bringing people from different cultures and backgrounds together.  In 2009 German Jewish people who left the old Breslau after the Nazi pogrom of 1938 came back to their former city for the first time ever and showed young Polish and German people around the places of their former childhood.  This was a very moving experience for all involved.
It is happening and I believe that many younger Poles (and indeed, older Poles) are wanting to move forward.  Young Poles I know are interested in working on tolerance and respect for the 'other'.  They are in fact very curious about 'the other'.  Other Brits or perhaps Americans as well will confirm this!  This 'other' creates, of course, a tension.  A tension which can indeed be creative.

Poland is much more than the tension between west and east.  Poland has a tension about the 'other', an 'other' that can include other Poles.  Organisations like Karta and the Edith Stein House show  that some Polish people are working together with people from other cultures to try to deal with that tension in a creative way, thus 'changing their attitudes, beliefs and actions'.

Not a bad benchmark for the EU, no?  Certainly, such a dealing of mass cognitive dissonance would be useful in Egypt.

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