They said the same thing and dreamed the same dream, a dream that when they explained it to visitors in the early 1980s seemed wildly implausible, even dangerous.
We want to re-enter Europe – Western Europe, as it was then called. We want to become members of the European Community, as the European Union was then called. And we want to become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Yes, yes, a visiting foreign correspondent would reply, but given Poland’s membership in the Warsaw Pact, its alliance with the Soviet Union, its rule by the Communist Party and all the other gripping encumbrances of Soviet control of Eastern Europe, what are your realistic objectives? Forget the dreams; talk about realities.
To which they would reply, we wish to re-enter Europe, no matter how long it might take, no matter how hard the struggle, no matter how many the sacrifices. Poland is Europe. Poland will be free, if not tomorrow or the day after, then some day, somehow.
And then martial law in December, 1981: Opposition activists were imprisoned. Media faced new restrictions. Solidarity, the trade union movement at the heart of the Polish liberation movement, was banned.
On every trip to Poland in those years, a correspondent loaded up with toothpaste, soap and over-the-counter medicines, because these basics were in short supply in his translator’s family. In Krakow, a doctor explained how the hospital lacked adequate supplies of syringes and bandages. Long poles held up the stucco exterior of buildings, there being no money to repair the facades.
Everything seemed desperately grey, from the workers’ apartment blocks to the trams to the clothes. The brightest light shone red from the star atop the hideous Stalinist wedding cake building in Warsaw, a “gift from Stalin” that aped similar monstrosities in the USSR.
That Poland could become a free country within a decade seemed beyond the wildest imagination of any frequent visitor, let alone any Polish citizen. But it happened, more than anything else because the Polish people willed it to happen, despite all the odds and obstacles. As Joseph Stalin once said of the Poles, bridling them is like putting a saddle on a cow.
Today in Warsaw, a city razed by the Second World War and oppressed by Soviet-style rule, Poles and their friends, including Canadians, will celebrate what the leaders of Solidarity dared to dream. U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be there to mark the day.
Twenty-five years to the day after the first largely free Polish election day, in 1989, and a decade after entering the European Union as a full and enthusiastic member, Poland celebrates its standing as one of the world’s outstanding success stories. It progress stands in complete contrast to neighbouring Ukraine, which is run by oligarchs and suffers under weak civil-society institutions and a slow-growth economy – a country bordering on failed statedom.
Poland has suffered so much – God’s Playground was the title British historian Norman Davies chose for his two-volume work about the country’s long and sometimes tortured past. Poland was literally wiped off the map at times, subjected to invaders and shifting borders, carved up by Nazis and Soviets in 1939, brutalized by both, then subjected to political oppression.
Today, it watches nervously developments in Ukraine and closely studies the motives of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Poles mistrust the Russians and expect less than the best from them. Since the annexation of Crimea, the Polish government has tried to persuade its European partners to develop a more integrated energy policy and to get troops from other NATO countries permanently stationed further east than Germany.
Of course, many Poles grumble. Growth is good but unemployment remains high, above 10 per cent. Thousands of young Poles have emigrated to Britain, Ireland and other countries that would let them in. The “Polish plumber” was used in France as a byword for poorer Europeans threatening to take French jobs.
So, yes, like any normal country, Poland has its share of challenges and gripes. But on this day Poles have chosen to celebrate their freedom and their return to the European and Western families, only the hardest hearts or those without memory can fail to cherish a collective testament to the courage of the dreamers.