Anyone who knows Polish history cannot help but marvel at the country’s emergence from the ashes of its traumatic past. Over the last 25 years, Poland, after centuries of war and subjugation, has enjoyed peace, a stable and booming economy, and integration with the rest of Europe.
An independent kingdom for the previous 800 years, in 1795, Poland was wiped off the map of Europe and absorbed into three great neighboring powers -- the Prussian, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian empires -- a state of affairs that lasted until 1918. Reborn following World War I, Poland spent a few short years as a democracy before proving ungovernable, succumbing to dictatorship, and then once again being conquered and divided, this time by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, in 1939. Over the next six years, Poland found itself at the center of what the historian Timothy Snyder has called the “bloodlands” of Europe; an estimated five million Poles died between 1939 and 1945, more than half of them Polish Jews. The Nazis and the Soviets also wiped out the cream of the crop of Poland’s intelligentsia and clergy. Warsaw was reduced to rubble, and mass graves were sown across the landscape. Then came four gray and sooty decades of communist domination. Only the Catholic Church offered Poles any hope.
Since communism collapsed in 1989, however, Poland has experienced a remarkable reversal of fortune. After leading the protest movement that toppled the old regime, the trade union Solidarity won democratic elections and initiated aggressive, market-oriented economic reforms. The communist Polish United Workers’ Party turned into the capitalist Democratic Left Alliance, which won elections in 1993 and 1995 and led the country into NATO in 1999. And in 2004, Poland joined the European Union as a full member, cementing its close alliance with Germany, its erstwhile antagonist.
The Polish economy, meanwhile, has grown rapidly for two decades -- at more than four percent per year, the fastest speed in Europe -- and garnered massive investment in its companies and infrastructure. Poland’s is now the sixth-largest