Not long before Ukrainians flooded into the streets of Kiev to protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s reneging on the preliminary European Union accession document on November 21, Poles were treated to the nationwide release in early October of Andrzej Wajda’s Wałęsa: Man of Hope.

Few things could contrast the situation of the two neighbouring countries better: on the one hand an event that was effectively a celebration of the freedom Poles have fought for decades to attain and enjoyed for the past two-and-a-half decades, and on the other the emotional and determined protests of a people against their semi-autocratic leadership, witnessing to the bitter fruits of a struggling democracy.

To some extent, however, the distance between the events is not as great as it seems, since the balance of the decade in the European Union of the more Western of the two countries remains ambivalent for various reasons. As a Canadian who has resided in Poland for 30 years I have watched the story unfolding up close and can offer a few observations and reflections on what remains a period of dramatic transition.

A legacy of lack of social trust

During the Communist regime Poles worked ineffectively, with old jokes about earning the same amount for lying down on the job as for honest labour astutely pegging down the degenerate nature of a centrally-planned economy. Now Poles are among the hardest working Europeans and it shows in their markedly raised standard of living. After billions of Euros have been pumped into the country’s infrastructure, the face of Poland has also been radically transformed. Yet it remains the least innovative of the EU member states, indicating that much of that money might have been wasted, and a Portugal or Greek-like catastrophic financial fate is not out of the question in the long run.

Some social scientists claim the lack of social trust remains a major retardant for further progress. Poles are terrible at team work. To one degree or other the problem affects virtually all the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. This is largely due to the demoralization of society after decades under a totalitarian state, but at least part of the problem in Poland also stems from the moral shortcomings of the transition from communism to democracy.

Unlike in East Germany, for instance, there was no effective truth commission, and the crimes of the former regime went largely unpunished. Quite early on, this situation resulted in a substantial amount of legitimate frustration within Polish society, easily manipulated by a number of the more nationalistic political parties. The major divisions resulting after the former president’s tragic airline accident at Smoleńsk in April 2010 are largely rooted in these earlier fractions.

The EU’s stifling bureaucracy

Apart from internal problems, the entry into the European Union has hardly been the providential solution to what ails Polish society. The partly undemocratic nature of the EU’s structure at key junctures is evident enough for many pundits. A case in point: while Poland was waiting for membership in 2004 and shortly after its accession there was the debacle of the failed constitution slipping through the backdoor as a new treaty concentrating the powers of government within its democratically unaccountable bureaucratic elite was certainly a warning for those paying attention.

Although Poles benefitted from adjusting to higher legal standards in some matters, arguably the stifling impact of the bureaucracy imposed from above negatively affects the country just as much if not more. The size of the government is growing rather than shrinking, and predictably the public debt is piling up. When it was voted into office six years ago the ruling part promised to foster a friendlier business atmosphere, but under the burden of increasing regulations and bureaucracy the climate is becoming even harder for starting up small businesses, among others. What is worse, after years of decreasing unemployment the situation is degenerating again: crucially affecting the young, who are leaving the country – their home! – in droves. 

The strength of the Polish family      

In Wajda’s Wałęsa, a good deal of screen time is devoted to the hero’s home life. This is hardly idealized, and much of the focus is from the perspective of Wałęsa’s long-suffering wife, Danuta. Nevertheless, it is clear enough that the Solidarity leader’s family is one of the foundations of his drive; simultaneously keeping him from being overly rash, while giving him something additional to fight for.

One little observed fact about Poland during the communist period pertains to the strength of the family. The disdain in which the institution was held by the regime was second only to the Church and religion. Yet at the time when the regime collapsed, despite the ease with which it could be obtained divorce was quite rare in Poland, with only one in five families breaking up. Compare this to the Soviet Union, where the British journalist Peter Hitchens observed during its twilight years: “in mile after mile of mass-produced housing you would be hard put to find a single family untouched by divorce.”

Thus one of the undoubted strengths of Polish society during the Communist period was its human capital, which must have had more than a little impact on the self-limiting revolution led by Wałęsa. Even earlier a crucial role was played by the Church, for which under the leadership of Cardinal Wyszyński saving the family was a priority.  

Years into the transformation the family has been buffeted by the consumer society. Albeit not quite as high as in other parts of Europe the divorce rate has risen. Most glaringly, the demographic crisis is likewise wreaking havoc in the family and is likely to stymie the economy as well as the workforce drastically ages. Since employed women give birth to a significantly higher number of children in Poland than unemployed ones, the high rate of unemployment among the young is particularly devastating for the situation.

Needless to say for readers of MercatorNet, bolstering the family is not a priority in the EU. The politically correct elites have far more “important” fish to fry, when they aren’t actually in the way. And the bad climate for religion in much of Europe, one of the great supporters of the family, has been seeping into Poland for some time now. 

Looking forward to a renewal

A few months from now Polish society will have two special occasions to celebrate. More or less a month apart John Paul II will be canonized in April, after which Poles will celebrate the tenth anniversary of their accession to the EU in early May. There is at least a small connection between the two events, since the Polish pontiff encouraged his countrymen to vote for joining the EU just a couple of years before he died.

In documentary footage incorporated into Wajda’s film John Paul’s famous line from his first homily on Polish soil is reprised, where he beseeches the Holy Spirit to descend upon the Polish earth and renew it. And indeed a spiritual renewal shortly followed in the country that contributed to peacefully attaining the freedom that Poles wrested from a regime that was part of one of the bloodiest empires known to history.

I for one will be praying during that canonization for the intercession of the great Pope for the same spirit to renew both Poland and the European Union that Poles have entered. If some similarly miraculous moral and spiritual renewal did indeed take place in the EU, it would be a much better place for the Ukrainians to join if they are eventually successful in their righteous struggle.

Christopher Garbowski is an associate professor at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Poland and the author of the forthcoming Religious Life in Poland: History, Diversity and Modern Issues at McFarland Publishers.  

Christopher Garbowski is an associate professor at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Poland and the author of the forthcoming Religious Life in Poland: History, Diversity and Modern Issues at McFarland...