Timothy Garton Ash, who did some of the best reporting (in English) from Poland during the rise of Solidarity and the Götterdämmerung of the Soviet Empire, recently published a catch-up piece in the New York Review of Books.
Peoples can be luckier than people. People are only young once. They seize their chances or miss them; then they grow old and die. Despite the anthropomorphic similes beloved of romantic nationalists—”young Italy,” “young Germany”—peoples “live,” in some important sense, for centuries, even millennia, sustained by real or imagined continuities of political geography and collective experience. They can be “sick” or “old” for hundreds of years, but then become renewed and youthful.
China today is one example, Spain another, and Poland a third. For two hundred years, from the end of the eighteenth century, when the first Polish rzeczpospolita, or republic (actually an elective monarchy), was divided up like a Christmas turkey between the Prussian, Russian, and Austrian empires, to Poland’s achievement of full independence (within very different frontiers) at the end of the twentieth century, the Poles had only two decades of fragile self-rule in a single state— their “second republic,” between 1918 and 1939….
Peoples can be luckier than people. But in a given time, what matters most is the happiness of the individual people who make up a given people. Honesty demands a plain acknowledgment that for millions of Polish men and women, especially among the workers, the poor, the old, and those living in the south and east, the years since 1989 have been painful and disappointing. For them, the reality of freedom has proved very different from the dream.
There is, however, another side to the story. One of the unexpected delights of the Solidarity anniversary reunion was to meet not just old friends and acquaintances, but their children —now, like my own, in their early twenties. Back in 1980, my Polish friends and I lived in different worlds. Not just the political possibilities but the life chances, in the broadest sense, of a young Pole were incomparably more limited than those of a young Brit. In the generation of our children, that is no longer true. Today, the life chances of an enterprising young Pole are altogether comparable with those of a young Brit, and by no means only for those from a privileged background, as I see every day among the Polish students and student-workers in Oxford. Something has been won.