Daily Archives: 6 February 2008

Poland’s Abnormal Normality

From History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, by Timothy Garton Ash (Vintage, 1999), pp. 206-207:

It is now commonplace to observe that Poland has become a “normal country.” But what does this mean? Certainly, to arrive in Warsaw these days is more like arriving in Lisbon or Naples than it is like arriving in Warsaw before 1989. A smart modern airport. No need for a visa. When the passport officers call Polish passport-holders to a separate gate, you simply can’t tell the difference—in dress, accoutrements, hairstyles, and so on—between the two lines, Polish and Western. A relatively clean taxi, and you are actually charged the local-currency price on the taxi meter. Familiar shops, goods, cars. The same TV commercials. Smart offices. Mobile phones. Professional friends who are now overworked and defend themselves with answering machines. More and real money, but also more money worries: “Half our income goes in tax, the other half on school fees!” Great contrasts between rich and poor.

Of course, if you dig just a little deeper you find extraordinary things. The man in the Mercedes is a former politburo member. Your mobile-phone salesman is a former secret policeman. In the countryside, you still see peasant houses out of Brueghel. Priests chunter on about “neopaganism.” But Europe—our “normal,” “Western,” Europe—is also full of extraordinary things. Between observing the Polish elections and writing this essay I had to drop in to Naples for the Premio Napoli awards. The Grand Hotel Vesuvio was even better than the Hotel Bristol in Warsaw, but driving through the city I could see the dreadful slums—far worse than anything in Warsaw—where people still go in fear of the Camorra. Among the Premio Napoli prizewinners was a Jesuit priest, who was being honored for his fight against usury. (“Why don’t you in Britain have a law against usury?” he quizzed me.) The popular postcommunist mayor was asked at the televised prize-giving ceremony what he thought of his rival, the postfascist Signora Alessandra Mussolini (daughter of you-know-who). And, incidentally, was it true that they have been romantically involved? While denying romance, the mayor said that Signora Mussolini had made a very positive contribution to solving some problems in the city. All normal?

So the spectrum of contemporary European “normality” is very wide, and Poland is now definitely within it. But there is another measure of “normality”: diachronic rather than synchronic. What has been normal for a country historically over, say, the last two hundred years? By this criterion, Poland today is quite spectacularly abnormal. This country is free, sovereign, prospering? Germany is its best ally in the West? It is not immediately threatened even by Russia? Surely we’ve got our countries mixed up. I asked the Polish historian Jerzy Jedlicki when before in its history Poland had been so well placed. Scarcely hesitating, he replied, “Probably the second half of the sixteenth century.”

Poland’s transition from normal abnormality to abnormal normality is already a fantastic achievement. The challenge for the next five years is to secure it, internally and externally—which means in the EU and in NATO. Only then will we, and the Poles themselves, begin to see what the Polish version of European “normality” really looks like. This Polish normality may well not be as interesting as the old abnormality. Indeed, it may at first look like a cheap copy of the West. But, if that is freedom’s price, it is surely worth paying. And, anyway, who knows? As the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper once wryly observed: History is full of surprises, and no one is more surprised by them than historians.

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