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Mike's Adventure to Poland - 2002

Conclusion

When I left Poland, an amazing thing happened: they had been accepted into the European Union.

Poland now was getting ready to peacefully join Germany and the rest of Europe in economic and political cooperation.  Poland had already joined NATO, in which they integrated militarily with the rest of Europe.

Which left one question on my mind - how did the Poles feel about this?  In particular, how could the Poles cooperate with Germany, at whose hands they suffered so much during World War II?

Let's look at what happened during World War II.  Germany invaded Poland with help in the east from the Soviets.  When the Germans could not find any collaborators with whom they could set up a puppet government, they annexed Poland as a part of Germany; Poland did not cooperate with the Nazis, unlike most other occupied nations.  When the Polish resistance rose up against the Nazi forces, they did not receive assistance from the Soviets; in retaliation, Hitler had Warsaw systematically demolished building by building.  The Germans set up concentration camps and extermination factories throughout Poland.  At the end of the war, 6.5 million people had lost their lives on Polish soil.

So, I asked one of my Polish friends how he felt about Germans.

"I don't understand this question," he replied.

I explained that I was curious as to how Poles felt about Germans, considering the sheer horror of the atrocities that the Germans had committed against the Polish people in World War II.

"We see them as friends and partners," he explained.  "That was a different government from a different time that did those terrible things.  Why should I blame someone today for something that those guys did years ago?"  He said it was the same with the Russians.  It was the Soviet government that had done so much to oppress the Polish people, so why should they hold a grudge against the Russian people because of the actions of their previous government?

Then, he wanted to know why I asked such a question.

I tried to explain that in the world today, there are so many people who fight over grudges from generations gone past: Serbs, Croats, Albanians, and Bosnian Muslims; Israelis and Palestinians; Hutus and Tutsis.  In each of these places, people fight over things that happened a long time ago.  No one is willing to start new and move on.  Yet, if ever anyone was allowed to hold a grudge, it would be the Polish people.  And even more importantly, they don't.  My friend explained that there are a lot of older people who remember the war and who do hold a grudge, but for the most part, the Poles choose the look to the future instead of dwelling in the past.

I think that was one of the most important things I took back with me from Poland.  We saw the scars from savage wars and unspeakable atrocities.  But, despite that, the Polish people have continued to rebuild and forgive the past and move forward with their former enemies into the future.  They have not forgotten the past, but simply choose not to continue to let it dominate their course for the future.

But while I was discussing politics, another Polish friend pulled me aside and wanted to talk to me about the United States.

"I am concerned about what is going on with your country," he told me.  "I am concerned about your possible invasion of Iraq.  Don't get me wrong - Saddam is a bad man.  But the United States cannot act alone against the world."

I explained that I was also.  I could see his concern; after all, for most of Poland's history, they have had to fight off invaders, no matter if they were German, Russian, Austrian, Swedish, Tartar, or Turkish.  And in the most recent invasion, there was destruction the likes of which no one could ever imagine.

I also explained that unlike Poland, the United States had never been invaded.  Except for the War of 1812 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, America had never been attacked by an enemy the way we were on September 11th.  As a result, I explained, most Americans were paranoid of another attack and wanted to end the next attack before it began.

But, he explained, that was the same logic that was used on the German people to launch the Nazi invasion of Poland!  I could see why my friend was very concerned.

"Here is a warning: there is such a thing as having too much democracy," he said.

I didn't understand, and I asked him to explain.

For four hundred years during the Middle Ages, Poland had established a commonwealth with Lithuania.  In this commonwealth, Poland was very progressive compared to the rest of Europe: the commonwealth had a parliamentary system and elected their king.  For those four hundred years, Poland thrived.  They had a powerful economy and a mighty military.  In fact, it was the Polish army under King Jan III Sobieski who ultimately stopped the Turks at Vienna during their invasion of Europe.

But then there was a problem.  Following the wars in the late 1600s and early 1700s to stop the foreign invaders, the economy started to decline.  When the parliament members started to lose their economic power, they decided to use their political influence to regain their power.  Their weapon?  The "liberum veto."  Because the Polish system required that all resolutions be unanimous, a single member could threaten to veto unless he gained some concessions from the rest of the government.  So the Polish government quickly became ineffective as the Polish senators squabbled amongst themselves.  They squabbled so much that they failed to notice that in 1723, Prussia, Russia, and Austria entered into an alliance to conquer and divide Poland.  Then, in 1772, Poland conquered over and absorbed into those three nations.  Poland did not become independent again until 1918.

He said he watched how our politicians fought with one another and that with the election crisis and all, he thought that our government was starting to look like that old failed Polish government from all those years ago. 

He also warned me not let the government take away our freedoms.  He had, after all, lived under Communist rule and knew what it was like to have those freedoms taken away.  I explained to him that I was concerned about losing civil liberties as well.

You might think that after seeing the rebuilt Warsaw and Auschwitz that Poland might be a depressing place.  But, on the contrary, it is a hopeful place.  To see this country overcome their loss and rebuild their beautiful country should give everyone hope.  I wish more of the world could see what they can achieve when they stop dwelling on the hatred of the past and start looking to the hope of the future.

I never met a rude Pole (well, except for Beulah), and I never felt unsafe walking around the streets at night.  Everyone I met was friendly, and I made lots of great friends in Poland.  I so much enjoyed my trip, I can't wait to go back for a visit again!

Only, this time, I just hope it is a little bit warmer...

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