Poland Looks Ahead

Memorization of places, dates, and names is like fool's gold, someone once stated, because it is so easy to mistake them for the real thing: knowledge. Yet, when we study nations and cultures, we often commit exactly this mistake. A long list of kings and generals is supposed to provide us with thorough insight into a country's kingdoms and troops. An even longer list of dates and places should provide us with an understanding of why those dates and places became important in the first place, correct? In the end, we realize that, to analyze, we cannot simply memorize. Analysis is concept-based, whereas memorization is fact-based and often, frankly, of trivial purpose.

Analyzing cultures means learning about the big picture. It is like cooking without the recipe and each time creating a dish that is different and better than the one before. Blindly following the recipe makes a meal that tastes identical every single time. Who wants that, except those without imagination and those who believe that only famous individuals are worthy of being ingredients in the great feast called history?

This is why the author refrained from providing you with lists of famous Poles and dates in Polish history. True, the list of famous Polish names is certainly long and impressive. Nicolas Copernicus was a rather important individual: He reminded us that Earth is not the center of the universe. Marie Curie was a world-class, Nobel-prize winning chemist, and Frederik Chopin was a giant in the world of classical music. Roman Polanski's movies brought him worldwide fame. The movie actor Charles Bronson's family came from Poland's lands. The most famous Pole of recent times was the Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II. This is only a small sample of important names.

Yet, at the end of this book, we ask you: What is the big picture of Poland? What factors, internal or external, will steer the nation of almost 40 million inhabitants, and in which direction? How will historical experience from the twentieth century relate to the nation's twenty-first-century decisions? Basically, we want to know how Poland will evolve during the coming decades. These are much more difficult, and enormously more rewarding, questions to ask and try to answer.

We have learned that Poland has finally broken free of foreign domination and is now a truly independent country which can guide its own destiny. For the people of Poland, this is a new experience. How they will handle this responsibility is anybody's guess. Will the economic transition eventually pay off and bring Poland to full membership in the developed world? What regional issues we can expect to arise in the foreseeable future, and how will Poland define itself in the global picture? What may happen if Poles, as other Europeans, continue to have very low birth rates that result in a rapidly aging population? These and similar questions must be addressed together if we are to truly comprehend that big picture. Each of us may draw different conclusions, which is why cooking without recipes is much more enjoyable.

The next step is to compare Poland with other countries or regions to see how they relate today and how they will relate in the future. Such a comparison will reveal where Poland fits; that is, it will determine the country's status as a modern world nation.

At the dawn of twenty-first century, can we assume that the burning antagonisms of the past have now faded away? It takes generations for collective memory to fade from people's minds. Writing about Poland and its people in the early 1960s, with its memories of two world wars, geographer Norman J.G. Pounds eloquently summarized the cultural pressure of history: “Historical claims—­ and, in the context of central and eastern Europe, this means claims based upon medieval and feudal pretensions—­have no relevance to the twentieth century. It is one of the great tragedies of Europe that peoples of central and eastern Europe, with long historical memories and little historical sense, cling so obstinately to these illusions of vanished grandeur.” This must be faced in the twenty-first century as well.

The introductory chapter underscored one aspect of the contemporary lifestyle that will radically affect Poland's future and how Poles perceive themselves and the world around them. Generations that came of age in the 1990s and now early 2000s have little, if any, memory of the political hardships of the past. They imagine their future as an opportunity to expand the quality of life through cooperation and without the need for “illusions of vanished grandeur.”