Don't Forget the Past When Looking to Europe's Future

We are moving into anniversary season for the rest of this year, marking the extraordinary bravery and leadership of captive nations from the Baltic to the Black Sea, as they threw off the communist yoke.

Start with Poland, which
thirty years ago this month voted the Communists out of power in a mostly-free election.

It was a political earthquake, though by far not the first in Poland, the biggest and most unruly country in the Kremlin’s empire. Poles resisted collectivization, maintained a strong Catholic faith and national identity, and repeatedly revolted against their communist rulers.

The election landslide in June 1989 set the stage for the country’s first non-communist government in 50 years, which would end the planned economy, restore the rule of law, and start the country’s integration in NATO and the EU.

It also gave a huge impulse to the wider collapse of communism, accelerating Hungary’s move to political pluralism and turning stagnant countries like East Germany into pressure cookers. A big chant at the great demonstrations in Czechoslovakia later that year was: “we don’t want to be the last pole in the fence.”

Poles are entitled to ask if the world recognizes and remembers the importance of those events. In short, why is the West not more grateful?

The question is a revealing one. It stems partly from self-centeredness. Poland was indeed important. But so were other countries and individuals. One might mention
Andrei Sakharov’s personal bravery, the Lithuanian Sājudis movement, the Congress of Estonia, the Latvian Popular Front, Rukh in Ukraine, and many more besides. There is no Olympics for contributions to history.

As a Briton, I know this only too well. One of the most irritating tropes in my country’s political discussion is the faux-historical “We fought alone in 1940.” It is true that we (along with Finland and the Soviet Union) were the only European combatants not to be occupied during the Second World War. But countries ranging from Greece to Norway and Poland, let alone far-flung allies like Australia, are understandably irked when their contribution to the fight is so blithely ignored.

But in Poland’s case, the question also stems from an all-too-well-founded sense of marginalization and betrayal. The West ignores Poland’s role in 1989 for the same reason that it forgets the Soviet invasion of September 17th, 1939, colluded in the
Katyn cover-up, let the Warsaw Uprising fail and handed the country over to the Soviets at Yalta.

That narrative was always unhealthy. Now it is out of date. Poland is not neglected by the West. It is part of the West. For most people born after 1980 the whole idea of “Eastern Europe” and “former communist countries” is as quaint and irrelevant as talking about “former Austria-Hungary.”

For example, Poland is becoming the
leading U.S. military partner in continental Europe. A Pole, Donald Tusk, heads the European Council – one of the two top jobs in the European Union. The Polish economy has tripled in size since 1989. Uniquely in the industrialized world, it has not experienced a recession in a quarter-century. Poland has built strong institutions and a thriving civil society, successfully integrating up to a million migrants, mostly from Ukraine. Domestic political rows may distract from these achievements, but Poland has never been richer, stronger, happier, or safer.

Happily, it is the same story for most of the other former captive nations celebrating their contributions to the glorious anniversaries of this year.

Every country can and should reflect on its history with both pride and shame. But the present is far more important – and the future is a lot more exciting.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: "Solidarnosc" by Jennifer Pahlka under CC BY-SA 2.0. 

Edward Lucas
05 June 2019

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