The Miracle Next Door Poland Emerges as a Central European Powerhouse
Part 2: Cosmopolitan and Courageous
Are the people on board with this newfound warmth the politicians are celebrating so demonstratively, or are the Poles, in particular, fed up with what German journalist Klaus Bachmann called the "kitsch of reconciliation?" Can their economic miracle and their enthusiasm for Europe survive the coming storms?
At a trendy café in downtown Warsaw, near the former Communist Party headquarters building (now a Ferrari dealership), we meet with the most controversial political figure in Poland.
She is a member of the Polish avant-garde, and she is dressed in black, is carrying a bright-red purse and has a silk flower pinned to the lapel of her white blouse. Her name is Anna Grodzka, but until 2010 her name was Krzysztof -- and she was a man. "Biologically, at least," she says. "I was born into the wrong body." She had her sex change operation done in Bangkok. She has always been open about being a transsexual, even when she ran for a seat in parliament last October.
Grodzka, 58, won that election. She now has a seat in the Polish parliament, the Sejm, for the new libertarian party Palikot's Movement, which is particularly surprising in a country that is still seen as socially conservative and deeply Catholic. "Poland is clearly in transition," she says. "Many things are changing in our heads and hearts, although the established parties haven't noticed it yet."
The party is a colorful bunch. It includes gays and lesbians, feminists, Greens and computer geeks, and it promptly captured 10 percent of the vote. Founder Janusz Palikot is fighting for more transparency in politics and Internet freedom, and he wants to take a hard line with banks. His party members flatly reject the traditional family image of the woman at the hearth and marriage as the only way of life.
"We have a lot in common with Germany's Pirate Party, but we also have a more clearly defined program. For instance, we are decidedly pro-European," says Grodzka, a psychologist. But she doesn't belief that her movement is ready to govern yet. Does she aspire to a ministerial portfolio in a future coalition government? She laughs. "I can't imagine it. But who knows? Nothing is impossible in Poland these days."
Happier than the Average
Warsaw has an A side and a B side, the first being colorful, dynamic and cosmopolitan and the second being gray, businesslike and characterized by bland, Soviet-era architecture. But both sides are optimistic. Statistics show that hardly anyone in Europe works as much per year as the Poles, and that they are also happier on average than other Europeans.
The Praga quarter, part of Warsaw's B side, is the home of "CD Projekt," and many employees refer to the head of the company by the same name as his most famous project, a computer role-playing game: "The Witcher." Marcin Iwinski, 39, in his ordinary-looking T-shirt and jeans, looks like a classic nerd -- one of those garage inventors who rarely see the light of day. Sales have been rising sharply ever since he started the company with friends in 1994. They now have more than 200 employees, and Iwinski has just hired two new programmers from the Philippines.
The games, which are sold around the world, are purely Polish products. The character of the "witcher," for example, stems from the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, the "Polish Tolkien." The Polish death metal band Vader contributes the music for the virtual fight scenes with creatures of the underworld. Iwinski, an eternal child, still likes to play the heroic avenger in a Medieval fantasy world with his fellow board members.
It was a bold decision for the young Poles, who went to school together (and often skipped class), to venture into this segment. Role-playing games are among the most complex genres in the digital gaming market. US companies employ entire legions of programmers and graphic artists to succeed in the field. The Polish outsiders invested all of their savings in development. "We were motivated by the feeling that even people like us, from gloomy Poland, could take on something like this," says Iwinski. During the interview, he constantly types onto the keyboard of the MacBook resting on his knees. The office is also equipped with a Ping-Pong table, a pool table and coffee machines -- all the accouterments of life at the office. "We're crazy. We work almost around the clock," says Iwinski.
Achieving breakthroughs with innovative products is typical for the country. The economy is not supported as much by major investors from the West as it is by mid-sized companies, often owned by their founders or the founders' families. As a result, Poland is largely independent of economic fluctuations and the goodwill of corporations that compete globally.
The Two Billion Dollar Man
For the young entrepreneurs at CD Projekt, the idea of holding resentments against Poland's neighbor to the West is a foreign concept -- they see themselves as cosmopolitan. The same could be said for Poland's richest man, who has homes in both Warsaw and Zürich, although he is probably most at home in his Gulfstream private jet. According to the US business magazine Forbes, the man is worth about $2 billion. The office of Jan Kulczyk, 61, is everything but bland, with expensive modern art on the walls and Kulczyk's collectibles on display. And instead of folding chairs, visitors sit on substantial black leather sofas and armchairs. The building on Krucza Street is in one of the city's best downtown neighborhoods.
In the 1980s Kulczyk, now wearing a tailored suit, his long hair neatly combed, used his father's savings to import agricultural machinery from West Germany. It was a pioneering venture. After the fall of communism, he became Volkswagen's official dealer in Poland, helping to establish the German automaker's plant in Poznan. He used his income to invest in privatization ventures, such as the telecommunications company Telekomunikacja Polska. It was a turbulent period. He was called to testify as a witness in several corruption trials, and he was also the target of multiple investigations himself, although they were abandoned.
Kulczyk today is involved in much larger business ventures. He produces oil in Nigeria, builds roads in Afghanistan and exploits natural gas fields in Tanzania. He likes the Germans and he loves Europe, but sees the future happening elsewhere. He believes that the continent has become lazy and is only interested in maintaining its standard of living. "We're in a good position," he says. "The Polish economy, now that used to be a dirty word. The world will have to revise its position, because it's a seal of quality today."
A trip through the Warsaw business world is like a journey in fast motion, with people who have some catching up to do and are no longer willing to be deterred in their race to the top. Poland is no longer the eternal victim, consumed by self-pity. The collective inferiority complex, shaped in history by murder, partition and oppression, has been transformed into a new sense of self-worth and burning ambition.
City of Heroes
Gdansk is Poland's city of heroes, but it is a problem city at the same time, imbued with an independent streak that has always been a thorn in the sides of the powerful. As long ago as the 15th century, the confident citizens of the old trading city secured a high degree of independence from the Polish kings and built magnificent patrician houses for themselves. Scots, the Dutch and, most of all, the Germans, put their mark on the port city. Gdansk was long a European idyll, until the Wehrmacht arrived. Shots fired at the city's Westerplatte peninsula on Sept. 1, 1939 marked the beginning of World War II. Large sections of the old city were destroyed in the subsequent bombing.
Gdansk recovered from its wounds, but it never quite accepted being dictated to by the communists. It was in Gdansk that shipyard workers went on strike in 1980, fighting for better living conditions with the union they had founded, Solidarnosc (Solidarity), and eventually facing off against the entire system. The stuff of legends is always good material for museums -- and a source of controversy for historians.
Professor Pawel Machcewicz, 46, doesn't avoid controversy. Everyone knows that Prime Minister Tusk, whose electoral district is in Gdansk, is one of his personal friends. Yet no one believes that he allows himself to be influenced by Tusk, or anyone else, when it comes to his new project: the "Museum of the Second World War." The excavation is complete at the site on the banks of the Radunia Canal, within view of the impressively restored old city, and a model of the spectacular building, made of red stone, glass and steel, is already there to be admired. The grand opening is scheduled for the summer of 2014. "With our museum, we want to supplement the Western image of World War II from an Eastern European perspective," says Machcewicz.
To do so, he has networked with Czech, British and German historians. A new generation of young Polish historians sits on the museum board. The memorial will provide a context that many are likely to find objectionable. For instance, the exhibit designers are presenting history arranged by thematic areas. As a result, both the Polish Home Army and the Munich-based White Rose resistance group will be featured in the "Resistance" category. The museum will also portray the suffering of the civilian population -- both the bombing of Warsaw and the air strikes on Dresden -- on the same floor.
"We were sharply attacked after unveiling our concept -- not from Russia or Germany, but from the Polish right," says the professor. "But our goal is not to cure national complexes."
- Part 1: Poland Emerges as a Central European Powerhouse
- Part 2: Cosmopolitan and Courageous
- Part 3: The Home of Beauty