The Miracle Next Door Poland Emerges as a Central European Powerhouse
Germans used to think of Poland as a country full of car thieves and post-communist drabness. On the eve of hosting the European Football Championship, however, the country has become the most astonishing success story in Eastern Europe. Relations between Berlin and Warsaw have never been better.
There are cities that are as uninteresting as the stone they are made of, rigid and heavy, done up as stylishly as if they had been completely untarnished by the vagaries of history. And then there are the other kinds, the raw, rough, unfinished and exciting cities of the world.
Warsaw is one of those cities, a place that seems to crackle and groan in all of its unfinished glory. No one would dream of calling the Polish capital a beautiful place. But how much it breathes history, how many critical, comforting and tragic things it says about the course of time to those who not only contemplate but also scrutinize its building blocks is evident in many of its structures. It is especially evident in the new football stadium in the Saska Kepa quarter on the east bank of the Vistula River, the place that will transfix billions of people on June 8, the day of the opening match of the European football championships.
Warsaw, 68 years earlier, less than a stone's throw away. Resistance fighters with the Polish Home Army are crawling through cellars, sewer tunnels and secret underground passages, rallying against the savage German occupiers. They strike out, armed with the courage of despair, and they manage to capture important parts of the city. They are counting on Stalin's help, after hearing on Radio Moscow that the Soviets have promised to support them militarily. But instead the Soviet dictator orders his troops to sit tight and do nothing, in the exact spot where this year's football championship is to take place. Stalin has no interest in self-confident Poles who liberate their capitals under their own steam. The Nazis massacre 180,000 Poles, and large parts of the city are reduced to rubble. The Russians eventually do liberate the Poles, their "sister people," but not until January 1945 -- on their own terms.
In 1955, the new Communist leaders serving at Moscow's pleasure build the "Tenth Anniversary Stadium." Sloppily constructed and soon too run-down for sporting events, for years the structure stands as a symbol of the decay of communism. In 1983, Pope John Paul II, a superstar for the Poles, celebrates a mass in the stadium. The choice of Karol Wojtyla to be the successor of St. Peter proves to be yet another important nail in the coffin for the communist system.
A Pioneer and Role Model
The site undergoes yet another transformation. Counterfeit CDs and bootleg liquor are sold within the stadium, and one of the biggest open-air markets in Eastern Europe becomes established in the stands. Starting in the mid-1990s, almost anything can be bought there: Kalashnikovs from Russia, black-market cigarettes from Ukraine and cheap clothes from China -- and women from all over the world. In 2008, after the European football championship has been awarded to Poland and Ukraine, demolition of the stadium begins.
Construction is now complete. The modern venue for the European Championship has risen from the ashes of the old stadium, a dream in the Polish national colors, red and white, designed, ironically enough, by a German, covered with glass and complete with floodlights, video screens and a retractable roof in case of rain. The stadium, with a capacity for 50,000 fans, built out of the ruins, truly and conclusively oriented toward the future, is not just a building but a symbol. With this marvelous stadium, Poland wants to show the world its new face and prove that it has overcome the shadows of the past: the crimes of the Nazis, Communist oppression and the chaotic capitalism of the period after the fall of communism.
The country sees itself as a pioneer and role model for the "others" in the East. It wants to become a power in Europe and for Europe, thereby assuming what it has always believed to be its rightful place in the world. We are a country to be reckoned with, say the Poles in Warsaw, Gdansk, Wroclaw and Krakow.
Poland is one of the world's few success stories since the fall of the Soviet bloc, a development that is particularly noticeable in comparison with other countries in Eastern Europe. One of those is Ukraine, the second host of the European Championship, plagued by human rights violations and ruled by an authoritarian regime. If Poland is Europe's model pupil, Ukraine is its bad boy.
Things have been steadily improving in Poland for more than two decades. And even with other European economies stagnating, the Polish boom continues unabated. In 2009, a year of crisis, when the German, Italian and British economies each shrank by about 5 percent, Poland was the only country on the continent to experience economic growth (1.7 percent). By 2011, the Polish economy was already growing by an impressive 4.4 percent. The country's successes are on full display throughout Poland. The once-backward agricultural country has become a giant construction site, where cranes dot the skylines of major cities and some already boast high-tech paradises. No matter who wins the European Championship, if growth trends in the last decades are any indicator, the Poles are already Europe's champions.
Fighting to Join the Euro
In Brussels, politicians from Warsaw were derided not too long ago as nationalistic troublemakers crowing their absurd demands. But ever since liberal conservative Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski came into power in 2007, and then, in 2011, became the first administration since the fall of communism to be democratically reelected, Warsaw has been seen as a role model. It has long since incorporated a debt limit into its budget, and it signed the fiscal pact without further ado.
Amid speculation over Greece's future in the euro zone, the Polish government is fighting to join the common currency. Warsaw expects to fulfill the criteria by no later than the end of 2015. To do so, it is also prepared to give up sovereignty rights. Tusk and Sikorski want to assert themselves and assume a leading role in the northern alliance of Europe's economically sound countries, and they have the support of their fellow Poles. Hardly any other population is as pro-European as the Poles. In surveys, more than 80 percent say that their country has benefited from joining the European Union.
Another development is even more astonishing: the beginning of the end of a long-standing animosity.
Just as Germany and France improved relations after World War II and then became friends, the same progression also seems possible between Germany and Poland today. Berlin is already Warsaw's biggest trading partner. The reciprocal relationship is moving away from that of Poland serving as Germany's factory, with its cheap labor force, toward a more equitable division of labor. In the border region, Polish workers are no longer the only ones crossing the border for cleaning jobs and to cut asparagus. Germans are now searching for more attractive jobs on the Polish side. Leszek Balcerowicz, one of the fathers of the Warsaw reforms, says self-confidently that his country should set itself a new goal: "To overtake Germany."
Rubbing Their Eyes in Amazement
Much has happened since the Potsdam Conference in 1945, since former German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeled at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1970, and since the official recognition of the Oder-Neisse border in 1990. Relations between the two neighboring countries are now better than ever, at least officially. "I'm incapable of being angry with Angela Merkel," Tusk cooed about the German chancellor, with whom he is on a first-name basis. She gave the laudatory speech for Tusk when he was awarded the International Charlemagne Prize of the City of Aachen in 2010. And Foreign Minister Sikorski no longer fears the activities of the Germans, but rather their inactivity. "When the (European) enterprise is in trouble, you carry the greatest responsibility for getting it back on the right track," Sikorski told SPIEGEL, referring to Germany. "You also have the greatest ability to do that."
Some are undoubtedly rubbing their eyes in amazement. Whatever happened to all the malicious clichés and stereotypes, the insults and lack of understanding? The images and rhetoric both sides have launched at each other in the past are still fresh in people's minds. The Germans, for example, were apt to use the phrase "Polish economy" as a derogatory term and to assume that most of the people living "over there" were nothing but car thieves. A typical headline in the tabloid Bild read: "Just Stolen, Already in Poland."
The Poles, for their part, were quick to dredge up the past, invoking the image of an arrogant, know-it-all Germany, a revanchist specter that produced the likes of Erika Steinbach, the conservative president of the Federation of Expellees, the group which represents the interests of Germans expelled from Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere following World War II. Many in Poland saw Germany as a country determined to rewrite history, as a country that was trying to turn its back on its culpability for World War II and foster the role of the victim. They saw the expellees as merely scheming to regain ownership of their former properties in present-day Poland.