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.
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."
The Home of Beauty
Then he takes a deep breath and heads off for a walk. Small bars, cafés and galleries have sprung up throughout the city, and most European languages can be heard along the city's elegant pedestrian promenade. Gdansk is clearly in the process of reconnecting with its multicultural past, preparing for its bid to be named the European Capital of Culture in 2016.
There are many examples of civilian courage to be found in Gdansk. When this courage to rally community spirit shows itself at the right time, it can move mountains, bring about change and set the course of history. One such case is that of streetcar driver Henryka Krzywonos, 59.
She remembers the day as if it were yesterday: Aug. 15, 1980. The shipyard workers had begun their strike, but city employees had not dared to join them yet. The resolute streetcar driver identified herself with the protestors at the docks, and made a spontaneous decision. She stopped the No. 15 streetcar she was driving on a major street in front of the Baltic State Opera and announced: "This tram won't go any further. I too am on strike!" None of the passengers objected. Instead, they applauded, first hesitantly and then thunderously.
She was suspended. She joined Lech Walesa and was elected to the strike committee, the spearhead of the resistance movement. "I had the biggest mouth and was the most radical, which is why I got the votes," she says proudly. The people in power at the time saw themselves forced to grant the workers an independent trade union, Solidarno, a decision that marked the beginning of the end of their power. Nevertheless, there was still a brutal reprisal in store for the resistance movement. In December 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski deployed his weapons and declared martial law. The plucky tram driver, refusing to be intimidated, secretly printed flyers -- until the secret police knocked on her door. The men ransacked her apartment and beat up Krzywonos, who was pregnant, leaving her lying in her blood.
City on the Hill
Krzywonos lost her child. But children, though not her own, became the focus of her life. She established a children's' home and also raised some of the children in her own home, adopting 12 of them. The oldest is now 42 and the youngest is 19. There are still swing sets in the small garden behind her house. After writing about her experiences in an educational book on how to cope with the poorest of children, she acquired heroic status beyond her involvement in Solidarnosc. The Polish magazine Polityka named her "Woman of the Year" in 2010.
She has the prime minister's personal mobile phone number, and she occasionally calls Tusk when she has something on her mind. She also stays in touch with Walesa. But nowadays the Solidarno hero, Nobel Peace Prize winner and later Polish president spends more time giving speeches abroad than in the city. Krzywonos knows that union membership has declined drastically, and that the shipyard in Gdansk has shrunk dramatically because it is hardly profitable anymore. "I think it's a shame that the old fighters are at odds with each other," says Krzywonos, the eternal activist.
Krakow is the most beautiful city in Poland, a Central European jewel and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The travel agencies on the idyllic market square offer tours of the old churches, Chopin concerts and nearby water parks -- and to Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp where more than a million Jews were killed between 1940 and 1945.
Legend has it that the mythical ruler Krakus founded the city on Wawel Hill after killing the dragon that had lived in a cave there. Everything in Krakow seems natural, undestroyed and harmonious -- almost museum-like. But according to a United Nations report, modern-day Krakow also receives the highest marks for worldwide investment in innovation. The city is a veritable think tank, with it 23 universities and colleges, and about 200,000 students. Many are studying future-oriented IT subjects, preparing for Poland to become the CeBIT partner country in Hannover next year.
In addition to the Polish kings, the country's greatest figures are buried in a crypt beneath the cathedral. Two years ago, former President Lech Kaczynski was also buried there, in a sarcophagus framed in a sea of white and red roses. For the country's archconservatives, the fact that he lies so prominently in state is an appropriate appreciation of the former president. But his political opponents see it as presumptuous. They accuse the Catholic Church and Kaczynski's party of operating a cult for what they see as a rather unsuccessful, nationalist politician.
On April 10, 2010, the then president was on his way to visit Katyn, where the Soviet secret police executed almost 22,000 Poles in 1940. Moscow had long blamed the Germans for the massacre, and Kaczynski was traveling to the site to attend the first-ever commemoration of the event in the presence of leading Russian politicians.
The Tupolev carrying the president crashed in the morning fog while attempting to land at Smolensk in Russia. The Polish pilots and the Russian air traffic controllers are widely believed to be responsible for the disaster. In addition to the president, his wife Maria and the crew of the aircraft, 87 politicians, military officials and members of the clergy died in the crash.
On the second anniversary of the tragedy, thousands of mourners marched through the streets of Krakow and Warsaw, many wearing armbands in the national colors. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, 62, the president's twin brother and former prime minister, marched at the head of the procession. "I have a feeling that Smolensk was a Russian attack!" says Kaczynski, who heads the largest opposition movement, the Law and Justice Party, to cheers from his supporters.
Kaczynski has tried in vain to step into his brother's footsteps. He ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2010 and suffered a significant loss in the 2011 parliamentary elections. In a book he published shortly before the election, he implied that Angela Merkel was elected chancellor largely as a result of the support of former members of the Stasi. He was widely derided for his views, which did not help his election prospects.
In his early April speech, he refrained from launching into one of his once-typical tirades against Poland's western neighbors. Instead, he took the Russians and their "machinations" to task. It is a disgrace, he said, that Prime Minister Tusk essentially turned over the Smolensk investigation to the Russians, thereby turning himself into Putin's stooge and an accomplice to his "cover-up plans."
Efficient and Future-Oriented
Surveys show that 74 percent of Poles today believe that they have benefited from German reunification (even though the total investment volume to date for the 16 million people in the former states of East Germany has been about €1.5 trillion, compared to less than €10 billion for Poland, with its population of 38 million). More than two-thirds of Poles have a positive view of Berlin's role in Europe. And 54 percent of Poles are convinced that Germany takes the interests of other countries into account when implementing its national interests.
If old clichés have any traction at all anymore, it is in the vast Polish countryside, which lags behind urban development and remains caught up in bigotry and prejudice. A trip toward the Ukrainian border is a journey into a period many believed Poland had already left behind. The rule of thumb is that the farther one travels to the east, the worse the roads, the more decrepit the villages, the higher the unemployment and the more grinding the poverty.
This is where the Kaczynski party recruits its potential voters, about 20 to 25 percent of the electorate. Tough government spending cuts tend to be particularly devastating in these hinterlands -- such as the recent move to raise the retirement age to 67. Poland isn't completely out of the woods yet.
Cars are lined up for several kilometers at the border with Ukraine, which is co-hosting the European Football Championship with Poland. Each vehicle is checked, and the wait is about 24 hours. Those who hope to be processed more quickly can expect to pay bribes. It's as if the German-Polish border had moved 600 kilometers to the east since Poland joined the EU and the visa-free travel Schengen zone, complete with the wild markets, and smuggling of cigarettes and liquor. Ukraine is now to Poland what Poland once was to Germany -- it is viewed as the slightly backward eastern neighbor.
Furthermore, just as Berlin behaved as Warsaw's generous advocate, Warsaw is now playing the benevolent sponsor of Kiev. Unfortunately, since the end of the Orange Revolution, official Ukraine is no longer necessarily interested in shifting further to the West.
But the people are voting with their feet. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians live more or less continuously in Poland, taking advantage of opportunities in the low-wage sector. They take care of children and the elderly, help out in hospitals and toil on construction sites in booming Polish cities. The migrant workers do not have a poor image in Poland. And many of them, upon returning to Ukraine from Poland, believe that they have seen the Promised Land -- so clean, so efficient and so future-oriented.