First impressions linger, and my impression of Warsaw in 1990 was not very favorable.
To be sure, its old city district had been beautifully restored. In the long years of austerity, it was almost the only popular thing the communists did. Poles were determined to reverse Hitler’s destruction of their capital and to frustrate his boast that Warsaw would one day be no more than a name on a map.
But modern Warsaw was subsequently covered in the dull grime of Stalinism. Its skyline was dominated by a vast and hideous Palace of Culture which looked like a wedding cake covered in soot. There was relatively little in the way of commercial ads and neon lights to brighten the scene. And its people still had the unfashionable clothes, and downcast scurrying look that communism generally imposed on its beneficiaries.
Well, the Palace of Culture is still there, now cleaner and less offensive with the addition of a clock, but it no longer dominates in a skyline pierced by any number of modern skyscrapers. Polish women, traditionally fashion-conscious, now look as if they have stepped out the pages of Vogue. Young Poles resemble other young Westerners with their I-pods and trainers. Neon advertisements for all the usual brand names (and their Polish competitors) give the city a sheen of glossy prosperity. The city’s many parks provide those averse to commerce with a relaxing mean of escape.
All in all Warsaw today is a prosperous and lively modern European capital.
Yet everywhere one goes one feels watched by a pair of steely eyes, gazing sardonically down from hoarding after hoarding across the city. Is Big Brother watching Warsaw still? No, it is Pierce Brosnan — (former) Western Agent 007 himself — advertising Vistula, a new brand of Polish menswear.
* * *
My Polish publisher, Andrzej Findheisen, divides his time between Warsaw and New Jersey. But he is a full-time, full-service publisher who takes on only a few books but devotes himself passionately to getting them all known and sold. He has arranged almost thirty television, radio and press interviews for me in Warsaw, Cracow, Wroclaw, Poznan, and Gdansk. He and his wife, Anna, a charming corporate lawyer who now specializes in civil and constitutional rights on both sides of the Atlantic, are accompanying me on our tour of Poland by train and plane, in order to make sure that I don’t get lost. Andrzej’s segment of the publishing market is narrow but vital — namely, he publishes books about the Cold War. He is twinning my book on the cooperation between Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II, with Paul Kengor’s fine book Crusader, on Reagan’s part in the fall of communism (to be published in November when Paul will be touring Poland.)
Meanwhile wherever Anna, Andrzej, and I go, posters for my book seem to be giving stiff competition to Pierce Brosnan’s shirts and underwear.
* * *
One reason the book is doing well is that Poles are fascinated by the Cold War. But they see it differently from Americans and West Europeans. We are inclined to see the Cold War starting in 1947 or 1948 when Stalin clamped down Soviet rule on Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe. Poles trace it back to Yalta where, as they see it, the West (made manifest in the persons of Roosevelt and Churchill) ratified Soviet control of territory occupied by the Red Army. So they place a (small) portion of the blame for the Cold War on FDR, Churchill, and the Western governments that for forty years treated their communist quisling governments as legitimate rulers. In my book signings and interviews this point is made, with variations, over and over again by journalists and members of the public alike.
Alas, there is indeed something to this view; Poland was undoubtedly betrayed at Yalta. Churchill knew it and felt guilty, which is probably one reason that he delivered the prescient “Iron Curtain” in 1946, before either the Anglo-American governments, or Western public opinion. But it is important to understand the nature of the West’s offense correctly. The West could not have prevented the imposition of Soviet rule on territories “liberated” by the Red Army, without fighting another war. In 1945 public opinion in the war-weary allied nations would simply not have accepted this.
Where the West went wrong at Yalta and after, was in pretending that this realpolitik acceptance of Soviet conquests was a victory for democracy, and a fulfillment of the British guarantees of Polish independence given in 1939. We should have told the truth. A handful of Congressmen and Members of Parliament — including, interestingly, the future Tory Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, who expelled 105 Soviet “diplomats” from London in 1971 — voted against Yalta as a matter of honor.
Still, we lived uneasily with a “Yalta Europe” until John Paul’s 1979 visit to Poland, when it began to crumble from the bottom up. Reagan and Thatcher, who were critical of the Helsinki Accords in the mid-1970s precisely because they might legitimize Soviet rule in half of Europe for the second time, gained office shortly afterwards and applied pressure from the top. Within a surprisingly short time-scale — 1978 to 1991 — Yalta Europe collapsed and was replaced by the freer Europe of today. So the end of the Cold War was a happy ending — or at least a happy interval (which is the best history allows us.) And Poland, Pope John Paul II, Reagan, and Thatcher all played the leading parts in it.
* * *
“Why is it then,” asked one interviewer, “that FDR and De Gaulle, who did nothing for Poland, have a street and a square named after them in Warsaw, while Reagan, who helped liberate the nation, has nothing named after him.” Two book-buyers echoed the same complaint. Good question, I thought, and tried to find out.
Well, as it turns out, Reagan has streets named after him and statues erected to him in a number of Polish cities. A Polish businessman who has lived in the U.S. also put up the funds to erect a Reagan statue opposite the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. And a committee exists — of which NR’s Radek Sikorski is a member — that is campaigning for a Reagan Boulevard in the capital. No one opposes any of these proposals, but they nonetheless have failed to happen, most likely because of bureaucratic inertia, planning laws, etc.
But with an election in the offing, in which Poles abroad can vote, there is an opportunity for Polish admirers of the fortieth President, to pressure the competing parties into pledging to cut through this red tape, to get a Reagan statue in a Reagan Avenue, in the city whose admiration for him is unsurpassed.
Of course, Reagan will get his street and statue eventually — and probably quite soon. There is already a major Warsaw boulevard (among many other marks of distinction) named after John Paul II. But where is the street or statue dedicated to Margaret Thatcher here?
* * *
Tomorrow (Wednesday) Anna, Andrzej, and I are moving on from Poznan to Gdansk where I will be speaking at the Empik bookstore. (Empik is the Polish version of Borders or Barnes and Noble, selling coffee and cakes as well as books.) Then we are back to Warsaw by late tomorrow evening for the last round of interviews and signings. If any Polish readers of NRO should want to attend any of these events, a full schedule is posted on Andrzej’s company site.
My book signings so far have been highly enjoyable occasions. We seem to attract a good mixture of age and social type, which is indicated by the shrewd and challenging questions asked. And they buy books. The same things are also true of my interviewers except that, being journalists, they don’t buy books. They already have review copies.
What I find interesting is that the young people in both groups usually have a style of dress and manner, which in Britain or the U.S. would persuade me (not usually wrongly), that they are radical leftists. But they then turn out to have strong conservative or classical liberal opinions. If they have subversive instincts, they express those instincts in opposition to the post-communist and post-socialist establishments across Europe. Thus, one young man told me of his distress at how contemptuously some British people spoke about Margaret Thatcher. “They don’t seem to realize that she is a great woman who helped to free us from tyranny. They don’t even realize that we were living under tyranny. They tell me what it was like here!”
What distinguishes that young man, and others whom I have met here, from his British friends and, by extension, from groups like Move-On is that he has lived what they have merely theorized. Or, as Marshall Foch said of the graduates of France’s St. Cyr military academy,
“They know everything. Unfortunately, they don’t know anything else.”
* * *
Speaking of Margaret Thatcher, both she and Nancy Reagan sent very kind notes to be read out at the formal launch of my book at the British embassy. I mentioned it briefly yesterday, but a full account (plus photographs) of this splendid occasion is to be found on the Embassy’s website.
Modesty forbids my actually quoting their remarks, but serious scholars can find them in full here and here.
As both ladies made clear in their letters, the party was about more than a book; it was also a celebration of the exceptionally warm friendship that has been established between Poland, Britain, and the U.S., initially stimulated by the Reagan-Thatcher-John Paul relationship, but cemented by a common strategic outlook in the decade since Poland entered NATO. For instance, Polish soldiers are serving with distinction in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Washington doesn’t always respond to Poland’s support as generously or as prudently as it should. Poles still have to submit to a harsher visa system than the citizens of some less friendly West European states. But the Bush administration has taken one very sensible step to maintain good Polish relations: it has appointed Victor Ashe its ambassador.
Ashe is a former Tennessee mayor who, in addition to his regular diplomatic duties, makes a point of visiting mayors throughout Poland at weekends. Naturally, they get on well since they have faced the same problems. So, in addition to making friends of rising politicians throughout Poland, Ashe finds out a great deal which diplomats who stay in Warsaw never discover. One such (non-American) diplomat told me that Ashe knew more about Polish politics than most ministers.
Charles Crawford, the British ambassador, is similarly an unconventionally effective diplomat. I’ll be saying more about that tomorrow, but the Polish guests at the party were testimony to the wide range of his clout. They included Poland’s foreign minister, Madam Anna Fotyga, several other ministers and members of the government, Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, veterans of Solidarity, and politicians, historians, and writers from all three countries. The event was, as I say, the celebration of an increasingly close alliance.
Oh, did I mention that Madam Fotyga had said that the book was as exciting as “a political thriller”?
– John O’Sullivan is the editor-at-large of National Review and author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister.