Politics & Policy

My Polish Arrival

Poland diary. Part I.

My Polish visit is only half over. But I have a sense that its grand climax occurred on Thursday at a British-embassy party launching the Polish publication of my book, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister. Not only was it attended by many veterans of the Solidarity movement who, in a reversal of the proper order of things, wanted my autograph; not only did Poland’s foreign minister, Anna Fotyga, deliver a graceful speech (of which more later) in which she described the book as “as exciting as a political thriller;” but the British and American ambassadors read out letters from Margaret Thatcher and Nancy Reagan welcoming the book’s publication in Polish.

Even I am not vain enough to imagine that this was all about me. After a week in Warsaw I realize that the book is significant in Poland because it celebrates the greatest Pole who ever lived, John Paul II, and the moment in modern history when Poland changed the entire world for the better.

* * *

The history of Poland is one of astonishing courage and tragedy. Poles see themselves, not without reason, as “the Christ of Nations” who suffered for the rest of humanity. Warsaw is dotted with memorials from World War II where the Germans, in retaliation for the killing of an officer, had stopped traffic, ordered civilians off buses, shot one hundred of them out of hand, and then published their names to discourage future resistance. Millions of Poles died between September 1939 and May 1945 — and unlike the people in other allied countries, they continued dying under a communist regime imposed by Stalin and “legitimized” by Yalta. Riots in 1956, 1970 and 1976 moderated the repression but failed to overturn this status quo.

But the visit of John Paul II to Poland in June 1979 halted and reversed the Soviet steamroller. It demonstrated the fragility of communist rule, the weakness beneath the brutality; first to the Poles themselves, then to the rest of the Soviet empire, and finally to the entire world. Ronald Reagan, watching the papal visit from California, wept at the scenes of Polish rejoicing and, not long afterwards, wrote to a friend of his sense that religion might be the Achilles Heel of the USSR. The birth of Solidarity, the emergence of Lech Walesca as Poland’s real national leader, the failure of martial law, the gradual spread of resistance to Soviet oppression — all these followed and the world was changed for the better.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan played heroic roles in the defeat of Soviet Communism. But it was John Paul II who began its unraveling when he spoke the simple words: “Be Not Afraid.”

* * *

Reagan and Thatcher also transformed capitalism for the better, making it freer, more competitive, more open, less hidebound, less corporate and — contra Karl Marx — more classless. I am reminded of this whenever I get on an airplane. The experience often seems slightly too classless with narrow seats, bad food, and too many passengers. The longest journey begins with an uncomfortable airline seat. At the same time it seems unreasonable of me to want to travel both cheaply and in high style.

Even here, though, the genie of capitalist competition comes to my aid. It has conjured up such exotic servants as low-fare business class airlines. Because I anticipate that I will be working hard in Poland, I decide to treat myself (but economically), and travel across the Atlantic on MaxJet, which offers flights between Washington (or New York) and London-Stansted for a roundtrip fare of approximately $1500. The experience is delightful– not flawless but delightful — so that I am actually looking forward to the return journey. In fact I shall be flying on MaxJet as often as I can afford in future because I don’t see how the company can keep up this low-budget luxury. As long as it lasts, though, please don’t tell anyone else about it.  

* * *

From London-Luton I shall catch an Easyjet flight to Warsaw on Sunday. Easyjet, Ryanair, Wizzjet, Wings, and other low-cost carriers now fly frequently almost everywhere in Europe. These really are low-cost — early birds can travel between European capital cities for single-digit fares, slower coaches for double-digit prices — and it’s reflected in the service which is efficient and safe but austere. One-class seating is “first come, first served,” and you have to buy any food you consume. For a two-hour flight — no problemo.

These airlines are a godsend to whole legions of cash-strapped people. My flight was full of immigrant Poles (many, doubtless, the now famous “Polish plumbers”) going home for the weekend, small businessmen operating on narrow margins, young people visiting their boyfriends, girlfriends, and pen-friends, and ordinary tourists of modest means. There are drawbacks to this: the main one is young Brits on “stag” and “hen” weekend trips vomiting throughout the beautiful squares and avenues of historic cities like Prague and Cracow. All in all, however, these cheap airlines represent a real increase of freedom and happiness for ordinary people.

* * *

Reagan and Thatcher understood this very well. But the Tories in Britain have decided that cheap air flights are the main threat facing today’s environment. Their solutions include higher taxes on air travel, a prohibition on building more airports, and the transfer of airport gates from short-haul (i.e., the flights served by low-cost airlines) to long-haul ones. This approach is economically absurd and ecologically trivial. All of Britain’s carbon emissions equal about 2 per cent of world emissions annually. Taken separately, British airline emissions probably amount to little more than the output of a few of China’s new power stations. And the main effect of restricting cheap short-haul flights will be to drive transatlantic passengers who intend to use them (like, for instance, me) to Frankfurt or Schiphol.

If these policies had been devised by a strategist with secret Labor sympathies to give the impression that the Tories represent a wealthy elite and hold the aspirations of ordinary Brits in contempt, he could not have done a better job. Until recently, when asked my opinion of the Tories’ new approach, I would reply regretfully that they were “directionless.”

That is now beginning to sound like a compliment.

* * *

I finally arrive in Warsaw in the late evening to be met by my Polish publisher, Andrew Findheisen. This is only my second visit to the city. My first took place almost twenty years ago, only months after the communists lost power. Radek Sikorski, who had covered Afghanistan, Angola and the 1989 revolutions as NR’s roving correspondent, met me at the airport, and we drove into the city centre in his bright red jeep. Our first stop was the building that had housed the CP’s central committee. Radek thought there might be a few apparatchiks still inside the building; so we drove around and around its inner court shouting triumphant insults.

For all sorts of reasons 1989 and 1990 were exciting times to be in Warsaw. With the communists out of power, Solidarity and its allies taking over, and the West stepping in to help, there was a sense of almost infinite political possibilities. It was then that through Radek I met Leszek Balcerowicz, a disciple of Hayek and Friedman and an admirer of Thatcher, who was embarking on the “shock therapy” economic reforms that, though initially criticized, were the start of Poland’s successful transition to a free market economy. A great deal has since been achieved. Poland has joined NATO and the European Union, sent troops to Iraq (where they administered a province), lived through several changes of government, and grown visibly more prosperous. As a result the Poles have learned to treat democracy not as a splendid ideal but as a (sometimes disappointing) everyday method of government. Almost the first thing Andrew tells me on arrival, indeed, is that there is a political crisis and the government might fall.

My own reaction is not very idealistic either: I hope this crisis won’t obstruct the launch of my book.

 – John O’Sullivan is the editor-at-large of National Review and author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister.

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