What is Poland? A country of freedom and solidarity
According to Gilbert Chesterton, the enemies of Poland almost always turn out to be also the enemies of magnanimity, valour and freedom. Paraphrasing this thought, we can say that the friends of Poland are almost always the enemies of tyranny, and the friends of freedom and solidarity, writes Prof. Arkady Rzegocki
.The first years of the 21st century saw the publication of a book by the renowned American historian Timothy Snyder, entitled ‘’The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999’’, showing not only the history of the Polish-Lithuanian union, but also the formation of modern nations – the heirs of the Republic. At the end of this synthetic account, the author draws attention to the tensions, the conflicts frozen by communism, and the resentments that characterised Central Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He even compares the number, depth and emotionality of these conflicts to those between the Balkan nations. In his view, the fact that after 1989 there was no resumption of these conflicts, no rekindling of mutual resentments and hatred in Central Europe, was primarily due to Poland’s stabilising role in the region.
In my opinion, Timothy Snyder is right. When we look at the pre-war map of our country, we see that with almost all of its neighbours Poland had difficult or very difficult relations. Today, apart from Russia and the Lukashenko regime, which is dependent on Russia, Poland has good or very good relations not only with its neighbours, but also with all of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Poland’s stabilising role is even more evident today, as it plays a key role in transferring aid to Ukraine, taking on the greatest burden related to sheltering refugees – on a scale that has not been seen in Europe since World War II.
Poland’s foreign policy over the years has shown patience, building bridges between the various countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Particularly in recent years, one can observe both a significant revival of regional cooperation within the framework of the European Union or NATO, as well as the creation of ways for cooperation beyond these institutions. The Visegrad Group, the Bucharest Nine or, last but not least, the Three Seas Initiative are all examples of cooperation forms within the EU and NATO. On the other hand, the Lublin Triangle or the close cooperation with the Eastern Partnership countries and the Western Balkans, show that Poland actively supports countries with pro-Western ambitions.
Moreover, in recent times Poland has become an important player on the military and defence map of Europe. Along with Romania, it is a key state in NATO’s eastern flank, takes defence matters very seriously, and in addition is increasingly becoming a security exporter. The best examples are not only the rotating presence of the Polish Air Force over the Baltic States, but also over Slovakia or Iceland. The constant initiation of many military exercises and the development of our own defence capabilities are becoming a hallmark of our country.
After February 24, 2022, the Polish state – governmental institutions, local governments, humanitarian and civic organisations – has shown the inherent potential for extraordinary mobilisation. Dating back to World War II, the slogan „Poland: First to Fight” has been replaced by the motto „Poland: First to Help”. And while today we can marvel at the tremendous scale, effectiveness and speed of the assistance provided to several millions of refugees, as well as the humanitarian, economic, military and political and diplomatic aid, this moment of trial was the culmination of many earlier actions, such as the acceptance of several hundred thousands of refugees from Belarus after the mass protests in 2020, and earlier support for the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan in Ukraine, and the acceptance of 1.5 million Ukrainians after 2014. It is worth noting the even earlier acceptance of refugees from Chechnya, as well as the activity of President Lech Kaczyński during the Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008. In addition, it is worth recalling the involvement of Polish firefighters, doctors, mountain rescuers, policemen and soldiers in emergency assistance to countries affected by natural disasters.
Right before our eyes, Poland is becoming not only, as the British described it, a „humanitarian power,” but also an important country on the eastern flank of NATO and the EU, stabilising the situation in Central Europe. It is a country whose institutions and citizens can be counted on in times of need, a country first to assist or as one could say „First to Help” .
Our historical experience means that Poles almost intuitively know that in a crisis or war situation the most important thing is immediate help. Many weeks or even months of procrastination can end up like Ignacy Krasicki’s well-known poem entitled ‘’Przyjaciele’’ : „So when all means of rescue failed, among cordial friends the dogs ate the hare.” The activity of our services, civic organisations and diplomacy is now being observed and analysed in the capitals of other countries. I am convinced and hopeful that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are seeing more and more clearly that Poland is growing into a partner that can be counted on in the most difficult situations, and that the Poles are right to point out the common political, economic and security interests linking the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Closer cooperation can only enhance the role of our region and contribute to the building of greater prosperity and security.
Many years ago, to the question „Who needs Poland?” Stefan Kisielewski answered, perversely, that first and foremost it is needed by him. This first answer, being the most intimate, still remains the most important one – Poland is needed first and foremost by Poles and Polish citizens. Each of us feels most at home precisely in our homeland. The Republic of Poland guarantees us security and freedom. But Poland also has a growing number of friends for whom the Republic is linked with the ideas of freedom and solidarity. That’s why, for some time now, Polish diplomacy has been promoting a logo designed by Czesław Bielecki with a slogan that reads: „Poland. Solidarity for Freedom”. This succinct slogan shows the deep Polish heritage associated with the love of freedom and solidarity, through which freedom can be regained and maintained. On the international stage, solidarity means building a community of interests, trust, mutual respect, and Poland remains a key country that pursues such policies and actions. In the slogan „Solidarity For Freedom” we can find not only one of the greatest achievements of the second half of the 20th century, which was the creation of a 10-million-strong union, the Solidarity movement, in a totalitarian state, but also traditions dating back to the calls „For your freedom and our freedom,” as well as the anti-imperial „Nothing about us without us,” or the fundamental principle of the Polish-Lithuanian union „Free with the free, equal with the equal.” These principles adapted to the 20th century remain an important guideline for Polish diplomacy even today. They indicate that Poland approaches its partners, their traditions, culture and heritage with great respect, and does not agree to the dictates of the powers, to the concert of the superpowers, compromised many times in history, disregarding smaller states and nations.
The famous British writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton, in his introduction to Charles Sarolea’s book, ‘’Letters on Polish Affairs’’, wrote: ‘’I can certainly claim to have been from the first a partisan of the Polish ideal, even when my sympathy was mainly an instinct. The instinct was never a prejudice, or even what is commonly called a sentiment. It was not one-sided ; for I had heard next to nothing on the Polish side. It was not founded in praises of Poland ; for, as Professor Sarolea points out, praises of Poland in this country are unnaturally rare. It was almost entirely founded on the denunciations of Poland, which were by no means rare. I judged the Poles by their enemies. And I found it was an almost unfailing- truth that their enemies were the enemies of magnanimity and manhood. If a man loved slavery, if he loved usury, if he loved terrorism and all the trampled mire of materialistic politics, I have always found that he added to these affections the passion of a hatred of Poland. She could be judged in the light of that hatred ; and the judgment has proved to be right’’. According to Chesterton, the enemies of Poland almost always also turn out to be enemies of magnanimity, valour and freedom. Paraphrasing this well-known thought, we can say that the friends of Poland are almost always the enemies of tyranny, and the friends of freedom and solidarity.
So what is Poland? It is a beautiful idea – a free, civil, solidarity-based state. But it is also a viable, important country in Central Europe that has made better use of its regained freedom than many others, building a rapidly developing state with a dynamic economy and almost uninterrupted economic growth since 1991. The economic development and reforms introduced are the result of increasing civic involvement. On the other hand, modern Poland owes a great deal to its heritage.
The Piast dynasty and later the Jagiellon dynasty and the Republic are one of the key sources of European parliamentary, republican, constitutional, freedom, civic, and finally tolerant traditions. Remembering them is not only a Polish duty, but also an important inspiration for all of Europe. What’s more, today’s Poland, with its remarkable anti-imperial, freedom-oriented heritage, is a reminder that it’s high time for Europe to start drawing on the experience and knowledge accumulated in different parts of the Old Continent – including Central and Eastern Europe, which is doing better in numerous areas than many other countries that joined the EU back in the 20th century.
.What is Poland? Certainly an important part of Europe, an idea and a country that has a big role to play in promoting freedom and solidarity. Without Poland, it is impossible to imagine a just international order.