Poland 2007

Steeped in history.

This is a fairly long introduction to a gallery, but it is worthwhile, since it explains many of the things that make Poland interesting. If you are not interested in learning about it, then you are probably not going to be interested in visiting it either.

Poland is not a country full of supermodels (but then, I have been spoiled by Norway), and it is not a place to visit if you are only willing to use English (since communism had surpressed foreign languages, and the current lack of immigration and tourism appears to be an effect of that). But it is a country with a very visible history that most of us only come into contact with in our history books.

To most of us, World War II (WWII) is something we learn about in history; something that we feel is only in our history. Our countries recovered a long time ago. In Poland, this is not the case. The war ended 62 years ago, but Poland is still recovering from its after effects, and the influence of those effects is still visible. These are most visible in the architecture of Warszawa, but some of the symptoms are visible everywhere if you know what to look for.

At the end of WWII, Poland was unwillingly thrust into communism. During that time, the "queens" began their reign. They were the staff of the communist shops and public services, the ones who decided who could have what, who was living beyond their allocation. The ones whose introduction was not "what can I do for you, sir?" but "what the hell do you want?". When communism was finally banished, they moved to working almost exclusively in the public services, ticket booths, travel cafés, and a few shops. They can still be found there, never smiling, trying their best to be as unhelpful as possible, and trying not to sell you anything at all if they can avoid it. A stark contrast against the welcome and generosity of the normal Pole.

Poland has long disliked the Russian empire, and spent a lot of effort trying to stop Russia from taking it over. This brief history of Poland may help explain why various resentments still exist, and why Poland looks the way it does today:

A few hundred years ago
Poland is a small empire, consisting of current Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, and some of Russia (nearly reaching current Moscow).
By 1795
Russia has slowly taken over all of Poland.
Napoleon recovers a large part of current Poland, and makes it Poland again.
Russia is given protectorate over Poland when Napoleon loses the Battle of Waterloo.
Poland tries to become independent. Russia responds by taking it over completely as a province.
Poland tries again to become independent. Russia responds by removing its name as a province and treating it as part of normal Russia.
During World War I
Poland re-established as a country, larger than it is now.
While trying to take over Europe, Russia tries and fails to take over Poland.
Just before WWII
Russia/USSR secretly signs Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Germany, saying who would take what parts of the Baltics and Poland.
Germany drops bombs on the monument and palace in Warsawa, and WWII starts.
USSR attacks Poland, taking everything upto the current eastern border.
Germany continues its advance and takes over the rest of Poland. Poland ceases to exist.
Concentration camps are set up in Germany and Nazi occupied Poland. Slavic Poles are killed, treated as an inferior race. Same for gypsies, Jews, and others perceived by Nazis as non-aryan races.
Belgium, France and Netherlands attacked by Germany. Denmark and Norway taken over, with Norway as a puppet state. Nazi soldiers encouraged to have children with (primarily) Norwegian and German women in order to populate their assumed Aryan race, as part of the Lebensborn program. Many of the women were forced to take part, and raped as part of the program.
Genocide in soviet occupied side of Poland to remove any potential leaders. Anyone with university-level education or higher is executed. Teachers executed. All military of sergeant or above are executed. Lower ranking military sent to Siberia. Relatives of victims sent to prison camps.
Germany, Italy, and Japan combine to form the Axis powers. Several other countries are also included from earlier or later alliances.
Hungary, Bulgaria, and other Axis countries take Yugoslavia.
Germany turns on its former ally, and invades USSR. Attempts to reach the oil fields near the Caspian Sea, but fails at Stalingrad.
Japan attacks Pearl Harbour, and USA enters the war.
Battle of Britain.
Italy surrenders to the Allied Forces.
Germans begin to retreat from Russia.
USSR and Allied forces agree to work together.
Allied Forces take back Normandy.
Poland attempts an uprising in Warszawa. USSR has advanced to Warszawa but does not help.
Nazis obliterate Warszawa. 85% of the buildings are destroyed. Nazis retreat to West Poland. USSR takes Warszawa.
USSR, USA and UK decide Poland's future borders with Poland to be occupied by USSR.
Nazis retreat to Germany.
Germany surrenders.
Borders are implemented. Poland is re-established and instantly loses the war for the second time.
Japanese surrender, and WWII ends.
Germany and Austria are each occupied as four zones by UK, USA, USSR and France.
Most non-communist political parties outlawed in Poland.
Poland is allowed to vote in a "free election". However, the election was rigged so that the communist party would win.
USSR makes East Germany a republic.
UK, USA and France make the remainder into West Germany.
Austria is given back as an independent country, and is forbidden from making alliances with other countries.
Some areas occupied by USSR become SSRs. Others forced into local communist politics (including Poland).
Stalin dies.
Warszawa has been rebuilt.
Berlin Wall is built.
Cuban missile crisis.
Martial law instated in Poland after Poles try rejecting communism.
Martial law ends.
Gorbachov relaxes on the Cold War. Satellite states like Poland are ignored.
Poland is allowed to vote in an election that was not rigged (although the campaigning media was controlled by the communist party). Non-communists have a landslide victory. Communism finally loses control in Poland. Other states follow.
Gulf war and fall of the Berlin Wall.
USSR crumbles. Liberal communists take over in USSR and prevent hardcore communists from stopping Lithuania from being free. Other previous SSRs all declare independence. Poland now protected from Russia by buffer zone of Ukraine.
Poland still trying to remove the remnants of communism that have managed to survive. Censorship buildings, communist monuments, and architecture remain, but have been converted to other uses, still treated as unwanted and an eyesore.

By now we had run out of funds completely. We were treated to a meal out by a friendly Irishman we met on the train (thanks Denis), but we still had nowhere to stay. We then took a late train to the airport, struggling to catch sleep, and waited there until it was time to leave, and finally return home. For a trip that was supposed to be to visit Tatry, we managed to spend quite a lot of time doing other things, particularly waiting at train stations. But we did manage to see plenty of a country that I had never visited before, and I do not feel that I missed out on anything by not being able to stay in the mountains. Thanks for a cracking holiday.