Poland and the Czech Republic were isolated for 40 years by communism and have been separated since 1989 by old stereotypes. They may only come to regard each other as equals when they are both safely inside the EUby Timothy Snyder / February 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
A decade after Solidarity in Poland and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia helped to inaugurate a new European era, bureaucracy is about to catch up with history. In April, exactly ten years after the legalisation of the Solidarity trade union in Poland, Nato will expand to the east. Last November, the EU began negotiations which will bring about its own enlargement. Poles and Czechs, included in both enlargements, will tell you that they were in Europe all along. And there could be nothing more European than the mutual indifference-cum-hostility with which the two countries regard each other. A consideration of this Polish-Czech tension provides a perspective on the historical memories and political styles which have emerged in the new democracies since 1989.
Golden Prague, Grey Warsaw
Prague is perhaps Europe’s most beautiful capital; tourists marvel that so much gothic, renaissance, baroque, art nouveau and art deco beauty has escaped the ravages of this century. Warsaw is perhaps Europe’s ugliest capital; its enormous city blocks and non-functional functionalist buildings appeal only to eccentrics. A general rule is that anything added to Prague diminishes the city; anything added to Warsaw enhances it. Where central Prague’s delicate beauty is violated by every neon sign, the skyscrapers which now fill Warsaw’s open spaces seem to heal a wound and confirm a bounding progress towards recovery.
Prague’s loveliness and Warsaw’s ugliness have persuaded many western visitors that reform was succeeding in the Czech lands but failing in Poland. But Polish tourists will remind you that Prague remains beautiful because it was not destroyed by Nazis or communists. By contrast, in 1945 about 95 per cent of Warsaw’s buildings were razed. The Red Army, having watched passively for weeks as the Wehrmacht crushed the Warsaw Rising, occupied Warsaw in its turn. Its presence was indispensable to the installation of a Polish communist government, whose first project was the rebuilding of the capital. All this Polish sacrifice seems to leave Czechs cold. If Poles think that Prague is beautiful because Czechs were too cowardly to oppose Nazi Germany and too naive to oppose communism, Czechs reply that Warsaw is ugly because Poles are too frivolous to protect what is of value.
A little prodding will produce similarly coherent (and unfair) accounts of the other country’s experience of communism. Although Poles regard the Prague Spring of 1968 as noble, it is denied the honour reserved for bloody…