There’s an old joke about a Polish optimist meeting a Polish pessimist: “Things are so bad, so terribly bad, that they couldn’t possibly get any worse”, says the pessimist, to which the optimist replies: “Don’t worry my friend, they could, they really could.”
The Polish national character might be famous for its glum outlook on life, but as the country celebrates its Independence Day this 11 November, there is little cause for pessimism. The country has never been richer, safer or better organised than it is today. As the Polish-born former US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, put it recently: “Poland is enjoying the best period in its history.” According to World Bank figures, the former communist country is now the sixth-largest economy in the EU. When I moved to the country’s capital Warsaw in 1995, my neighbour, a school teacher, earned about $200 a month. Right now, the average national wage is over five times that, and growing steadily. Importantly, for a nation where painful memories of past Russian and German aggression remain strong, Poland is now a full member of Nato with all the security guarantees the western military alliance provides.
So has this turnabout in the fortunes of a country, once partitioned and erased from Europe’s map for 123 years, changed the psyche of its people often accused of revelling in their pessimism and victim mentality? The stereotype goes that if you ask a Pole the simple “How are you?”, he’ll launch right into a long list of his numerous problems and misfortunes. While this remains true for some, especially older citizens who haven’t all benefitted from the changes since communism collapsed, most Poles have grown decidedly more optimistic over the years.
A 2011 survey revealed that 80% of Poles are now “very” or “quite” happy with their lives. In 1992, at the beginning of the economic transformation, only 58% replied likewise. Indeed, when I recall the mid-90s in Poland, happy isn’t the best expression to describe the popular mood then. Poles were not only pessmistic, they were also frustrated and easily ticked-off, as people tend to be when they’re broke. These days, Poles are much more mellow. They smile more often and are far less prone to aggression. Nothing civilizes a society quite as effectively as prosperity.
This newfound Polish optimism was also evident in the reaction to the financial crisis, which erupted in 2008. With catastrophic news flooding in from all corners of the globe, what did Poles do? They went shopping. This helped keep domestic consumption strong during that period, one of the main reasons Poland ended up as the only country in the EU to register GDP growth for 2009. Indeed, Poles have become quite the capitalists.
Today the average Joe is convinced that, summa summarum, everybody is in it to make a buck. Thus, they tend to view their rich neighbours Germany not as an enemy but as someone they can do business with. Poles are still quite apprehensive about the big bad Russian bear but see him as also having become more pragmatic and business-minded and in effect, less scary.
But don’t get me wrong, there are still Poles who remain good, old-fashioned fatalists. To paraphrase a famous quote, one could say that today we have the “new Pole” and the “old Pole”. The distinction is defined not by age but by attitude.
The new Poles are generally optimistic and open-minded, believing their destiny to be in their own hands, that Poland shouldn’t be prisoner to its past and that the future waxes bright for their country. The old Poles remains defiantly proud of their pessimism, which they genuinely consider the only “realistic” stance possible in contrast with the naive optimism of some of their countrymen who have forgotten the past. “Nato guarantees? We had such guarantees from France and England before Hitler attacked us and what were they worth?” they’ll scoff.
Nations, like individuals, possess mindsets shaped to a large extent by their past experiences. In the last 200 years, Poland has disappeared from the map, experienced Nazi occupation with its concentration camps and lived under Soviet-dictated communism. That’s enough to get anyone depressed.
It would be ridiculous to imagine a mere decade of increasing prosperity could completely change the character of such a nation. On the contrary, what is surprising is that so many Poles have changed so fast and are now viewing the world in a more positive light.
In a recent interview I did with former Polish prime minister, Leszek Miller, he told me that for years Poland’s geographical location between Germany and Russia had been considered a “curse”, but that in his opinion today it could be turned into a “blessing”, as there was no reason Poland couldn’t act as an economic and political bridge between countries in Europe’s west and countries to its east.
Miller is 65 and a former member of the Communist party, but his thinking perfectly encapsulates the mindset of the new Poland: rather than spend a life lamenting the cards one has been dealt, Poland is turning liabilities into assets.