Standing outside the orphanage run by the world-famous Polish medic Janusz Korczak in the Praga district of Warsaw, it is still hard to get your head around the fact that hundreds of children were taken from here to the Jewish ghetto across the river and from there directly to Treblinka, where they were all murdered the day they arrived. Korczak was a renowned Jewish paediatrician who looked after the orphans and held their hands as they went to their death. A radio superstar of the age, he was recognised by the Nazi guards in the ghetto and given the option to escape, but he refused, sealing his own fate.
Praga lies on the eastern side of the Vistula, offering perfect views across the river to the Old Town and what was the Jewish ghetto. The Red Army generals had the advantage of this view in 1944 when they stood idly by as the citizens of Warsaw rose up against the Germans. A year previously the Jews in the ghetto had orchestrated a similar failed rebellion, choosing to die fighting rather than be herded, like Korczak and his terrified children, into the gas chambers.
Stalin, always scheming, calculated that both the Poles and the Germans were future enemies of Russia, so better to allow them both to suffer casualties rather than waste Soviet efforts supporting one side or the other. After all, Stalin’s aim was to destroy both Poland and Germany, and he went about his work with cruelty and cynicism in equal measure.
Warsaw is a city where history is ever-present. For example, it’s impossible to avoid Chopin, who is to Warsaw tourism what Joyce is to Dublin. On almost every corner is a reminder of the tragic story of this place, an overwhelming darkness. And yet the city itself is bustling. Architecturally fascinating, beautifully laid out, with enviable public transport, Warsaw is the capital city of continental Europe’s most dynamic economy. Poland is the success story of central Europe.
The war in Ukraine emphasises the strategic importance of this complicated country, which has rarely been as significant since 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, leading to Britain and France declaring war on Germany. A year later, Poland was invaded by Russia from the east. Given their history and geography, it is unsurprising that the Poles have committed to creating the most modern army in Europe, a high-tech fighting force capable of stopping the Kremlin.
The invasion of Ukraine has shifted the centre of European gravity eastward. For those of us in western Europe the reallocation of Europe’s attention and effort may not yet be apparent, but Poland will be the most important country, strategically, in the new Europe. It is already a powerhouse.
Not long ago, Poland, like Ireland before it, was synonymous with emigration, a poor economy from which people left to make their fortune. There are about 130,000 Poles in Ireland, making them the largest minority here. 17 per cent of the population of Millstreet in Cork were Polish in 2016. But the Polish story is changing. Today it is far more likely that young Poles stay at home to make their living in this vibrant country of 38 million.
The Polish economic turnaround has been impressive. In 2005, Poland’s median household income stood at €12,800 – roughly a third of that enjoyed by households in Ireland (€40,000), the UK (€35,700), France (€36,100) and Italy (€37,700). Over the subsequent years, Poland’s middle class has seen its income more than double to €27,800, growing at an average annual rate of 7.8 per cent. This compares favourably to the moderate growth seen in France (1.5 per cent per annum to €43,700) and Ireland (1.95 per cent to €52,500), and spectacularly when compared to Europe’s laggards the UK (0.83 per cent to €39,800) and Italy (0 per cent, €37,700).
Poland is on track to be richer than the UK within the next five years. Take that in. Poland, so often seen through the lens of poverty, oppression and migration, will be wealthier than Britain in a few years.
Sitting on the fast train from Warsaw to Krakow, reaching speeds of over 250km/h, it’s not hard to feel this progress, yet the acceleration of the Polish economy is not widely understood or appreciated. Though still behind its western European peers, if the trends seen over the past 15 years continue Poland’s median household income will overtake that of the UK as early as 2027, nearing parity with France by the end of the decade. It’s not so long ago that the caricature of the “Polish plumber”, a poor but hard-working tradesman, undercutting the sturdy French artisan was an issue in the French presidential elections. Within the decade, Pavel will be earning more than Pierre.
Poland and Ireland have played a remarkably similar game. Whereas we looked to the United States as a source of capital and know-how, the Poles looked over the border to Germany, becoming the Federal Republic’s workshop. Germany is Poland’s largest single source of foreign direct investment, and German capital together with trained Polish employees has led to a surge in Polish productivity, creating a solid base for economic growth.
Comparing Poland to the UK is instructive because the post-Brexit model for the UK was/is to attract manufacturing investment, in auto parts, cars and other reasonably heavy manufacturing industries. It would appear that Poland has got there first and is likely to continue to lead Europe in this field because, with a population just shy of 40 million, Poland has scale. This explains why Polish employees will be richer than their British counterparts by the time the next World Cup comes around.
The economic renaissance of Poland will be bolstered by geo-strategic concerns. As more arms and political capital are directed to the east, and with the EU’s de facto border having shifted hundreds of miles into the Eurasian steppe from Krakow to Kharkiv, the map of Europe will not be the same again. A new settlement will emerge after Russia’s war in Ukraine, and Poland will be smack in the centre of the action.
It is almost as if, nearly 25 years after the Berlin Wall came down, the real reconfiguration of Europe after the Soviet Union is only just beginning.