On the road through Poznan a notice saying ‘Driver, Greater Poland welcomes you’ sets off a train of thought. Here, only two hours’ journey from the dried-up township of Sochaczew, is an economically sounder, more solidly built and more civilised Poland. We cross a wide-spread lowland landscape, over it an aura of well-being and organisation. Here there is none of that wistful Mazovian sadness. It is man’s use of a landscape which seems to determine its mood. This is something about which I have already written in my letters from Italy, but one need only travel 200 kilometres north-west from Warsaw for confirmation of this fact. Rows of small, red-roofed houses are a sovereign remedy against the melancholy of the plains. It is enough to compare Siedlce with Kolo—the shape of the terrain may be similar, but how striking is the disparity in development. A flat unending landscape gives an impression of aimless emptiness, whereas a landscape with a built-up horizon seems to express some kind of internal logic and purpose. In order to have optimistic associations a piece of land should be separated from the sky by the works of man, the fruits of collective endeavour. The poetry of the steppes or of the desert is menacing, for in it man loses significance.
‘Manure in every shape or form to be found not only outside but even inside the so-called human dwellings and adhering to the very people themselves. After crossing the frontier we entered another world. I could not help asking myself how it was possible that in the middle of Europe frontier posts, such as those separating the Poznan province from Poland, could separate areas so strikingly different in degree of cultural development and yet inhabited by one race.’ (Hindenburg’s ‘Aus meinem Leben.’) A century of civilisation separates Poznan from the towns of Bialystok or Lublin. When a group of French architects were taken on a coach tour recently, from Warsaw to Kazimierz they found the sight of the countryside strangely moving. Their grandmothers, they said later, recollected hearing tales from their grandmothers in turn of similar rural districts existing in France in the Napoleonic era. These same architects were surprised to find that Pomerania, Greater Poland and Silesia show definite traces of western European culture. ‘What are you doing to overcome this gulf’, they asked. ‘You don’t inhabit one, but two or three different countries.’
To us this question is both naive and hurtful. Perhaps the most drastic expression of such an attitude was the remark of a certain English journalist, quoted recently by the emigre press. ‘Poland’, he maintained, ‘is a strange country with no history, only neighbours’. Unfair perhaps, the brutal aphorism of a stranger—but that is how they see us.
If it were from the level of present-day Torun or Katowice that we had to catch up with the highly developed countries, a perspective of ten years, given a sound economy, would appear to offer a real chance of success. But we have to take into account tens of Sochaczews, Mogielnicas or Plonsks and hundreds of Bochotnicas or Wawolnicas. To have increased per capita output in the basic industries threefold since 1939 simply means—on a world-historical scale—that we now have a level of production equal to that of Germany in 1920, or the United States in 1900. And we must remember that these figures relate only to certain selected branches of production, mainly to steel and electricity, and that 50 years ago Germany had no townships or villages to be compared with those of present-day Mazovia or Podlasie. Two hundred years ago, even, there was no place in the whole area between the Rhine and the Warta as primitively laid out and unhygienic as Garwolin.
We should realise, therefore, that it is not only production statistics which separate us from the highly developed countries, but also a social and cultural gulf which cannot be measured in years or even centuries. At best one could attempt to isolate the historical moment at which Poland allowed herself to be pushed off the main road of western civilisation and was absorbed into the eastern half of the world. The fact that this process took place some 300 or 400 years ago is a kind of wry consolation.
Today, Poland has a real chance of bridging this gulf. In weighing the chances, however, we must not keep our eyes obstinately turned towards the west, towards the developed capitalist countries. It would be naive to compare our difficult evolution with the ‘economic miracles’ of West Germany or northern Italy. Instead we must pay careful attention to developments taking place in the new societies arising in the east. History has placed us in this part of the world, without concerning itself with our subjective affinities. This is a truth we must accept, and on which we must learn to build our future; otherwise we may wake up one day to find ourselves a backward country; not only in comparison with Belgium or Sweden, but also with Mongolia.
The people here walk about in new shoes and travel in new cars. They live in new villas and sit in newly-built restaurants. They own new cameras, new cocktail-bars, new petrol stations and new asphalt roads, newly painted with gleaming white stripes. The asphalt doesn’t smell of the corpse. But everywhere one is assailed by the odour of cigars, petrol and beer; apparently the corpse was burnt elsewhere.