May 24, 2018

From the Past to the Future – Poland on 100 Anniversary of Regaining its Independence

By H.E. Mr. Marcin Czepelak, Ambassador of Poland in The Netherlands.

There is a painting hanging on the wall in the reception lounge of the Polish Embassy in the Hague. The painting (author unknown) is dated at 1597 and shows the Binnenhof and Lange Viverberg from de Plaats in the Hague. Among others, we can see a figure of Paweł Działyński, most likely first Polish envoy to the Union of Utrecht, which will later turn into the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Poland and the Netherlands had a very good relation then. Initially, they were based on trade since Poland was a “garner of Europe”, later deepened with a similar attitude towards governance system, shared humanistic values and cultural and social development.

It is worth mentioning that at this time Polish kings were elected by the nobles and they had to follow laws and parliamentary statutes. It was also the age of peace between different religions. At the time when Europe was torn apart by religious wars, Poland was also regarded as a safe haven for all persecuted for religious grounds (in 1573 Sejm adopted a law that guaranteed freedom of confession). Moreover, the privilege neminem captivabimus nisi iure victum forbid to jail anyone without a court’s order.

All the above explains why Poland was known as a “Republic of Nobles” and was considered as an example state by the most brilliant minds of Europe like Erasmus of Rotterdam, who wrote that “In Polonia lex est rex”.

“Pools gezandschap op de Plaats in Den Haag” – fot. Historisch Museum Den Haag.

Sadly, the “golden age” (parallel to the famous Dutch one) did not last forever. XVII and XVIII century brought wars, chaos, economic and political collapse with the partitions carried out by our neighboring powers: Austria, Prussia, and Russia reigned by the absolutistic monarchs. Shortly before Polish Sejm adopted – as the last act of political independence – the Constitution of 3 May 1791 that was the second document of that kind in the world (after the USA) and first in Europe.

It took us 123 years, three uprisings (1830-1831, 1846, 1863) and the Great War (1914-1918) to regain our independence in 1918. Still, it was a great challenge to unite a country that had been divided into three different states. Although it is hard to imagine, in Poland three civil codes were in force: German and Austrian civil codes and – last but not least – also the code civile (called in Poland ‘the Code of Napoleon’). As a lawyer, I particularly admire the commitment to unify the Polish legal system. But there was much more to be done. Accordingly, there were three different political system institutions, three different monetary systems, and two different railway track sizes. Yet, the II Republic was reborn as a modern state, strong socially, economically and politically.

Unfortunately, history again turned against us with the imminent II World War. On 1 September 1939 Poland was invaded by the Nazi Germany and on 17 September 1939 by the Soviet Russia. Despite the initial defeat, Polish soldiers continued their fight against Hitler’s armies on all fronts. In this context, I would like to recall the struggle of Polish soldiers during the II World War who fought for “your and our freedom” in the Netherlands. It is important for us to remember that the city of Breda and large parts of The Netherlands were liberated by Polish troops under the command of General Maczek.

The defeat of Nazi Germany did not mean the return of freedom to Poland since after 1945 Poland fell under the rule of Stalin’s Russia. The red terror crushed the remaining resistance and established the communist regime in Poland. Despite all odds, new generations carried on the struggle of their fathers for freedom that lead to the creation of Solidarity movement and peaceful, democratic transformation in 1989. New governments commenced political and economic reforms which reintroduced market economy and democratic principles to Poland. The end of this process was joining of Poland to NATO in 1999 and EU in 2004. We, Polish, are very proud about that.

As it was 100 years ago, we are now looking with hope into future. As it was in 1918, also nowadays we are facing numerous challenges in Europe and around the globe, of political, economic and security nature. The historical comparisons are of course not always valid. The end of First World War in 1918 brought Poland independence, sovereignty and a perspective of hope and optimism so brutally crushed twenty years later by two totalitarian regimes: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

In the XXI Century, we are far from such a gloomy scenario. The world has changed and the situation is different. Nevertheless, the challenges of an uncertain future for our societies cannot be easily resolved. The overall aim of Europe, free and at peace is still to be achieved. . and remaining threats to international peace and security have to be addressed. Yet another “frozen conflict” is ongoing at Poland’s eastern neighbor. “Brexit” seems to have seriously shaken the foundations of the EU. And the discussion on how to preserve the transatlantic links between the US and Europe is getting the biggest attention since the end of the Cold War. In a nutshell, we see history in the making.

Looking back at Poland’s last 100 years I must say without a doubt that the last years have been its best. Polish “Round Table talks” and first free elections on 4 June 1989 elections triggered the domino effect of democratic transformation in Central and Eastern Europe and fall of the Berlin Wall, that ended the Cold War. Almost three decades of political and economic developments in Poland resulted in a well-functioning state of 2018 based upon principles of democracy, free market economy, human rights and rule of law. We play an active role in shaping the future of the European Union and NATO. We take seriously the security on a global scale in the United Nations Security Council context.

Poland has proven that it is not a security consumer any longer but a contributor to peace regionally and globally. Cumulated experiences of the past along with dynamism and the potential of the Polish national spirit have finally had a unique opportunity to flourish, providing creative solutions in politics, economy, science, technology, and sport.

I am honored to be a part of this process as the Polish Ambassador to the Netherlands, a post which I took up just a couple of months ago in September 2017. The Hague as such puts emphasis on elements that are very dear to the Polish hearts, be it dialogue, cooperation, free trade, international law and justice or last but not least security. These values are also my commitment for day to day work.

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