If I take a birds-eye view of Polish history I am immediately struck by the considerable number of contradictions. Nation and statehood were forged of kindred tribes fused together by force under the rule of Poland's first rulers – Mieszko I and Bolesław the Brave. To begin with, it was quite disjointed and the divisions and regional differences lasted for some time. Over and above this, the state was torn between East and West, which can be illustrated by looking at the Piast dynasty (incongruously, a popular reference point for Polish nationalists). Piast monarchs alternatively married Germanic and Ruthenian princesses, who wielded substantial influence at court and in politics. To give one example, the Piast dynasty was saved and the crown secured for Casimir I the Restorer by his mother, Rycheza of Lotharingia – her role in Polish history is little known, yet her name is reviled. When West Germany offered to return her remains to Poland, this was opposed by the Primate, Cardinal Wyszyński.
During its history, Poland has displayed a remarkable degree of tolerance. Jews were invited to live within its borders and granted extensive privileges at a time when they were the subject of persecution elsewhere in Europe. During the height of the Counter-Reformation, Poland allowed Protestants, even anti-Trinitarians, to practise their beliefs, and it also placed the Orthodox Mohyla Academy in Kiev on an equal footing with Jesuit academies and subsequently granted it protection. But Poland has also shown evidence of severe intolerance, as in its hostility to the Hussites, forestalling the possibility of closer ties with the Czechs, and also later against other non-believers, to the point of persecution.
A characteristic of our foreign policy was Poland's ongoing dependence on external centres of power – such as the Vatican or the Hapsburgs. This was combined with an intense provincialism. We embroiled ourselves in an unnecessary war with the Ottomans. Raising the siege of Vienna was a superb military achievement but a political miscalculation. Later, throughout the 19th century, it was indeed the Ottoman Empire which became one of the important centres for activities promoting Polish independence.
Taking all this together, the attraction of Poland to outsiders was no less than remarkable. We were able to absorb German settlers, who formed the basis of a Polish urban middle-class. Sizeable numbers of the Jewish intelligentsia were assimilated. Ukrainian and Lithuanian elites became “polonized”. We are a country which shares heroes with its neighbours: Adam Mickiewicz, the great romantic poet, belongs to both Poland and Lithuania; Tadeusz Kościuszko and Romuald Traugutt belong to both Poles and Byelorussians. This list could be markedly extended.
Within this strange jigsaw lie hidden our great opportunities. One such presents itself in the context of our Eastern policy. Without succumbing to national self-importance we should conduct an independent foreign policy, and avoid becoming a client state of the US or of any other power. Our prime aim should be the normalization of Polish-Russian and Polish-German relations, at the same time supporting the independence of the Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States and acting in cooperation with them. We should recognize that the stronger our position in East-Central Europe, the stronger it will be in Western Europe.
The history of Poland betrays an old tendency to erode the power of the executive: the celebrated Pacta Conventa, the anarchic “golden freedom”, the liberum veto. First and foremost, the national mind-set needs to change comprehensively. Both the executive power and the control exercised over it by the Sejm should be re-inforced. The parliamentary system should be rebuilt to eliminate party political games and self-serving self-interest. The rule of law must be uniformly applied, and corruption in all its shapes and forms battled with tenaciously and resolutely. A free and responsible press is essential. Church and state should be separated. National minorities should be accorded respect – a pre-condition, it should be remembered, of good relations with our neighbours. Although acknowledging that Catholicism is the religion of most Poles, we must also extend our care to Jews, Mahometans and Protestants, as indeed also to the Orthodox, the religion of many Polish citizens and at once the religion of Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus.
from Autobiography – A Duet, 1994