Poland is feeling pretty good about itself these days. It was the only European country to emerge from the Great Recession of the past decade without experiencing a downturn, and a quarter century after the fall of communism, it's the acknowledged winner in the transition to democracy. That said, Poland faces new challenges, including coping with emerging regional disparities in income and opportunity.
Best on Film
Katyń (Andrzej Wajda;2007) Moving depiction of a WWII massacre in the Katyń Forest.
Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski; 2013) A young nun-in-waiting discovers her family's hidden history; 2015 Oscar winner.
The Pianist (Roman Polański; 2002) Highly acclaimed film about life in Warsaw’s WWII Jewish ghetto.
Best in Print
The Polish Officer (Alan Furst) Gripping spy novel set in Poland on the eve of WWII.
God’s Playground: A History of Poland (Norman Davies) Highly readable two-volume set that covers 1000 years of Polish history.
The Painted Bird (Jerzy Kosiński) Page-turner on the travails of an orphan boy on the run during WWII.
Survival in Auschwitz (Primo Levi) Classic of Holocaust literature that hasn’t lost a drop of impact.
Will Poland Ever Adopt the Euro?
When Poland joined the EU in 2004, it was taken for granted that the złoty would soon be a thing of the past. Indeed, it wasn't long ago that relatively early euro-adopters in central and eastern Europe – such as Slovenia and Slovakia – were praised for being ahead of regional-currency laggards like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.
Enthusiasm for the euro began to fade during Europe's 'Great Recession' from 2008–11, when countries with their own currencies, such as Poland, appeared to fare better than countries using the euro. These countries could manipulate their interest rates and currencies to blunt the effects of falling output and demand. Greece's well-documented perils with the euro in 2015 tarnished any lustre left on those shiny euro coins.
Don't expect a euro in Poland any time soon – that's the conventional wisdom in Warsaw. President Andrzej Duda, who took office in 2015 for a five-year term, is a staunch conservative. Duda's foreign affairs adviser has said there will be no euro without a national referendum. Given the currency's poor reputation, such a vote would be unlikely to pass.
Ever since the fall of communism in 1989, there's been a friendly rivalry between former ex-communist countries – including Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary – to see which could complete the transition to democracy and a market-based economy most successfully. The Czech Republic had a head start: it was the Eastern bloc's leading economy during the cold war.
The consensus among many, including the European Commission, is that Poland has emerged as the winner. Writing in 2015, a quarter century after the fall of communism, the commission said Polish living standards had more than doubled in the past 20 years – a process, it said, that accelerated when Poland joined the EU in 2004. In a graph of per capita income, the commission showed Poland had outpaced not just countries of the former Eastern bloc, but long-time EU members such as Germany and Italy.
This may come as a surprise to anyone who remembers the cold war, when Poland was beset by chronic unrest and deep levels of public debt. Poland now finds itself confronting new problems, such as growing income inequality, but the good news is the country has overcome hurdles once viewed as insurmountable.
As part of that success, Poland is now the 10th most-visited country in Europe, with around 16 million international arrivals each year, according to the UN's World Tourism Organisation. It's well behind leader France (84 million visitors), but is the highest-placing country of the formerly communist states of central Europe.
'Poland A' vs 'Poland B'
While you're travelling around Poland, you may hear references to 'Poland A' and 'Poland B' – representing the growing divide between the country's most prosperous regions and areas that are not doing as well. The terms offer insight into how Poles see their own country and attest to ways that far-off historical events resonate in the country to this day.
While there's no universal definition, Poland A generally refers to regions of the country west of the Vistula, including cities such as Warsaw and Krakow, with relatively higher education levels, built-up economic infrastructure, and generally forward-thinking, pro-Western attitudes. Poland B refers to towns and villages to the east and south, where time appears to have stood still. Opinion polls bear out popular attitudes – citizens in Poland B tend to be more pessimistic about the future, and skew more nationalistic and conservative.
Certainly, there are geographic reasons for the differences. Areas bordering poorer states such as Belarus and Ukraine could be expected to be less dynamic than regions nearer to Germany. But there may be some history involved as well. Poland A overlaps strongly with areas that were gobbled up by Prussia (Germany) and Austria in the 19th century, when Poland was partitioned between the great powers. The area of today's Poland B was occupied largely by tsarist Russia. It seems incredible, but possible, that attitudes inculcated during that century-long occupation may have survived into modern times.