NEW YORK — There are forests in the region of Poland southeast of Wroclaw sliced through by mysterious swaths of empty space. There are wide, solid bridges in the same region--bridges rising for no apparent reason, connecting nothing on either side.
When I visited Poland recently, a young bridge engineer named Przemyslaw Maliszkiewicz told me about these strange apparitions near his hometown of Opale--how he and his father used to come upon the swaths when they were out mushrooming.
"Those things were built by the Nazis during the war," Maliszkiewicz explained. "They'd been intent on constructing a superhighway from Berlin to Odessa, and in fact they'd completed the work as far as Wroclaw, which is why to this day there's a four-lane highway heading west out of Wroclaw toward the German border, one of the few such highways in Poland. A two-lane version of the same highway continues on east out of Wroclaw for a few dozen kilometers before petering out.
"The Germans never got any farther--in 1944, in headlong retreat before the advancing Red Army, they of course abandoned the project, but not before having cleared the rights of way through the forests for miles up ahead and even having constructed the bridges, in some cases bridges over tractor paths on farms that no longer exist as such, so that the paths themselves have been abandoned."
I was recalling Maliszkiewicz's comments this past week in the wake of Poland's electoral debacle, thinking about the way great historic surges (now, Solidarity's?) peter out, leaving mysterious artifacts in their wake. Years later, people puzzle; what could they possibly have meant? But I also recalled Maliszkiewicz's own gloss on his story at the time he told it to me. He was much more optimistic.
"For so much of our history here in Poland, geography was our curse--to be this low flat land between Prussia and Russia, the site for all their battles, their slaughterhouse. But maybe now, if there is to be peace in Europe, our very flatness will make us the inevitable field of transit and we can benefit from the enormous commerce to come between the Germans and the Soviets."
I heard a similar idea a few days later, though phrased somewhat more ruthlessly. I was talking with Jan Kowalskian, an engaging and self-assured young economist. He is a Polish Jew who left Warsaw for good back in 1980, resettling in Karlsruhe, Germany, of all places, where he works at the Institute for Economic Policy and Economic Research at the university there.
This was his first time back in Poland since his emigration--he was in town giving some technical lectures--and he was marveling at all the changes, but even more at what he took to be the blockheadedness of his former countrymen.
"Everybody here is so afraid of German money and what it could do to this place," he said. "They desperately court the British and the Americans, for instance, even though the British are fairly peripheral and the Americans are obviously in decline, pretty much washed up as a world economic force. Anybody but the Germans! Whereas, of course, not only are the Germans right next door, in easiest proximity, but they're the ones with the one expertise the Poles could truly use--how to build a thriving economy out of the ruins. And, anyway, German money isn't 'German'--that's not the way the world economy works. As the Old Man said, 'Capital knows no frontiers.' This is international money parked in Frankfurt, for example. The Poles had really ought to loosen up.
"The Poles are so obsessed these days," he continued, "with their political squabbles, their elections, their privatization schemes, and so forth, that they can't even see the main things that matter. I'll tell you--there's probably one single thing that is going to have more of an impact than any other on the future prospects for Poland's recovery, and the Poles are utterly oblivious.
"That's the German Transport Ministry's upcoming five-year plan on infrastructure construction, which should be finalized within the next few months. It involves the planning for construction of the network of rail lines for superhigh-speed trains and the autobahns that will run along side those rail lines; the discourse currently under way in Bonn is whether to stop the network at the shores of the Oder or to continue on through.
"The autobahn and the rapid trains will cut through to Prague, but will they reach out to Poznan and beyond that to Warsaw as well? High-speed trains could connect Frankfurt and Warsaw in three hours, so you begin to see the stakes: Such trains are going to be the preferred mode of transport all over Europe.
"There are two reasons why the Germans might well be interested in financing the construction of a Polish spur on their network: first, as a way-station on the way to Moscow, that's if they decide there's going to be a market worth pursuing in the Soviet Union; or, conversely, in case the Soviet Union should descend into total chaos, the Germans might want to help stabilize the Polish economy as a sort of buffer zone. Either way it would be in their interest--and of course it would be in Poland's interest, though thus far the Poles have been largely absent from the discussion.
"Let me tell you something, though," Kowalski said. "All that other stuff is incidental. Poland could do everything right, and if they're not part of that network, they won't be part of Europe--and conversely, if Poland does get included in that network, no matter what it does wrong, it will be part of Europe."