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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Battle It Out

Poland is a part of Europe. But, of course, you say. Look at the map. And, by the way, haven’t we covered this already? There’s more. Poland is a part of Europe. You would think this is too obvious to mention. But you would be wrong. Poland has been forgotten, ignored, neglected, wiped off the map, and left out of the European self-consciousness time after time after time. For much of its long life, from the 10th century onward, Poland has ended up on the wrong sides of rivers and geo-political divides. From 1945 until 1989, Poland was locked behind an iron curtain, a satellite in orbit around a behemoth that required it to forsake, for the most part, its European identity. It might have been smack dab in the middle of Europe but it surely didn’t seem so. Poland felt more like a back-water, isolated and stagnating while the rest of the world moved on. Even within other European countries, one might hear, “Poland isn’t part of Europe.” Poland has been Europe’s favorite lost-in-plain-sight battlefield for centuries. Conveniently stuck right in the middle, with unimpeded access from east and west, Poland is the place where Europeans have come to fight since forever. Mongols, Tartars, and Turks. Teutonic Knights and Germanic tribesmen. Slavs from other lands, and even the now-taciturn Swedes conquered and ravaged Poland over the ages. More Turks, Austrians, Hungarians, Germans, Russians. The French marched through without stopping to take over, earning them the Poles’ vote for “Most Friendly.” The Russians attacked again. The Germans invaded again. Then the Russians one last (dare we hope) time. Who hasn’t invaded Poland? And they are coming again. Europe is coming back to fight on Polish soil. But, of course. Poland’s flat, fertile fields and its rich mineral resources have been contested for eons. Anyone who knew of this fecund land and its coal, ore and salt deposits, set in the center of the European heartland, invaded it, or tried to, or allied itself to a nation that did. They all took Poland, or, at the very least, thought about it. And why not? What a temptation. Polish geography, its wide open plains, invited incursions. Without defensible natural borders and a long, vulnerable Baltic coastline, Poland was the natural battle field for Europe and an unimpeded pipeline for the flow of armies east to west, west to east, north to south, and, inevitably, back again. The Poles got it coming and going, and it was even worse when they all came and tried to stay. You may be surprised then to find that the Poles are eager for all of Europe to come back to do battle on Polish soil. Portugal and Spain, Greece and Slovakia will be there. The Swedes and Norwegians are counting on it. Croats and Albanians, and of course, the French and the British will be there. Even the Germans and the Russians will be welcomed back (more or less). Europe is coming to fight in Poland in, as they have done for centuries. But this time will be different. This time they will be fighting on the lush green turf, not for it. This time, the trophy will not be the land itself. Poland and Ukraine will host the United European Football Association (UEFA) championships in 2012. The coveted UEFA Cup is at stake, not Poland’s independence. It is even reasonable to expect that the country will be left in better condition – especially economically – after everyone has gone home. For a change. And what a great lot of change that will be. It is high time that Poland be back in the middle of things, in the very heart of Europe where it belongs. And it is about time for Poland to host a friendly, even lucrative invasion where the battles will be civilized, if not always civil, and the trophy will not be the battleground itself.

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