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Are the Poles Forgetting What Made Them So Successful?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Whenever I travel to a country, I first look into its history in order to understand it better. That’s why in Poland I started out by meeting Alicja Wancerz-Gluza, co-founder of the Karta Center, a non-governmental historical archive. The Karta archive has 5,000 books and brochures, about 35,000 newspapers, 300 posters and 1,000 postcards from the underground anti-communist movement. The collection also includes the largest collection of documents from the Solidarnosc trade union, and Alicja proudly shows me a document from UNESCO, confirming that this collection was entered into the international register of world document heritage of UNESCO’s “The Memory of the World” program. Karta collected 6,000 interviews with contemporary witnesses and about 400,000 photographs.


During our conversation, Alicja explains the realities of everyday life in the socialist planned economy in Poland. She shows me the pile of ration cards Polish people needed to buy food and other products until the collapse of the socialist regime in the late 1980s. The first ration cards were for sugar in 1976. But these cards were still around until the end of the 1980s – for all kinds of products, such as meat, fat, butter, detergent, soap, cigarettes, gasoline, and even shoes. There were also so-called replacement coupons on the cards, which had numbers on them. For example, it was suddenly announced that you could buy school supplies for children or sanitary pads for women using card number 3. 

In the shop, the saleswoman would use scissors to cut small coupons from the cards. And to get such a card, in turn, you needed other cards, on which every month your employer registered all the cards you had been issued. It was a real tragedy when someone lost one of their cards.

Alicja: “It was a truly special occasion when I got a card from the registry office that would allow me to buy white tights for my wedding. I was also given a certificate stating that because we were getting married we were allowed to buy gold wedding rings in a jewelry store. But we didn’t have the money for that, and we didn’t want rings anyway. So, there were special cards for all occasions, for example, for a funeral you could get a card for black pantyhose.”


But just because you had the cards didn’t mean you could simply go out and buy the product. Often you had to stand in line for hours to get what you needed. People also exchanged their cards if they needed a different product to the one on their card. For example, a vodka card (an adult was allowed to buy one bottle per month) could be exchanged for a coffee card. 

For the children there were cards for powdered milk and sweets (so-called “chocolate substitutes”). To buy furniture, a washing machine or a television, people had to stand in what were known as “kolejkach spolecznych” (social queues). Sometimes, they had to come every day for a month or two and stand in line for hours at a time. Family members waited in line and then swapped places with other family members every few hours. Every couple of hours, names were called out – and if someone wasn’t there, they lost their place in the line and the time they had spent waiting was for nothing.

It was also difficult to get a telephone. Alicja: “In my neighborhood, in 1986, there was only one phone booth for all of the streets and buildings in the new district. It was a public phone, no one in my neighborhood had a private phone.” Her parents moved into their cooperative apartment in 1960 and immediately applied for a telephone line. The phone was eventually connected – 13 years later in 1973. And that only happened so “quickly” because her father was a member of the Polish United Workers Party. In any case, international calls could only be made at the post office, where people had to book their calls several hours in advance.


And it was only because Alicja’s father was in the party that he also got a special voucher for a car, a Fiat 126p. But he still had to wait until 1980 for his vehicle, despite having received the voucher as a reward for becoming First Party Secretary at his factory.

The great reformer Balcerowicz

In socialist times, Poland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. In 1989, a Pole working for $50 a month was earning only one-tenth of an average German, and even then, when adjusted for purchasing power, it was less than one-third. Poles were poorer than Ukrainians at the time, and GDP per capita was only half that of Czechoslovakia. 

Since 1989, GDP per capita in Poland has increased threefold. Poland has recorded average real economic growth of 3.5 percent per year. The country’s economy grew to become the sixth-largest in the European Community in the decades following the launch of market-economy reforms. Poland is widely regarded as “Europe’s Growth Champion.” There is a reason for this astonishing growth: in hardly any other country of comparable size has economic freedom increased so much in recent decades.

I met the legendary Leszek Balcerowicz, the man to whom Poland most owes its economic success. He was twice finance minister and later head of the central bank, first fought inflation and stabilized the country economically, and then introduced the free-market reforms that allowed Poland to become one of the most economically successful countries in the world in recent decades.


Probably the most important insight Balcerowicz had, and the reason for the success of his reform program, was that step-by-step reforms would not help Poland overcome the problems it was facing. Only rapid, comprehensive and radical reforms in all areas could change things for the better. Balcerowicz, unlike many other economists, also possessed a finely tuned political intuition that told him: in this troubled situation, there is only a very short window of opportunity for reforms. He knew that he must either exploit this window of opportunity with decisive, rapid reform measures, or hesitate, and accept that it would then become more difficult or impossible to implement the reforms. 

But Balcerowicz is worried about the future of his country. Instead of continuing the reforms he initiated, the PiS party, which has been in power since 2015, is pursuing policies that, he tells me, are more statist than those of any other government since the end of socialism in Poland. The reforms that were implemented then are now criticized, with nationalists tarnishing privatization as a sellout to the Americans or Germans, and painting a distorted picture of Polish history. 

Balcerowicz changed Poland just as Margaret Thatcher changed Great Britain. For me, he is one of the greatest economic reformers of the 20th century. I hope the people of Poland don’t forget that it was more market – and not more state – that made them so successful.


Rainer Zitelmann is the author of the book The Power of Capitalism.

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