Europe’s Cold War Heritage: Poland’s “rightfully bygone times”

The perspective of a younger generation on the cold war period in three East European countries

Pstrąże, an abandoned village/settlement in southwestern Poland, taken by the Soviet army in 1945. In 1992, they left it abandoned and ruined. Image: Qbanez via wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Pstrąże, an abandoned village/settlement in southwestern Poland, taken by the Soviet army in 1945. In 1992, they left it abandoned and ruined. Image: Qbanez via wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Following a growing interest in Europe’s Cold War Heritage, the Heritage Tribune is highlighting new perspectives from countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In three special articles written by three young authors, this heritage, which has become even more topical due to the war in Ukraine, will be described. How does the post-Cold War generation look at this heritage in Poland, Georgia, and Romania?

The initiative for these articles stems from the European Cold War Heritage Network and the Cold War Heritage project of the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency. The articles are also published in the Dutch Erfgoedstem Newsletter (Voice of Heritage).

Poland

Being honest – I don’t know that much about the Cold War in Poland. I think it is mostly because of our general disdain, if not hatred, towards the communist rule. The name we give to that era, “czasy słusznie minone” or “rightfully bygone times” reflects that attitude well. What has been passed down to me are the memories of trying to get by, to have enough food when very often the only thing available in shops was vinegar. I know about the huge queues, how on her way back from school my mom would join any queue she saw – never mind what was actually being sold, what mattered was that you can exchange that later for other products or services. I’ve also heard that the main reason behind this was that most things were exported straight to the USSR.

We did talk about some of these things at school, but for me the most recent topic was the beginning of the communist rule in Poland, covered at the end of my high school education. To learn more about the actual military part of Cold War I had to ask a family member who served in the army. He was very eager to talk about it, but the memories he passed onto me are mostly not positive.

A common sight during Poland’s Communist era: queuing for supplies. Image: public domain via wikimedia.

Unlike in the West, where the term “Cold War” was commonly used, here in Poland it was simply the dichotomy of the good communist East and the officially bad capitalist West. There was some fear of NATO fueled by the state media, but people mostly learned about incidents such as the Cuban missile crisis afterwards once a careful procommunist propaganda had been constructed. People knew about the possibility of nuclear strikes by NATO and the concept of a nuclear war, but the only footage shown on TV were the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks and the American nuclear tests. The US was shown as a nuclear power to fear , while the Soviet nuclear testing was not reported at all.

you had to figure out which of your co-workers were safe before you could even discuss anything political

There was also a general paranoia about the “imperialist rotten capitalism” in the West and its spies. There were many Soviet military bases but if you took a photo of one you could be detained under the suspicion of espionage. There was constant propaganda in all kinds of media, and people who had been to the West couldn’t talk openly about the life there. People in general knew that life was better in the West, but there were plenty of informants working together with the militsia (military police), so you had to figure out which of your co-workers were safe before you could even discuss anything political. Otherwise, you could be apprehended by the militsia, and then being branded a spy or a dissident was far from the worst thing that could happen.

When it comes to the actual war infrastructure, I was told that many bigger workplaces had shelters and even some military personnel guarding it. Adults did not usually receive any training, but from grade 7 onwards schools and universities taught a subject called “defence education”. Among other things, students learned how to behave in case of a nuclear bomb or how to deal with chemical leaks. There was no explicit focus on war with the West, but I was told that it was heavily implied.

Poland (red) among the Warsaw Pact countries (pink), divided from NATO (blue) by the Iron Curtain. Image adapted from map by Sémhur (Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Some of the shelters have survived – most train stations had one. However, many were destroyed and reused and those that are left are usually useless. Some were transformed into parts of museums, but it seems to be a minority. Generally, Soviet infrastructure was looted and destroyed by the Soviet soldiers when they were leaving the now democratic Poland. That goes both for the military bases and the housing for higher-ranking soldiers and their families, the most prominent of which was Little Moscow in Legnica. These later cost millions to renovate when the ownership was transferred to local and national governments and transformed into housing or “domy kultury”, our version of community centers.

As to what should be done about these physical remnants of the communist rule, my source says he would like to see some of them restored to preserve the memory, while most should just be changed into something more useful. I, meanwhile, think that there should be many more museums and similar venues. I agree that these are truly rightfully bygone times, but I don’t think that they should be forgotten.

Diego Ostoja-Kowalski

Diego, 19, is a linguistics student from Poland

This article was originally published in English. Texts in other languages are AI-translated. To change language: go to the main menu above.

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