Europe feels very different when viewed from its eastern borders. This week I have been travelling across Europe and staying for several days in the beautiful Polish city of Lublin. The city is 95 miles from Warsaw, in the south-east of the country, not that far from the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Lublin is a proud city with a rich history and sense of its past importance. It currently has a population of 349,000 and has four universities as well as successful businesses and start-ups. It has also seen many changes – from being part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to being under the authority of Austria-Hungary, then Russia, and occupied by Nazi Germany.
All of this has given the city a varied but sometimes painful history. In 1918, at the end of the first world war, as a separate Polish state re-emerged, Lublin was the site for the convening of the first government of an independent Poland. The inter-war Polish state was recognised at Versailles but given a tragic hand by history, being sandwiched between the two rising tyrannies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, who agreed to dismember the country in the Molotov-Rippentrop pact agreed on 23 August 1939. This was the basis for the Nazi invasion of Poland on 1 September, and hence the beginning of the second world war, and on 17 September, the Soviet invasion.
The Nazi-Soviet pact was brutally torn up by the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. At first this went well for the Germans, but the Soviets checked the Nazi advance at the gates of Moscow, and then began turning back the invaders. By 1944 the Soviets had the upper hand and had driven the Nazis out of most Soviet territory and were advancing into Poland.
As the Soviets moved westward on 22 July 1944 they declared the Polish committee of national liberation. Two days later they entered Lublin and based the committee there – thereafter referring to it as the Lublin committee. This was a momentous and sad moment for Polish independence, for this body was a Stalin-backed front to allow him to control the Polish communists. It also aimed to outflank and marginalise the Polish home army which had led the Warsaw uprising of 1944 and the provisional Polish government based in London – which had been the legal government until 1939.
Stalin's creation of the Lublin committee was the death knell for independent political opinion in Poland and the groundwork for the post-war communist dictatorship which followed. Other shadows hang over Lublin. This is the city which became the headquarters of Operation Reinhard – the Nazi effort to exterminate all the Jews in Poland. It began on 17 March 1942, when a majority of Lublin's Jewish ghetto, nearly 26,000 men, women and children, were forcibly deported to the nearby concentration camp, with few surviving.
Today Poland is in a very different place. The country has been a democracy since 1989: the year the Polish communists peacefully stood down from office after losing an election. The country is no longer a member of the Soviet bloc (which no longer exists), but a member of the European Union and NATO.
Yet things are not quite as rosy as they were in recent times. For the last two years Poland has been governed by the Law and Justice party. Their growing authoritarianism, while popular with many Poles, and in particular those who want to see traditional Polish values defended against the march of the West, has become increasingly contentious, and put the country on a crash course with the EU.
As I write, the EU is taking a decision about whether to punish Poland for government decisions to weaken the powers of the independent judiciary and run roughshod over the constitution and rule of law. Whatever happens, this is a big moment for Poland, its future direction, and how the EU deals with and checks the growing populist authoritarianism sweeping the continent.
These are serious issues but to many in Britain they don't seem to register much. One British participant at an event in Lublin proudly declared that 'it is nearly impossible to find out facts about Poland while living in Britain.' Apart from the obvious fact that lots of Polish people now live in the UK, the remark reinforced the age-old stereotype of the insular British who know little about their neighbours (a stereotype reinforced by Brexit). The same person went on to say: 'I know only three things about Poland. It has good drink, good food and good-looking women.'
Those ill-chosen remarks were not reciprocated by the conversations I have had in Lublin and elsewhere this week. Instead, people were eager to talk about Brexit, euroscepticism, and what happens when the UK leaves the EU.
Some of this has been a pan-European set of ruminations in small circles. Yet this week I have travelled and met people in Dusseldorf and Warsaw, as well as Lublin, and many people wanted to talk about the state and future of Europe, with several raising such issues without any prompting. These weren't just people at conferences. They were also encountered in airport queues, hotel restaurants and cafes. There is at least a small European discussion going on about these big issues.
One major theme which emerged was what on earth had created Brexit and where was this elemental force of destruction going to end up. Many people knew about the troubles of Theresa May's Tory government and the amateurish nature of Boris Johnson. Several times I heard remarks such as: 'what is going on in England?' and 'where will England end up?' Despite a couple of discussions about the component parts of the UK, it was clear in these observations that by England people meant the UK.
People felt sad that the UK was leaving and had a sense of foreboding about where this would take the UK, and the effect it would have on British citizens. In a couple of my exchanges with people who weren't political insiders, or from the media or academia, there was an acute awareness that all was not right in the UK. One said: 'You Scots want to be with us, so you will have your second referendum?' Another knew all about the Irish border troubles stating: 'Ireland has always been England's shame.' A further voice bemoaned the sense of British exceptionalism: 'Britain has never felt fully European the way we do,' and 'There is the whole island thing, thinking about the white cliffs of Dover and seeing yourself as separate from us.'
These European voices cannot be confidently translated into the mood of an entire continent. But there is a prevalent feeling in places that the world is an argumentative, angry place and that the future is very uncertain. The extent of these worries cover so many issues: Brexit, the rise of Trump, what Putin is up to, popular concerns over immigration, demographic pressures in Europe, and the forward march of right-wing populism.
None of us know how the future of Europe and liberal democracy across the continent will evolve, but in a small way I found the disparate voices and perspectives I encountered this week more uplifting than depressing. These are dangerous times, but at least some of Europe's citizens are engaged, knowledgeable, and prepared to reach out and talk about their concerns. That has to be a good thing, but European politicians need to start getting serious and that will require hard work and a very different politics.