I take the slow train from Berlin to the Polish border in the early morning. On the platform of an eastern suburban station, tired workers wearing puffer jackets and carrying sports bags smoke and chat in quick snatches of mother-tongue — cheerful at the flashes of recognition. We move through a deep mist settled over plains and forests, and then cross a river. On the other side, another train south, that began its journey at the Baltic sea, speeds along with its cargo segmented in the old fashioned six-person compartments. Everyone who enters is obligated to offer a greeting, and bids farewell to everyone else, having shared this warm space for a stretch. They don’t share much detail about what their journeys are for or where they terminate.
I see forests and small hamlets, some of which we stop at. The great smokestacks of coal-fired power, painted in the national colours of red and white, are one of the few notable reminders that a border has been crossed. The raw variety of capitalism that re-shaped Poland after everything changed 30 years ago, and which is now challenged in turn by a winning mix of nationalism, welfarism and social conservatism, dispensed with old-fashioned loyalties to place. Yet people have shifted to-and-fro here for centuries, and perhaps the outflow of workers to the glittering cluster cities westward from Berlin was inevitable. As inevitable as the ten-hour train home, punctuated by excited calls from relatives, the boredom in anticipation, the slumber needed but not to be achieved — the glittering corporate logos triumphant over Berlin Ostbahnhof, still imprinted on heavy eyelids.
The rolling stock is probably not that much older than I am – like the post-Communist world, coming to terms with moving into its thirties. Yet, not for the first time, I’m reminded as we power along this fully-electrified line, of the peculiar British backwardness about such things. If this rolling stock originates in the Warsaw Pact era, it’s sobering to recall that much of Britain’s rail infrastructure is essentially still Victorian.
Our island is an island, stuck in its ways. Even if, as measured by the dead metric of growth, it outstrips many of these places, it reproduces itself on a loop. The modernity of Britain is absurd and excitable: simply the spectacle of property and wealth rising beyond the grasp of those who traipse above and underground. Modernity in Europe feels older, wrinkled and cranky, like an old barfly. It has lived through a lot more, if we’re honest. The full employment of Communism and its necessary equivalent in the relative comfort of the western social democracies are gone, but the sight of its worn form still lingering reminds those raised in Britain of the social solidarity that we never really had.
A few days later, in Katowice, I realise that the taste and smell of coal in a large industrialised European city isn’t the only feature that makes the past feel particularly present.
In this city — think of a coal cottonoplis — winding gear, some of which towers over pits still in use, can be seen across the horizon. 80% of Poland’s electricity still comes from coal, with much of it still hauled from below ground by the state-backed firm PGG. Around Katowice they dig hard coal: the good stuff.
At dawn the next morning I see miners in smart black uniforms and plumed caps wake up the residents of the model mining village Nikiszowiec with their brass band. They represent the opposite of the world of Poland post-EU accession, with its migration of millions of Poles abroad in search of work. Their music beats the bounds of the place they have made through their labours. It is the beginning of Barbórka — the feast day of St Barbara — the patron saint of all those who work in trades likely to be suddenly lethal – but here particularly venerated by miners.
The getting of coal in Poland has long been fundamental to the national story.
There are no illusions here that this bedrock of history can simply be shrugged off. Although hundreds of thousands have left the industry in recent years, mining is still a major employer. But perhaps the way coal has knitted itself into the cultural fabric of Upper Silesia will be more significant in the longer term. Although for many years a debatable territory where the former domains of the great imperial houses of Europe converged — this is also a Polish heartland and coal is fundamental to what that modern nation became.
The miners were embraced by Communist leaders as a model for Soviet-inspired productivism. Edward Gierek, first secretary of the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party throughout the 1970s, told them: “We will always be honoured to award miners for their effort and contribution to the development of our socialist homeland.”
But despite their relatively privileged place in the system, miners also played a seminal role in resistance to the authorities Gierek oversaw. Later, I visit the weighty monument to nine miners killed at the Wujek colliery in 1981, during a protracted period of strikes and occupations sparked by the regime’s imposition of martial law, as living standards plummeted.
The bloody confrontation at Wujek was a pivotal moment in Poland’s transition from Communism, showing the significance of Solidarność’s actions a year after the Gdańsk Agreement. This use of state violence underlined the moral cause of the trade union’s protracted fight for national liberation, which, despite many compromises, achieved the unprecedented by establishing an autonomous trade union within a totalitarian system.
Across decades of enormous change — as regimes of different ideological and national stripes came and went in Upper Silesia – the heroic figure of the miner has remained a constant. Within this context, the Polish state’s recent opt-out from the EU Commission’s Green Deal is unsurprising, as is the minimal interest from miners themselves in talking about transition. Since Katowice hosted COP24 last year, many journalists from Western Europe have traipsed here seeking authentic characters agreeable to a rapid shift away from coal. But there is no shortage of people keen to talk about the difficult lived reality of life in a major coal-producing region. Citizens of small towns like Imielin tell me that they are threatened by a very literal undermining: as PGG seeks to expand mining operations a few hundred metres below their homes. The region also has some of the worst air quality on the continent.
This situation speaks to the questions at the forefront of my journey. How could a carbon transition keep hold of the legacy of democratic and social struggles that placed miners, with their unique role in society, in the vanguard? Could a radical Green New Deal re-establish the old proud loyalty to place: that desire for rootedness and community that the global market has robbed from so many?
The disparities around energy use across different EU regions demonstrates, on a more comprehensible scale, the great unspeakable blasphemy that haunts all talk of transition globally — the notion that growth and prosperity might not be part of the bargain. The idea that places where the missionaries of consumerism are still penetrating should not enjoy its promise, because they heard the gospel too late, makes a mockery of what many consider just. It’s easier to casually come to the view that everyone on the planet should forego a new washing machine, if your grandparents weren’t beaten and imprisoned for daring to object to the fact that no amount of toil would procure basic commodities.
There are three scraps of solace that we can take from this situation. Firstly, as has been shown by the way that people in the global south respond to catastrophic climate events, those with less often retain more resilient community networks — in contrast, high death tolls from heatwaves in Western Europe have been partly attributed to the fact that many elderly people live alone. Secondly, the unconventional history of Solidarność shows that class struggle does not have to follow a pre-ordained path. If working-class collective action can help topple one contradictory ideology, it can do so again. Finally, the way in which the region embraces the cultural significance of coal has a rich symbolic of power. Unlike the UK, they don’t simply want to forget all the dirt and blood bound up in the creation of energy systems – the focus of the next instalment documenting my journey.