Since 1992, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland (Polish: Order Zasługi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej) has been awarded to a small number of foreigners selected for defending Polish liberty and fostering relations between Poland and other countries.
This weekend, the President of Poland will bestow the award upon Lawrence W. Reed, president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education, for his contributions to Polish independence, which included decades of intellectual support and activism.
To give you an idea of what company this puts him in, we’ve decided to highlight a few other recipients of this prestigious award.
1. Queen Elizabeth II
On October 17, 1980, Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II met at the Vatican in what the BBC described as a "warm and relaxed" encounter.
It was the first state visit to the Vatican ever made by a British monarch, and the first meeting between the Queen and the Pope, a native of Poland and the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century. The meeting marked the beginning of a friendship between two of the most prominent figures of the Cold War, both of whom would quietly but persistently use their station to end Communist rule in Europe.
This was a delicate task for Elizabeth. British monarchs traditionally do not wade into politics, and the Queen took tradition seriously. Despite this, throughout the 1980s she indicated that she sympathized with Poland’s Solidarity movement and supported free elections in Poland.
In April 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the queen welcomed Polish President Lech Wałęsa to Buckingham Palace, along with his wife, Danuta. Five years later, the Queen visited Poland and delivered a speech before Parliament in which she discussed the history of the English and Polish people. During her visit she recited to soldiers the Polish poem “Czołem, żołnierze” (in Polish!) to the amazement of onlookers.
The Queen was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland in 1991 for her work on behalf of the Polish people and freedom.
2. President Ronald Reagan
It could be argued that no single person did more to defeat Communism than Ronald Reagan, and for this reason alone America’s 40th president is remembered fondly by the Polish people today.
Unlike many previous presidents, Reagan did not mince words when it came to recognizing the evils of socialism and the Soviet Empire. His famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech before the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987 is a great example. But many in Poland remember a different speech Reagan gave several years before in London in what has become known as the Westminster Address.
“...a few hundred kilometers behind the Berlin Wall there is another symbol. In the center of Warsaw there is a sign that notes the distances to two capitals. In one direction it points toward Moscow. In the other it points toward Brussels, headquarters of Western Europe’s tangible unity. The marker says that the distances from Warsaw to Moscow and Warsaw to Brussels are equal. The sign makes this point: Poland is not East or West. Poland is at the center of European civilization. It has contributed mightily to that civilization. It is doing so today by being magnificently unreconciled to oppression.
Poland’s struggle to be Poland, and to secure the basic rights we often take for granted. demonstrates why we dare not take those rights for granted.”
Few could have dreamed how close Polish independence was at the time of the address. The end of the Marxist–Leninist regime in Warsaw arrived in 1989, the same year Reagan left office.
There’s no doubt Reagan played a key role in the demise of the USSR and the triumph of Polish Solidarity, which is clearly why he received the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland shortly after leaving office. He was also posthumously awarded the Order of the White Eagle by Polish President Lech Kaczyński in 2007.
3. Sir Roger Scruton
While most readers are likely familiar with Elizabeth II and Ronald Reagan, the final recipient on our list is someone fewer readers are likely familiar with.
Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020) was a celebrated English philosopher and author. Much like Lawrence Reed, however, he was no armchair academic content with publishing papers in academic journals.
In the 1980s, Scruton helped create an underground network of university scholars and thinkers in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. For his work, he received the Czech Republic's Medal of Merit (First Class) in 1998.
More than twenty years later, Scruton received the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland from President Andrzej Duda "for supporting the democratic transformation in Poland."
‘One Improved Unit’
The contributions of people like Reagan, Elizabeth II, and Scruton were life-changing, just ask the people of Poland.
But as freedom retreats here in America, there’s a temptation to believe we’re powerless against it. After all, most of us aren't royalty (like Elizabeth) and don’t even hold political office (let alone the presidency, as Reagan did); just as most of us aren’t Oxford scholars, as Scruton was.
This pessimism overlooks how the world is actually changed, something Albert Jay Nock touched on in his classic work Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.
“The only thing that the psychically-human being can do to improve society is to present society with one improved unit. In a word, ages of experience testify that the only way society can be improved is by the individualist method which Jesus apparently regarded as the only one whereby the kingdom of Heaven can be established as a going concern; that is, the method of each one doing his very best to improve one.”
Heroism deserves to be recognized because it shows that individual action truly matters. And it’s a reminder that the solution to waning liberty cannot be found at the ballot box or by fixing other people.
It’s found by raising the standard of ourselves, and that’s something each of us has the power to do.