Which European Country Is the Unluckiest?

People gather to lay flowers and light candles in a ceremony commemorating victims of the Maidan uprising one year ago on Feb. 20, 2015, in Kiev, Ukraine.

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Answer by Dan Holliday, traveled widely across Northern Africa, Europe, North America, and South America:

It’s hard to pick the worst. 

Ukraine was repeatedly hit by the Soviet Union, with its surfeit removed and redistributed. At its height, it punched so far above its weight that Stalin became furious with the inhabitants and decided to essentially go on a giant massacre there. Even after that, Ukraine, with basically 18 percent of the USSR’s population, accounted for 40 percent of its agricultural output and a third of its heavy industry. In recompense, the powers that be in the Kremlin built a shoddy nuclear power plant that exploded and killed a bunch of people. When the USSR fell apart, Ukraine received a pittance (when it deserved more) in terms of the military hardware of the erstwhile Soviet Union. To this day, Russia still isn’t happy that the Ukrainians might want to forge a path all their own—Russia still thinks of Ukraine as a vassal state, within its sphere of influence. 

Poland is similar to Ukraine, but repeatedly invaded and destroyed. Its borders today are an artifice (as are all borders, I guess), engineered by Stalin’s henchmen at the conclusion of World War II. Though, the present borders are slightly better in terms of natural bounty than the ones before this. Warsaw rose up at the end of World War II to cast off the Nazis, hearing—literally hearing—the Red Army shelling the Wehrmacht. They successfully hampered the Germans, but Stalin decided to allow the Germans to re-invade and annihilate the city to weaken it and make it ripe for Soviet dominance at the conclusion of the war. Top-down Soviet-style obsession with industrial production saw Poland become a heavily polluted place, Krakow being the worst. 

The Czech Republic: Before World War II, the Czech portion of Czechosolovakia was incredibly wealthy—more than France on a per capita basis. The Slovakia portion (a backwater) consistently dragged it down. It was then partitioned by Hitler. At the end of the war, the imposition of Soviet-style communism saw real living standards depressed by more than 80 percent (per Tony Judt’s Postwar). In the 1950s a series of purges and show trials destroyed the flourishing, very wealthy nation. It revolted and was crushed by the Soviets in the 1960s. The communist kleptocracy cared little for pollution, and top-down mandates for heavy-industrial production saw the Czech portion of Czechoslovakia the most polluted place in Europe, with a third of rivers effectively dead and significant portions of the forests dead or dying from pollution.

The luckiest would be:

The United Kingdom: Isolated away from the troubles of the continent, it benefited from that isolation. It started the Industrial Revolution and has been one of the planet’s wealthiest nations for longer than anybody else.

Switzerland: It’s incredibly wealthy, uninvaded for over a century, heavily armed, and very free.

Austria: It was 100 percent complicit in the rise of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, but it was given a pass at the conclusion of World War II and labeled as “Germany’s first victim.” Before the war it was very poor (as poor as Spain), and in the 30 years after the war, it became one of the bastions of freedom and wealth in the Western world (by copying Switzerland mostly).

Netherlands: The gateway to the continent, it can charge (and has) a premium for shipping anything out of the Rhine. It has always been one of the freest, most liberal places on the planet. It’s second only to Britain on the list of “richest for the longest” as a stand-alone nation-state.

Norway: It was the poorest of the Nordic nations until it went all Middle East and discovered sickening amounts of fossil wealth (petroleum and natural gas). But still, the place has been a beacon of liberalism and freedom for a century (I guess it was a “co-nation” with Sweden and not really subjugated, per se).

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