It's the same Lech Wałęsa sitting in his retirement office in the rebuilt Green Gate of the Gdańsk city wall overlooking the harbour where World War II started.
His white hair is not as tousled as his brown hair was three decades ago, when he clambered over the perimeter wall of the city's Lenin Shipyard to join the strike against unreasonable Polish Communist bosses. His mustachios are less fullsome. His plaid worker's shirt has given way to an ultrarespectable white shirt and tie, complete with tie-clasp.
But he has the same impish twinkle. He still wears the pin of Our Lady of Częstochowa in his lapel. And this electrician who improbably started the downfall of the Soviet empire by organising the Solidarność free trade union in the 1980s still dotes on I-told-you-so anecdotes about the collapse of the Berlin Wall that finished the demolition.
The only thing that is perhaps surprising is the warmth for Germans that this Pole expresses.
On 8 November, 1989, Wałęsa recounts, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher visited him. "I said to him, 'The Berlin Wall will fall soon. Are you ready for it?'"
"Genscher replied, 'My dear man, we would be only too happy to have such problems. But cactuses will grow on our graves before something like that happens!' At that time, as we all know, Genscher was the savviest politician around. He reeled off all the tanks, the soldiers, the militias [propping up the 28-year-old wall]. And despite that, a political amateur like me, without all this fancy analysis, just barged ahead with my own instincts. And it happened the next day, just the way I said." Genscher and Chancellor Helmut Kohl "had to break off their Polish visit, because the wall had already fallen".
"Two months ago I saw Genscher again. He reminded me of this. He said to me, 'My dear man, I am afraid to talk with you, because everything happens just the way you prophesise. It all came true."
Wałęsa continues, "if things had stopped with the fall of the wall and the Polish revolution, we could have grasped it. But not only that! The whole Soviet Union collapsed! And other [Central European] countries could free themselves! Europe and the world were not prepared for so much change so fast [....] A new epoch opened".
The collapse of the Berlin Wall "saved" Solidarność, he asserts flatly.
Appropriately, twin slabs of wall, a brick one from the shipyard and a cement one from the middle of Berlin, stand today in commemoration outside Wałęsa's old shipyard.
Indeed, the newfound Polish-German amity the slabs represent after centuries of hostility - Poland was carved up among Prussia, Russia, and Austria for 123 years prior to World War I and suffered the most deaths per capita in World War II - is an apt microcosm of the post-wall (re)unification of Central Europe with Western Europe after a half century of Cold-War separation.
Janusz Reiter - underground Solidarność publicist during martial law in the 1980s, later Poland's ambassador to Germany and then the United States - picks up the story.
In a phone interview he explains just how Wałęsa and other Poles made their remarkable leap, several years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, to trust the West Germans and expect a synergy in their mutual strivings.
The Solidarność activists were still in the Soviet bloc, still had Soviet troops in their country, and were still outlawed under Polish martial law. Europe still seemed frozen in the Cold War. Astute Germans like Genscher thought the Berlin Wall would remain standing throughout his lifetime. And the British and French remained hostile to any German unification.
Nonetheless, a core of Polish intellectuals decided in secret to re-examine the old 'German question', the feared tendency of the populous and energetic Germans to tip the European balance into war whenever they were on the ascent, whether in 1870, 1914, or 1939.
"We had a debate in Poland on the German question in the 1980s," Reiter relates. And despite living memories of harsh Nazi occupation in World War II, this core of thinkers went even beyond the remarkable postwar German-French and German-Dutch reconciliation that had already given heartland Europe its longest period of peace in history.
"The result of this debate was that we decided we should not stick to the traditional thinking that unification of Germany would be the enemy of the Polish question. On the contrary, German unification could be a sort of vehicle also for the Polish question. This was because Germany was the only state in Western Europe that had a national interest in making things in [Cold-War] Europe change.
"Some in Germany were aware of our debate and were especially encouraging." Volker Rühe, deputy chairman of the Christian Democratic Union parliamentary caucus, "came up with the formula that the Polish-[West] German treaty from 1970 would also be binding on a united Germany. This was a signal" that if the two Germanys again joined together, a unified Germany would not try to reclaim the part of western Poland that the Soviet World War II victor had severed from Germany and awarded to Poland in return for Moscow's seizure of eastern Poland.
Rühe's signal was crucial in its promise that the German conservatives, who had never renounced their early postwar demand for restitution of prewar borders - and depended on the votes of millions of their compatriots who had been expelled from Poland and other Central European lands in 1945 - would drop irredentism to win reunification. With this assurance, the Poles could fine-tune their soft but decisive separation from Soviet hegemony in the east without fearing that they might again be stabbed in the back by Germans in the west.
"Things turned out differently from what we expected," continues Reiter. As it happened, the changes "didn't start in Germany, but in Poland. Suddenly it was not using the German vehicle for the Polish question, but vice versa". In September 1989, when Poland installed the first non-communist government in the 72 years of the Soviet bloc, "Poland was the first country to break out of the Eastern bloc - but without provoking the Soviets and the other guardians of the Eastern bloc".
The bold analysis the intellectuals made of the German question was amply rewarded. The fall of the Berlin Wall not only consolidated Solidarity's victory for all of Central Europe; Germany also became Poland's strongest champion in the European Union. Poland and the other Central European states came under the security umbrella of the NATO alliance and the European Union. And Moscow pulled its half a million troops out of East Germany and Poland after 44 years of encampment there.
"There is no longer any German question," concludes Reiter. "That's the answer. It's over."
Author: Elizabeth Pond for EurActiv Germany, Gdańsk/Berlin.
Elizabeth Pond is a well-known American journalist in Europe, and a writer and lecturer on international affairs. She was foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor from 1967-1988. She is the author of some ten books in the field of foreign policy and international affairs, among which 'The Rebirth of Europe', 'Europe in the 21st century', 'Beyond the Wall – Germany's Road to Reunification', 'Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European-style'.