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Monday 29 August 2016

An Ode to Poland, and a brief reflection of the Polish contribution to the UK

This is a guest blog by friend James Oliver.


Towards the end of the EU referendum campaign I had a most peculiar experience when a self-identified “ex-serviceman” came up to a Stronger IN stall i was helping to staff. In a provocative tone he asked us what the benefits of staying in the EU were because, according to him, we have to quote the words he used about immigrants "raping" and "slaughtering" this country.

This tone of rhetoric about immigration has been very typical in British discourse, not just through the referendum campaign but for as long as I have been reading newspapers. One only needs to search the archives of the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express for proof of that.

In this context I suspect very few of those who tried to use the sticking point of immigration against me expected an equally passionate defense of immigration as a reply. Certainly the “ex-serviceman” didn’t when I took him to task over his poor choice of words. What made our exchange peculiar was his revelation that he had a Polish wife who had been subject to racial abuse by a vote leave campaigner. Relating that to some of the experiences that I and my fellow campaigners have had helped us to persuade him to tick the remain box.

For approaching 10 years of my life now I have counted Poles as friends, work colleagues and much more. I’ve had a long interest in Polish history began with a school trip to Kraków in 2007. There I was given a city tour by a wonderful guide whose name I sadly cannot no-longer recall but she opened my eyes to historical perspectives not well taught here.

As we know Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and although it was this that produced the largest influx of Polish migrants to this country, what is less known or less appreciated is that the contribution of Poles long predates this date.

Those of us who shop in Tesco or Marks & Spencer might not know that both were founded, in part, by Polish immigrants. Many of us who have taken the time to enjoy “The Secret Agent” on TV of late perhaps might not realise that the author of the original novel, Joseph Conrad, was fiercely proud of his Polish roots. He was born near the city of Berdychiv (in what is now Ukraine) and came to this county unable to speak English. He would go on to write some of the finest English language literature of his age. Joseph Conrad, Jack Cohen and Michael Marks are but a handful of examples.

Our ancestral connections

In the heart of the city of Westminster lies a small road called "Poland Street." At its heart, a pub known as "The Kings Arms." It’s a reference to a preexisting pub called “The King of Poland” from which the street takes its name from. It was erected as a token of the English appreciation of the victory of King John III Sobieski over the Ottomans besieging Vienna in 1689.

For those Poles who have suffered the nasty consequences of racism in Britain today It may be difficult to ever imagine that there was a time when this land appreciated Poland simply for what it is.

Back then, our cities such as London stood at the western end of the Hanseatic League. Poland was at its heart and the handfuls of Polish merchants who worked here buying and selling goods formed the heart of our first Polish communities.

There is no doubting that we prospered from the trade, at the time most of our grain came from Poland but the migration worked the other way too. Records from 1601 for example detail much adored English actors performing Shakespeare plays in Gdańsk. Through that century Poland became to religious Scotsmen and Scottish merchants a “Scottish America” and some 40,000 of their number settled there.

Poland was, as far as the 1600s were concerned, a beacon of religious tolerance. England and Scotland were mired in the bloody consequences of the reformation. Yet Poland was far more progressive than us in other matters too.

In an era of absolute monarchy the thought of a country “electing” its “king” might seem jarring, after all we have yet to get around to doing anything akin to it. The “Nihil novi nisi commune consensu” decree signed on May 5th 1505 made the Polish King dependent upon the political citizenry. "Nic o nas bez nas" was the political slogan of the day and this was long before the USA adopted "No Taxation without Representation."

To be sure the Polish “nobles democracy” wasn’t a democracy in the modern sense of the term but consider where we were in 1505 when Parliament was little more than an echo chamber of our King's wishes. The “nobles democracy” was markedly better than a system that took a bloody civil war in the 1640s in order for it to change.

Poland historically had a far wider enfranchisement than England and yet through the referendum campaign we were told by the former Conservative Minister and Leave campaigner Michael Gove and others that we have always been the democratic moral exemplars. When Poland was eventually torn up in a series of partitions by its neighbours, for being in essence too democratic, few here (with honourable exceptions such as Edmund Burke) raised their voices to protest.

Poland's unhappy recent history

The course of Polish history over much of the 19th and 20th centuries save for brief interludes has not been a happy one. After the Third Partition of 1795 many Poles looked to revolutionary France as an antidote to the partitioning Black Eagle regimes of Prussia, Austria and Russia. Napoleon Bonaparte was happy to milk the Polish cause for so long as it provided him with willing men for his army.

During the referendum campaign we were told by Boris Johnson that the EU was akin to the whims of Napoleon and Hitler. Józef Kajetan Skrzetuski’s 1773 pamphlet "Projekt nieprzerwanego w Europie pokoju" wasn’t discussed. Of course it is easy to point out here that a league of democracies is not the same thing as one-man-rule. In 1808 Napoleon’s puppet Polish state the “Duchy of Warsaw” oversaw decrees restricting civil rights for Polish Jews, something that would contravene EU democratic standards today.

The final crushing of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 ushered in a new era of politics which stood for conservative absolutism and general lack of change insofar as the clock was set not before 1795. Europe's rulers had accused the cry for liberty for bringing about Napoleon so for that reason ideas of liberalism, representation and national self-determination for countries like Poland were ignored more than addressed.

This “conservative order” was accompanied by the concept of restraining countries from changing borders against one another without full consent - the Concert of Europe, which we helped found. Although it lacked any real teeth owing to the general disinterest of the major European powers, particularly Britain, it did set out the notion that potential conflicts should be at least discussed before the signal of war was given, though it must be stressed that this did not stop conflicts such as World War One (WW1) from breaking out.

The fact that Poland wasn’t on the map between 1795 and 1918 ensured that a large proportion of those Polish immigrants that came to our shores during the 19th century were of the most part political. Revolutionary socialist and nationalist ideals routinely mixed in such clubs like the “Gromada Rewolucyjna Londyn.” Although we sometimes pride ourselves for being a relative safe haven for Europe’s most radical thinkers and writers including Voltaire or Victor Hugo (who was also a Pan-Europeanist) or Karl Marx, it must be said though that at this time Polish immigration to these islands was limited in number, many who were able to flee from the Russian and Prussian oppression of their homeland fled to France or the Americas.

The Polish cause in the 1800s made little impact on British politics, serving only as a sticking point to be occasionally raised whenever (usually) Russia did anything wrong. The re-emergence of Poland in 1918 saw a temporary stem to the flow though among the immigrants to come to our shores in the 1920s was Jacob Bronowski whose contribution to popular science education is indelible. It was only in the wake of World War Two (WW2) did large numbers of Poles come here, many attached to the Polish Army and Government.

Poland and WW2

When I did my A level in history I recalled being taught certain things in an over simplistic manner about WW2. Whilst we were certainly taught that WW2 began with the German invasion of Poland and that we entered the war for the Polish cause, little was mentioned of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (between Hitler's Germany and Stalin’s Russia) except the highly glossed excuse that the Soviet invasion of Poland was simply for them to set up a buffer zone for the inevitable German onslaught.

I recall no lessons at that time about any of the mass deportations carried out by Stalin, or other Soviet war-crimes such as the Katyń massacre or how close the Nazi-Soviet friendship really was, from the Gestapo-NKVD conferences to the willingness of Stalin to trade Jews to the Germans without sympathy in exchange for political prisoners. Everything I have learned about all of this I have learned since and much more besides.

We declared war on Germany on September 3rd 1939 because of their invasion of Poland. We had a guarantee signed on August 25th that we would come to their aid in such an event. The Poles expected that we would fulfill our commitments by attacking Germany from the west and by sending munitions through Romania via the port of Constanta and indeed they based their military strategy in September 1939 around keeping alive the “Romanian Bridgehead”. But we never took any meaningful action nor did we supply the Poles. Instead we dawdled around in a “phoney war” until the Germans turned their guns on France and the Low Countries.

Whilst the partition of Poland by German and Soviet hands was underway the Polish government moved as an “Govt in Exile” to France. After the disaster of the Battle of France, the Polish “Govt in Exile” moved to London along with thousands of Polish troops and airmen.

At the end of WW2 more than 200,000 men, many who had served in the II Korps Polski, moved from the European battlefields where they had fought alongside and under the British to settle here. It was these more than any previous generation of Polish immigrants that helped to lay the foundations of the modern British-Polish community as we know it today, and London became the main political hub of the Polish diaspora until the re-emergence of Poland as a democratic state.

Much has been written about the suffering that the Poles had to endure in WW2. At least 11 million of the estimated 18 million civilian victims of all nationalities killed by the Germans were killed in the lands of occupied Poland, including the overwhelming majority of the 6m+ Jews who perished in the “final solution.” The eye watering statistics of the Holocaust speak for themselves.

Remember Polish airmen

The Polish contribution to our war effort on the other hand has stood on the brink of almost being forgotten. How many know that during the Battle of Britain the Polish 303 squadron with its 126 kills outscored any other squadron?

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding is on record for saying:
“Had it not been for the magnificent work of the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of battle would have been the same”. 
That quote gives an irony to the attempts by UKIP and the BNP to use “Polish Spitfires” in order to evoke a vague sense of “Britishness”, however they define it. Throughout WW2 at least 17,000 airmen (listed on served in the Polish air force.

On the ground Poles repeatedly distinguished themselves under the wings of our armed forces in battles from Narvik to the Africa Campaign, from the Italian campaign to D-Day and the liberation of France. In intelligence we have the Poles to thank for cracking the Enigma codes which helped us to decipher German war plans (something now commemorated at Bletchley Park). If I was to list everything the Poles did for us during WW2, this would be a much longer letter.

One of the saddest aspects of the Polish war effort was its lack of reward. In political terms the conquest of Poland by Stalin’s Red Army represented the replacement of one genocidal regime by another and British foreign policy, as reflected in the Tehran and Yalta conferences, took to appeasing Stalin as a leverage against Hitler.

Domestically, the continued presence of Poles here after WW2 generated a backlash - much as the presence of Poles have done today. This was reflected in a parliamentary debate on March 20th 1946 when Ernest Bevin told the House of Commons:
"I have never disguised our firm conviction that, in our view, they ought to go back in order to play their part in the reconstruction of their stricken country." 
Except there was no country for go back to. The Poles that relocated back to the USSR were condemned as “fascists” and promptly deported to Gulags for collaborating with a Western government (ours).

The Pro-Soviet British left also echoed these sentiments and helped ensure that those who had heroically fought for Britain were made not to feel welcome. In addition the British government promoted denial of the realities of Soviet brutality and ethnic cleansing against the Poles, such as the Katyń massacre of 1940 which saw 22,000+ Polish POWs executed.

Our government also prohibited Poles from marching in the June 8th 1946 Victory Parade in London to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany on the basis of not offending Stalin. Yet despite British hostility, many Poles stayed. British racism and hostility was still preferable to death at the hands of the Soviets.

The feeling that the Polish war effort is not appreciated along with our failure to uphold our legal and moral commitments made before WW2 has given many Poles the sense that we have “betrayed” them. You will still hear Poles complain about this and perhaps it’s time for us to recognise that this is not too unreasonable a complaint to make.

The Polish contribution

Although 2004 seems to have defined how we see Poles in the UK, it is important to understand that their contribution to this country long predates Poland's accession to the EU. Generations of Poles have already made their mark in the media and public life and are continuing to do so.

On TV you could see Waldemar Januszczak with his quirky arts documentaries or Helen Czerski with her science programmes. There is Mel Giedroyc and her comedic talents to Kasia Madera who will tell us the world news and more recently there is Tomasz Schafernaker to tell us it is probably going to rain tomorrow, and many others.

Recently we have been told that Poles have become the largest foreign-born group in the UK for the first time. Who knows now what future scientists, business leaders, sports stars, celebrities or even politicians this will bring?

Far from “Raping” and “Slaughtering” us, those who have decided to lay their roots down in this country ought to be able to continue to contribute economically and socially if we let them.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. Interesting and important. One little proof-reading point: I assume you intend to refer to Ernie Bevin (Foreign Secretary in 1946) rather than Nye Bevan, then busy setting up the NHS. It's easy to confuse the two names. Apologies for anonymity but I can't get any of the profiles to work for me.