As Poland celebrates 100 years since the restoration of its independence, the British Council, which has now been operating in the country for 80 years, publishes a book of essays examining the rich past and important future of the Anglo-Polish relationship.
The links between the UK and Poland run deep. They are further reinforced by the size of the Polish diaspora living in the UK, which at around 900,000 is the UK’s largest foreign-born community, and makes Polish the second most spoken language in England (ONS 2011 Census). This, and the significant alignment of interests and values between the two countries, suggest the vital importance of maintaining close ties in the future.
‘Poland is Still Not Dead’
Few countries in history have suffered as viscerally or recovered as spectacularly as Poland. Over the centuries it has borne the brunt of brutal invasions by Mongols, Crusaders, Turks, Cossacks, Swedes, Germans and Soviets. It has been carved up four times by aggressive neighbours, had multiple independence revolts bloodily supressed, witnessed deliberate attempts to exterminate its language, culture, heritage – as well as its intelligencia and large sections of its population during the Holocaust (during which some 3 million Polish Jews were killed, along with a similar number of other Polish people (Encyclopedia Britannica, article World Wars, 2010)). Yet it has survived. It is little wonder that its national anthem echoes with the words ‘Poland is still not dead’.
Few countries in history have suffered as viscerally or recovered as spectacularly as Poland
It is often forgotten that the Poland formed the desperate last-ditch defence of Europe against the hordes of Genghis Khan, the Muslim conquests of the Ottoman Empire, and Lenin’s attempt to spread Communism across Europe at the hands of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. Or that Poles made heroic sacrifices fighting alongside and for the UK during World War II - which Britain had entered in order to protect Polish independence, but which ended with the ruins of Poland occupied by Stalin. Hundreds of thousands of Poles, unable or unwilling to return home to a devastated country - which had suffered the destruction of 40% of its national assets, 20% of its population and the loss of half its pre-war territory, and which was stranded for what would be decades behind the Iron Curtain - made their home in the UK. Since it finally achieved independence and joined NATO and the EU, many hundreds of thousands more have come to live and work here, forming one of the largest and most vibrant communities in the country.
The close links between our two nations in fact go back much further, to when, before its partition at the end of the 18th Century, Poland was one of the largest, most advanced, and most politically sophisticated countries in the world, with an elected monarchy, a liberal constitution, and a cosmopolitan and religiously diverse population that included 80% of the world’s Jewish people, as well as many other religious denominations. More recently, those links have been greatly strengthened by the shared experience of the Second World War - in which for example Polish airmen formed a crucial part of the defence of the UK during the Battle of Britain - and the intellectual and cultural contacts maintained between the two countries in spite of the long years of Communist dictatorship, followed by the UK’s championing of Polish accession to NATO and the EU and the cultural contacts forged through the Polish diaspora in the UK.
Common Interests, Shared Concerns
These connections have sometimes been complicated. Soviet suppression of Polish freedom and deliberate destruction of Polish cultural heritage was supported by many British intellectuals during the early stages of the Cold War. Indeed, one senior British Council officer stationed in Poland – an eccentric bigamist called Jerzy Bidwell – actually defected to the Communists. However, cultural and education contacts through organisations like the British Council, and large numbers of Poles visiting the West to learn a language, or returning from exile to visit Polish relatives, played an important part in opening up permanent channels of positive communication in the run up to the Communist collapse. And in the 1990’s, such British institutions contributed to Poland achieving its enormous recent transformation.
Cultural and education contacts through organisations like the British Council played an important part in opening up permanent channels of positive communication in the run up to the Communist collapse. And in the 1990’s, such British institutions contributed to Poland achieving its enormous recent transformation
This transformation has been unprecedented. From a politically repressed and economically devastated region, Poland has grown faster for longer than any major country in Europe. Its capital, Warsaw, which in 1945 was 85% destroyed and home to only a thousand survivors from a pre-war population of over 1 million, and which in 1989 was largely a grim and economically-depressed Communist city, is now a vibrant financial centre and cosmopolitan hub, whose new sky-scrapers attest to its economic and cultural dynamism. This social and economic change has not been without political controversy. In recent years Poland has been criticised by some for populist stances and constitutional back-sliding. Yet the bigger picture shows a confident nation with much in common with the UK, recovered from the horrors of its past and facing a promising future.
A new book of essays on Poland and the UK:Poland relationship – ‘Common Interests, Shared Concerns’ – explores the long history of Anglo-Polish cultural, political and personal relations and how they might be relevant to the future. It builds a picture of how a continued close partnership between the two countries and their peoples is easily maintained and greatly in the interests of both. It is to be hoped that leaders and people in both countries continue to remember our shared history and values and the huge amount that we can learn and gain from each other over the next hundred years.
Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor, British Council.