My Polish adventure started in the late 1950s when I moved with my family to Warsaw. I was very young and it was only in later years that I began to appreciate the richness of the experience and to come to understand that Poland is an exceptional and truly exemplary nation.
When I moved to Warsaw the city was still recovering from the trauma of the Second World War during which 90 per cent of the city had been destroyed or very seriously damaged, with around 200,000 Poles killed by the Nazis during the 64 days of the Uprising that started on the 1st August 1944. By the late 1950s most of the city had been rebuilt, including the famed Old Town. This had been a centre of resistance during the Uprising and had been largely obliterated, but by the time I arrived in Warsaw the Old Town had been recreated – in an almost miraculous manner – in all its medieval and Baroque wonder. This had happened despite the disinterest of the regime that in 1945 the Soviets had installed in Poland and which they controlled in very direct manner. Quite simply, the reconstruction was due to the will and passion of the Polish people. Warsaw represented, in many ways, the heart and soul of the nation; it was the repository of cultural pride and national identity and its loss was intolerable. After the failed Uprising the Nazi’s had undertaken the systematic destruction of the city for symbolic reasons – they sought to destroy Polish pride and identity. So, for symbolic reasons, the Old Town – the heart of Warsaw – had to be rebuilt in authentic manner to prevent evil from having the last word in the story of the historic city. For most Poles the destruction of the city was a great wrong that had, as far as was humanly possible, to be put right. So, as the result of a grass roots reaction, the 17 hectares of the Old City – complete with stretches of city wall, the barbican and large and grand market square – was rebuilt and rejuvenated, This is where I lived as a child – in an apartment in a newly reconstructed Baroque-style building looking into the market square – and it was, to put it mildly, a formative experience.
The Polish achievement of reclaiming the lost historic city centre of Warsaw – at the time against all the odds – was, and remains, an inspiration. The seemingly impossible is possible if you put your mind to it. And, in specific terms, it is a demonstration that lost or destroyed historic buildings can be successfully recreated – that the dead can live again – when the reconstruction is undertaken with love and commitment. This lesson is now particularly relevant at a time when we are confronted by the brutal and shocking destruction of history that has taken place during the last two years in Iraq and Syria. The rebirth of historic Warsaw shows what is possible.
The destruction and reconstruction of Warsaw in the late 1940s and 50s is the most recent and dramatic demonstration of the indomitable Polish spirit. From the late 18th century until the end of the First World War Poland was partitioned, occupied and subjugated by Russia, Prussia and Austria and yet the Polish nation survived. From 1918 until 1939 the nation regained independence and sovereignty as a republic and then – in the most violent manner – was once again invaded, divided and occupied. Yet, despite this cruel misfortune the Polish people were uncrushed and strove to retain their identity and to regain the independence of their country – at times a seemingly impossible dream – by the exercise of their skills and by the demonstration of their determination and courage. In the early nineteenth century Poles had fought against the occupiers of their country by fighting for their enemy’s prime enemy – Napoleonic France. Quite simply, their friend’s enemies became the enemies of Poland and some of the finest troops in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard were Polish lancers. A comparable situation arose after the fall of Poland in 1939 with Pole’s serving with great distinction in the RAF during the Battle of Britain, with the 8th Army in Italy and with the British army in northern Europe in 1944 and 1945. The major contribution Polish soldiers made to Britain’s ultimately successful battle for freedom must never be forgotten – nor sadly must their generally shabby treatment by the British authorities after 1945. But generosity of spirit is also among the cardinal virtues of Poles and, thankfully, this British lapse of resolve in the face of Stalin’s demand that Poles and Poland be surrendered to his dark domain has been forgiven.
In these increasing hostile times – with events in Britain, in mainland Europe, the United States and the Middle East promising a very uncertain future – the story of Poland is a beacon of hope. It shows that the very positive virtues of courage, understanding across cultural and national boundaries, determination and hard work can ultimately prevail over the forces of darkness. The enemies are – as ever – intolerance and greed, but now made dangerous in the extreme by fanaticism, territorial ambition, political amorality and bellicosity. Combined these make the world a very dangerous place indeed. It is essential that Poland – as a model and brave European nation with an exemplary heroic history – now remain strong and true to its best guiding principles and traditions. With a friend like Poland no enemy need be feared, and there is surely no better way to foster friendship between Britain and Poland than by encouraging cultural and economic connections between the two nations. For this reason I am delighted to serve as President of the Anglo Polish Society.
Dan Cruickshank – January 2017