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Beyond Love-Hate: Rethinking the British-Polish Relationship

Leslie Rogne Schumacher, Op-Ed Columnist

February 2012

Recently, I watched Michael Palin’s television series, New Europe, in which the former Monty Python member travels through Central and Eastern Europe, commenting on the legacy of communism, national and religious divisions, and the influence of the European Union in all the countries he visits.  All but one of the seven episodes sees Palin rushing through several countries in each hour-long program, never lingering long on one nation before he’s off to another.  Except, that is, in the case of one country to which he devotes an entire episode: Poland.  On its face, such attention to Poland by a British television presenter isn’t that surprising.  Indeed, for years there has been a particular obsession in Britain with issues Polonia, given the million or so Poles who live and work in the UK today.

Yet I was struck by an interview Palin did with a working class Cockney man who’d gone the other way, inverting the typical view of the British-Polish connection by moving to Poland, learning the language, marrying a Polish woman, and working in a “normal” occupation as a fireman—that is, rather than some livelihood usually associated with the Brits-in-Polska class, such as an English teacher, international business associate, or, not uncommonly, a student having a rowdy weekend in Krakow.  Palin, not at all zany like his earlier characters, asked the man very seriously what he thought defined the British-Polish connection.  The man said it was a case of “opposites attracting,” commenting that there was some kind of strange, ineffable quality of affinity between these two very different peoples: “Poles love the English, and the English love Poles.”

Now, many Poles and Brits would disagree with the idea that such warmth is widely felt, and not always from a detached position on the matter.  Indeed, there is plenty of evidence of antipathy toward Poles in Britain, much along the same lines as is directed against Hispanic immigrants in the United States—“living off the dole,” “taking our jobs,” and all that.  This is not just a feeling limited to the far right either, as Gordon Brown disastrously found out two years ago when he called a loyal Labour voter a “bigoted woman” for questioning what he would do about Eastern European immigration.  Having stayed for a month in a largely Polish area of West Ealing I suppose I can see how some Brits might think they’ve been overrun by Poles, yet as a lover of Poles myself (well, one Pole: my partner, Kaja, is a Polish citizen) I admit I have little sympathy for a belief that issues from people who’ve never had to leave their country to find work.

Still, I found the humble workingman’s faith in the power of love over hate compelling.  Maybe we have been too quick to pass off the British-Polish connection as simply a story of failed partnerships and crudely-historicized nationalist anxiety.  Indeed, in a speech last year opening a seminar called “The Perception of Poland and Poles in the UK,” then-Ambassador to Poland Ric Todd invoked the words of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who said recently that despite the problem of immigration “love is most important – love has been a driver of British-Polish relationships.”  A nice remark, though Mr. Todd somewhat spoiled the mood by subsequently complaining that, for their part, Poles’ own anti-British beliefs are “impervious to facts.”  True, hateful beliefs always spurn attention to fact, though one must undoubtedly grant that animosity against Poles in Britain probably affects more people directly than that against Brits in Poland.

In my research I often come across examples of the British-Polish relationship, and there have been times in the past where it wasn’t so fraught with acrimony.  There have even been moments where unique coincidences tied Poles and Brits closely together, with each nation’s own ends neatly intertwined.  In one of my favorite instances an anti-Russian rally in Hyde Park, in response to the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, saw the crowd confusedly dealing with the approach of a contingent bearing a flag that people at first mistook for a Russian one.  “Pull it down!” they cried, the Daily News’ reporter in attendance assuming they were offended by the sight of an eagle and white and red stripes on the flag, which smacked of Russian heraldry.  Yet as the flag came closer someone saw it bore the Polish, not the Russian, eagle, with a helpful explanation sewn into it: “Polish Society of the White Eagle – We Poles do protest against the Russian barbarities perpetrated upon our countrymen in Turkey.”

One must marvel at the work that must have gone into sewing such an exhaustively grammatical subtitle, yet the statement was so baffling to the British crowd that the Polish contingent had to have a man handing out fliers explaining that a number of Poles living in the Ottoman Empire’s European provinces had been killed by the Russian army as it invaded.  In fact, Poland figures in the Russophobic song “By Jingo!” (from which came the term “jingoism”), which was inspired by this war.  Its lyrics refer to Poland’s plight at the hands of Russia, especially the brutal repression of the 1863 January Uprising that lived in Europe’s not-so-distant memory: “And poor unhappy Poland their cruel yoke must bear, while prayers for ‘Freedom and Revenge’ go up into the air.”  So, two groups of pro-war “patriots” were tied together over their shared hatred of Russia—not exactly a healthy relationship, but one driven by a sort of love all the same.

The same dynamic goes for the elephant in the room for all British-Polish relationship discussions, namely World War II.  In the same speech as above, Mr. Todd faults Poles for blaming Britain for troubles they faced during the war and after, ticking off each of the complaints one by one and concluding that Britain in fact had no part in Poland’s fate.  To be fair, I suspect Mr. Todd felt it necessary from his position to make sure the diplomatic relationship seemed fundamentally sound, so long as one makes sure to paint those with other opinions as not sound of mind.  Certainly, my experience as a visitor in Poland has included some questionable interpretations of Britain’s role in the cruelties Poland experienced, but in Poles’ anger at Britain one glimpses a sense of shame Poland feels at having been duped into thinking the alliance was more equal than it actually was.  Theirs was a wartime love affair that couldn’t be sustained once the shared hatred that had drawn them together had become obsolete.  And with Germany lying prostrate, the relationship could go back to the obviously hierarchical arrangement it had always been.

Yet one should not overestimate these feelings of resentment.  In general Poles feel a close relationship with Britain will always have more benefits than costs, and anti-Polish rhetoric in Britain has never really been spoken by anyone with much credibility.  What intrigues me, though, are the opportunities for growth that Michael Palin’s Cockney immigrant fireman alludes to in his optimistic outlook.  There is a deep and significant historical connection between Britain and Poland, it does have many positive aspects, and it could lead the two countries to a place that acknowledges their shared history and takes it, warts and all, as evidence that there exists a good base on which to build.  Like any relationship, there will be problems.  But as they each roil cyclically through their angst about the past, perhaps true love eventually will conquer all.

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