100TH ANNIVERSARY OF POLAND REGAINING INDEPENDENCE
Ambassador of the Republic of Poland, Arkady Rzegocki, recalls a turbulent history and highlights all there is to celebrate today and in the future
In 2018, Poland marks 100 years since it regained independence after 123 years of partitions. It is a time to celebrate all that is best about our country and to commemorate the people and events that shaped it. Let’s remember, however, that the turbulent, yet grand history of the homeland of the most populous ethnic minority group in the UK goes back more than 1,000 years.
The tale of Poland is one of defence of freedom and sovereignty against foreign aggressors. Due to its central European location, the country has experienced numerous wars and uprisings. Since its formation in 966, it has seen strong leadership, military and political dominance, development of a proud, distinctive culture, long periods of economic prosperity and a large territorial presence. At one point in history, Poland was the largest state in Europe: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The stability of Polish democracy – one of the oldest in the world – derives to a large extent from Polish democratic, libertarian and parliamentary traditions that date back to the fifteenth century and the Jagiellonian dynasty. However, after experiencing numerous wars and a crisis in the political system, the country was invaded and partitioned at the end of eighteenth century, disappearing from the map of Europe for 123 years.
Never abandoning the idea of regaining independence, Poles engaged in an armed resistance and kept fighting to free the country. Despite a ban on the Polish language, the nation preserved its identity and continued to exist as a spiritual and cultural community. Poland, though, had to wait until the end World War I for the opportunity to free itself.
It was then, on 11 November 1918, that Józef Piłsudski, leader of the clandestine Polish Military Organisation, returned to Warsaw from a German prison to become Chief of State, proclaiming the Second Polish Republic.
Independence brought with it a period of dynamic economic growth, educational and military development, and unification of different systems of governance. Poland successfully defended its borders, claiming a historic victory over Soviet Russiain the Battle of Warsaw, which was decisive in halting the spread of communist revolution to the West. Unfortunately, these two decades of freedom ended with World War II, of which Poland became the first victim.
On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting the deadliest armed conflict in history. Sixteen days later the Soviet Union attacked the country from the east. Despite the Polish army heroically fighting from the first until the last day, the war brought heavy casualties: six million Polish citizens, including three million Polish Jews, died, many towns and cities were destroyed and our country fell under Soviet communist rule for 45 years.
Yet again, the yearning for freedom saw our compatriots oppose the occupier, with numerous protests taking place. The election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II brought about hope for the nation, while the emergence of Solidarity – the first independent trade union in a Warsaw Pact country – sparked a chain of events that led to the fall of the Polish People’s Republic and the creation of a sovereign, democratic Polish state in 1989.
Modern Poland, then, has only really enjoyed independence for just under 30 years. Even so, since 1989 we have undergone serious structural changes which have given us free, democratic parliamentary and presidential elections, a new constitution, economic prosperity, memberships of Nato and the EU, and the chance to be leaders in industries including digitisation, fintech, astronomy, food production, business outsourcing, furniture and production.
There is so much to celebrate every day, but this year we are focusing on the 100th anniversaries of Poland regaining independence, women getting the right to vote and the first military flight of a Polish aircraft. Next year, we mark the 250th anniversary of the permanent Polish diplomatic presence in the UK and in 2021 the 100th anniversary of the Polish Embassy being located at 47 Portland Place.
These special anniversaries are a great opportunity to celebrate Poland’s culture, heritage and history. As part of our Embassy‘s #PL100 programme of events and projects, we are hosting exhibitions, festivals, concerts, workshops, competitions, social media campaigns and conferences.
In February and March, we hosted the #Polka100 campaign, telling the stories of 18 remarkable Polish women who inspire the Polish community in the UK. March also saw the launch of Polska Półka – Polish Bookshelf Project, an initiative enriching stocks of British libraries with Polish literature and books about Poland, and the sixteenth edition of the Polish film festival KINOTEKA.
May saw the second edition of Polish Heritage Day, an initiative encouraging Polish organisations to promote Polish culture, heritage of past generations and the positive contribution made by Poles to the cultural, economic and social life in the UK. This year’s theme was independence and we had around 70 wonderful events all over the UK celebrating this special anniversary and the 3 May Constitution Day.
In June, we will be telling the story of the Polish Air Force in our #PAF100 social media campaign, which will run alongside the RAF Museum’s centenary exhibition, where a life-size cut-out of Colonel Franciszek Kornicki, the last World War II Polish squadron commander, will stand beside the iconic Spitfire VB BL614.
This year’s celebrations will culminate in a concert of music of Fryderyk Chopin and Ignacy Jan Paderewski at the prestigious London Guildhall, which expects to gather a large audience.
The list of commemorative events keeps expanding and we are sure to enjoy our independence on even more ocassions this year. As we prepare for the celebrations, we look forward to 100 years of a truly independent Poland in the company of our allies and partners!
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