Polish Ambassador Arkady Rzegocki writes on the 30th anniversary of Poland’s presidential homecoming
December 2020 marks a special anniversary. Thirty years ago, Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last President of the Republic of Poland in Exile, passed the presidential insignia to his successor, Lech Wałęsa, who had just been elected as head of state in the first democratic elections in Poland since before World War II. The moment ushered in a new era. After 45 years of Soviet control, Poland, for the second time in 72 years, regained its independence and sovereignty. The country was free to undergo structural and economic transformation – one which has seen it become Europe’s success story.
Since then, Poland has seen democratic parliamentary and presidential elections, a new constitution, 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth, memberships of Nato and the European Union, and become a leader in industries including digitisation, fintech, astronomy, food production, business outsourcing, furniture and production.
However, Poland’s remarkable rise since 1990 would not have been possible without 51 years of the Polish Government-in-Exile and its grand achievements, which ensured the continuation of the legitimate state representation of the Republic during the war and under communist occupation. For 50 of those years, the government-in-exile had its seat in London, and for a while its home was 47 Portland Place – the residence of the Polish Embassy since 1921. The UK’s capital therefore has a special place in the heart of Poles. It was a home away from home during our darkest days, and it strengthened the already well-established Polish-British relations, which are the foundation of our special partnership today.
Polish-British relations date back to the eleventh century, and their history has been marked by commerce and trade as well as increasing diplomatic contacts. But it was largely from 1919 and the renewal of Polish-British diplomatic ties following the partitions of Poland that the fates of our two countries became intertwined – with the government-in-exile playing a key part in this.
Needing a permanent home in London for its diplomats, the Polish Foreign Ministry bought the Grade II* listed terraced townhouse in 47 Portland Place in October 1921 – we will be celebrating this, the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the seat of the Polish Embassy, emphatically in 2021. The Embassy became an important centre in the diplomatic landscape of the city. The British press wrote of the famous musical soirées hosted by Ambassador Edward Raczyński and his wife. Soon, the Embassy would play an even more important role.
Following the German-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Polish Government-in-Exile was formed in Paris, moving to London – and the Polish Embassy – in June 1940 after the fall of France. The Embassy saw frequent visits of thousands of Polish refugees applying for aid.
It also received hundreds of packages, including 74 chests with state treasures from Wawel Castle, such as the royal insignia, the coronation sword of King Władysław I Łokietek, over 130 of the Wawel arrases as well as priceless manuscripts from the National Library.
After the government-in-exile moved to London, 47 Portland Place became not only the nerve centre of Polish relations with the UK, but also the representation of democratic Poland. Poland, which once again had to fight for its freedom and territorial integrity.
In December 1940, new headquarters were provided for the government, but in 1941, the Embassy became the unofficial office of the Polish Foreign Ministry. Documents of great international and humanitarian significance were drafted here, including the December 1942 note The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland, the first official report informing the West of the Holocaust in Europe, which informed the 17 December 1942 UN Joint Declaration pledging severe punishment of the guilty.
Notably, the Polish Government-in-Exile oversaw the strengthening of the Poland-UK military alliance. In August 1940, our two nations signed an agreement awarding the Polish Air Force in Great Britain the status of an independent foreign armed force, operationally subordinate to the Royal Air Force, and Polish squadrons were created. Side-by-side we fought in the Battle of Britain, with 145 Poles shooting down 203 enemy aircraft and the Polish 303 Squadron becoming the most effective unit in the battle. Moreover, our forces defended Britain together on land and sea, while Polish cryptologists shared their Enigma codebreaking secrets with their British colleagues to bring the war to a swifter end.
Sadly, decisions made at the Tehran and Yalta Conferences sealed the Polish fate in 1945. Shorn of half its territory, Poland effectively fell under Soviet control. Despite the lack of support from the leading powers of the free world, and having to hand over the keys to 47 Portland Place to representatives of the Polish People’s Republic, the Polish Government-in-Exile continued to operate in London until December 1990.
It remained a centre for Polish activities, with a 500,000-strong community of Polish exiles recreating the Poland they knew from before the war, with all her political institutions, school system, and even cultural life – a Poland outside Poland. The government-in-exile and the Polish community staged demonstrations outside the ‘People’s Embassy’ during crucial historical moments, including in 1956, 1970 and 1981. The continuity of legitimate Polish political thought, state institutions and culture was ensured until their homeland became free.
The ceremony of the passing of the presidential insignia at Warsaw’s Royal Castle on 22 December 1990 marked a special moment in Polish history. For those who had kept the flame of freedom burning for nearly half a century, it was a belated but symbolic return home. The Embassy at 47 Portland Place once again became the representation of a free Poland. A year later, the National Council – the Polish parliament operating in exile since 1939 – concluded its mission.
Since then, Poland has thrived economically, politically and internationally. We can choose our destiny in every single area of life. This, however, would not be possible without the brave and tireless actions of a government that kept going despite hardship back home. Let’s remember it.