“Actually, things have turned out quite well … “

Although raised amongst post-war émigrés in London, historian Adam Zamoyski now divides his time between England and Poland. He is chairman of the Czartoryski Foundation, which, together with the National Museum, administers Krakow’s Museum of the Czartoryski Princes. His first book, a biography of Chopin, was published in 1979, and he has since penned many acclaimed works, including the bestselling 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow. This spring he published Poland: A History, a reworked and extended take on his classic The Polish Way. He is married to the painter Emma Sergeant.

KP: The spy Andrzej Kowerski/Andrew Kennedy once made the ironic remark that the wartime emigration was a positive thing as it provided “a good mix of Polish fantasy and British phlegm.” In what respects was growing up outside Poland a help or a hindrance to you as a historian of Central Europe?

AZ: A huge help. Dealing with the history of Poland – certainly until very recently – was almost inevitably an emotional thing, because Polish history had become a political battleground from the 19th century onwards, both in nationalist terms i.e in trying to prove that Poles had not been as hopeless as the Germans or even English and French historiography would have one believe on the one hand, but also ideologically. Because throughout the middle of the 20th century, certainly in the post-war decades, and really up until about Solidarity, the general view of Western intellectuals was that Poles were in some unspecified way reactionary, crypto-fascists. Polish historians in Poland were blissfully unaware of that. But they too felt terribly beleaguered. They were basically writing from within the walls of a besieged fortress. Their entire view of Polish history was necessarily one of trying to work out where it had all gone wrong, and why it had gone wrong. And this inevitably engendered a tendency to try and come up with supposed moments of “what could have been” if somebody had done something else, you know – if only Jan Sobieski had managed to found a dynasty, and limit the liberum veto, everything would have been alright, that kind of thing.

Being outside Poland meant that one was just as much exposed to a sense of being besieged, because Western historians were not interested in Polish history, and as I said, people regarded Poland as a gloomy place inhabited by possibly charming but pretty thick primitives, who were, you know, Jew bashers (was it Keynes who said that Poland’s only industry was Jew-baiting?). But at least, living in London, one could write about Polish history for work, then you could leave your work table, and go out into a normal world, and forget about the partitions, and the Second World War, the Warsaw Uprising and all the horrors. Which meant that you could take a much more detached view.

Of course this has all become largely irrelevant – well a lot of it has become irrelevant – because of what’s happened since 1989. Because the Second World War has finally ended. Poland’s long Second World War of 50 years is over, and Poland is a perfectly successful country, a vibrant society with, ok, some pretty ridiculous politicians, but who doesn’t have them? And actually, now, as you contemplate Polish history, you don’t naturally think “where did we go wrong?”. Because actually things have turned out quite well. And who knows, maybe the fact that we had a bit of a rough ride for two centuries may have stood us in good stead in other ways. Because if you look at Polish society, in many ways it’s a happier society than a lot of Western societies. Certainly in some areas it’s more socially cohesive and more at ease with itself.

Until 1989, writing Polish history was a bit like delivering a eulogy at the graveside of a much-loved but slightly hopeless friend who’d drunk himself to death – or who had brought it on himself anyway. Whereas now it is actually recording the history of this country, which sometimes goes through better and sometimes worse times.

And this is what really hit me in the face when I started this latest project. Because originally my publishers had wanted me to brush up The Polish Way, and add a few chapters bringing it up to date. But when I sat down and re-read it (I’d originally written it 25 years ago), it struck me as a book penned in another century by a different person. At first I thought it was only a question of tone and style. So I went through it completely, clearing out the anachronisms, and taking out some of that kind of special pleading that came into the eulogy, because you know, the friend was dead, and you wanted to say that “for all his faults, he was a nice chap and he did do a few good things. ” So I did that, and then left it for a month or two. But then I realised that this wouldn’t do at all, and that a much more fundamental re-write was needed.

KP: You mentioned in your introduction to your new book, that when you first wrote The Polish Way, “very few people had much of an idea where the country lay or that it had a history worth dwelling on”. Growing up in England, did you generally feel that people were politely ignorant that there was a government-in-exile in their midst?

AZ: Yes. Well, in England I was always conscious of an enormous amount of sympathy for the Poles amongst the upper-middle classes, where there were wartime memories of comradeship and a sense that something not very good had happened in 1945. But that changed dramatically in different social spheres, for instance amongst the lower middle classes there was no real knowledge of Poland at all. And amongst intellectuals, who were all fashionably lefty, there was a fundamental antipathy.

I remember at Oxford, a friend of mine, a very nice guy, who wasn’t very bright – he had a rowing scholarship – well, he was actually in Prague on holiday in 1968 when the tanks rolled in. But even so, he would actually uphold to my face that communism was good for Poland – it was amazing. That was exasperating.

KP: Did London’s bastions of the emigration such as the Ognisko Polskie club make a strong impression on you as a child?

AZ: Oh absolutely. I lived on the one hand a very English life, and on the other hand a very Polish one. A lot of Polish émigrés – family and others – used to come to our flat, and at Christmas or Easter, solitary old generals would come along – marvellous fellows. And I certainly remember Ognisko very well, with Anders sitting there looking elegant, and Bór-Komorowski, and other generals who all seemed so charming and such fun. There was a marvellous man called General Pragłowski, whom I really liked – he had such a twinkle in his eye. He was the man who was chief of staff to the cavalry division and saved the day at the Battle of Komarów in 1920. And indeed I remember old Colonel Krzeczunowicz who led the famous last charge at Komarów, as a mere captain of the 8th Lancers. It was all rather wonderful.

Of course, a lot of it was slightly comic to my brother and me as children. We used to laugh at a lot of it. All these people sitting around discussing where the boundaries should run – you know, they were still fighting the war, and there was a lot of discussion about what the politics of Poland should be if and when they won it.

But a lot of it was also very sad. Some of these people were magnificent, and you felt incredibly sorry for them. A lot of them had nothing else to sustain them. They were pretty hard up. My parents were very lucky – they had a huge number of English friends, as well as relatives across Europe, and so you could sort of step back from it all. But many of them were just stranded. And of course, because they were strapped for cash, the only English people they knew were lower middle class or working class, who didn’t know and didn’t care, and who just thought they were strange and foreign.

KP: Did you feel that your Polishness was something that weighed on you or was it something that you embraced gladly.

AS: I embraced it. Not everyone did. For instance my siblings didn’t. Ironically, my sister, who is nine years older than me, was given Polish lessons by one eminent professor, Polish history lessons by another eminent professor and Polish literature lessons by another eminent professor. My brother was given Polish language lessons. By the time I came along my parents had rather given up on that sort of thing. And now [laughs], neither of my siblings speaks particularly good Polish, and they know nothing about the country’s history or literature.

Of course, a lot of my Polish contemporaries whom I met at school or at Oxford used to say they were British, and that was that (some of them even changed their names). Some of those, ironically, have since then become more Polish than the Poles, and some have actually moved here. I can think of one I met at Oxford who, the first time I met him and said “Ah, you’re Polish,” told me aggressively that he was British. He’s now living in Warsaw with a Polish wife.

But I embraced it, because I felt there was some fun in it. My problem was that there was a kind of gulf between home and the outside world. Whenever I left home, I suddenly stepped out of the Polish world, and even a European world, and stepped into an English one. Which was very “Little English” then. I was always interested in history, and actually I found that history was one way of bridging that gap. I was mainly interested in Polish history. But I always chose, almost subconsciously, areas of Polish history which connected with other European trends or areas. Indeed, when writing my first history of Poland 25 years ago, I consciously tried to reconnect it. Because if you picked up a book on European history written in the 60s or 70s, Europe seemed to end somewhere around Vienna. If you looked up Poland there would be three mentions. I wanted to rebuild the links between these two rolds. Because I felt they must be somewhere.

For many, being Polish was being nagged at by your mother to speak Polish at home, being sent to Sunday school, and so on. Or else embracing that and joining the Polish scouts, and living in a sort of ghetto, which some of them did, and then feeling out of place and ill at ease in England. For me I turned it into my hobby and then into my work. Which actually made the whole thing perfectly normal.

KP: Your father was ADC to General Sikorski. Recently, there have been a lot of sensationalistic articles – and indeed films – about his death on the Liberator plane. Aside from that, could I ask what your father told you of Sikorski as a man and as a leader?

AZ: My father adored him and they got on very well together. Sikorski I think was very fond of my father and nicknamed him “Bohun” after the character in the Sienkiewicz novels. I’ve still got a signed photograph of Sikorski saying “Kochanemu Bohunowi” – it must have been some secret joke between them.

My father didn’t actually get to England until quite late in 1940 as he was cut off in Vichy France, and he had to trudge across France, and then he was picked up by a British submarine and brought to England.

As he had been to school in England during the First World War, he was incredibly useful as he knew English perfectly, which very few Poles did in those days. Also, my father was extremely well-connected, he’d met Churchill before the war. He knew loads of people and was able to ring up people and say, “this is who you need to talk to”.

But this whole Sikorski business is such a nonsense. It’s going to be like the Kennedy assassination or the Princess Diana thing, you know, people won’t give up.

People always approach these things from the wrong side; of course, if a couple got on badly and the wife fell down the stairs and killed herself, and the man had actually been standing behind her when she tripped and fell, and he inherited a large amount of money from her and then married his mistress, it is tempting to conclude that he pushed her. And that’s rather how people think.

But there are two fundamental things here which everybody forgets. One is that Sikorski – I know that this will upset a lot of people – Sikorski was simply not important enough to warrant being liquidated. Stalin knew by then that he could do what he wanted, and no number of Sikorskis could possibly stand in his way.

That is point one. But the really, really crucial thing is this. And this was brought to my attention by a marvellous man called Group Captain Stanisław Wandzilak, a fighter pilot who had commanded 315 Squadron. He had transferred to the RAF after the war, and in the 50s and 60s he was head of Accident and Investigation for the RAF. Wherever there was an accident, whether it was in Australia or Singapore, or Scotland, he would look into it. He investigated dozens of accidents involving that kind of plane. And he had flown it himself on many occasions. What he said to me was this:

“Look, none of the things that have been suggested, you know, the steering cables being jammed and so on – none of that would have actually guaranteed that the plane would (a) take off, or (b) fall into the sea. With all my experience, which is far greater than anybody who might have wanted to sabotage that plane would have had, with all my experience – even given plenty of time – there is no way that I could fix things so that that plane would take off and fall into the sea. If I’d been told to kill those people, I’d have shoved a bomb on the plane that was timed to detonate over the Bay of Biscay – no one would have been able to investigate it as the place was crawling with German submarines. ”

And that’s the point – it wasn’t feasible.

KP: There seems to be some tension/ awkwardness between those members of the intelligentsia who stayed in Poland and those who remained in emigration – as to who “the true Poles” are and the true guardians of Polish culture. Is that a fair assessment?

AZ: I don’t think that that was true of the older generation. When people first started coming to Poland in the 60s and 70s, people were just so happy to have a breath of fresh air that they were very welcoming. But in the 80s and 90s, more and more people came, and the fact that they could come and go and that they had a decent life to go back to, elicited a rather silly reaction amongst a lot of people here, with insinuations such as: “You’re not real Poles.”

They never did it to me, because I started coming here in the 60s. But I remember people saying that “these people are not real Poles”. And I would answer: “They’re just as good as you,” and they’d say ” Oh, well they never stood in queues, they don’t know what it’s like to face ZOMO”. And I’d say: “Hang on, you didn’t fight on the barricades of Warsaw in 1944, and you didn’t fight in the Charge at Somosierra (1809), that doesn’t mean you’re not a real Pole.”

There was a bit of tension. I wouldn’t say it was not so much amongst the intelligentsia really, more amongst the sort of middle classes. There was a bit of that. And a bit of one-upmanship from people who would say: “I was in Solidarity” and so on.

KP: Your uncle, Augustyn Czartoryski, was the last pre-war guardian of the Czartoryski Museum. The family regained an influence in 1990. Now you are the chairman. It seems that the survival of the museum is one of Poland’s little miracles.

AZ: My function in the museum has been from the beginning as the kind of link between people here and my cousin who didn’t come to Poland a lot and who didn’t know Polish. When I first started coming in the 60s, I made contact with some of the old staff of the museum who were still very loyal to the family, and who were determined that it should remain separate, because there were endless attempts to try and absorb it. My cousin, Adam Czartoryski, still doesn’t speak Polish, but he’s very patriotically-minded, and to all intents and puposes I’m just carrying out his will. We are preparing a huge project to totally redesign the museum.

It is one of the miracles. And there is something unique about that museum. I think its roots lie in the extraordinary personality of the founder, Princess Izabela (1745-1835) who had a wonderful gift of engaging people of every class and intellectual level into her work. That’s why everybody joined in the salvage operation in 1831. And it’s why curators, a hundred years later, did everything to remain true to her intention and vision.

And indeed it’s why I feel (God, I wish I could pass it on to someone else because it’s a frightful task, a terrifying undertaking, it’s exhausting and takes a lot of energy, and I don’t know where I’m going to find the money and all that) but I just feel I owe it to her and I’ll give it everything I can. It’s really her and her extraordinary spirit hovering around that collection.

KP: Is there a role for an aristocracy as such in today’s Poland?

AZ: Well, I think that every epoch creates its own aristocracy. You don’t have to call it an aristocracy, you can call it a leading class or whatever you like. Certainly Poland is in dire need of leadership; you only have to see the respect for people like Władysław Bartoszewski. People want moral authorities, they want role models. Unfortunately, people see very few of them around. And I don’t think that many of the former aristocracy are up to it. I mean, there are some very fine people, but I don’t know whether they’ve got the potential.

However, what is evident is that when somebody capable who has one of the historic names does take on something, it’s a magic combination. For instance, in Zamość, there is such a good atmosphere, a feeling of peace and calm, which is largely due to the fact that people feel that the right man is in the right place. The head of the Zamoyski family, Marcin Zamoyski, is the president of the town, and he wanders around looking like a kindly local aristocrat who is simply running his estate well. There it does produce a very positive feeling, and very positive results.

There is a huge need for leadership of one sort or another, as indeed there is in most Western societies. And people do rather expect, that if you have one of the old names, you have to do something, which some find rather difficult to live up to.

KP: You wrote a book about Król Staś (Stanisław Poniatowski, the last king of Poland). The king was famed for his Thursday dinners, to which he invited cultural luminaries of the day. If you could assemble a dinner of characters from Poland’s past who would be on your guest list?

AZ: Gosh. Well, I’d certainly like to have Król Staś. He’d be absolutely number one. Actually I’m not sure if I’d want them all at the same table. But certainly I’d love to have had dinner with Król Staś, I would love to have had dinner with Chopin, who was quite clearly a man with a huge sense of humour and a very attractive person. I think I would have quite liked to have had dinner with Drucki-Lubecki, and Piotr Michałowski the artist, an interesting man. I’d have loved to have had dinner with Piłsudski. And Szymanowski, one could go on….

KP: In the last chapter of your new book, you raised the subject of IPN (The Institute for National Remembrance), and you mentioned that whilst many minor informers had been exposed, some of the communists who had blood on their hands had gotten off scot free. Do you think that more should have been done to purge the state apparatus and public offices of communists? Or do you think that the bloodless revolution should be celebrated, and the consequences necessary?

AZ: The revolution was bloodless, and that is to be celebrated. And I don’t think that anybody needed to be shot or hanged. It should always have remained a civilised process – as it indeed it was most of the time.

But I think what was a huge mistake was the announcement of the “Gruba Kreska” [* the declaration that there would be a line drawn under all the communist crimes, allowing everyone a fresh start]. Just the fact of announcing it was a blunder. Because I remember distinctly in the autumn of 89, although they were still largely in power, the commies were shitting bricks; they were lying low, paralysed by the sheer strangeness of the situation. They didn’t know which way to jump. The minute the “Gruba Kreska” was announced, they suddenly came out from under the beds and their hiding places, and began merrily asset-stripping and accommodating themselves to the new system. That was a great tactical mistake, and caused untold damage.

KP: You mentioned the post 2004 immigration to England in your book, and suggested that many young Poles had become disgruntled with Polish politics, and that many had left the country “despite the existence of jobs at home.”Do you think there’s a danger that English readers might not grasp that the key impulse came through economic desperation?

AZ: I don’t think I said there were plenty of jobs in Poland. Of course the emigration is mostly economic, and it is mainly from areas where there is high unemployment. But undoubtedly there is an element within it of people who simply find Polish politics or the atmosphere in Poland oppressive or enervating. I think that on the whole today’s immigrants are pretty popular in Britain. That’s going to change when all the hard-working ones come back. Because already there are a lot of shysters coming over and trading on the reputation of the first lot, and doing bad work. And there are a lot of benefit scroungers turning up now, who are getting up to unbelievable tricks. And I think there’s going to come a moment when British people are going to say “hang on”, and get rather cross about that.

KP: Are you working on a new book at the moment?

AZ: Sort of – I haven’t got very far. I’m supposed to be writing a bit of a sequel to The Congress of Vienna. The working title is The War on Terror: 1815-1848. The interesting thing is that the moment they’d put the evil genie Napoleon back in the bottle as it were, and corked him up on St. Helena, people like Metternich and Tsar Alexander, and even Lord Liverpool in Britain, suddenly woke up to the fact that they were now going to have to police Europe, and they very quickly developed a paranoid obsession that there were hundreds of thousands of people and sects which were working to destroy the old European order and bring down all the thrones and to start a great revolution and so on. And they became quite irrational and actually quite mad.

The period between 1815-1848 is when most European countries organised proper police forces for the first time, and secret police networks. Before that only Austria had a proper police, but after 1815 everyone started up their own, and indeed, they didn’t stand down their armies. That’s what I’m supposed to be researching, but I’m not getting very far at the moment…

4 thoughts on ““Actually, things have turned out quite well … “

  • September 7, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    Currently I am reading Zamoyski’s history of Poland. Wonderfully written, first of all, but also it clears up a lot of the preconcieved ideas that I had managed to pick up somehow. I had the opportunity to visit Poland – mainly Kraków – many times in connection with work and I find it a fascinating place.

  • January 8, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    “Moscow 1812, Napoleon’s Fatal March” was a very decent book, but with one almost-fatal flaw:

    “And… and… and… and… and… and… and… and… and…and. and…”

    If I hadn’t previously known anything about Bonaparte’s army’s retreat, I would have predicted — prior to being able to finish the book — that the Grand Army could not possibly have escaped from Russia any earlier than 1825.

    But what do I know.


    Rowing Scholarship Boy

  • December 30, 2016 at 9:24 am

    Mr. Zamoyski, as of today the Czartoryski collection is now the property of the Polish State, and is being moved to the National Gallery in Krakow. In 1985 I first visited Poland with my 10 year son, visiting the small intimate museum that housed the collection was the highlight of my visit. It was quiet, no one was there except the two of us and I stood inches away in front Da Vinci’s Lady with Ermine, to be privileged to have such an intimate viewing I am forever grateful. My son fascinated by the Turkish tent that was captured in the battle of Vienna and all the armour and weapons. It will be a sad day when the collection is moved, but it is the right thing to do. I hope that the building will continue to have a gallery or some other public purpose.
    In 2001 we visited Zamoyst and its gratifying to learn that there has been restoration done and that you have done great deal of landscaping. I look forward to visiting it in the next year.

  • March 22, 2021 at 11:36 pm

    I was born and raise in France and being in USA since 1978
    like you my parent insist that we have to speak polish at home..
    “French you can learn outside” my mother use to say.
    we never talk about my father relative….
    However my mother family is a open book Janucz
    would like to know more about my father side..
    I am going to Poland this summer to investigate
    I really don’t know why I am writing my story…let see..


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