This weekend, the world will face the bracing 100th anniversary of 11th November 1918 – a date with very a different meaning in the two traditions in which I grew up, British and Polish. In the UK, on their winter coats people are wearing not just red paper poppies, but elaborate enamelled flowers engraved with the dates 1918-2018. For the British, November 1918 is Armistice, a solemn national occasion of mourning and memory, in a military key. For Poland and its international diasporas, however, the 11th November 1918 is celebration – Independence, the day on which the European empires which had partitioned and gobbled up the old Polish kingdom, and ruled it for 129 years, fell away, leaving the way open for Poles to take up arms and create their country anew (or a remembered version of it).
This 100th anniversary comes at a time when both these countries are debating their identities, and pasts, out aloud before the eyes of the world. In Britain, some look forward to a sharp break with the EU and a rekindled imperial trading future, while others wait for a UK-style en marche progressive wave to sweep those visions, and Brexit itself, clean away. In Poland, meanwhile, the ruling nationalist Law & Justice party, the liberal mayor of Warsaw, and ultra-far-right groups are caught in a three-way struggle over the annual Independence Day march, in a proxy fight for the meaning of the day.
As a historian and British citizen, I’ve always been caught between, and within, these two national conversations, but the tensions of British-Polishness (or Polish Britishness, if you will), are in November 2018 more pronounced than ever. The rise in anti-East European xenophobia seen in the UK during and since the 2016 referendum has, and has not, caught me by surprise. In the 1990s, during an internship at the Foreign Office, a succession of top civil servants commented on my surname with disapproval, declaring: ‘we can’t have foreigners working here, can we?’ In the 2000s, habituating the riverside children’s playgrounds of Reading, I could see local parents and grandparents visibly stiffen when I spoke Polish in that public setting; and visibly relax when I took care to intersperse it with a few sentences in my impeccably middle-class English, as I have learnt to do ever since, on streets, trains and buses. After the Referendum, guests at Oxford high tables and shop workers alike felt free to announce that I was not British, à propos nothing at all. English white-on-white xenophobia is not universal, but it is a persistent daily undercurrent, encountered along the whole social spectrum - upper class, middle class and working class fellow citizens alike, in metropolises, provincial towns and rural pubs.
And in Poland itself, people are equally quick to judge the name-accent-passport combination of their diaspora kin, in archives, hotel receptions, restaurants, conferences. Poles in these varied social situations quickly feel the need to tell the diaspora who they really are: ‘so you are not Polish’, ‘so you are Polish’, ‘so you are foreign’. This urgent need to categorise reflects a deeper set of anxieties about what, and who, ‘Polish’ is, 100 years on from independence. Whoever ends up marching, and in the name of what, in the streets of Warsaw on Sunday, the very equation ‘1918-2018’ is, historically speaking, a potentially uncomfortable sleight of hand. It tacitly equates the Poland created in 1918 by the Versailles Peace Treaty with the Poland created in 1945 by the WWII Allies. Yet, in their borders and peoples, these two countries were very different places. The Poland born on 11th November 1918 had a highly mixed population: the 1921 census found that 30% of its citizens were Ukrainian/Ruthenian, Jewish, German or from other minorities. The Poland of 2018 is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogenous states in Europe. The celebratory slogan ‘1918-2018’ does not seem to make much room for that absent 30%.
So, for the British-Polish and Polish-British, this will be a strange weekend, watching stately processions to the cenotaph in London, and the noisy and possibly violent Independence march in Warsaw – red poppies, red and white flags. Many histories, communities and lives do not fit the clear national stories which these 1918 commemorations try to unite their respective societies around. Yet, in the wider run of European and global history, those who cross boundaries, inhabit margins, or live in zones of overlap make up a large part of the world’s story. Perhaps one day the solemn Polish and British Novembers will also find a way to make their peace with that.