Posts Tagged ‘Poland’

WW2 Relevance

|   27 April 2013

The rise of Poland

The market square of Rzeszow

One of the few compensations of growing older is the sense of historical perspective that age can offer. I thought of that last week when I was in eastern Poland researching my next project. I’ve been going to Poland for work for twenty years and the changes I’ve seen during that time have been astonishing. When I first went to Poland the place had only just escaped Communism. Compared to Western Europe it was poor, depressing and lackluster.

(Mind you, it was as nothing compared to the Soviet Union – I visited Moscow in the late eighties and it was a truly desperate place. It’s almost as if Poland was always a half-way house between Western Europe and the Soviet Union. There was real truth in that old joke that used to be told when both Poland and Russia were communist. Someone travels from Paris to Moscow and lands in Warsaw by mistake, thinking it’s Moscow, and says ‘My God Communism is appalling!’. Whilst a communist travels from Moscow to Paris and lands in Warsaw by mistake, thinking it’s Paris, and says ‘My God isn’t capitalism wonderful!’.)

Today, with its communist past just a terrible memory, Poland is thriving – the transformation quite incredible. Take a city like Rzeszow in eastern Poland, for example. I bet most people in the west have never heard of it – the city’s always had to live in the shadow of its neighbour, the immense cultural stronghold of Krakow. I was in Rzeszow last week and it’s a joyous place. The old town centre has been beautifully restored and the suburbs are rich and thriving. (And whilst I continue to sound like a representative of the Polish tourist board, I’d also remark that Ryanair now fly to Rzeszow direct from London).

But I also felt sad. That’s because not only of the appalling suffering endured by the inhabitants of Rzeszow during the war – the Nazis wiped out the thousands of Jews who lived here, and then those Poles who wanted to retain a truly independent Poland were persecuted by the Soviets when the Red Army ‘liberated’ the city in 1944 – but because of the wasted lives of those who lived under communism here until 1989. Wasted not least because they never even had the chance to express themselves freely. In a very real sense the Second World War did not end for the inhabitants of a city like Rzeszow until the fall of communism in 1989.

WW2 Anniversary

|   14 December 2010

Roosevelt and the art of timing.

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt

This Friday, 17th December, is the 70th anniversary of one of the most important speeches ever made by a democratic leader. On this day in 1940 President Franklin Roosevelt announced to the American people his idea of ‘Lend Lease’.

Instead of selling the British what they needed to carry on the fight against the Nazis, Roosevelt said the Americans would ‘lend’ what was required. The folksy analogy Roosevelt used in the speech was that of a good citizen lending a length of hose to his neighbour when his house was on fire. After the fire was put out the hose could be returned, and if it was damaged then the good citizen could later be recompensed with a replacement hose bought by a grateful neighbour.

It was a wholly misleading comparison, of course. Because the British were clearly going to use the equipment the Americans gave them under ‘Lend Lease’ and Roosevelt knew they didn’t have the money to replace it. But nonetheless, Roosevelt’s speech caught the imagination of many Americans – as always FDR knew the right buttons to press. In this case he was locking into the American ‘frontier spirit’ of neighbourliness in adversity.

But for me almost the most significant aspect of this remarkable speech is the timing. Roosevelt had been careful during the Presidential election of 1940 not to give the impression that he was taking America to war. He was standing for an unprecedented third term as President and he knew that any hint of full scale military support for Britain would be dangerous to his chances. So he waited until after his re-election and then carefully announced this opaque ‘Lend Lease’ policy which appealed to the best in the American character.