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Stepping out of rivals' shadow

Poland and its history have been neglected. A research centre at Stirling intends to remedy that situation. Olga Wojtas reports.

German history is a solid undergraduate and postgraduate discipline in the United Kingdom, as is Soviet history. But Polish history is virtually non-existent. Peter Stachura, reader in history at Stirling University, hopes to remedy this through the university's new research centre for Polish history, which has just held its first conference.

"Poland's two main enemies have had their history studied in depth by so many people, and I hope I can redress the balance in some way without staging another world war about it," Stachura says. "Poland is next door to Germany and Russia. You can better understand German and Russian history by comparing it with Polish history. It's an untapped source of interest that I want to further develop."

The centre will primarily run seminars and conferences and produce publications, but it will also encourage the development of undergraduate courses and postgraduate research.

Stachura's father was one of many Polish soldiers who escaped from Poland after it was invaded by Germany and then Russia, and regrouped in Scotland after France fell. Most Poles refused to return to a communist homeland, and there are still about 10,000 first, second and third-generation Poles north of the border. "This is an important part of Scottish life, but unlike some ethnic groups, Poles have kept to themselves and do not have a high public profile," Stachura says. "Research could explore this rich historical source and add to what we know about the history of Scotland."

The centre is financed by the M. B. Grabowski Fund, named after a London-based emigre pharmacist, and the Polonia Aid Foundation Trust, set up in the early 1990s after the Polish government-in-exile in London was disbanded. This government was recognised by Britain and the Allies in the second world war but derecognised in 1945 in favour of Poland's communist government established by the Yalta agreements.

Many Poles believe Britain was complicit, if not instrumental, in the death of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, commander in chief of the Polish military forces and premier of the government-in-exile, who died in an aeroplane crash at Gibraltar in 1943. Stachura says: "There was a suspicion in some Polish circles that Churchill was not unaware of the circumstances in which Sikorski was killed, but the truth probably lies in the files of MI6 and the KGB and will never be revealed. With Sikorski out of the way, it made it easier for the Allies to fall in with the Soviet agenda on Poland."

There is still a great deal of material about the war that has not been properly analysed, Stachura says. "In Britain, there has been a hangover from the propaganda of the second world war. Stalin was the friend of Britain and the United States, and this effectively shunted aside the problems and interests of the Poles."

The centre will commemorate outstanding wartime Polish leaders. There will be an annual lecture in memory of General Stanislaw Maczek, a pre-eminent figure in the emigre Polish community in Scotland. And there will be a postgraduate scholarship in memory of General Wladyslaw Anders, one of the staunchest advocates of the cause of a free Poland in the postwar era.

Stachura says the West's interest in Poland has grown in the past decade, boosted by the country's inclusion in Nato and its prospective membership of the European Union. "There is the potential for bringing awareness of Polish history more firmly into public consciousness. Before the war, Poland was by far the largest and most important country in Eastern and Central Europe, and it was one of the great medieval European states."

As Soviet satellites, the Eastern European countries became largely anonymous to the West. "But Poland stands out when we look at the causes of the break-up of the Soviet Union. The election of a Polish pope and the rise of Solidarity were enduring influences and images in the West, underlining Poland's status as the most important of the countries emerging from the Soviet shadow."

The free trade union Solidarity captured western imaginations as a "committed, heartfelt movement", Stachura says. In Poland itself, the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as the first Polish pope helped reawaken hope. Even before being elected, Wojtyla had a strong reputation in his homeland. "Not as a dissident, because he was always very careful not to antagonise the communist regime, but he represented moral and ethical values that were different from those attached to the regime. He was already something of a rallying point for most Poles, who felt the regime was alien to their tradition, and he set out to exploit that when he became pope."

The pope's contribution to the demise of the Soviet Union is arguably as great as Mikhail Gorbachov's, Stachura says, but it needs to be properly recorded. "There have been a number of biographies, some critical because they are written by commentators who do not like what they see as his conservatism. But I'm going beyond that. It is a very important task to examine the role of the Polish pope in terms of what this signified for very profound political changes in Poland itself and the wider communist bloc. The communist system seemed to be a permanent feature of life, and had produced resignation and apathy among many Poles. The pope reawakened the belief that communism could be changed."

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