Agent Zo: the Polish blonde with nerves of steel

In recent years, far from diminishing, the number of books on the Nazis, Occupied Europe and the Holocaust – events that now lie three quarters of a century in the past – seem only to grow. New archives are opened and attics are raided for forgotten diaries and letters. One historian who has mined them with great skill is Clare Mulley, the author of books on spies and Hitler’s pilots. She has now unearthed a story about a bold and resolute Polish agent, Elzbieta Zawacka, who went by the name of Zo. Her adventures are extraordinary, and their background is no less fascinating. Agent Zo is as much a book

Poland’s MBA scandal has exposed our credentialling culture

In February 2024, Poland’s Anti-Corruption Bureau opened an investigation into the ‘Collegium Humanum Warsaw Management University’, a ‘Private Management School’ opened in 2018 by a man now (for legal reasons) referred to only as Paweł C. That same month, Paweł C was detained by the Public Prosecutor’s Office on suspicion of issuing diplomas in exchange for personal financial gain. Today, the desire for the appearance of wisdom is often greater than the desire for wisdom itself. Poland has an interesting relationship with academic credentials. The Collegium Humanum website boasts of offering ‘prestigious degrees’, including cut-price three-month MBA programmes marketing themselves with the words ‘save 6,200 zlotys and almost a year of studies’. A

A web of rivalries: The Extinction of Irena Rey, by Jennifer Croft, reviewed

Jennifer Croft is a translator of uncommon energy. In 2018 she won the International Booker Prize for her rendering of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. In 2021, she took on Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, a great big historical epic. Now she’s written a satirical page-turner set over what one character calls ‘seven toxic, harrowing, oddly arousing, extremely fruitful weeks’. Like members of some ancient mystery cult, eight translators fetch up in a house near a primeval forest in Poland on the Belarus border. The year is 2017. ‘Bedraggled and ecstatic’, they’ve come to translate Szara eminencja (Grey Eminence), a novel about art and mass extinction, by the Stockholm-worthy woman of

‘The truth will make us free’: students on the march in post-war Europe

One night in early autumn 1982, two young men roamed the streets of Lodz in Poland. It was a dark period in the country’s history – one of many. A mass movement led by the Solidarnosc trade union had recently attempted to challenge the communist regime which had kept the country under a heavy Soviet yoke, with little to offer but food shortages, economic decline and the erosion of national identity. The authorities had responded with force to the widespread strikes, declaring martial law in December 1981 and rolling tanks into cities. Protests were silenced with guns. Thousands were arrested and dozens killed. When Waldemar Fydrych and Piotr Adamcio wandered

Poland’s battle with the EU over migrant quotas

Another day, another spat between Warsaw and Brussels. This time, Poland has declined to participate in the European Union’s latest plan to relocate migrants and asylum seekers within the bloc, with countries who refuse being expected to pay €20,000 per refugee. Hungary has also voted against the pact, while Malta, Lithuania, Slovakia, Bulgaria have quietly abstained.  On 15 June, the Polish parliament (the Sejm) went further and passed a resolution opposing the plan, with the ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) announcing a national referendum on the matter. The referendum will take place on the same day as the general election in either October or November this year.  ‘We

Poland, 1968: the last pogrom

‘Are you Jewish?’ the officious-looking Dutch diplomat asked my dad. ‘Yes’, he said, realising at that very moment, everything had changed. He was no longer Polish; the culture he had been born in, the citizenship he held, the language he spoke, the country he loved – it all meant nothing. He was just Jewish. He couldn’t be both. The diplomat stamped my father’s papers and he left for a new life in western Europe. Up to 20,000 Jews, including my mother, were hounded from Poland at the end of the 1960s. They were accused of supporting Israel in a virulent anti-Semitic campaign led by the communist government. This anti-Jewish campaign

The forgotten history of Poland and Ukraine

Since the outbreak of war in February there has been an overwhelming focus on the historical links between Russia and Ukraine, partly to counter Putin’s grand assertions that Kyiv belongs to Moscow. But this spotlight on Russia has meant the important history of Poland and Ukraine has been fatally overlooked. Ukraine was part of the Polish state for longer than it was inside Russia – and this is key to understanding why Ukrainians are different from Russians. In other words, it is impossible to comprehend Ukraine’s history without examining the impact of both Poland and Russia. A thousand years ago the people who now call themselves ‘Ukrainian’ had not yet

The EU is trying to bring Hungary to heel

If there was a word in Euro-speak for ‘Move on, nothing to see here,’ the EU would undoubtedly have used it in its announcement yesterday about Hungary. Brussels has formally notified Budapest that it is invoking the so-called ‘conditionality mechanism’ against it, meaning a supermajority within the EU can vote to withhold funds from a member state where there is a threat to the rule of law coupled with direct effects on the sound financial management of the EU budget or other EU financial interests. The notification itself has not been publicised; but everything, the EU says, is in order. A letter was sent last November outlining allegations of graft,

Why I drove a lorry to Poland

‘Why the hell did you hire a lorry without a spare tyre?’ asked Rizvana. Fair question. Luckily we had just pulled into a service station near Leipzig when the front tyre blew. The bang was so loud that the cashier rushed outside fearing an explosion. We waited for five hours in the biting wind. German technical prowess came to our rescue. The mechanic arrived with hydraulic lifts, the correct replacement tyre and near-perfect English. Some onlookers gathered as three of us jumped on his torque wrench to loosen the nuts. Our mission was not going to plan. Rizvana Poole is a Labour councillor in my town of Chipping Norton and

Why is the EU attacking Poland and Hungary in a crisis?

With Russian bombs harassing Kiev and Kharkiv, the two unsung heroes of Europe have been Poland and Hungary. With very little notice, they have between them welcomed, fed and accommodated well over a million refugees from Ukraine. This they have done gladly and without complaint. Yesterday the European parliament passed a ponderous 2,500-word resolution devoted to Poland and Hungary. An appreciation, perhaps, or even a vote of thanks? Not exactly. It was actually a call for the EU to take steps as soon as possible to block payment of EU budget and Covid recovery funds to both countries, and criticising Brussels for not having started the process earlier. Why? The

Putin is bad, not mad

I wish people would not say Vladimir Putin is mad. One understands him much better if one says he is bad. In some ultimate sense, evil is a form of madness because it brings destruction to its perpetrators as well as its victims, but Putin is not mad in the ordinary sense of the word. He knows what he is doing. The value of saying something like ‘He would happily murder every single Ukrainian if it served his purpose’ is not to express one’s anger and disapproval (both of which should be obvious) but to shed light on his attitude of mind. Given that he is such a person and

The war is redefining Poland’s place in the world

The Polish government has for years been something of a pariah on the liberal international stage. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, which is firmly on the political right, is at odds with the EU establishment, particularly over its judicial reforms, which critics say will threaten the key democratic principle of separation of constitutional powers. The EU accuses Poland of undermining the ‘rule of law’ and the European Commission is, as a result, withholding the billions of euros that Poland is due from the Union’s coronavirus recovery fund. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could transform all that. The war raises some almighty diplomatic, economic, security and humanitarian challenges for Poland as

The myopic focus on racism at the Polish-Ukrainian border

There are already a hell of a lot of foreign correspondents and human-rights workers at the Ukrainian-Polish border – an immigration problem all by themselves, perhaps. Quite a few of these reporters seem to be desperately seeking ‘racism’ stories, since that is increasingly the only news which the English-speaking media seems able to process. The heart-warming scenes of Ukrainian women and children being given shelter isn’t the story. Because those refugees are white. At the border at Medyka on Thursday the Poles put out barbecued sausages, fruit juice and water for the incoming women and children. There were boxes of toys to cheer the traumatised little ones. At the train

Are Poles really against immigrants?

Krakow The invasion of Ukraine is being felt across Europe. Already hundreds of thousands of displaced Ukrainians are spilling out west in an attempt to flee Russian hostility. Polish society and the conservative government have, on the whole, supported refugees from their troubled eastern neighbour. A recent poll shows that 53 per cent of Poles are in favour of taking in Ukrainian war refugees, compared to just 22 per cent against. In Germany, attitudes are more divided, with 41 per cent supporting the settlement of Ukrainian refugees compared to 38 per cent against. More than half of the supporters of the radical right nationalist Confederation party, whose detractors have long

William Nattrass

The crisis in Ukraine is strengthening the EU

The EU has a knack for turning a crisis into an opportunity. The Eurozone crisis led to the centralisation of economic powers in Brussels; Brexit consolidated the Franco-German push for EU integration; and Covid became the pretext for EU funds being made dependent on members adhering to the ‘rule of law’ for the first time. It’s looking likely that the bloc will repeat this trick with the war in Ukraine. Prior to Russia’s invasion, the EU was being mocked for its divisions: on Russian gas dependency, on proposed economic sanctions, and on political links with the Kremlin. Now, the bloc is trumpeting its unity. And it has been remarkable to

Boris rules out a no-fly zone over Ukraine

What can the UK do to ensure that Vladimir Putin fails in Ukraine? The Prime Minister has just given a press conference in Poland with his counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki where he repeated his assertion that ‘Putin will fail’ and that the West ‘will succeed in protecting and preserving a sovereign, independent and democratic Ukraine’. The Russian president, he said, had underestimated the resolve of Ukraine and its allies. He also warned that things were likely to get much worse, saying:  Johnson was confronted by a campaigner who accused him of being afraid ‘It is clear that Vladimir Putin is prepared to use barbaric and indiscriminate tactics against innocent civilians to

The EU is pushing Hungary and Poland to the brink

Storm clouds looming over the EU’s ‘rule of law’ dispute turned a shade darker on Wednesday. The European Court of Justice rejected challenges from Hungary and Poland against a controversial budget mechanism linking adherence to democracy and EU funding.  In an indication of the significance of the ruling for the bloc’s future, the verdict was the first ever to be broadcast live from the court. The European Commission will now come under intense pressure to apply the rule of law mechanism and withhold long-term budget funds for Hungary and Poland, along with the pandemic recovery funds it has already refused to hand over to those states. But the escalation of the conflict

Poland’s abortion culture war is a battle for the country’s soul

This week it emerged that a hospital in the city of Białystok in Poland refused to grant an abortion to a pregnant woman, even though her baby had no chance of survival. The abortion was requested because of the woman’s psychological state after learning about the foetus’s prospects. Although two psychiatrists confirmed she had severe depression, the hospital said this did not meet the level of risk required for an abortion under Polish law, after a ruling by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal last year made it illegal for doctors to carry out abortions unless a woman’s life is at risk or if the pregnancy is the result rape or incest.

Poland steps up its legal fight against Europe

Poland’s legal wrangles with Europe show no sign of ending. Back in September, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal determined that some parts of EU law might be contrary to the country’s constitution. Now the tribunal has lit another firework: doing the same in respect of the European Convention on Human Rights (the ECHR). Is this just another round in the war between the European elite and the ruling political party, the PiS (which is cordially detested in both Brussels and Strasbourg)? You’d be forgiven for thinking so. Yet this latest wrangle is much more significant, since it opens up an entirely new front. The ECHR is separate from the EU; it and the Human Rights

The EU doesn’t understand Hungary and Poland

Rather like Germany with its ill-starred ‘Drive to the East’ in the 19th and 20th centuries, one suspects the EU is quietly regretting its keenness to absorb most of the states of eastern Europe in the early 2000s. If not, events in Poland and Hungary this week may well persuade them. For a long time, national governments in the older EU states have more or less willingly subscribed to two articles of faith: the complete supremacy of EU law over their national law, including their constitutions, and the unchallengeable power of the EU Court of Justice — not only to expound EU law but also to extend and develop it,