Obituary: Count Edward Raczynski
EDWARD RACZYNSKI was the last surviving figure of the Polish world which was shattered in 1939, and the figurehead of the Polish community in Britain. He came to London as Ambassador in 1934, and continued to serve his country's cause in Britain for over 50 years, ultimately as President of the Polish Government in Exile.
His connection with England goes back to the First World War. After completing studies at the Universities of Krakow and Leipzig, he attended the London School of Economics before joining the foreign service of the reborn Polish Republic in 1919. It was during an early posting to London in 1925 that he met and married his first wife, an Englishwoman, Joyous Markham. After spells of distinguished service in Copenhagen and Geneva, as delegate to the disarmament conference, he was appointed Ambassador to the Court of Saint James's.
The Polish regime of the late 1930s found little favour with British public opinion, and Raczynski mobilised all the reserves of his breeding, sense of humour and immense personal charm to reverse this. Though physically not an imposing figure, he made his presence felt, and the residence in Portland Place assumed all the allure of a leading embassy. The apogee of this posting came in 1939, with his signature of the mutual assistance pact that effectively brought Britain into the Second World War.
During the war, Raczynski was in the curious position of being Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Polish Government in London, as well as continuing in his role as ambassador. Few high-ranking Poles had such good connections in Britain, and he was therefore also used in a number of other areas. Like other Polish Anglophiles who had never doubted Churchill's word and continually reassured their compatriots on the subject, he found the Allied betrayal of Poland at Yalta doubly hard to live with.
On 6 July 1945 Raczynski was summoned to the Foreign Office and informed by Anthony Eden that he and his government were no longer recognised by Britain. He vacated his embassy, but he did not give up his perceived mission. In the first instance, he served on the Home Office Interim Committee for Polish Affairs, which dealt with the sad business of rehabilitating the defeated soldiers to a life of exile in Britain. He was chosen to represent Poland in the European Movement from its foundation in 1948, and he doggedly attended all its meetings, wherever they took place, to speak up for his country.
Bravely facing up to a new life of impoverished gentility in an unfamiliar semi-detached, suburban environment, Raczynski continued to take a keen interest in emigre politics. When a split developed in 1954, he did everything he could to defuse the crisis, but felt obliged, along with Generals Anders and Bor-Komorowski, to challenge the then President of the government in exile and form an alternative government. Long after the rift was healed, he became President himself, in 1979, and in spite of his age and almost complete blindness he did a great deal to reaffirm the symbolic relevance of the office.
It was a measure of his success that he was visited and consulted by some of the key figures in the Polish events of 1980-82. To them he was not only a powerful symbol of Poland's independent past and the embodiment of the legitimacy trampled in 1944, but also a wise and practical elder statesman. He retired from his post in 1986, aged 95, but he remained an important figure. During his state visit to Britain in 1991, President Lech Walesa insisted on making a special pilgrimage to see him (as he had in the darker days of the early 1980s). Raczynski's 100th birthday was celebrated by Poles in London and Warsaw, and the messages of congratulation he received on that occasion, from Walesa and John Major amongst others, as well as the honorary knighthood bestowed on him by the Queen, were more than polite gestures.
Although he was vivacious and surprisingly active, even in his nineties, Raczynski was not a forceful personality. This may have had something to do with his mother, the formidable Countess Roza, a grande dame with an unshakeable faith in her own position who thought nothing of telling Marshal Pilsudski how to run things on occasion. But it was his moderation and tact, combined with a deep intelligence, that won Raczynski the respect of Poles and foreigners alike, and permitted him to uphold the honour of his defeated country.
The Raczynski family were traditionally bookish. They are remembered principally for founding a magnificent library in Poznan and publishing historical and literary manuscripts in the 19th century. In this respect, Count Edward was a worthy member of the clan. He was extraordinarily widely read and himself a distinguished author. He wrote wartime diaries, which were translated into English, two biographies and two volumes of reminiscences, as well as translating Omar Khayyam into Polish verse. In 1991 he bequeathed what was left of his estate in Poland, namely the great country house at Rogalin and a collection of works of art dispersed in other museums, to a foundation which he endowed for the purpose.
He was the last scion of an ancient and noble house, and although he leaves three daughters form his second marriage, to Cecylia Jaroszynska, his name has died with him. It could hardly have done so on a better note.
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