Wladyslaw Sikorski

65 years after his death, the magazine „Der Spiegel“ headlines „Wie starb General Sikorski?“ – How did General Sikorski die?

The answer seems to be easy: on the 4th July 1943, a liberator of the Royal Air Force crashed into the sea almost immediately after its takeoff from Gibraltar airport. The crash happened after a stopover. Among its passengers were the Prime-minister of the Polish government-in-exile, General Władysław Sikorski, his daughter Zofia as well as Victor Cazalet, British liaison officer to the Polish forces. Sikorski was on his way back from Egypt and Iraq where he inspected the Polish forces. All eleven passengers died, the only survivor of the accident being Czech pilot flight lieutenant Eduard Prchal.

Sikorski was born on the 20th May 1881 in Tuszow Narodowy (today Poland; then Austria-Hungary) as a son of a farmer. His father died when Sikorski was still a child. He studied civil engineering in Cracow and L’viv (today Ukraine). After his studies he committed himself to underground politics. He fought in the First World War, in the Polish-Soviet War, and always for Polish independence.

The Second World War changed everything: After the defeat of Poland in September 1939, the country was devided between Germany and Russia. Sikorski managed to flee to Paris. He united the Polish exile soldiers (most of them Air Force and Navy) to an improvised exile army under his command. He also became Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile. But after the German had taken Paris, he and his staff had to flee to London to reform the government there under their president Władysław Raczkiewicz. In London, he was received by King George VI., members of the Government and the chiefs of the services and even travelled to the United States to visit president Roosevelt on behalf of the Free Poles. His exile army fought side by side with their allies and under the British flag in the Battle of Britain, in France and in the Orient. 

So why did the question about his death come up 65 years later? Only a year before Sikorski’s death, in 1942, Prince George, Duke of Kent and youngest son of King George V. had died in an air crash as well – neither suspicion nor conspiracy followed. In general,  travelling by plane was far from being not as safe as it is today.

But the Spiegel article refers to a current event: in 2008 Sikorski’s corpse had been exhumed. The Institute of National Remembrance in Poland (IPN) had expressed doubts about it being an accident and called for an exhumination responding to the many conspiracy theories which had emerged right after the death of the Polish general and carried on in the post-war period.

Some of these theories say, Sikorski’s politics had made him a problem for Churchills appeasement policy and approach towards the Soviet Union. Therefore, this theory says, the British government must have given the order to kill Sikorski. This story and the apparent problematic relation between Poland and the Soviet Union is mostly based on the massacre of Katyń:

In April 1943, the Nazi regime published the discovery and exhumination of thousands of Polish soldiers and officers in a forest near by Katyń. About 22.000 Polish had been executed by members of the Russian NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Goebbels tried to use this information (which was soon confirmed to be true) as part of German propaganda to weaken the alliance between the Great Britain, the Polish exile-government and the Soviet Union. Sikorski demanded an independent investigation of the massacre by a Committee of the International Red Cross. Stalin, on his part, tried to blame Germany for the massacre and denounced Sikorski as a Nazi collaborator, calling on Iwan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London, to end relations to the Polish exile-government.

But was Sikorski really the patriotic trouble-maker towards diplomatic politics between the allies he was made out to be? Even in 1941, Sikorski and Stalin had secured their mutual support in the alliance. And it must have been clear to Sikorski that neither Churchill nor Roosevelt wanted to jeopardize the alliance with Stalin. They had been aware of the Soviet importance in the War against Germany. And this already assumes Sikorski and Katyń even played such an important role in the diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Great Britain.

British newspapers like the Times1 described his death as a grievous loss to the Polish people and their allies. They also openly discuss the difficult relation between Sikorski and Stalin in consequence of the graves of Polish officers at Katyń earlier that year, „cunningly exploited by Goebbels“. But, due to the Times2, hopes of a rapprochement were beginning to raise with Roosevelt as mediator. That would certainly clear Stalin as well as Churchill. Additionally, the Times describes Sikorski as “a democrat by nature as well as by nurture, a statesman who never permitted emotion, however justifiably, to colour his own appraisal of events or to warp his judgement in matters of high policy, he played a conspicuously useful part in inter-allied diplomacy”3. According to their view, he even used his visit at the Middle East to explain “his policy of seeking and maintaining an honourable agreement with the Soviet Union”4The newspaper, however, makes no assumptions concerning a murder and its perpetrator, not even Hitler.

Perhaps the adherents of the murder theories exaggerate Sikorski’s and Poland’s political significance, because the inquiries for further investigations didn’t stop after his death. And there had been two investigations by the RAF including Polish officers in the commission, which found that the most likely cause of the accident was a mechanical blockade. The exhumination of 2008 could exclude that Sikorski had been poisoned, strangled or shot – not more. In fact, no investigation could clarify the situation to absolute certainty, as it is often the case with war time deaths. This is probably the reason why the conspiracy theories emerged in 1943, survived the post-war period (in 1967 the dramatist Rolf Hochhut wrote the play “Die Soldaten”, and had a fictional Churchill say: “I believe it would be best to have Sikorski killed” / “Ich glaube, es wäre besser, Sikorski umzubringen!”) and lasted until 2008. 

Perhaps, the Czech pilot Eduard Prchal was right in saying: “The Communists simply can not understand that a statesman can die of a natural death or lose his life in an accident.” He made the heavy Polish luggage responsible for the accident. 

referring to: Jan Puhl, Wie starb General Sikorski? In: Spiegel Online, 26.11.2008, http://www.spiegel.de/einestages/zweiter-weltkrieg-a-948032.html

  1. The London Times, 6th July 1943, p.5, “A Polish Patriot”.
  2. The London Times, 6th July 1943, p.5, “A Polish Patriot”.
  3. The London Times, 6th July 1943, p.5, “General Sikorski”.
  4. The London Times, 6th July 1943, p.5, “General Sikorski” .

Upcoming Event: ADEF Workshop and Keynote Lecture “Competitors & Companions: Britons and Germans in the World”

Next week, the Centre for British Studies at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin will host the ADEF Workshop  “Competitors & Companions: Britons and Germans in the World”, organized by Daniel Steinbach (Exeter), Tobias Becker (GHI London) and myself. The complete programme of the workshop is available at the ADEF homepage. Please register to attend the workshop. The public Keynote Lecture will be given by Professor Gaynor Johnson (Kent).

Capital of Europe

When the Nazis conquered the continent in 1939/1940, political elites from all over Europe fled to Great Britain, last remaining safe haven of the Allies in reachable distance. Most European governments whose territory was now being occupied by Nazi Germany moved to London. Representatives of France, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Norway and Greece inhabited flats and houses in the British capital, all around Hyde Park and close to the British authorities. A significant number of them had arrived as individual refugees, but once in London, they revived their former contacts to set up the mechanics of national committees and governments-in-exile, but also to continue political collaboration on an international level. The British government and King offered symbolical and political, but also substantial technical and financial support. European cooperation was expected to strengthen the allied cause. Needless to say, this collaboration also entailed conflicts. But, for the time of the war, the European political exiles and their British counterparts were stuck with each other – and most intended to make the best of this unusual geographical proximity and collaborate closely to defeat Nazism and plan a post-war world. Thus, just as Berlin became the capital of fascist Europe, London became the capital of free Europe, the seat of almost all European governments.

This blog engages with the history of collaboration between the European governments-in-exile in London during the Second World War and between them and their host country, Great Britain. It discusses questions of international relations using the local urban study of central London during the war. A special interest is given to aspects of legal history: The legal position of governments-in-exile, the activities of international lawyers in their circles, and the discussions leading to a new international law and international juridicial system.