Dr Marta de Zuniga in Conversation with Justin Maciejewski DSO MBE

Wednesday 15 February 2023
Justin Maciejewski receiving the Distinguished Service Order in 2008


MdZ: In your work as the Director of the National Army Museum you’ve placed emphasis on historical partnerships and bonds between Britain and its allies. Why is it important to broaden our perspective and the conventional way of looking at history?

JM: Throughout the 360-year history of Britain’s Army it has achieved its greatest successes when working closely with friends, partners and allies.  I believe that friendship and mutual respect starts with an appreciation of our different identities and perspectives; and these are rooted in our distinct histories that shape our unique cultures.  It is only by really trying to see the world through other peoples’ eyes, once we have spent time on learning our own story, that we understand ourselves better and that we have the confidence to learn about others.  I recently spent a week in Poland visiting some of its wonderful museums and this trip really helped me understand Poland and my own Polish heritage. Understanding at a deeper level what shapes a nation’s perception of its past, and how this creates the frame for how the events of today are viewed, helps us learn and work towards a better future.  History and culture are much more than a hobby.  They shape our world and the more we understand each other the better is the world we can create. When history is distorted, as it has been in Russia, there are terrible consequences as we can see today in Ukraine.

MdZ: Apart from running the National Army Museum, you’ve also established the biggest history festival in London – the Chelsea History Festival – which every year hosts some of the leading authors and is an extraordinary platform for current debates. What is the secret behind the success of the Chelsea History Festival considering how difficult it is to get the public interested in history?

JM: Creating the Chelsea History Festival with our partners the Royal Hospital Chelsea and Chelsea Physic Garden has been a lot of fun and watching it grow even through the pandemic was wonderful.  We could not have achieved this without the support of our primary sponsor Cadogan, and also without the support from event sponsors such as the Polish Cultural Institute.  I think the secret of success has been to create a diverse programme featuring superb historians and living history groups that combine local, with national, European and global history.  There has to be something for everyone in a family.  Creating a place where children can handle objects from a previous age alongside parents whilst parents and grandparents can learn about the people and movements that have created our world is the key to this.

MdZ: As a historian with a 27-year career in the British Army including as Director of the Combat Forces you highlight the shared history of the UK and Poland who have worked closely together on many fundamental issues. But I think you’ll agree that their consistent support of Ukraine stands out as an example of much more than just a similar perspective on current global issues. Where do you think this closeness stems from?

JM: I don’t think that the United Kingdom and Poland have ever been closer than they are today particularly in facing down the direct threat Europe, and most urgently Ukraine, are facing from Putin’s Russia. Both of our countries are in the forefront of supporting our brave Ukrainian friends as they fight for their freedom against Russia. Our two countries have shared history in this kind of struggle born in fighting Nazi Germany during the Second World War. During that war Poland was the first and closest of Allies; when Britain was alone in its fight against Nazi Germany, it was Polish pilots and soldiers who came to Britain from France to join us in the defence of our Island home and their service is very much part of our shared heritage and history.  Indeed, the thriving British-Polish community in many respects is built upon he foundations set by those from this generation that settled in Britain after the Second World War.  I am the son of one of these Polish soldiers who served in the Home Army in Warsaw and then later in Italy. He made his home in Britain. Today my son, a British soldier, is serving in Poland, in the cause of our collective freedom. It is through our shared history that we can understand the deep roots of our friendship.  Both our nations are prepared to stand up and be counted for freedom.

MdZ: The Granville-Skarbek Anglo-Polish Cultural Exchange is a platform that celebrates Polish contributions to British history. As a person of Polish heritage yourself, could you name people whose contributions and life you find inspiring?

JM: There are so many Polish people who have made great contributions to British history and life in the areas of faith, culture and art, science, and military service.  If I was to single out two individuals it would have to be Pope John Paul II, who inspired me to keep my Catholic faith at a stage in my life when it would have been easy to let it lapse.  The second person would be General Anders whose epic example of selfless leadership in the face of the most unbelievable challenges kept alive the flame of Polish freedom in the darkest of times.  My Father served in General Anders’ 2nd Polish Corps, and I grew up with the stories of these soldiers and met many of the veterans.  I am sure that this was one of the inspirations for me to go on and join the British Army. I am happy to say that we now have a bust at the National Army Museum which recognises the contribution of Polish soldiers to our shared military story.

MdZ: Your father Bogusław Maksymilian Maciejewski was also one of those people whose contribution deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated. During the Second World War, he was a soldier of the Home Army and fought in the Warsaw Uprising. But he was also a musicologist and prolific writer who passionately promoted Polish composers in the English-speaking world – just to mention his book about Stanisław Moniuszko – Moniuszko: Father of Polish Opera (1979). Could you tell us a little more about his life?

JM: My Father was a 17-year-old when he and his twin brother joined the Odwet Battalion of the Polish Home Army in 1943.  My Father’s twin brother Władysław, was killed during the Warsaw Uprising. My Father was one of the last remaining fighters in Warsaw in 1944 and after the final surrender he was taken to Sandbostel Camp in Germany.  The camp was liberated on 29th April 1945 by the Grenadier Guards, the Regiment that carried the Queen’s coffin at her funeral this year.  I was a member of the Queen’s Body Guard and every time I saw the young soldiers of the Grenadier Guards I thought of what it must have been like on that day of my Father’s liberation by young British soldiers.  My Father was days away from starvation and death when they arrived.  My Father’s real love was music and he made it his life’s work to promote Polish music here in Britain.  He was a pioneer in this regard of what he called the ‘Polish school’ of classical music. So many of the composers he wrote about were not at all known in the UK in the 1960’s but have now become mainstream such as Szymanowski.  I remember it made him so happy before he died to hear some of the composers he wrote about being on the programme at the BBC Proms or on Radio 3.

MdZ: We all observe the growing interest in Polish culture and history in the UK, however there are still so many people who don’t know much about it. What part of your Polish heritage do you enjoy the most? And what elements of Polish culture would you like to see celebrated and better known here in the UK?

JM: As the Director of the National Army Museum my focus is very much on ensuring that the stories of the shared history between the soldiers and armies of Poland and Britain are better known.  The story of Polish Pilots serving with the Royal Air Force is well known; much less known is the story of Polish soldiers who fought in Africa, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy during the Second World War as part of Britain’s Army.  They maintained their distinct identity as a Polish Army but were totally integrated into the British War effort.  They were the closest of allies and their relationship was built on mutual respect.  I would love this to be better known particularly given that we have such a large and thriving Polish-British community in the United Kingdom today.  The close alliance between Britain and Poland is built on the service and sacrifice of this wartime generation.  We must honour it and make sure that their stories are known.

Justin Maciejewski DSO MBE is the Director General of the National Army Museum. Justin’s leadership experience spans the commercial sector as well as the military, following five years with McKinsey & Company as a management consultant and a 27-year career in the British Army. He has a lifelong interest in Military History. His last appointment in the Army was Director Combat, the professional head of the Royal Armoured Corps and the Infantry. Prior to that he had extensive command and staff experience and was awarded the DSO after commanding his battalion, the 2nd Battalion The Rifles, in Iraq.  During his time with McKinsey, Justin has led projects supporting clients in the private, public and third sectors, focusing on corporate strategy and the planning, implementation and leadership of large-scale business change and development. On leaving the Army, Justin held a visiting fellowship at the University of Oxford in 2012 as part of the Changing Character of War Programme under Professor Sir Hew Strachan. He is a graduate of the UK Joint Services Staff College Higher and Advanced Courses. He holds an MA in Defence Studies from Kings College London and graduated in History from the University of Cambridge, where he specialised in British Imperial and Military History.

Dr Marta de Zuniga is Director of the Polish Cultural Institute in London. She studied in Warsaw, Munich, Moscow and London and lectured at the Department of Journalism and Political Science at University of Warsaw. During her five years as Director of the PCI, Marta’s work has focussed on developing partnerships and projects that highlight close cultural links between Poland and the UK.