There’s an unlikely connection between Polish president Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash in Russia last weekend, and an eccentric New Zealand-born poet who died on this day in 1997.
Kaczyński, as we know, was on the way to a commemorative service to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, in which some 22,000 Poles, including more or less the entire officer class of the Polish military, were murdered. Commentators have since referred to the “Curse of Katyn”, pointing out that a significant portion of the country’s military and civilian elite also went down in Kaczyński’s plane.
The 1940 atrocity had been compounded by the decades-long cover-up which insisted that it was the Nazis, not the Soviets, who carried it out and only under Gorbachev did Moscow acknowledge the truth. The 2008 Oscar-nominated film Katyn brought the incident to life again, and the commemorative service was seen as an important step in relations between Russia and Poland.
The aforementioned poet, born in New Zealand in 1903, was the grandly named Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk – the title, while technically legitimate, had been relinquished by Potocki’s father only to be reactivated by his son. The Potockis are an illustrious Polish line full of compelling figures like the writer, adventurer and occultist Jan Potocki (though he wasn’t among the poet’s direct forebears).
Potocki’s grandfather had emigrated to New Zealand but Potocki himself barely had a good word to say about his country of birth, and in the 1920s he left to seek adventure abroad, leaving a wife and child behind. Settling in London, he became notorious as an eccentric who roamed London’s Soho and Fitzrovia in arresting ensembles. Julian Maclaren-Ross’s biographer Paul Willetts records: “His waist-length hair plaited and tied with a girlish bow, he wore sandals, a billowing scarlet medieval robe with a silver star emblazoned on the front, and a heavy-looking gold chain round his neck with an ornate medallion on the end, the whole risible ensemble topped by either a crown or a velvet cap”.
The crown represented his claim to be the rightful King of Poland, but even if that position had been vacant it would take some very creative genealogy indeed to put Potocki on the short list. Nonetheless he styled himself “Władysław the Fifth of Poland, Hungary and Bohemia”, followed by a handful of other titles winningly rounded out by “High Priest of the Sun”, a reflection of his pagan beliefs.
In 1932 the poet was prosecuted and jailed for six months for attempting to publish erotic verse (it hadn’t even gone to press). The experience turned Potocki into an embittered Anglophobe (like Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln, whom we encountered recently), and for a while he refused to even speak English – fortunately he had a number of other languages, ancient and modern, up his sleeve.
So about now you’re probably wondering, what – apart from Polish heritage – is this Katyn connection?
In 1943, acting on information gained from the Polish expatriate community in London, Potocki published the Katyn Manifesto, which (correctly) blamed the massacre on the Soviets. For the British, allied with the Soviets since 1941, the revelations were supremely unwelcome, and they continued to maintain that the Nazis had carried out the massacre, although the government secretly knew the truth. The authorities’ response was first to dismiss Potocki as a kook (not difficult, admittedly), then to lock him up. Not surprisingly this grave injustice disposed him even less favourably to the English, as works like My Private War Against England indicate.
History may have proven him right on Katyn, but before we rush to embrace Potocki as a wronged visionary, it’s worth taking another look at that Manifesto. In it he calls on the Jews “to repent and behave themselves” (and this – remember – was in 1943, when the furnaces of Auschwitz were blazing brightest). His virulent, life-long anti-Semitism brings to mind another caped versifying pagan, Moondog, who railed against Jews even while boarding with composer Philip Glass.
Even before the war, Potocki was known for his pro-Nazi views, and was an admirer of the notorious fascist William Joyce, who broadcast from Germany as “Lord Haw-Haw” and was later hanged for treason. Potocki was blinded by hatred for the Soviets, and always maintained that as far as Poland was concerned, the Nazis were the lesser of two evils. Even after the war, after it became clear that Poland had suffered more than any other nation, after the full scale of the Holocaust was known, he maintained that the Nazis were less perpetrators of genocide than victims of defamation.
Potocki’s repellent racial views were prompted by his unabashed elitism, but he was not always easy to second guess; he disdained Catholics almost as much as Jews and admired the Maoris, for instance, as a superior race. He was obsessed with heredity, particularly his own, and believed the same principles which guided pedigree horse breeding could breed pedigree people.
Potocki would be a much more marginal figure than he already was if not for the 2001 biography Unquiet World, written by his cousin Stephanie de Montalk. Like the classic account of literary eccentricity, A.J.A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, the book is as much about the process of biographical enquiry as its findings, though it has the advantage of the author’s long, personal contact with her subject.
Potocki had lived long enough to see his beloved Poland torn apart and put together again, but even towards the end of his life he was convinced that dark forces were out to get him because of his Katyn Manifesto. In the end he lived to a grand old age; born three years into the 20th century he died in France three years before its close.
While the Polish president and the poet pretender never met, a strange twist of history brings the death of the former together with the death day of the latter within the space of a week which also saw commemoration of their shared obsession, the Katyn massacre.