Amongst all the controversial figures of the first half of the 20th century, one man stands out. Allegedly a quadruple agent, a lord of Freemasonry, a Catholic Jew, a clandestine communist, and a persevering Polish patriot. But despite being involved in many pivotal historic events, you won’t find Józef Retinger’s name in most history books.
He was advisor to the Mexican president Plutarco Elias Calles as well as two Polish wartime Prime Ministers: W. Sikorski and S. Mikołajczyk. He was a trusted friend of the British Intelligence Service during World War II, and became so crucial in Polish-British relationships that he could – and would – call Winston Churchill in the middle of the night. After the war, he became a prominent figure in European integration, and played an important role in founding both the Council of Europe and the enigmatic Bilderberg Group, rumoured to be ‘the shadowy world government1.
However, for two reasons, writing anything about Retinger can only be compared to walking on thin ice. First of all, he was one of the most cunning politicians ever. He never hesitated to pull the strings from the back seat, to use the most bewildering personal connections, or to walk the very edge of what was legal in pursuit of his goals.
Secondly, his goals were not always obvious, and still remain so until the present day. Rarely did he occupy any official post, mostly serving different powerful man as an advisor, often becoming a sort of grey eminence behind them.
Who was he? How did he come to that level of prominence? What where the results of his political machinations?
Let us present a few snapshots from his eventful life to prove his position as one of the most intriguing political characters in 20th century history. They will make you think we should be all taught about him, even if it’s just for the purpose of making history lessons that much more thrilling.
A master of misinformation
Constantly shifting around in a thick web of mysterious plans and actions, Retinger never admitted nor denied any of the rumours flying around him. It was clearly a tactic he used to mislead his opponents.
One day, his friend Denis de Rougemont, a Swiss writer, cultural theorist and European federalist, asked him:
Joseph, my friend, they say you are a Freemason, an agent of the Intelligence Service, of the CIA, Vatican and that you collaborate with communists. Sometimes, they even suggest that you’re Jewish and… gay. What is the truth about you?
Reportedly Retinger laughed and said:
What can I say? Tell them that’s not the half of it!
The youngest person ever to earn a PhD at the Paris Sorbonne
If anything concerning Retinger can be agreed on, it’s that he was a genius. At the age of 20, he completed a PhD in French literature at the Sorbonne. Keep in mind that he was Polish – French was only his second or third language. Despite this, he managed to achieve this title quicker than anyone before and after him. He was a talented writer himself and even tried his luck writing novels and dramas – one he wrote with his friend… Joseph Conrad.
Put simply, he was an outstanding polyglot, proficient in at least five languages at an almost-native level. All these capacities and talents made him the perfect candidate to become an elite diplomat.
A friend to all the most powerful men in the world
Apart from being a mastermind, he had a talent even more extraordinary and rare. A historian2 wrote of him:
Retinger excelled at getting things done using the leverage of carefully selected influential personalities. He had this, extremely rare for a male, infallible intuition.
Reportedly, even in his early years, he could immediately recognise outstanding qualities in the people surrounding him. In addition, he had an uncanny ability to befriend others. It all meant he became surrounded by powerful personages, even from the beginning of his career.
Just to name a few, he was a personal friend of artists such as Joseph Conrad, André Gide (the Noble Prize winner), Erik Satie, Diego Rivera, and Maurice Ravel. He also became a trusted confidante of many noble, rich and powerful men and politicians who had a decisive influence on 20th-century history, including the likes of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and EU co-founder Paul Henri-Spaak.
He was so incredibly well connected that when his personal secretary was arrested by the Polish political police in 1946 (note that the post-war police were subordinate to the Soviet-imposed government) he simply rang Vyacheslav Molotov3 who had him freed after a few days. What is most surprising about this is that at the time, Retinger was widely believed to be a secret agent of the British Intelligence Services – it just goes to show how the personal relationships he established were stronger than even the most polarised political divisions!
The grey eminence
In 1939, after Poland was defeated by the joint invasion of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Polish political elites fled the country and established the Polish Government-in-Exile. Soon, General Inspector of the Armed Forces Władysław Sikorski, a prominent politician and war hero, was nominated to become this exiled government’s prime minister. The government’s main office was in London, and its existence and strength were strongly reliant on Poland’s alliance with Great Britain. At that time, Retinger, who had lived on-and-off in London since 1911, had already established himself as the most vocal Polish voice in British politics. Naturally, one of Sikorski’s first decisions was to hire Retinger as his personal advisor.
The two gentlemen quickly established a very close professional and personal relationship. Importantly, they successfully maintained Polish involvement in European politics, despite Poland’s factual inexistence on the map. In 1941, they managed to push through one of the most important and controversial treaties of World War II: the Sikorski-Mayski Treaty.
The new treaty’s provisions nullified all the previous pacts between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (including the 1939 partition of Poland), re-established diplomatic relations between Poland and the Soviet Union, and granted ‘amnesty’ for all Polish citizens captured and sent to camps during the Soviet invasion of 1939. These newly-released gulag prisoners would go on to form a new Polish army of around 40,000 soldiers.
To say that this parley with the Soviet Union, a mere two years after its treacherous attack on Poland, was a risky and controversial move is an understatement. The vast majority of Polish political elites were ferociously against any contact with Poland’s recent invader. The treaty resulted in great turmoil within the Polish Government-in-Exile but it eventually turned out to be a difficult but inevitable compromise. Retinger, heavily involved in the preparations and in charge of the treaty in its early stages, wrote of it in his memoirs:
Intrinsic, persevering patriotism has to become our weapon of choice and we have to respect the meaning and value of a compromise (…). Sikorski used to say that emotions pass and it’s the geography that remains. Because geography placed Poland between Germany and Russia, we were pushing very hard to get the Sikorski-Mayski Treaty signed.
This mixture of patriotism most idealistic and pragmatism most brutal is the perfect reflection of Retinger’s overall political stance. In this case, it helped save the lives and freedom of thousands.
A seemingly unkillable yet untrained commando
Quite a few people wanted to be rid of the Sikorski-Retinger duo. They escaped assassination twice. In 1942, an incendiary bomb was found in their plane whilst they were flying over the Atlantic. It was miraculously defused by one of the air force officers on-board. Six months later, on a flight from Canada to the US, both engines on their plane suspiciously stopped working at the same time. Thanks to the virtuosity of their pilot, they both escaped with minor injuries after a masterful emergency landing in the middle of nowhere.
Even though he accompanied the general in each and every one of his travels, there was one fateful journey he missed: Sikorski’s inspection of the Polish corps in the Middle East. On his way back, soon after a short stopover in Gibraltar, Sikorski’s plane fell into the ocean, killing every passenger, including Poland’s PM himself.
There is a myriad of hypotheses as to what happened and why Retinger wasn’t there. Some people go as far as implying that he may have known or even taken part in plotting this possible assassination (there’s no hard evidence it wasn’t an accident).
Most likely, however, is that it was his devilish luck that saved him from death yet again. According to the husband of Sikorski’s daughter (who had also died in the crash), there weren’t enough spaces on the plane and her father had decided to take her instead of Retinger on board. He had apparently stated that Retinger didn’t need to go on this trip and would serve better staying in London.
But the most convincing evidence that Retinger was seemingly invincible was when he became the oldest man ever to parachute into occupied Poland. It happened in 1944, a few months before the Warsaw Uprising. He was 56 years old and had zero parachuting experience or proper training. His preparations were also unusual, to say the least:
As an elderly man, I refused to do any training jumps. I consulted my doctor and presented my instructor the following three possibilities.
First: I jump and nothing bad happens, then what’s the point in going through this twice? Second: I jump and I break my neck, then it’s meaningless if it happens in Great Britain or Poland. Third: I jump and I break my leg, then I prefer to break it in Poland, where at least I’ll be able to continue and accomplish my mission.
Both the instructor and doctor eventually agreed with me, so I knew nothing but the theory at the day of my actual jump.
This risky mission into Poland was due to Retinger volunteering to be a special emissary of the Government-in-Exile. He was to drop in and make contact with the Polish Underground State, whereupon he would present them details of the political situation in Europe of 1944, and then investigate the state’s structure, political bearings and possible willingness to co-operate with the looming Soviet army.
But the mission became even more difficult than he had prepared for. After a few weeks, he became the Gestapo’s most wanted enemy. At the same time, part of the Underground State’s counter-intelligence suspected him of being a double agent, either working for the most hated Soviet Union or Great Britain. Soon after, he was almost fatally poisoned by a Polish hitman and became almost entirely paralysed.
Only thanks to his personal guide and secretary Tadeusz ‘Celt’ Chciuk did he manage to evacuate the occupied country and return to England with the precious intelligence. He spent the next few months recovering at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane, before returning to his political activities as if nothing had happened.
The man behind the world’s unofficial government
After the end of World War II and the Tehran Conference, it became pretty much obvious that Retinger’s life-long efforts to re-establish an independent and democratic Poland were futile. Even though the country contributed to the Allied victory, it was condemned to fall on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. This tragic turn of events shut down any chances for a quick rebuild and made the country considerably dependent on the Soviet Union’s politics.
For Retinger, just like for all Poles who fought (in one way or another) during the war, this bitter ‘victory’ was a hard blow. The new government treated him like a British agent and Poland’s vicious enemy. Immediately after the war, he made best use of all his connections and managed to get Poland some material help from the British Army, which was being demobilised and getting rid of its equipment, but he knew that his mission was over.
He was 57 and could have retired – but then that would’ve been rather out of character…
Instead, he immediately leapt upon realising his all-time obsession – a united Europe, where countries’ economies and external policies were so intertwined that no one would ever think about starting another war. Even though his objective had changed, his methods didn’t. He started networking amongst the most powerful politicians in Western Europe and catalysed the foundation of several organisations, including the European League for Economic Co-operation, the Independent Association of European Action, and even The Council of Europe. Most importantly, he was constantly pushing for all of these organisations to unite, co-operate and grow into importance. The Observer wrote of his mission for uniting Europe:
Retinger remained close friends with all the leaders of the European governments in exile and, amongst other things, started a dinner club for their prime ministers (this is where the idea of Benelux, the union of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg, was born). No one had anything against these political intrigues since he showed a significant lack of interest in developing his own career, and was instead hugely invested in the future of all the countries in the European family of nations.
Finally, he was instrumental in founding the Bilderberg Group, an organisation that even today is simply the epitome of who Retinger was. It is a secretive group, consisting of the crème de la crème of the most influential politicians from around the world. Its members meet once a year and discuss global issues. There’s no agenda nor any minutes. A few established journalists are invited every year, but just like other participants, they are obliged to keep everything they hear a secret.
Since the group’s functioning is so mysterious, and because so many important figures are involved, there is a myriad of conspiracy theories surrounding it: accusations of king-making (e.g. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton participated only once in their lifetimes – a year before their respective elections), of rigging media coverage, of being an unofficial (thus uncontrolled) world government, of being closely tied to Freemasonry and executing its orders. You name it.
Basically, the Bilderberg Group is accused of more or less the same things Retinger was accused of throughout his entire career. This is fairly unsurprising – it’s simply following the modus operandi of its co-founding honorary secretary general.
The man who was almost forgotten
That’s Józef Retinger: ambiguous, controversial, ultimately courageous, brilliant and absolutely impossible to judge. However, people were judging him from the very start of his career and the less they knew about him, the more stringent those judgements tended to be. His secretiveness was too sophisticated for the world of polarised and populist politics, and because no one could easily define and capitalise on his legacy, his activities have practically fallen into oblivion.
But the more we do know about him, the more questions it provokes. Was he a multiple agent? What did he learn and whom did he meet during his studies in the Vatican? Was he a Freemason? Why didn’t he die in the plane crash with Sikorski? How did he survive in occupied Poland with the Gestapo and assassins following him day and night? Whom did he serve after World War II? Is his Bilderberg Group an innocuous boys club or a harmful bunch of cruel puppet masters?
Even though scholars have eagerly investigated his life for the last 20 years, the truth is we don’t really know that much. All we know for sure is that he was one of the most fascinating political entities of the 20th century, and that his bewildering life story can teach us a lot about Europe’s history and the significance of the international unity that he strived for.