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29 September 2018

Digits, Codes, Ciphers – 100 Years of Polish Independence

Access to information is also the privilege of a select few. This concerns both mathematics and data obtained by decrypting classified diplomatic or military messages. It is hardly surprising, then, that information on the role of the Polish radio intelligence service during the Polish-Bolshevik war or the contribution of Polish cryptologists in deciphering Enigma has remained unknown for many years. Visit the Digits, Codes, Ciphers – 100 Years of Polish Independence exhibition to hear this story...


‘In the beginning was the Word’. This passage from the Gospel of John travelled through the ether in a key moment of the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, completely jamming Soviet radio communications and preventing the Red Army from regrouping on the outskirts of Warsaw. Control over information has for centuries been a source of power and a tool that could turn the tides of war, just as the biblical Word, or Logos. The global Internet network is also an increasingly popular means of winning over people’s souls and votes with words and narratives.


Nearly a hundred years ago, during the Polish-Bolshevik war, Polish cryptologist played a major role in saving Poland’s newly-recovered independence. Excellent work on the part of the radio intelligence service helped Poland locate the Soviet units, learn the enemy’s intentions and react pre-emptively to their operational plans; thus, Poland’s independence was secured for nearly the next two decades.
 When the new, world-encompassing war broke out, the intelligence personnel took up the task of obtaining classified information once again. Even before the war, Polish cryptologists were able to break the ciphers of the German Enigma, which other nations considered to be unbreakable. The personnel’s knowledge, effort and abilities helped end the conflict, possibly saving thousands of human lives.


All this was possible thanks to the Poland of 1918–1939 becoming an excellent place for mathematical education (especially university education). Furthermore, several academic centres produced a number of talented individuals whose original, breakthrough ideas gained them wide recognition.
However, little is still known about these individuals; after all, as one of the most talented of them, Hugo Steinhaus, wrote, ‘In fact, the role of the mathematician is especially burdensome, not only when he or she is asked to speak publicly, and not because mathematics is particularly abstruse or difficult, but because it is alien and distant’ (Hugo Steinhaus, Matematyka wczoraj I dziś [Mathematics yesterday and today], in Między duchem a materią pośredniczy matematyka [Mathematics is the medium between spirit and matter]).


The cracking of the Enigma is symbolic. Polish mathematicians and cryptologists, whose knowledge and achievements were later used by the French and British, contributed to bringing about an earlier end to World War II. The exchange of intelligence data initiated during the war fostered the strategic relationships between the UK and US intelligence services, which later transformed into what is known today as the Five Eyes alliance.
In the same spirit, the Poland of 2018 should build international cooperation in cybersecurity, which is fundamental for future growth and peace throughout the world.


This exhibition is an attempt to comprehensively show the achievements of Polish mathematicians and cryptologists, as well as to demonstrate a continuity between the individuals who took part in the establishment of Polish independence 100 years ago; individuals who devoted their extensive knowledge and skills for the sake of a free Poland, and their contemporary successors, who work to secure further centuries of independence for Poland–both the Poland located within its geographical borders and the virtual Poland within its emerging digital boundaries.

We present:
– Selected materials of the Polish radio intelligence service from the Polish-Bolshevik war. The full collection is listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World International Register;
– Photographs and mementos of the mathematicians from Lviv;
– Unique photographs of the Polish cryptologists who deciphered Enigma;
– The Enigma ciphering machine.

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