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THE EAGLE UNBOWED. POLAND AND THE POLES IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR

Halik Kochanski

Penguin Books, London UK 2012 (ISBN 9781846143540)
Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2012 (ISBN 9780674068148)

 

 

 

 

 

Reviewed by Anna M. Cienciala, Prof. Em. History (University of Kansas)

 

Halik Kochanski is a British historian of Polish descent. Separately, her parents survived Soviet deportation, returned to Poland, and then proceeded to Britain. They met in London, married and decided to stay. Their daughter Halik - a diminutive of the Polish name Halina - obtained her M.A. at Oxford and her Ph.D. at King's College, London. She taught history there, also at University College. She published a book on the colorful 19th century British general - Sir Garnet Wolseley: Victorian Hero (The Hambledon Press, London 1999), also articles and book reviews in Victorian Studies.

Both, in the book under review (p. xxxi) and in an interview by J.P. O'Malley ("Presenting the Wider Picture", New Eastern Europe - Jan. 1, 2013), Kochanski emphasizes the fact that she was not raised on Polish myths and Polish nationalism. Her photograph, on the back cover of the book and in the interview, shows a determined, middle-aged woman with a facial expression that seems to say: "Go on, attack me; I can deal with you".

After two excellent background chapters on the rebirth of Poland and Polish foreign policy in 1920-1939, the author covers both Polish military and political history, the Holocaust, and the end results of the war. Chapter 17 - The Aftermath of the War, deals with communist Poland, while the final chapter - 18, is a survey of post-communist Poland. Appendix 1 gives the Polish Army's Order of Battle, 1939-1945; Appendix 2 contains short biographical sketches of principal Polish personalities which will be very helpful to readers unfamiliar with Poland's history during this time.

Kochanski's book is an excellent, non-judgmental study of Polish military and political history. Her account of the campaign of September 1939 should replace earlier studies. Two chapters (5, 6) are devoted to the Soviet deportations of Polish citizens from the 'Kresy', former eastern Poland, into the depths of the USSR in 1940-1941. She cites moving interviews with family members on their experiences there and traces the escape of 140,000 Poles with the Anders Army to Iran in 1942, about half of whom were family members of the military. After a brief stay in Persia (now Iran), the soldiers proceeded to Palestine for training, became the Polish Second Corps, and fought in Italy as part of the British 8th Army. She gives a skilled account of their fighting there, especially the taking of the monastery of Monte Cassino which opened the way to Rome, and also follows Gen. Stanisław Maczek's Polish Armored Division from Normandy, through Belgium and Holland to Wilhelmshaven, northwestern Germany.

Apart from giving Britain eight precious months to increase fighter production so that it could fight off the Luftwaffe a year later - for which due credit is given to the pilots of Polish 303 Squadron - the two major Polish contributions to the Allied war effort in 1939-1943 were: the transfer of the decrypted German military cypher 'Enigma' - broken by two Polish mathematicians - to the British and French military in July 1939 which set off the work in Bletchley Park; and the delivery of an unexploded flying bomb, the V-1, to Britain by air from occupied Poland in May 1944. These contributions are often missing in Western histories of World War II. Other Western omissions are: the Soviet occupation of former eastern Poland, the German annexation of western Poland, and occupation of central Poland in 1939-1941 (ch.4), then of the whole country, and Polish resistance in 1941-1945 (ch.9). She also gives a very sound account of the diplomacy of the Polish Government-in-Exile in its efforts to restore the prewar Polish eastern frontier and, above all, Polish independence (ch.11). There is an equally sound account of Anglo-American policy regarding Poland, that is, the abandonment of the key principles of the Atlantic Charter (no territorial aggrandizement, no territorial changes against the wishes of the people, and restoration of lost self-government–the right of the people to choose their own government) in order to secure the Red Army’s continued, major participation in fighting Nazi Germany, and later of what was of primary interest to Pres. Roosevelt - in victory over Japan (ch.14).

Many reviewers consider Kochanski's book to be the most comprehensive and readable English-language study of Poland and Poles in World War II (e.g. Anne Applebaum - "Poland in the Darkness of World War II" in The New Republic - Dec. 20, 2012; Brian Morton's review in The Herald - Scotland, Nov. 3, 2012; Ian Thomson - "The Plight of the Poles" in The Spectator - Nov. 3, 2012). Their opinion is shared by the author of this review, which happens to be one of this reviewer's special areas of study and is recognized in the bibliography. Some reviewers praise the book but criticize the author for not citing German documents (e.g. Cambridge historian, Sir Richard Evans's review in The Guardian - Nov. 9, 2012). This is a point well made, but even without citing them, Kochanski accurately portrays the horror of the German occupation of Poland. She shows her military acumen in an excellent account of the Warsaw Uprising against the Germans (August 1-October 3, 1944) and the lack of Soviet help (ch.13). She notes that when the fighting broke out, the vanguard of the Soviet general, Konstantin Rokossovsky's troops had just reached Praga, the part of Warsaw on the eastern bank of the Vistula, but were not strong enough at this time to give any assistance on the ground, although they could have done so by air. Of course, they had plenty of time to do so over the next two months, but did not move although they made some air drops. Kochanski makes it clear that the Uprising was a last-minute decision and the insurgents had totally inadequate supplies. This was very much the view of Gen. Władysław Anders, as expressed in the original Polish version of his memoirs, Bez ostatniego rozdziału [Minus the Last Chapter] (reprint, Lublin 1992, p. 293), and by other Polish emigré critics of the Uprising, the best known of whom is Jan M. Ciechanowski, author of The Warsaw Rising of 1944 (Cambridge University Press, London-New York 1974), published in translation as Powstanie Warszawskie both in communist and then in independent Poland (last edition - Bellona, Warszawa 2009). The Uprising is still the subject of controversy among Polish historians today - some condemn it as a military crime, while others see it as inevitable in the circumstances of the time. So it is surprising to read Norman Davies's charge that "For the most part, Kochanski follows the interpretation of bygone Communist commentators who, when they could not suppress the subject entirely, heaped all the blame on the leadership of the AK [Armia Krajowa - Home Army - A.M.C.]... and on the quarreling politicians in London." ("Poland: Malice, Death, Survival" in New York Review of Books - Jan. 10, 2013). This is an accusation unworthy of a great historian of Poland, whose output includes a magnificent book on the Warsaw Uprising, Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw (Macmillan, London 2003; Viking/Penguin, USA 2004, reprint 2005; Polish edition, Kraków 2004).
It is true that Kochanski does not commend the fighters' bravery, but this omission - which Davies holds against her - is likely part of her view that the human costs of the Uprising were very high and the city was almost destroyed, while the Germans burned what was left of the city center afterwards (pp. 424-5). Kochanski also writes scathingly of American-British policy toward Poland (ch.11 - Sikorski's Diplomacy; ch.14 - Poland: The Incovenient Ally), in which she accurately pictures the efforts of both Gen. Władysław Sikorski, when he headed the government, to secure Allied recognition of Poland's prewar eastern frontier - although he personally considered giving up some of the territory to the USSR - and the diplomacy of his successor, Prem. Stanisław Mikołajczyk, to secure a guarantee of Polish independence and postwar frontiers from Churchill and Roosevelt (chs.11-13). When Mikołajczyk failed to obtain these guarantees, he resigned in November 1944. In June 1945, he joined The Polish Committee of National Liberation, established in Moscow and set up in Lublin in July 1944. He did so in the belief that the free elections, promised to all countries by the 'Big Three' at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, would ensure victory for his Peasant Party, the largest in Poland. As is known, the elections were rigged and Mikołajczyk had to flee for his life. Kochanski gives a good survey of these events (ch.16 - The End of the War).

One would think that this is a near perfect study of Poland in World War II. There is, however, a stumbling bloc for any historian writing about Poland in the Second World War. He or she must deal with the Holocaust, almost all of which took place on Polish territory under German occupation. Its symbol is Auschwitz/Oświęcim, although, as Timothy Snyder shows in his book, The Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, New York NY 2010; paperback edition 2012), the vast majority of Polish Jews murdered by the Germans lived in former eastern Poland, now western Belarus and western Ukraine. The attitude of the Poles toward the German mass murder of the Jews, generally described as indifference but often as murderous hate, has been the topic of an ongoing debate in Poland ever since Jan Tomasz Gross published his book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 2001), showing the involvement of local Poles in this mass murder of the Jews. The Polish edition, Sąsiedzi. Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka (Fundacja Pogranicze, Sejny 2002), provoked a very lively, sometimes passionate debate in Poland, both among historians and non-professional readers. This dichotomy is well represented in a book edited by Antony Polonsky and Joanna Michlic, The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 2004). The debate was stirred up again a few years later with the publication of Gross's second book, co-authored with his former wife, Irena Grudzinska, Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust (Oxford University Press, USA 2012; Polish edition, Złote Żniwa. Rzecz o tym co się działo na obrzeżach zagłady Żydów, Znak, Kraków 2011), which deals with the hunt for gold teeth by a group of peasants on the territory of the former Nazi death camp of Treblinka.

In writing on Kochanski's treatment of the Holocaust in Poland, some reviewers were generally favorable. For example, the (unnamed, as always) reviewer in The Economist, thought her view on various issues, "such as the connection between local anti-Semitism, collaboration and the Holocaust is cautious but fair-minded". There is also mention of the fact - largely unknown in the West - that in German-occupied Poland help for Jews was punishable with death ("Poland at War. The Vivisection of Poland" in The Economist, Sept. 29, 2012). Two reviewers of Kochanski's book, however, focused on the topic of hostile Polish attitudes toward the Jews during the German occupation. The preeminent Western historian of Polish and Russian Jews, Prof. Antony Polonsky, criticizes Kochanski for ignoring the work of the recently established Center for Holocaust Studies (Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, Warszawa 2004). Its members have published important studies on the general refusal to help escaped Jews by Poles living in small towns and in the countryside, who even assisted the Germans in catching them in return for permission to loot whatever the Nazis left over, or for rewards in sugar and vodka (Antony Polonsky, "In the Barn" in The Times Literary Supplement, Feb. 8, 2013). This activity is emphasized by historian, Prof. John Connelly of UC Berkeley, one of whose specializations is Jewish studies. In "The Noble and the Base: Poland and the Holocaust", he reviews Kochanski along with three books published in Poland by authors of the Center of Holocaust Studies, Warszawa 2011-2012 (The Nation, Dec. 3, 2012). Connelly writes that while Kochanski acknowledges the Jedwabne killings, "she attributes them to German instigation". This is, in fact, what was stated in German reports: that local people were unable to instigate the murder of Jews, so the Germans had to instigate local people to do so. Furthermore, regarding the connection of the Soviet occupation (1939-1941) with local resentment against the Jews, the two-volume study of the massacre, "Wokół Jedwabnego" [Around Jedwabne], edited and written by Paweł Machcewicz et al, (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej [IPN - The Institute of National Remembrance], Warsaw 2002), names several Poles who suffered from Soviet repression as being among the ring leaders of the mass murder in Jedwabne. It is known that the local Jews were, on the whole, happy to escape German occupation, and therefore, cooperated with the Soviet authorities. Of the Jews who survived the massacre, which also took place at this time in the other towns of what is now northwestern Belarus, only one saw the massacre as the result of Jewish cooperation with the Soviets. This was Chaja Finkelsztejn, who survived the earlier massacre in nearby Radziłów by converting to Catholicism, thus gaining protection from people whom the priest ordered to hide her (see A.M. Cienciala review of "Wokół Jedwabnego" in The Polish Review - v. 48, no. 1, 2003, p. 59; errata in no. 4; additionally: the IPN prosecutor's name is not Iwanow but Ignatiew). The popular perception was, indeed, that the Jews had cooperated with the Soviets against the Poles, and this should be acknowledged as the most important factor in the indifference to, or cooperation of, local Poles in the massacres. Finally, on the basis of Kochanski's treatment of the Jewish Holocaust, particularly writing of Jewish "bandits" hiding in the forests, Connelly concludes that she "repeats the stereotypes of her [Polish - A.M.C.] sources" in calling the Jews who raided farms and estates for food, "bandits" but not the AK partisans who did the same. His eye must have slipped because she writes there were both ethnically Polish bandits, as well as Jewish ones, joined after June 1941, by Soviet deserters and escaped POWs, also deserters from the Gwardia Ludowa (The People's Guard, the Communist underground army), all of whom raided villages and manor houses for food (Kochanski, pp. 283-4).

Much has been published in the last few years on the Polish peasants' hostile attitude toward the Jews. These peasants at first sheltered Jews (Antony Polonsky, "The Jews of Russia and Poland", v. III, 1914-2008 (Littmann Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford, Portland OR 2012, p. 449), but generally refused to do so later. This was so both because of the risk to their own lives, as well as those of other villagers since there was a death penalty for helping, let alone hiding, Jews. Also, the Germans threatened collective responsibility for such actions. For decades after the war, peasants and other Poles who had sheltered Jews during the war, would not admit to doing so. There was a dual reason for this behavior: 1. Those who gave shelter risked not only their lives but also those of their neighbors, so they could fear hostile action from them; 2. Jews were identified with Communists, even before they became highly visible in the new Polish communist authorities and security police in the immediate postwar period. Once they were so visible, the identification became even stronger, despite the fact that their numbers were small in proportion to ethnically Polish officials.

Participating in murder cannot be justified, but a case can be made for looting the property of the dead. Like the estate owners, individual peasants also had to deliver food contingents to the occupiers and village administrators were responsible for them. Failure to make the deliveries led to repression and sometimes death. The peasants also gave food to the AK partisans, sometimes being forced to do so. In any case, it is estimated that the Germans burned 300 Polish villages, most for cooperation with the AK. It is generally estimated that in 1942 the Germans took 40% of the farm production in the Kraków district and 60% in the Warsaw district. (For figures on forced Polish deliveries of grain, potato, beet, milk and eggs to Germany in 1940-1945, see Polish Wikipedia, Okupacja niemiecka, kontyngenty, and bibliography).

It must be acknowledged that in writing about the Holocaust in 1941-1943 (ch.10), Kochanski focused on the German policy of extermination and mentioned Polish help in hiding Jews - which was especially the case in Warsaw and Kraków - but did not discuss the above-mentioned general refusal of Poles in small towns and villages to help escaped Jews. This aspect of wartime Poland - which Connelly calls Polish "collaboration" with the Germans, although the word usually means political collaboration - is known generally to specialists in Jewish Studies, which Kochanski is not, nor obviously were her outside readers. The AK leadership knew of it, but could not stop it. These topics are detailed in "Polska ludność chrześciańska wobec eksterminacji Żydów - dystrykt lubelski" [The Attitude of the Polish Christian Population toward the Extermination of Jews - the Lublin district] in: Dariusz Libionka, Operacja Reinhardt. Zagłada Żydów w Generalnym Gubernatorstwie [Operation Reinhardt: The Jewish Holocaust in the General Gouvernement] IPN, Warsaw 2004) pp. 306-33; and in his "Zagłada na wsi w optyce polskiej konspiracji (1942-1944)" [The Holocaust in the Villages as Seen by the Polish Conspiracy (1942-1944)], published in "Zarys krajobrazu. Wieś polska wobec zagłady Żydów 1942-1945" [A Sketch of the Landscape], Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, Warsaw 2011, pp. 57-137. The author, now the academic director of the Center, demonstrates his scholarly principles in stating that it is necessary to catalog the incidents of Polish help to Jews - punishable by death in German-occupied Poland - as well as anti-Semitic incidents. He believes that this should be done first on a regional and then the national scale. Only this would establish a point of departure for deeper analysis (Libionka, ibid., p. 333). Indeed, he has done this extremely well for the Lublin District and has been working on others since 2004.
This reviewer hopes that there will also be a study of the motives of the Poles in each documented case of cooperation with the Germans against the Jews. Taking into consideration the peasants' contingents delivered to the Germans, as well as those delivered to the AK partisans, they may well have needed more to survive than what they had. This may have been a factor in peasant participation in hunting escaped Jews, as well as fear of repression if they refused to do so, although obviously it does not justify them. Finally, in times of danger or transition when authority is weak or nonexistent, moral principles tend to break down. Unfortunately, there do not seem to be sufficient records on what local priests had to say about hunting Jews but it is known that, while generally anti-Semitic, the church opposed violence.

No history book can be free of errors. A list of these is given in the review by Prof. Polonsky, cited above.
As far my expertise is concerned, I noticed an incomplete piece of information: the number of 18,632 victims to be shot, of whom 10,568 were ethnic Poles, as given by Beria in his "Resolution" to shoot all the prisoners, presented to the Politburo and approved by it on March 5, 1940 (p. 132 and note 125), referred to the prisoners held in NKVD prisons at the time. According to the final Soviet record, 21,857 Polish citizens, both the prisoners of war and those held in NKVD jails - of whom the vast majority were Poles - were shot on Stalin's orders in spring 1940 (Aleksandr S. Shelepin's note to Nikita S. Khrushchev, Mar. 3, 1959 (see Cienciala, Anna M. et al., eds. - Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment, Yale University Press, New Haven CT 2007; reprint with some corrections - 2009, doc.110, p. 332).
There are some errors in the brief biographies. Gen. Zygmunt Berling was not dismissed after sending units of his army to help the Warsaw Uprising (p. 605) because he could not have done this without Soviet consent. He was dismissed due to his conflict with the Polish communist leadership over its appointment of his personal enemies as political officers in his army (Jaczyński, Stanisław - Zygmunt Berling. Między sławą a potępieniem [Zygmunt Berling. Between Fame and Condemnation], Książka i Wiedza, Warszawa 1993, pp. 227-34). Jan Karski did not make "several" courier trips to the Polish government in the West (p. 611) - he made the first one in early 1940 and the second in late 1942. Stanisław Kot did not "remain" in Britain (p. 612), but chose to return there after resigning from the Polish communist government. Oskar Lange did not "emigrate" to the U.S. in 1937 (p. 612), but arrived that year to study economics on a research grant. Lewis Namier was unlikely to have influenced Lloyd George's views on the Polish eastern frontier. He had worked in the Political Intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office during World War I, but his pro-Ukrainian sympathies were useful to the British premier in opposing Polish territorial claims against Russia, which he saw as a future, great market for Great Britain. Leopold Okulicki served not in Operation Bzura (p. 615), but Burza [Storm]. Osóbka-Morawski (p. 615) - his real name was Osóbka; Morawski was added during the frontier negotiations in which he took part as a member, later premier of the Polish Committee of National Liberation during his stay in Moscow, May-July 1944, because the Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav M. Molotov always called him "Morawski" (personal account by Osóbka-Morawski to Cienciala, Warsaw, June 1980). Józef Piłsudski declared Warsaw liberated on November 11, 1918 (p. 616) - which later became the holiday for Polish independence - but informed the Western Powers of the establishment of an independent Polish state five days later. General Sikorski was not "refused" a military command in September 1939 (p. 620); his request to Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz, was left unanswered. Wanda Wasilewska did not "create" the ZPP (p. 623) - Stalin told her in March 1943, before the German discovery of the Katyn massacre the following month that it was time to set up a new Polish political organization in the USSR, and she agreed to head it.

In conclusion, Kochanski's book is a very important study of a part of World War II either ignored or distorted in most Western histories of the war.
Let us hope that the impressive number of reviews it has received will ensure wide readership.

 

POLAND - WORLD WAR II