World War II and the Impossibility of Polish History

By Alex Joffe
Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The adage “history is written by the winners” is no more than a half-truth. Losers, too, have always written history and, more important, enshrined their losses in memory. A new history of Poland in World War II thus has particular significance. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gradually vanished from the map of Europe at the end of the 18th century, when Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided it up among themselves; and the Poles regained their independence only in 1918.  In their new republic, ethnic Poles were a majority, but Ukrainians, Belorussians, Germans and, of course, Jews constituted a large minority.  The Jews alone made up more than 10 per cent of the country’s population.   Mustn’t any history of Poland in the Second World War therefore put the Jews and the Holocaust at the center?  If it does not, is that originality or revisionism?  Halik Kochanski’s The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War offers important insights into the Polish experience of the war, but her treatment of the Jewish Question is less satisfying.  

Kochanski’s story of Poland in World War II blends betrayal, incompetence, uncommon bravery, and colossal failure against a backdrop of pervasive brutality.  Poland’s location between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union spelled disaster; its choice of allies in Britain and France was both unavoidable and fated to fail. Lacking money, arms, and military doctrine, Poland stood little chance of defending its long borders, and fell quickly between September and October of 1939.  Over the next two years, Poland was reduced to a German slave province in the west and a Soviet rump, drained of people and goods, in the east.  From the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 until the end of the war, it became a vast killing ground. 

It was hard for the Poles to build a resistance movement in the face of both the Gestapo and the NKVD, which initially worked together. Creating a Polish underground government, and a separate government-in-exile, was exceedingly difficult in a partitioned country. Some Polish soldiers joined the French and British armed forces. Hundreds of thousands more became Soviet prisoners, but many of them were released in 1941 and allowed to join forces with the British under the leadership of Władysław Anders. Far from their own country, they fought bravely on many fronts. The Polish contribution to deciphering Germany’s Enigma codes was so vital and so secret that it was not revealed until the 1970s. 

Then there is the Holocaust.  Kochanski describes ghettos, mass killings, and death camps, but her account is kaleidoscopic rather than linear and analytical, emphasizing suffering rather than the system of extermination. At the same time, she takes pains both to note Polish suffering and to address the most sensitive question of Polish-Jewish relations: What did Poles do to help or injure Jews? 

Books on these questions fill libraries, and her brief treatment of them is inevitably inadequate.  Jewish suffering accounts for perhaps two-thirds of the book’s one short chapter on the Holocaust and is complemented by an assortment of other data on the Poles that tread in an uncomfortable no man’s land.  Kochanski cites a postwar Polish list of German atrocities indicating that inhabitants of the town of Kolo had been expelled; as a consequence, few knew of the nearby Chelmno death camp.  She speculates that Polish aid to Jews must have been at a level that would warrant the Nazi order punishing assistance with death.  The 5,000 Poles honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem cannot have been the only ones who helped Jews.  The Polish Foreign Ministry issued an important statement on the extermination of the Jews in December, 1942.  All true, but uneasiness remains. 

Kochanski is more charitable to the Poles than she is to the Jews.  She discusses the disproportionate representation of Polish Jews in communist armies, refers to the “Jewish lobby at Versailles,” and takes pains to recount how Jewish refugees in eastern Poland in 1939 welcomed the Red Army, much to the anger of other Poles.  It was British rather than Polish anti-Semitism, she notes, that limited the number of Jews who could join the new Polish Army in the Soviet Union; and she says that many—such as, she alleges, Menachem Begin—understandably deserted upon reaching Palestine.  She is unsparing in her accounts of Jewish collaborators, the cruelty of Jewish policemen, and the ugly choices faced by Jewish political authorities. 

If the Jewish Question nags, the Communist problem looms.  That the Soviets were to be Poland’s liberators from the Nazis was evident to both Stalin and the allies.  Kochanski concentrates on the government-in-exile under Sikorski and then Stanisław Mikołajczyk, their gradual betrayal by Roosevelt and Churchill, and the bewildering assortment of underground groups and armies, notably the loyalist Armia Krajowa.  But the sad reality is that it was to be the Soviets, and then Communist and Soviet-backed groups, that would triumph over patriotic Poles.  Kochanski’s treatment of this downfall, and the horrendous treatment of all ethnic groups after the war, not least of all Jews, seems attenuated. 

The book also suffers from the lack of a narrative thrust.  Is it political or social history? And what is its overall theory of Polish-Jewish relations?   Kochanski does not display the incisiveness or concision of a great historian like Walter Laqueur, who stated: 

If the Poles showed less sympathy and solidarity with Jews than many Danes and Dutch, they behaved far more humanely than Lithuanians and Latvians.  A comparison with France would be by no means unfavorable for Poland.  In view of Polish pre-war attitudes towards Jews, it is not surprising that there was so little help, but that there was so much.

One may agree or disagree, but his position is clear.

Instead, Kochanski emphasizes individuals and their stories, complementing reports of the numbers of those killed, jailed or deported.  This thread of testimony personalizes the ceaseless and numbing cruelty that would otherwise be merely statistical, and those accustomed to reading similar accounts of the Holocaust will find a certain familiarity in this technique.  But her reliance on anecdotal evidence detracts from the grand narrative that she is attempting to present.  

Kochanski’s book invites comparison with the work of Oxford historian Norman Davies, especially his two-volume history of Poland, God’s Playground, criticized for seeing too much Polish-Jewish comity in the pre-war era and too little Polish anti-Semitism during the war.  By contrast, Princeton historian Jan Gross, himself a Pole, has relentlessly documented Polish anti-Semitism, the role of Poles during the Holocaust, and their continued persecution of Jews after the war, only to be accused by Poles of obsession and exaggeration.

All history writing is a process of successive approximation and all history reading a process of tacking between versions. Seeking the authoritative version is a conceit created of the understandable desire to find a single truth, one explanation--in this case, an explanation of why the impossible occurred. No such truth exists, and The Eagle Unbowed reminds us that the past is always viewed through a glass darkly; what it reflects most clearly is ourselves.


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