The Fate Of A Forgotten Ally

Halik Kochanski’s magisterial work on the cruel and chaotic legacy of World War II in Poland is history at its best

Books History
Tales from Poland's home front: A Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto

This book supplies perhaps the last unwritten chapter in the history of the Second World War. One reason it has taken so long is that for Poland the war did not end until 1989 or, to be exact, 1990, when a treaty with Germany was at last signed. Another is the magnitude of the subject, involving as it does almost every theatre of the war and a human tragedy of staggering complexity and scale played out on several continents. The Polish armed forces were deployed widely, both conventionally and underground. The civilian population did not share a common experience, as the invaders broke it down by ethnic and social background and treated it accordingly. But the difficulties that faced historians taking on the subject do not end there, and they are part of the story.

The Soviet Union projected its own version of events, falsifying evidence on a massive scale. Poland’s Western allies clung to their narrative of a good war fought for democracy and decency, in which Poland had no place and which its fate actually contradicted. The socialism and engouement with all things Soviet which reigned in academe and the media in the postwar period cast the Poles and their sympathisers in the role of crypto-fascists. Emigré Polish historians, usually incapable of shedding their emotional involvement, sounded strident at best. Foreign historians were impeded by language barriers and seemingly impossible complexities, and tended to be either too sympathetic or too condescending, or both.

For Britons, the fate of Poland after 1945 had the added inconvenience of being a painful reminder of their country’s decline and diminished influence in the Allied councils at Tehran and Yalta. For Poles, it was difficult not to see the whole thing in personal terms: Poland had fought from the first to the last, and Poland had been betrayed.

There was little understanding of, or sympathy for, Poland in the West. Statistically, Russia had suffered far greater losses. Stalingrad and the siege of Leningrad, even Dresden and Hiroshima overshadowed the tragedy of Warsaw, even though the human and material losses were much greater. In terms of sheer horror, the Holocaust outranked all other tales of suffering, and although half of the victims were Polish citizens and it took place almost entirely on Polish territory, it did not figure in the popular imagination as part of the Polish story. 

The Nazis and Soviets deliberately set their victims against each other, and after the war Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and even the evicted Germans staked rival claims of victimhood which usually involved belittling the sufferings of the others and accusing them of collaboration, further clouding the picture. Not the least of the difficulties facing the historian was that what the population, Jewish or otherwise, endured bears no relation to the experience of the Second World War in any other part of the world, except in Manchuria and parts of southeast Asia. It was so grotesquely unthinkable that it was unbelievable to the average inhabitant of a Western democracy. 

This remarkable book manages to overcome all of these obstacles. Halik Kochanski succeeds in drawing together all the disparate strands of this terrible story into a coherent account of what happened to Poland and her citizens between 1939 and 1945. She brings to the subject not only an impressive grasp of the military and political context, but also a balance, neutrality and honesty few could manage, combined with the intelligence, imagination and empathy necessary to grasp the true depth of the experience she recounts. She does not hesitate to dent the Polish comfort myths and received narratives in general, and some passages will make uncomfortable reading for those bred on them. 

With the confidence one would expect of a military historian, Kochanski covers the Poles’ contribution to the war effort — in September 1939, at Narvik, during the fall of France, the Battle of Britain, at Tobruk, with the Polish navy and merchant marine, in the Atlantic and Arctic convoys, the bombing of Germany, the Battle of the Atlantic, the Warsaw Ghetto rising, at Monte Cassino, Ancona, Bologna, Falaise, Wilhelmshaven, in the Warsaw uprising, the defeat of the V2, the breaching of the Pomeranian Wall and the battle for Berlin. An unexpected treat is to learn that a Polish division, disarmed on crossing into Switzerland after the fall of France in 1940, was earmarked for the defence of the alpine passes should the Germans invade. Another is that it was parachutists from Poland, which was way ahead of its allies in the science, who trained the British parachute regiments. She stresses the vital contribution made by the Poles who cracked the Enigma codes and built the decrypting machine, the Bombe, and points out that if those of them who were captured and tortured in Poland had not kept the secret the advantage gained would have become worthless. She charts the Polish input in SOE and the sabotage of the German war effort by the Polish Underground, the Armia Krajowa, and quotes a 1945 British report according to which 48 per cent of all valuable intelligence gathered from the European mainland during the course of the war came from Polish agents. Her clear, measured prose makes military operations easy to follow, and her account is given life by well-chosen personal reminiscence and anecdote, some of it harrowing, some comic.

Few books about the Second World War dwell at such length on the experiences of civilians, but in the case of Poland the home front was the most important. Not that it was at home much: millions of civilians were deported thousands of miles to Siberia, to Kazakhstan, or to Germany as slave labourers. Blue-eyed blond children under ten were sent to be reprogrammed as German Aryans. Polish civilian refugees ended up in Iran, India, New Zealand and various parts of Africa, as well as all the countries of Europe. Others stayed in Poland, but often locked in ghettos and concentration camps or living in hiding. Kochanski concerns herself with the experience of each of these groups, and succeeds in conveying some measure of their sufferings.

People brought up in an urban middle-class culture were suddenly uprooted and confronted with the raw horror of a camp in which they were forced to wear lice-ridden pyjamas, sleep on bunks in wooden huts and perform manual labour on a starvation diet of disgusting swill. Others would be dumped in a forest clearing in Siberia and told to fell trees and build themselves houses, or sent to a collective farm in Kazakhstan and forced to scrabble around in the earth in order to feed themselves. The emotional as well as physical culture-shock is almost indescribable, but Kochanski illustrates it well with poignant examples. 

Even those who managed to avoid deportation or imprisonment and remained at home endured nearly a decade dominated by a prosaic daily struggle to keep fed and clothed, leading a life of miserable and hopeless monotony punctuated with horrific violence. Witnessing brutality and executions in the street was a common occurrence, and a reminder that nobody was safe.    

Kochanski covers in depth the fate of the Jewish population of Poland, which is more complex than commonly imagined. It involves observant Jews of various descriptions, non-observant Jews and Catholic Jews, assimilated and unassimilated Jews. While the overwhelming majority were rounded up and forced into ghettos before being exterminated, surprising numbers lived out the war in hiding, and in some cases quite openly. Others survived by fighting, either in partisan units, in self-preservation gangs, and even, unbelievably, in a Jewish militia serving under the Germans. There were those who, deported to Siberia, left the Soviet Union with the Polish army and, when it reached Palestine, deserted to join in the struggle for an independent Israel, in which some 3,000 of them would play a crucial part.

Occupied Poland was unlike anywhere else in Nazi-ruled Europe. Apart from the 400,000-strong Armia Krajowa, operating all over the country as a regular army, albeit underground, it had a London-based government-in-exile with a delegate government in Warsaw. This carried on a dogged struggle to maintain a semblance of the continuing existence of the Polish state, to keep the nation from falling apart. As well as bolstering morale through continuous protest against the doings of the Nazis, the liquidation of criminal collaborators and the rescue of individuals, it did everything to counteract the Germans’ attempts to destroy all manifestations of cultural life in Poland. There was an underground university, schools, theatres, publishing houses and so on. The scouting movement carried on along with an astonishing number of activities as people fought to preserve a wisp of normality. It was this human struggle that was so sorely let down by history. 

One of the strengths of this book is the way in which it juxtaposes the aberrant horror people were enduring on the ground with the devious banality of the negotiations over their future; the heroism of those struggling for freedom with the tired impatience of their allies, who had no idea of what was really going on and did not much care, as long as they could bring the war to an acceptable end. 

Kochanski clarifies the far from simple process by which Poland, from being the first to fight and Britain’s only real ally in 1940, became a nuisance to its allies, and the pledges of independence and territorial integrity turned into a washing of hands. Outmanoeuvred and bullied by Stalin, the  Western leaders Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman understandably sought to marginalise the stumbling-block of Poland, and managed to kick the issue into the long grass. But its centrality was underlined by the empty chair at the San Francisco conference that launched the United Nations: of the 45 founding nations, only the Poles were not being permitted to elect their own government. 

This book is history at its best. It tells the whole story, and tells it well, with just the right mixture of detachment and empathy, in crisp, readable prose. But it also speaks to the imagination and makes the reader think — and not just about the subject in hand. The story that unfolds on these pages is not just that of Poland and the Poles: it is also in some ways a parable, about the human condition, about how dangerous it is to bracket or condemn, about the inadvisability of making grandiloquent statements of principle such as the Atlantic Charter and trumpeting moral causes when one is going to have to betray them in a grubby trade-off imposed by harsh reality, and about where ignorance, delusion and intellectual dishonesty can lead. Politicians today should read it attentively.