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All quiet on the eastern front

The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War - review.

The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War
Halik Kochanski
Allen Lane, 768pp, £30

It is a fact occasionally acknowledged that British schoolchildren spend too much time studying the Second World War. That they do, however, is hardly surprising. Britain’s war record can be summarised in half a dozen words – started nobly; continued pluckily; ended victoriously – which makes life nice and easy for teachers.

While reading The Eagle Unbowed, Halik Kochanski’s history of the war in Poland, I tried to create a similar summary for the Poles. Poland’s war started badly with the German invasion. It got worse when the Soviet Union joined in. It got even worse when Britain and France stood by and watched while their ally got dismembered. Then it got worse still.

The Poles fought bravely and without hope and were murdered by both sides when they surrendered. The survivors continued their resistance underground. The occupiers arrested, tortured and murdered civilians, then deported them and forced them to work in factories. Those Poles who made it into exile were jailed, humiliated and ignored. Kochanski has a chapter on the period between 1941 and 1943 called “The Dark Years”, as if the preceding years had been light. Poland’s war was so terrible as to almost defy summary.

Before 1939, Poland could hardly have been in a worse neighbourhood. It was wedged between two dictatorships that agreed on little except that it should not exist. It had territorial disputes with all its other neighbours. Its suffering was extreme.

Kochanski is a historian born in Britain to Polish parents. She opens her book with an explanation of how Poland’s war does not fit into the “comfortable” UK/US narrative of a good war against an evil enemy. She points out that Polish territory was occupied from the first day of the war to the last and that the Poles’ suffering continued until the end of communism.

This history has long been disputed, however. Naturally, the Holocaust – much of which took place in camps situated on Poland’s territory and which killed 95 percent of the country’s Jewish population – has overshadowed any other issue. Less justifiably, postwar Polish historians have caused confusion at both ends of the ideological spectrum by deliberately downplaying the roles of fellow Poles who did not share their views.

Central to this myth-making was the Soviet Union’s slaughter of 21,000 Polish officers in 1940, at a time when Berlin and Moscow were still allies. After that alliance broke down and Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the Germans found the bodies and made propaganda of them. Stalin’s government denied any involvement, forcing London and Washington to go along with the lie. The crime could not be acknowledged in Poland for decades after the war ended and is still often denied in Russia today.

“This book is not a nationalistic study,” Kochanski insists. That does not mean she is afraid to express strong opinions about Poland’s betrayal. She reserves considerable anger for Britain’s “inexcusable” failure to condemn the murder of its allies until well into the 1980s, as well as for its denial of a place for Poles in the 1946 victory parade in London.

Kochanski is damning about the squabbling of Poland’s leaders but understanding about the impossible situation they were in. It is hard to imagine how any politician could have successfully spun the loss of the entire eastern half of the country to the Soviet Union, as some of Poland’s leaders were required to, but that is not to say that she gives them an easy ride. She calls Poland’s postwar communist rulers “lackeys” and criticises its pre-war leaders almost as forcefully in the first chapters.

Her book is opinionated, fluid and forceful. It lays out in impressive detail how ordinary Poles lost the Second World War, kept losing and yet refused to be beaten. After meeting Polish soldiers in North Africa, one Australian wrote: “They were Poles, come to Tobruk with the specific intention of killing Germans . . . They laughed when I first tried them with my French, in fact they laughed all the time, and they were behaving as if they had a date that very afternoon – with Rommel I think, which made them the oddest of bods.” King George VI said in 1940: “If all our allies had been Poles, the course of the war, up to now, would have been very different.”

I distinctly remember being puzzled in the mid-1980s when my history teacher explained how Britain had fought to save Poland and emerged victorious. Those were the years of Lech Walesa. If we saved the Poles, I wondered, why were they still fighting?

It would no doubt have been hard for Mr Crowther to explain everything to a group of ten-year-olds. However, had I been presented with a bit more of the Polish experience of the Second World War and a bit less of the British one, I would have emerged with a far better understanding of Europe today. It is not too late to rectify the omission; I just need to read more books like this one.

Oliver Bullough is the author of “Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus” (Allen Lane, £12.99).

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide