All quiet on the eastern front

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

Polish prisoners of war in 1939.
Polish prisoners of war in 1939. Photograph: Getty Images

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).