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

Article excerpt

THE EAGLE UNBOWED:

Poland and the Poles in the

Second World War

Halik Kochanski, 2012, Harvard University Press,

Cambridge, MA, 784 pages, $35.00

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IN 1939, POLAND was between a rock and a hard place. Two corresponding totalitarian regimes flanked its territory. It did not have a choice between the lesser of two evils, as the Soviet Union and the German Third Reich equally believed that Poland should not exist, and they uniformly regarded huge portions of Polish territory as theirs.

Before the signing of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, Poland did not exist as an independent European state: the Russian, Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires partitioned Poland three times (in 1772, 1793, and 1795). Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Pole and American Revolution hero, led the 1795 uprising against Russia and Prussia, but the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth disappeared from the map. For almost 124 years, Poles repeatedly rebelled against their Russian- and German-speaking oppressors. The Russian authorities executed and deported to Siberia hundreds of thousands of Poles who participated in the 1831, 1863, and 1905-1907 insurrections. Poles deported to Soviet Gulags from 1939 to 1941 encountered the graves of those freedom fighters and sometimes discovered small Polish communities there. Polish rebels living in German-controlled territories fared slightly better; after all, there was no German Siberia.

The occupiers persecuted Poles, dehumanizing them as backward and ignorant, which later helped promote and justify Nazi racial policy, or they vilified them as Slavic double crossers and admirers of the West looking away from Eastern Orthodoxy, an accusation that helped advance Soviet hegemony. Frederic Chopin, Joseph Conrad, and Marie Curie--among others--kept Polish culture alive in exile. A romanticized nationalism marks Polish history.

The brutality two imperial systems applied to their Polish subjects in the 19th century was a shadow compared to the depravity totalitarian rulers visited upon Poles during the 20th century. It took three world powers in the 1700s to dismantle Poland, and it took two dictatorships to do it again in 1939. Poland's history may be tragic, but a doomed heroism distinguishes it.

Poland's malicious neighbors met secretly in Moscow on 23 August 1939 and signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which violated the Fourteen Points and started World War II. This treaty consisted of a nonaggression agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union, allowing Hitler to invade Poland. In return for Soviet permission to invade Poland, Hitler agreed to share half of Poland with Stalin. Hence, both leaders agreed to decapitate the "bastard of Versailles." For their part, the Nazis permitted Stalin to annex Finland, the three Baltic States, Bessarabia, Bukovina, and parts of Romania, thus ensuring peace until Hitler violated the terms in June 1941 with Operation Barbarossa.

Today's visitor to Polish World War II war monuments will see 1 September 1939 marking them along with 17 September 1939; the first date commemorates the German invasion of Poland, and the second, the Soviet invasion. (Soviet-Japanese border battles delayed the Soviets.) The almost simultaneous but acutely catastrophic dual invasions were denied for decades in communist Poland and in the Soviet Union until Poland freed itself in 1989: the communists were fighting fascists; how could they ever be allies?

It would take decades until Andrzej Wajda, in his 2007 film Katyn, portrayed that horrible scene of Western Poles escaping from the Nazis colliding with Eastern Poles escaping from the Soviets on a Bug River bridge, the agreed-upon boundary separating Nazi and Soviet zones in Poland. One still can view video files of joint Nazi-Soviet victory parades.

Invasions and mass killings went hand-in-hand. The atrocities committed may not have been joint operations, but as their respective fronts brought them closer together, the Germans and the Russians did share schnapps and vodka; in their wake lay thousands of dead Polish civilians and military personnel. …