Was a nation ever so beset by calamity as Poland? During the second world war, Polish cities were bombed, fought over hand-to-hand and crushingly shelled. Beyond their ideological differences, Hitler and Stalin were united in a determination to destroy the country. Without the Nazi-Soviet ‘friendship’ treaty of 1939, Hitler would not have been able to implement the mass killings of Jews in Poland, or Stalin been able to deport thousands of Poles as ‘enemies of the people’ to the frozen immensity of Siberia. Through their opportunist alliance, the dictators worked to undermine Polish statehood.
At the war’s end, Poles found themselves dispersed in places as far-flung as India and Soviet Kazakhstan. History had blown them to a harsh lee shore. Stalin, with his customary brutality, had deported thousands of Poles eastwards as ‘bourgeois deviationists’. Once Poland had been subsumed into the Soviet sphere of influence, the country was depopulated of Catholic priests, army chiefs, university professors and other suspected nationalists.
In Kazakhstan, as elsewhere in the Russian empire, Polish deportees were set to work on collective farms, weeding and digging for Mother Russia. Political developments were whirling darkly in the world outside, however. In June 1941, in an abrupt betrayal, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Of a sudden, Poland and Stalin were allies; the thousands of Poles left captive within the Soviet Union were now to be liberated. News of the amnesty was greeted with stupefied incomprehension by most Poles. How was it possible that Communist Russia and Nazi Germany had become sworn enemies so soon?
Halik Kochanski, an historian born in Britain of Polish parents, has written a superb account of Poland during the second world war. Though rather long drawn-out, The Eagle Unbowed serves to illuminate the political sickness that caused a nation to vanish from the map of Europe. That Poland survived at all is something of a miracle. During the anti-German uprising of Warsaw in August 1944, Soviet troops stood by complacently as Hitler ordered the city and its inhabitants to be annihilated. By the time the Red Army finally ‘liberated’ Warsaw five months later, in January 1945, there was hardly anything left.
Poland’s contribution to the allied victory was considerable. Polish pilots were revered by the British public for their part in the Battle of Britain. Throughout the summer of 1940 it was thought the height of fashion to be seen with a Polish pilot on one’s arm (jealous RAF pilots were known to put on Polish accents in order to attract women). One headmistress went so far as to caution her teenage school-leavers: ‘And remember, keep away from gin and Polish airmen.’
For all their heroism, Polish veterans were excluded from Britain’s 1946 Victory Parade. Britain’s Polish community was outraged. The British lion must have become a very minor power — bankrupt, played-out — to ignore the contribution made by Polish service personnel. (Half a century later, in 2003, Tony Blair issued a cringe-making formal apology.)
Dreadfully, Poland was the only allied country abandoned behind the Iron Curtain. Obliged to flee ahead of the advancing Red Army, Poles fetched up in their thousands in Karachi, of all places, where they awaited transport to refugee camps in Britain. What sort of reception awaited them in the free world? The pain and loss attendant on exile is poignantly evoked by Kochanski.
Poland, says Kochanski, was the ‘graveyard’ of Polish and European Jewry. The Nazi science of mass murder was in fact first put to the test in occupied Poland. Within two months of Hitler’s invasion in September 1939, some 50,000 Jews were murdered behind the Polish lines. While the author condemns Polish complicity in Hitler’s war against the Jews, she disagrees that wartime Poles were uniformly anti-Semitic. (If Zionists were often seen as a self-regarding, supranational sect inimical to the Polish state, they were a negligible part of Polish Jewry.)
Polish Catholicism, with its emphasis on redemption and the afterlife, offered a powerful consolation during the Hitler-Stalin period. In the course of the Warsaw uprising, priests were routinely prevailed on to administer the last rites and sanctify eleventh-hour marriages. Poland was by then on its knees. Yet some British and American politicians, fearful of creating bad relations with Stalin, cravenly portrayed the uprising as a ‘criminal venture’ led by ‘anti-democratic opportunists’. In postwar communist Poland, any mention of Polish ‘martyrdom’ could lead to imprisonment or worse.
The Eagle Unbowed, a model history, conveys with harrowing immediacy the plight of the Polish people in the conflict. The dangers inherent in extremist ideology were evident under both Hitler and Stalin. Poland may now be free again, but the years of totalitarian dominance are not forgotten.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 November 2012