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First to Fight: The Polish War 1939.


By Roger Moorhouse

Poland’s forgotten heroism and suffering

Roger Moorhouse’s history sets the wartime record straight

EVERYONE AGREES that the second world war was seismic. Ask when it started, however, and views differ, revealingly. For Chinese, it was the Japanese attack of July 1937. Soviet and Russian histories mark June 22nd 1941, when the perfidious Nazi invasion began. Britain and France regard the period between the declaration of hostilities in 1939 and May 1940 as the “phoney war”, or drôle de guerre.

But as Roger Moorhouse, a British historian, notes, there was nothing phoney about the war in Poland. The opening five weeks of slaughter were a gory template for the 300 that followed: 200,000 people died, the overwhelming majority of them Poles, and mostly civilians. Poles would be “exposed to every horror that modern conflict could devise”, including indiscriminate aerial bombing, and massacres of civilians and POWs.

Yet the campaign fought by Nazi Germany from September 1st 1939, the associated Soviet invasion on September 17th, and the brave, chaotic and doomed defence launched by Poland, are strangely absent from standard histories, in any language. The last serious British study of this aspect of the war was published in 1972. The biggest television history of the conflict, “The World at War”, a 26-part documentary broadcast in 1973, interviewed most of the surviving decision-makers—but did not include a single Polish contributor.

Mr Moorhouse’s book remedies that gap, weaving together archival material, first-hand accounts, perceptive analysis and heartbreaking descriptions of Poland’s betrayal, defeat and dismemberment. Pre-war Poland was a big country, with the world’s fifth-largest armed forces. But it was an economic weakling. The combined Polish defence budget for the five years before the outbreak of war was just one-tenth of the Luftwaffe’s allocation for 1939 alone. The Poles had courage, flair and grit. But they lacked the decisive elements: armour and air-power. Military planning was plagued by secrecy and mistaken assumptions. Some of the top commanders were notable duds.

Despite that, Hitler’s stuttering war machine was repeatedly halted, bloodied and on occasion even defeated by the Polish defenders. The myth of invincible Blitzkrieg was burnished, self-interestedly, by the Nazis themselves. For their part, the Western allies, Britain and France, portrayed Poland as a hopeless cause to justify their defence of their ally “using vowels and consonants alone”. One of many striking anecdotes on this score concerns Britain’s reluctance to bomb Germany—on the ground (seriously) that it risked damaging private property.

Kremlin self-interest skewed the story, too. Stalin’s march into eastern Poland, under a secret deal with Hitler, was justified on the (fictitious) basis that the Polish state had already ceased to exist, and that only Soviet intervention could restore order. In fact, the savagery of the Soviet occupiers matched, and sometimes even exceeded, that of the Nazis. Both invaders, writes Mr Moorhouse, applied a “brutal, binary, totalitarian logic: a racist binary in the German case, a class binary in the Soviet.” In the eyes of the Nazis, a circumcised penis justified execution. For the Soviets, a soft, uncallused palm signalled an intellectual who ought to be eliminated. In all, 5.5m Polish citizens (including 3m Jews), or a fifth of the entire pre-war population, would perish.

The surrender of Poland’s regular forces on October 6th did not mark the end of the fighting. A well-organised underground army, reporting to the government-in-exile in London, continued the struggle until the further and final betrayal of Poland’s interests by the Western allies at Yalta. It all deserves more than the simplistic but widespread caricature of a country which met the invading tanks with a cavalry charge. As Mr Moorhouse admirably explains, Poland’s cavalry was in fact remarkably effective. The blame for defeat, and for the subsequent distortion and neglect of Poland’s story, lies elsewhere.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline “A killing field”.

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Source:    https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2019/09/05/polands-forgotten-heroism-and-suffering

 

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