Alex Joffe: Review of Halik Kochanski’s "The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War"

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tags: book reviews, Halik Kochanski, The Eagle Unbowed, Jewish Ideas Daily

Alex Joffe received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991.

The adage “history is written by the winners” is no more than a half-truth. Losers, too, have always written history and, more important, enshrined their losses in memory. A new history of Poland in World War II thus has particular significance. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gradually vanished from the map of Europe at the end of the 18th century, when Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided it up among themselves; and the Poles regained their independence only in 1918.  In their new republic, ethnic Poles were a majority, but Ukrainians, Belorussians, Germans and, of course, Jews constituted a large minority.  The Jews alone made up more than 10 per cent of the country’s population.   Mustn’t any history of Poland in the Second World War therefore put the Jews and the Holocaust at the center?  If it does not, is that originality or revisionism?  Halik Kochanski’s The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War offers important insights into the Polish experience of the war, but her treatment of the Jewish Question is less satisfying.

Kochanski’s story of Poland in World War II blends betrayal, incompetence, uncommon bravery, and colossal failure against a backdrop of pervasive brutality.  Poland’s location between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union spelled disaster; its choice of allies in Britain and France was both unavoidable and fated to fail. Lacking money, arms, and military doctrine, Poland stood little chance of defending its long borders, and fell quickly between September and October of 1939.  Over the next two years, Poland was reduced to a German slave province in the west and a Soviet rump, drained of people and goods, in the east.  From the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 until the end of the war, it became a vast killing ground. 

It was hard for the Poles to build a resistance movement in the face of both the Gestapo and the NKVD, which initially worked together. Creating a Polish underground government, and a separate government-in-exile, was exceedingly difficult in a partitioned country. Some Polish soldiers joined the French and British armed forces. Hundreds of thousands more became Soviet prisoners, but many of them were released in 1941 and allowed to join forces with the British under the leadership of Władysław Anders. Far from their own country, they fought bravely on many fronts. The Polish contribution to deciphering Germany’s Enigma codes was so vital and so secret that it was not revealed until the 1970s....

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