Fifty years would seem to be time enough to prepare a definitive history of the Second World War. In an age of instant data-gathering, one might think that the historians could have arrived at a consensus for interpreting the main events of the war. In reality, no such consensus exists. In a season filled with fiftieth anniversaries, controversies arise over everything from the liberation of Auschwitz and the Dresden raid to the Smithsonian exhibition of the Enola Gay. Misunderstandings are particularly evident concerning the zone of Eastern Europe in which the decisive military campaigns were fought and the crucial ideological confrontation occurred. To commemorate the events of 1945, one needs a broad view of all that happened, and a broad view is often lacking.
The following article is a modified version of a lecture presented at the Polish Consulate in Montreal in conjunction with the local Polish-Jewish Society, on August 16, 1994.
Why are some things remembered and others forgotten? That is the theme I want to pursue about the Second World War. I should say, incidentally, that my own memories of the war are extremely selective. I can just remember the blitz of Manchester, or perhaps my father’s tales about the blitz of Manchester. I can remember the blackout, the powdered eggs, and the gas masks. But I think no British person should pretend that being resident in England could count as being in the thick of the action. If my own memories are peripheral, it is partly because Britain’s own position in the war was peripheral. There should be no illusions. The heart of the conflict in Europe was not in the West, but in the East, centered on the mortal rivalry of the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin. Much of the pain of that war, more acute than anything in Western Europe, was borne by the unhappy peoples who lived within the reach of the two dictators. Unfortunately, they are not the ones who have dominated the history-writing.
Fifty years ago, on August 16, 1944, the American ambassador in Moscow visited the Soviet Foreign Commissariat to discuss the coordination of Allied assistance to the Warsaw Rising. He was bluntly told that the Soviet government had no intention of giving assistance to an event which other Soviet agencies were describing as “the escapade of a criminal gang.”
The Rising had broken out almost three weeks earlier, much in the way that Paris rose against the Nazi occupier that same month. The insurgents’ goals in Paris and Warsaw were essentially the same. They aimed to liberate their capital city by attacking the German garrison at the critical moment when it came under fire from the advancing Allied armies—in Paris from the US Army, in Warsaw from the Soviet Army.
But when it emerged that the Soviets were going to halt their offensive in Warsaw’s eastern suburbs for almost five months, the impending catastrophe was self-evident. The Rising, planned …