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The Misunderstood Victory in Europe

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 to last for two days or at most a week, lasted for sixty-three days. Instead of retreating, the Wehrmacht was able to bring up heavy reinforcements, among them some of the most brutal units of the Nazi war-machine. The heroic defenders fought on alone, amid savage reprisals. A quarter of a million people were killed. At the end, Hitler in his fury decreed that Warsaw should be razed. The survivors were deported to camps. Instead of defending Germany, thousands of German troops were kept in the deserted ruins of Warsaw until January 1945, blasting and burning it to pieces, house by house, street by street.

One might expect that the physical obliteration of one of Europe’s historic capitals would be well known to everybody who knows anything about the war. Apparently not. When the president of Germany was invited to attend the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Rising, he sent a reply which said in effect: “The President of Germany will be honored to attend the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Rising.”1 The president of Poland’s neighbor, it seems, or at least the president’s office, did not know that two great wartime risings broke out in Warsaw—the first in April 1943 in the Ghetto, and the second in August 1944. President Herzog duly redeemed himself by a fine speech in Warsaw on the theme of reconciliation. But the incident underlines how often the basic historical facts are simply not known.

Prompted by the German president’s faux pas, I thought that I should talk about the theme of selectivity, that is, why our knowledge of the war is so disjointed, distorted, disproportionate. What exactly is it that impedes the full and evenhanded recall of the events of 1939–1945? I have fixed on nine categories of selectivity. One could probably find more.


The first category is what I would call the selectivity of propaganda, that is, the deliberate and systematic technique of presenting only those facts and falsehoods which suit a particular political goal. Between 1939 and 1945, propagandists were at work on all sides. The main building of London University, where I now work, was taken over by something coyly called the “Ministry of Information.” Yet in this sphere, there is no doubt that the real specialists worked elsewhere.

One example would be the Russian custom of talking not about “the Second World War in the USSR” but about “The Great Patriotic War of 1941–1944.” You might think that nations can call the war whatever they choose. But then you realize that the title is a device for suggesting two things: first, that the Soviets did nothing but fight heroically in defense of their homeland, and second, that they were somehow not involved in the period preceding the German attack. How often have I read that the USSR in 1939–1941 was “neutral.” If you had lived in Poland or Finland or the Baltic States or Romania, and had seen the Red Army marching in, it would never have struck you that these were acts of neutrality.

I mentioned the Warsaw Rising. Not everyone realizes that it was the subject of elaborate postwar propaganda. Poland’s Communist regime was to contend that the only authentic anti-Nazi resistance had been led by Communists. In reality, it was the Communists who after the war annihilated the forces, the Home Army (AK), which had provided the backbone of wartime resistance. Many of those Resistance leaders were cast into the same cells as Nazi criminals.2 The AK was virtually unmentionable for decades. The postwar Polish regime only started to mention it in the 1970s; it was then smeared as somehow “collaborationist” and “anti-Semitic.”

If you are ever in Warsaw you should look at the monuments. In 1947, a fine monument was raised to the Heroes of the Ghetto, where Chancellor Willy Brandt would one day kneel in contrition. But nothing was raised to commemorate the general rising of 1944. When I first visited Warsaw in the 1960s, our guide took us to Dluga Street to show us the entrance to the sewers, which the Home Army fighters had used for their lines of communication. But we had to be shown it in secret. There was no explanation of the Warsaw Rising in any of the guidebooks of the time. The Home Army veterans were unable to raise a suitable monument to their fallen comrades until 1988. It is not surprising that a nation whose own memories were shackled for so long was not able to publicize the full facts of its wartime history to the world at large.


The second category I would call the selectivity of personal perception. This is the opposite of the first one, namely the selectivity that derives from the involuntary and very often unconscious preferences which we all harbor. Every human being has a store of knowledge, of emotions, of loyalties, which automatically filters all incoming information. Although some of us, especially historians, pretend to be impartial and scientific, none of us in my view can be completely unbiased.

The two scholarly studies of the Warsaw Rising available in English for the last twenty years were written by historians who had lived through it in person. They were both caught in the same bloody fighting, and saw their friends slaughtered. One of them, Janusz Zawodny, later became an American scholar; the other, Jan Ciechanowski, a professor in London. Both were free to write whatever they wished. Both had the same access to sources. Yet they produced diametrically opposed analyses. Zawodny, essentially sympathetic, saw the Rising as a Greek tragedy, in which the Poles, abandoned by their Allies, were doomed to be crushed. Ciechanowski was highly critical of the Rising’s leaders and of their determination to take up arms without having secured the prior consent of the Soviets. Zawodny’s book was banned by Poland’s Communist censorship. Ciechanowski’s was welcomed. The startling discrepancies can only lie in the perceptions of the historians themselves.3


The third category is that of geographical selectivity: if you like, the sin of parochialism. The Second World War was fought in two major theaters of action: in Europe and in the Pacific. Yet the two parallel theaters are often described separately. Few accounts of the war in Europe refer, for example, to the Japanese factor. And yet, at two moments at least, it was crucial.

In September 1939, after the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Pact had prepared for the partition of Eastern Europe, it was clear that Hitler and Stalin were both out to reap the spoils of war. The so-called Pact of Non-Aggression was a deal to facilitate aggression by both signatories. The Wehrmacht attacked Poland on September 1. Its onslaught was so fierce that the whole of the country was soon falling into its hands. But the Soviets held off. The Nazi command was much concerned by the failure of the Soviets to assist them more promptly. Suddenly, the Red Army appeared on September 17, nearly three weeks late, crushing all resistance. Nazis and Soviets held a joint victory parade in the symbolic location of Brest Litovsk. On September 28, they signed a Treaty of Friendship, Demarcation, and Cooperation.

The question is: Why did Stalin delay? Was he just playing the hyena? Perhaps so. But the best explanation lies in Central Asia. In early September 1939, the Soviet Union was still engaged against Japan in a campaign in Mongolia, where a young general, Georgy Zhukov, distinguished himself.4 The truce with Japan was signed on September 15. Stalin gave the order to invade Poland on September 16, and at dawn on the seventeenth the Soviet troops marched across the Polish border.

In February 1945, the Yalta conference began. One is often asked how Roosevelt and Churchill, on the brink of victory, could, in effect, have handed Eastern Europe to Stalin “on a plate.” Once again, the best answer lies in Japan. The Americans still did not possess an atomic bomb. The battle on Okinawa had cost fifty thousand casualties. If the Japanese mainland had to be stormed, the cost would be much higher; some estimates ran as high as a million casualties. To avoid that, it was prudent to call in the Soviet Army. Stalin’s unspoken price was a free hand in Eastern Europe.

  1. 1

    As reported in Tygodnik powszechny (Kracow).

  2. 2

    Kazimierz Moczarski, Rozmowy z katem (Conversations with an Executioner) (Prentice-Hall, 1981).

  3. 3

    Janusz Zawodny, Nothing but Honour: The Story of the Warsaw Uprising, 1944 (Hoover Institution Press, 1977); Jan M. Ciechanowski, The Warsaw Rising (Cambridge University Press, 1974).

  4. 4

    See Alvin D. Coox, Nomonhan: Japan against Russia, 1939 (Stanford University Press, 1985).

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