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Nazis, Soviets, Poles, Jews

The Nazi foreign minister had lost his patience with the Poles. “You are stubborn on these maritime questions,” he told Polish diplomats in January 1939. “The Black Sea is also a sea!”1 Joachim von Ribbentrop had been trying for years to induce Poland to join Germany in a war against the Soviet Union. Germany would annex from Poland districts by the Baltic Sea; the two countries would invade the USSR; and Poland would be compensated with conquered Soviet territory on the Black Sea.

Ribbentrop’s master Adolf Hitler wanted a deal so that he could begin a war. For the Nazis, the Soviet Union was the main enemy, and its agriculture and oil the prize. But between Germany and the USSR lay Poland, and the Poles expressed no interest in being the junior partner in the adventure. Why should Poland trade Baltic territories for the chance to fight for a Black Sea coastline? Why would German troops, once they entered Poland, ever leave? The Polish foreign minister declared that Poland would concede no territory and would fight to preserve its sovereignty. France and Britain, having seen Germany annex Austria and destroy Czechoslovakia, now offered guarantees to Poland, and sought to bring the Soviet Union into an alliance.

Josef Stalin doubted that the British or the French would be much use if Germany attacked, and he knew that Poland would not permit Soviet troops to cross Polish territory to attack Germany. Stalin waited for a better offer, and got one—from Hitler. On August 23, 1939, Ribbentrop flew to Moscow, where he and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov concluded a nonaggression pact. The agreement included a secret protocol whereby the two powers endorsed each other’s spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, dividing between themselves the lands between the Baltic and the Black Seas.

Having failed to draw the Poles into a war against the Soviet Union, Ribbentrop succeeded in enticing the Soviets to join in an invasion of Poland. On September 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht attacked Poland from the west and south; on September 17, the Red Army entered from the east. The two armies met in the middle of Poland, marked their new common border, and organized a joint victory parade. Stalin had concluded, understandably, that it was better to fight the Germans later rather than sooner. Convinced that Hitler would wait to begin a second eastern offensive, he was surprised by the German invasion of June 22, 1941. Three years later, the Red Army drove the Germans from the Soviet Union. So the USSR began World War II as an ally of Germany, but ended it as an enemy of Germany. The Nazis, too, sacrificed ideological consistency for strategic prudence. Because Poland announced its decision to fight, Hitler decided to make an alliance with the Soviets in order to start the war in 1939. Because Poland indeed fought, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Hitler had wanted a simple death struggle with the Soviet Union. He got his war with the Soviet Union, but it was anything but simple.

Richard Evans chronicles this complex war in enviable prose. Hitler had little desire to engage the British; his Luftwaffe could not control the skies, and the idea of a marine invasion of a naval power posed problems from the start. The quick German victory over France in spring 1940, on the other hand, made Hitler look like a genius. It convinced Germans of the possibility of a Blitzsieg, or “lightning victory,” against the main enemy, the Soviet Union. The Red Army was thought to be inferior to the French armed forces; Hitler thought that defeating the Soviet Union would be child’s play. But the “lightning victory” in the Soviet Union was a will-o’-the-wisp. By December 1941 the Red Army was mounting counterattacks, and Japan had brought the United States into the war by bombing Pearl Harbor. Hitler welcomed Tokyo’s distraction, believing that the Japanese would keep the Americans penned in the Pacific. But in 1942, after a spring offensive, the Germans failed again to defeat the Soviet Union. They then found themselves facing the assembled power of Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

Evans’s account of the German experience of war is exceptionally accessible. Rather than the conventional “Führer,” he calls Hitler the “Leader,” in one deft gesture making the German experience less alien. He places much emphasis on individual choices, particularly of those who wished to resist Hitler. He keeps in view strategic circumstances and technical achievements, with sketches, for example, of the importance of aircraft carriers and long-range fighters. His account of Nazi atrocities within Germany is overwhelming in its painful detail. There is no better summary of the “euthanasia” program, in which German doctors and nurses gassed 80,000 mentally and physically handicapped people by the summer of 1941. At one of the extermination facilities, the staff celebrated the ten-thousandth cremation, as Evans relates, by bedecking a corpse with flowers.

Evans faces controversial issues squarely and makes balanced judgments. The Allied bombing of German cities was, he concludes, both murderous and effective. It killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians. But it also reduced morale, diverted dual-use cannons from the eastern front, and slowed the development of new weapons. He provides a clear account of the rise and fall of the members of Hitler’s clique. He describes the decline of Hermann Göring, “the second man of the Reich,” who was originally charged with the creation of a vast exterminatory German colony in the conquered Soviet Union. As the war continued Heinrich Himmler took charge of the extermination, and Albert Speer made the most of the limited resources of Germany’s ever-shrinking empire. Unlike some historians of the war, Evans does not simply allow Jews to disappear from the scene to destinations with ominous names. He follows the trains to the death factories and the people to the gas chambers, preventing the reader from seeing industrial killing as somehow quick and clean.

In this, as in the previous two volumes of his imposing history of Nazi Germany, Evans deploys a sort of vertical method. Uniting his youthful training in social history with later interests in political history, he weaves together the experiences of people and the workings of the institutions of power. Heretofore the combination has served him very well. The problem with the period between 1939 and 1945, however, is that Nazi power ceased to be vertical, as German soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats spread themselves thin over much of the European continent, and the lines of power no longer flowed downward from Berlin to German society, but began to flow outward from Germany to the empire. Even Germany itself became a highly multinational state. Annexations of Polish territory from the Baltic Sea southward added fifteen times more Poles than Germans to the Reich. Some eight million foreign laborers came to live in Germany. Evans realizes that he must concentrate his attention on the German empire in the East, where the war was lost. His attempts to do so, however, bring rather mixed results.

Germany, in Evans’s presentation, was a complex society, defined by Christian morality, in which the majority was opposed to the persecution of Jews. Poles, on the other hand, had, in Evans’s account, no educated classes (these, he thinks, were eliminated by the Germans), and can be reduced to the stereotype of nationalism. Evans writes with tedious consistency of the “Polish nationalist resistance.” The word “nationalist” appears every time the anti-Nazi Polish opposition is mentioned—a lonely exception being the page where Poles rescue Emanuel Ringelblum, the chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto, from a camp. (Ringelblum, along with another group of Polish rescuers, was later killed.)2

The group that Evans has in mind, which took the name “Home Army,” was established by men and women of the political center and left. Its founder, Michał Tokarzewski-Karasiewicz, was a feminist theosophist from a nationally mixed family: hardly a nationalist. Some of the Home Army’s soldiers and officers were Jews, and were killed by Germans as such. Not a “nationalist organization,” the Home Army was part of the regular armed forces and was subordinate to the exile government of Poland. Having misclassified the Home Army, Evans ignores the other Polish armed forces: the army under General Władysław Anders that fought in the West, and the air force. Polish pilots made 12 percent of the kills of Luftwaffe fighters in the Battle of Britain—one wonders if Evans thinks that these men were “nationalists.”

Evans claims that the Polish government in exile never “took a clear stance” against the murder of Polish Jews. This is false; he contradicts himself later in the book, writing that on September 17, 1942, the Polish government in exile approved a “public protest against the crimes the Germans were committing against the Jews.” He goes on to say—inaccurately—that it “took no concrete action.” Polish authorities, no doubt, should have done more to publicize the plight of their three million Jewish citizens. As Evans fails to note, however, Polish leaders were in a position similar to that of the American, British, and Soviet governments: all had a war to win against Germany, but felt they could not allow their rather anti-Semitic societies to believe that they were fighting for Jews.

Hitler’s propaganda accused them of doing so, and London, Washington, and Moscow reacted much the same way as the Polish government: they emphasized the suffering of nations but not of Jews. But it was, as Evans notes, the Poles who told the British and the Americans about the Holocaust, not the other way around. The Polish army courier Jan Karski informed American and British statesmen and intellectuals about the mass killing. Evans does not mention Zegota, a department of the Polish government whose sole purpose was to rescue Jews. Thousands of Jews survived thanks to Zegota; thousands of others were sheltered by individual Poles. On the other hand, some Poles killed Jews, and some Poles served the Germans as policemen, while others turned in Jews to the Germans. Many profited from the Holocaust by taking Jewish property. The history of Polish–Jewish relations would be better served by a more sensitive account than the one Evans provides.3

Evans is naturally sympathetic to the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto who chose to fight in April 1943 rather than to submit to the Germans. Unfortunately, according to Evans, the “Polish nationalist resistance rejected their call for help.” One might wish that Poles had done more to help the Warsaw Jews, but easy condemnations are no substitute for research. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was fought by two different Jewish groups, the Jewish Military Union and the Jewish Combat Organization. The Communist Polish People’s Guard helped the Jews of the Jewish Combat Organization, a coalition of mostly left-wing political parties founded in the ghetto by people without military experience.

  1. 1

    Hans Roos, Polen und Europa: Studien zur polnischen Außenpolitik (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1957), p. 396.

  2. 2

    See Samuel D. Kassow, Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto (Vintage, 2009).

  3. 3

    A study that takes a critical view of the Polish government is David Engel, Facing a Holocaust: The Polish Government-in-Exile and the Jews, 1943–1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993). See also his exchange with Dariusz Stola in Polin, Vol. 8 (1994). A statistical reckoning of Jewish rescue is Gunnar S. Paulsson, Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940–1945 (Yale University Press, 2002). No book conveys the high culture of Polish-Jewish Warsaw better than Marci Shore, Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism (Yale University Press, 2006).

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