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Poland: Malice, Death, Survival

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Polish Press Agency
A Polish partisan returning his weapons and accepting amnesty after the war

Given the unending flow of misconceptions about wartime Poland, a comprehensive survey of this neglected subject is long overdue, and Halik Kochanski’s study fits the bill. The Eagle Unbowed is not the first such work in English; Jozef Garlinski’s study from 1973 still repays examination. But Kochanski has a good chance of reaching a wide readership. The British-born daughter of wartime refugees, she must have lived with these issues all her life, and as a Polish speaker she has access to lesser-known Polish materials (which she appears reluctant to employ). At the same time, she shows distinct independence of spirit; and as an established military historian she writes clearly about strategy and operations.

Yet the horrendous fate of civilians dominates this subject, and here the author’s treatment appears somewhat uneven. She is at her best describing the Soviet repressions between 1939 and 1941, and especially the mass deportations to the Gulag or to distant exile in Siberia or Central Asia. In the space of some twenty months, Poland’s terrorized eastern provinces were stripped of their cultural and administrative elite, of all preceding administrative structures, and of any hope of returning to the status quo ante. Kochanski’s account, in “Escape from the Soviet Union,” of the Polish army organized by General Władyslaw Anders, drawing on Polish recruits who had been trapped in the Soviet Union, is harrowing. Eyewitness accounts of recruits recently released from the Gulag read like camp scenes from the German zone:

What I saw was a collection of skeletons covered in rags, their feet wrapped in newspaper or dirty cloth…. They were either very thin, the colour and texture of yellow parchment, or bloated and shapeless like the face of a drowned man. Their eyes were either completely lifeless or glowing feverishly. They all looked old and shrivelled although some of them, at least, must have been young.

Many of these unfortunates died on arrival at the reception centers.

A thirty-three-page chapter on the Holocaust has already been described by a British specialist as “fair-minded” in its approach. It stresses the difference between the suffering of Christian Poles and “the unprecedented policy” of the Final Solution. Kochanski judges that circumstances made “an effective response” from the Gentile population “impossible,” as was outside intervention. Yet she does not quote any non-English sources.

Kochanski’s summary of negotiations at Tehran in 1943 over future frontiers is not quite accurate. She is right in saying that the Big Three met in an atmosphere of “sheer casualness,” so she should refrain from suggesting that any definite decisions were taken. In their amateurish bungling, Churchill and Roosevelt probably gave Stalin the impression that all was settled. But what Churchill actually said was that the Curzon Line, the boundary between Poland and the USSR proposed in 1920, should be “the basis for discussion,” meaning that there was still room for maneuver.

The weakest section of the book, however, must surely be located in the pages dealing with the tragic Warsaw Rising of 1944. For the most part, Kochanski follows the interpretation of bygone Communist commentators who, when they could not suppress the subject entirely, heaped all the blame on the leadership of the AK, the pro-Western underground army, and on the quarreling politicians in London. In this version, it is the Polish Home Army that willfully fails to cooperate with the Soviets, not the Soviets (as actually happened) who systematically withheld assistance both from the AK and from Western relief flights. She has no words of praise for the heroic fighters who held out for sixty-three days against the might of the SS and the Wehrmacht, in a city where the average daily damage and loss of life equaled that of September 11 in New York.

Kochanski, of course, has many allies in her hostile assessment of the rising, not least among former insurgents, whose trauma persists. And many of the criticisms are justified. But they are not the whole story. She fails to document the hopeless disarray of the Western powers during the rising, and omits President Roosevelt’s fatuous pronouncements from her account of the Polish prime minister’s visit to Washington in advance of the critical decisions. “Stalin doesn’t intend to take freedom from Poland,” Roosevelt opined; “he wouldn’t dare to do that because he knows that the US Government stands solidly behind you.” Tragically, the Polish prime minister believed him.

The author regains her balance in later chapters, recounting Poland’s abandonment by Allied diplomacy, the ruthless subjection of the “forgotten backwater” to Soviet power, and the long suppression of free discussion on wartime history.

Anne Applebaum picks up where Kochanski breaks off, the two books forming a panorama from the outbreak of war in 1939 to the attempted anti-Soviet “revolutions” of the 1950s. Iron Curtain addresses all the Soviet bloc, and Applebaum’s extensive passages on Poland benefit from comparisons with East Germany, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary. The first section deals with the Soviet takeover, the second with the features and failings of “High Stalinism.” If Kochanski’s prose is workmanlike, Applebaum’s is polished and penetrating.

Westerners still imagine 1945 as the moment of liberation; they are only familiar with the one third of Europe that was indeed liberated by Western forces. Applebaum explains in convincing detail how the larger half of Europe was seamlessly freed from Nazi tyranny while being crushed into accepting the victorious tyranny of Stalinist communism.

The agents of this simultaneous liberation/subjection were on the one hand the Red Army, which carried out mass rapes and mass plunder—by “hungry, angry, exhausted, battle-hardened men and women, all of them now brutalized by what they had seen, heard, and done”—and on the other, the true-believing Communists who made up the political foot soldiers of the incoming system. Yet as Applebaum elucidates in her Chapter 4, “Policemen,” practically every person directly serving the system, like everyone outside it, was closely supervised, subordinated to, and if necessary silenced by vast and secret security forces associated with the Soviet NKVD.

The Red Army, as she makes clear, was not run by its military officers, but by politruks popularly known as “commissars,” embedded at every level by the NKVD. All members of the nascent Communist Parties swore blind obedience to their superiors, and their superiors to the comrades in Moscow; and everyone in the movement, except for Stalin, was monitored by the NKVD’s special departments. Among the populace at large, the NKVD was ordered to eliminate not just active opponents but all “potential enemies.”

As Applebaum shows in detail, the NKVD orchestrated the political scene in occupied countries with mixed governments before 1948, just as it ran the Communist monopoly after 1948. She describes how, as Communists took tightened control over one country after another, they resorted in practically every neighborhood to arrests, torture, assassinations, deportations, and “disappearances”—and in selective regions to extensive campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

As for the thorny issue of what Isaac Deutscher dubbed “non-Jewish Jews” and their numbers serving in the apparatus of repression, some anti-Semites say “almost all” and some who have ignored actual history will say “almost none.” Anne Applebaum does not comment on this question. Beria, the head of the NKVD, inquiring in 1945 of his representative in Warsaw, was told: “50 percent of all departmental directors and 18.5 percent of total personnel.” However accurate these figures may be, such participation did much to revive anti-Semitism in the postwar period.

Perhaps the hardest thing for Eastern Europeans to bear was that no one in the outside world cared. As seen from Washington and London, Applebaum writes, “Russia’s behavior in Eastern Europe…was hardly worth noticing at all.”

Adam Michnik once told a reviewer—the present reviewer, as it happens—that a brilliant pen and a bad character make a dangerous combination. Even so, Michnik, a deeply serious philosopher-historian and ex-Solidarity captain, carries his fame and erudition lightly. He was born in 1946 to Jewish Communist parents, who had survived both Stalin’s pre-war purge and the Holocaust (he shares this background with Poland’s current First Lady), and he was burdened by at least one member of his immediate family being engaged with the nastiest organs of Stalinist oppression. Yet his mind was as sharp as his will was strong, and the teenager emerged as a dissident trailblazer, destined to lead the minority branch of the Solidarity movement that had rejected its roots in the Communist ranks.

Most importantly, despite repeated imprisonment, he was able to articulate eloquently the reasons for his opposition and thereby to inspire others. His first book, The Church, the Left and Dialogue, smuggled out of Poland in 1977, charted the intellectual course that would lead a dozen years later to the Round Table between independent Poles and the Communist regime—and ultimately to the collapse of the People’s Republic.

Nowadays, as editor-in-chief of one of Poland’s biggest newspapers, Gazeta Wyborcza, Michnik is the bête noire of the boneheaded tendency in Polish politics that still believes that ex-Communists pull the secret strings of a fragile democracy. In reality, he is the finest champion of everything that has been achieved, an eloquent expositor of the moral issues that underlie the conflicts of his lifetime. His latest collection of essays, In Search of Lost Meaning, does not disappoint. Part I, “Anniversaries,” is reflective and historical; Part II, “The Work of Hatred,” analyzes the pre-war roots of present tensions; and Part III, “The Complex Polish-Jewish Matters,” dissects two terrible events: the Jedwabne Massacre of Jews by Poles in 1941 and the Kielce Pogrom of 1946, when at least thirty-eight Jews, some having just returned, were killed in a Polish town. One key passage among many elucidates what Michnik calls “the egotism of suffering”:

Pain is always egotistic, for we experience our own suffering and that of our family or our friends egotistically…. We feel this pain together with the others who are part of our spiritual fatherland. And…when our nation is being murdered, then—filled with our own pain—we do not consider the misfortune of others….
Usually, [the others] do not suffer with us…. After all, they have their own “egotism of suffering,” their own trampled-on community, and their own grievance against the world…. We then become bitter, and our bitterness breeds dislike…. Locked in the fortress of our own memories and suffering, we do not even notice how aversion and pain mutate into hatred and vengefulness.

Selective memory and selective mourning, therefore, can be observed on every hand. Poles mourn the officer victims at Katyn, but they do not mourn Stalin’s Polish Communist victims. Locked into his thoughts about Jedwabne, Michnik agonizes over the shocking murder of Jews by their Polish neighbors. But he does not in this book agonize over the equally barbarous murders of Poles by their Ukrainian neighbors. Here, Kochanski comes to the rescue. She estimates Polish losses from ethnic cleansing in 1943–1944 in Volhynia, East Galicia, and Lublin province at between 50,000 and 80,000, and she underlines the mindless bestiality of the killings.

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