Reptile Journalism is a solidly documented account of the Polish publications that appeared under Nazi rule, based on material the author found in Polish archives when he was a member of the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. He is now a historian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and Yeshiva University in New York. His book will be a precious source of information about wartime Poland for scholars, but it closely follows the original Polish version, and the author apparently felt he did not have to provide some basic facts for the American reader concerning the Nazi occupation.

In Germany during World War I there was a public discussion about what to do with the conquered eastern territories. German nationalist politicians advocated that only the regions which could be made to fit into German life should be incorporated into the Reich, since lands with ethnic elements that were too alien would be hard to digest. The same thesis was applied during World War II to the Nazis’ conquests in the East. The western provinces of Poland were made a part of the Reich, while the central provinces were formed into an administrative unit called the General Government (GG), under control of a German governor, Hans Frank, who was tried after the war in Nuremberg for war crimes, found guilty, and hanged.

Contrary to some views, there was no Polish satellite state during the war years. Dobroszycki puts this succinctly:

Poland was a country without a Quisling. But for the sake of historical precision, it must be said that in the course of their more than five-year rule in Poland, the Germans never seriously attempted to produce such a figure; for without some tangible concessions, including a margin of sovereignty (no matter how narrow), there was no place for Quislingism in Poland.

Would the Germans have been able to create in Poland a puppet state as they did in neighboring Slovakia? In Germany the GG was called “Gangster Ground,” which conveys a sense both of the quick financial gain that was to be found there and the physical dangers as well. Germans like Oscar Schindler were lured to Poland by a hope of getting rich, but the region was far from safe for them. Resistance networks were organized into a Polish “Secret State,” about which the American government learned from Jan Karski, a courier and eyewitness of Nazi atrocities in Poland. The Germans called the underground fighters “bandits,” a word since used against freedom fighters in many other countries. A nearly hysterical patriotic conformity was imposed on Polish society by the Polish resistance groups, which were loyal to the Polish government in exile in London. The members of a potential Quisling government would have had a poor chance of surviving. And yet the very logic of Poland’s hopeless position between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia should, at least theoretically, have inclined some Poles to think about a possible accommodation with Germany, especially if they belonged to the political right. Hardly any did so.

Still, the Germans were eager to organize newspapers. “Reptile Journalism,” the name given them in the American translation of Dobroszycki’s book, is not quite a faithful translation of “prasa gadzinowa,” since the word gadzina refers to the adder, Europe’s only poisonous snake. Thus the correct translation should be “The Adder Press,” the name used by members of the Polish public to brand the Nazi-directed newspapers as poisonous. Yet they were read. People had, after all, to buy them, if only for weather reports (all radio receivers were confiscated), advertisements, and obituaries. As Dobroszycki reminds us, no Polish newspapers were allowed except those of the “adder press,” which were published by the German “Department of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.” The underground papers were able to provide news based upon the BBC broadcasts, but for details of everyday life you had to buy at a newsstand the only newspaper available.

In this as in many other respects, the situation in occupied Poland was different from that in many other countries where the prewar press, though censored, was allowed to continue. Thus, as Professor Dobroszycki points out, in Bohemia-Moravia, during 1941 alone, “1,733 periodicals appeared, including 55 daily newspapers, as well as 350 journals devoted to culture, pedagogy, and various sciences…At the same time,…not counting the professional journals, about a hundred daily and weekly newspapers were published” in occupied France. Apart from Poland, the local press was entirely liquidated only in the parts of Ukraine, Belorussia, and Russia that were conquered after 1941. Also, though listening to foreign stations was forbidden, radio receivers in most other countries were not confiscated as they were in Poland.

I read the papers of the adder press when I lived in occupied Warsaw, and Professor Dobroszycki describes their contents well. With the aim of spreading despair and paralysis, they extolled the invincible power of Nazi Germany. They mocked the Western allies and the Polish government in exile; they tried to make the Poles feel racially inferior as members of the Slavic race. The other goal, as Professor Dobroszycki stresses, was to act as a smoke screen: no information was published on what was really happening in Poland, on the manhunts in the streets and the executions of hostages, or on what was happening in Auschwitz and Majdanek, and the “pacification” of villages by mass killings. Above all, there was no mention of the ghettos and the mass murder of the Jews. If one were to judge from these papers, the GG’s inhabitants led normal lives, and no ordinary citizen had anything to fear if he did not transgress against “German justice.”


The author raises a valid question about the influence of this sort of propaganda. He suspects that it was significant, and I would agree with him, especially so far as rural Poland was concerned. The quality of the adder press was low. No Polish journalist who was well known before the war worked for it. The papers were mostly written and edited by improvised teams of “Volksdeutsch“—Poles who declared themselves as having German ancestry. Although their prose and editing were clumsy, the papers could convey their message clearly enough to their readers, especially to those who had no more than a primary school education. Unfortunately, they had considerable success in fostering hatred of Jews, because some members of the Polish underground who had rightist and extreme rightist tendencies were spreading similar feelings.

Throughout Europe there was a large number of underground publications, and the author lists more than 1,500 titles of newspapers and periodicals in Poland, as compared with 1,200 titles in Netherlands, 1,200 in France, 550 in Denmark, 545 in Italy.

The underground press in Poland was put out by all the parties, organizations, and groups which had existed before the war and even the new parties and organizations that came into being during the war were patterned on the prewar social and political movements.

I must add that contrary to other countries in Europe where the Resistance was identified with various shades of the left, in Poland the parties of the right and of the extreme right were also part of the “secret state,” along with socialists and populists. Some members of the clandestine network in Warsaw were suspected of liberal leanings and were murdered by their political opponents. The nationalist and fascist political parties from the prewar period continued their anti-Jewish propaganda throughout the war, sometimes openly rejoicing in the prospect of a Poland without Jews. “All these groups,” Professor Dobroszycki writes, “published about three hundred clandestine papers (not counting brochures and fliers).” Taken together with the propaganda in the adder press, the hate-mongering in these publications created an atmosphere that was dangerous both to Jews who escaped from the ghettos and to those who wanted to help them. Yet when the rightist underground editors and printers were caught, the Germans treated them with the same brutality that they applied to all the other clandestine militants, notwithstanding the anti-Semitic content of the rightist papers.

Professor Dobroszycki’s account of the Polish wartime press corresponds to my own experience, and I will add only a brief supplement to it. The Thirties were an ominous period in Europe, and when we see today the explosions of nationalism such as those in the former Yugoslavia we realize how similar they are, in many respects, to the aberrations of the period preceding World War II. Most characteristic, then and later, has been a coupling of nationalism with religion. The Serbs’ Eastern Orthodox Church openly or implicitly blesses the horrors of “ethnic cleansing.” In Poland the nationalists invoked Catholicism in support of their doctrine exalting “Polishness,” and they had the backing of a large part of the Church hierarchy. And nowhere was the internal contradiction of that partnership revealed more clearly than in attitudes toward the Holocaust. For whatever the relations between Poles and Jews, no Pole could pretend indifference to what the Germans were doing to the Jews without exposing his or her Christian faith as a sham. Many Catholics were aware of this.

In a separate study, “The Jews in the Polish Underground Press, 1939–1945,” Professor Dobroszycki dedicates a long passage to Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, a Catholic novelist and founder of the underground Front for the Restitution of Poland (FOP). A heroic woman, she saved many Jews, both adults and children, and headed Zegota, the Council to Aid the Jews, in which several political parties were represented, including two delegates of the Jewish underground. The groups associated with Kossak-Szczucka’s organization published a large number of underground papers. Among them the most influential and widely circulated was Biuletyn Informacyjny, which presented the “official” line of the underground government. Professor Dobroszycki writes:


Biuletyn gave up-to-date information on the situation of the Jews in Poland, condemned the crimes perpetrated by the Germans, appealed to its readers to help the victims, and warned that measures would be taken against those who collaborated in any way with the Germans in the extermination of the Jews.

Zofia Kossak-Szczucka deserves special attention here, for her thinking reflects a conflict of two opposing tendencies within one mind and one heart. She was both a nationalist and a Catholic, unwilling and unable to renounce either commitment. Yet she believed that religion should take precedence over nationality; thus her Christian faith imposed upon her a duty to help Jews, while national loyalties bound her to her ideological brethren who maintained that the Jews were enemies of Poland. A person of strong religious faith, she resolved that contradiction morally, but was unable to find a way out intellectually.

Professor Jan Blonski in a book published recently in Poland continues the exploration he began a few years ago in his article on the Poles’ passivity in the face of German persecution of Jews. He analyzes a text entitled “A Protest,” a clandestine manifesto published by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka in 1942. Blonski has a deep respect for her heroic acts but has some difficulty in grasping her frame of mind. Her manifesto clearly denounces the crime of genocide, yet he finds in her position elements of latent anti-Semitism—an anti-Semitism of which she was probably unaware, particularly in her opposing the Poles and the Jews to each other as two separate nations. In this she probably was typical of many Catholics at the time, and her logic was shared, Professor Blonski apparently suspects, by many monasteries and nunneries which, although they saved Jewish lives, did not take a clear public position against anti-Semitism. He confesses that he is puzzled by “the question how evident anti-Semitism could go together with risking (or sacrificing) one’s life to help Jews, a case not rare, particularly in Poland.” To judge by the attitudes of some of the prewar political parties and their underground publications during the war, he writes, “The Poles’ behavior could have been worse.”

One of the main tasks of the adder press was to direct hatred toward communism, a task made easier by the experience of many Poles and their families in the Soviet-occupied zone. And during one period, at least, the articles sounded especially convincing. This happened in the spring of 1943, when the German propaganda machine announced to the world the dramatic discovery of mass graves in Katyn, near Smolensk, an area then controlled by the German army. Thousands of corpses were found of Polish officers who had been interned by the (then neutral) Soviet Union in 1939 during the partition of Poland between Hitler and Stalin. Excavations (to which the German authorities invited representatives of the International Red Cross) revealed that the prisoners had been executed in April 1940, being shot in the back of their heads. The crime thus occurred a year before Hitler’s invasion of Russia, and the evidence pointed to the Soviets as the guilty party. The lists of the dead officers published in the adder press agreed with what their families knew about their internment, and correspondence with them had stopped in April 1940. Everyone in Poland therefore accepted the German view that the crime was committed by the Soviets. It would be difficult to imagine more convincing testimony to the credibility of the poisonous snake press.

For the Western allies the Katyn massacre became a major headache. Their intelligence services had no doubts about who did it, but the Western powers believed that to preserve the alliance with Stalin they had to pretend to believe the false Soviet version. For many years after the end of the war the Western governments and the Western press remained reluctant to accuse the Russians of the Katyn killings. The controversy ended on October 14, 1992, when Boris Yeltsin’s personal envoy, Professor Pikhoya, handed Lech Walesa documents from the Soviet archives showing that the order of execution was signed in 1940 by members of the Soviet Politburo, with Stalin’s name at the head of the list of signers. More than 23,000 interned Poles were executed in three localities, Katyn among them.

Dobroszycki uses diagrams to explain the relationship between Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda in Berlin and Hans Frank’s Department of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in Poland. But these relationships were not so simple. There was a constant tension between Frank and Goebbels, which was based not on disagreement over the basic tenets of Nazi policy but on their conflicting ambitions and personalities. They played a complex game involving several Nazi officials who were subordinate to Frank. A clever man, a lawyer by profession, he realized that the German policy of terrorizing the Polish population was ineffective and that more sophisticated measures were needed. He was able, however, to propose changes only after Goebbels realized the extent of the large German defeats on the Eastern front, i.e., after the battle of Stalingrad, early in 1943. In a circular addressed to higher Party functionaries on February 15, Goebbels recommended the following:

  1. All forces of the European continent, but especially the people in the East, must be used against Bolshevism.
  2. The people must be imbued with the conviction that the victory of Germany is in their own interest.
  3. In this context, the degradation or offense, directly or indirectly, of individuals is not allowed.
  4. Similarly, the impression may not be given that the Reich intends to create long-lasting subjugation.

  5. Every expression on the subject of the German policy of colonization, and colonization in the East, is to cease.

  6. Similarly, new or large German settlement, the distribution of lands, or any Germanization may not be mentioned. Nor may the deportations of the population be spoken about.

  7. Anything that may damage the necessary cooperation of the people in the East and thus impede the German victory is to be avoided.

As soon as the circular reached him, Frank called a conference of his staff and presented the case for a new line of propaganda and a new and less repressive policy in the GG. When his proposal met with opposition in Berlin, Frank decided to appeal directly to Hitler. On June 1944 he sent him an extensive memorandum. “In this memorandum,” Dobroszycki writes,

Frank admits that German rule in the GG had recently come up against the increasingly active resistance of broad masses of the Polish people. This was the result, he concluded, of a policy of starvation, resettlement, exploitation, mass arrests and mass shootings, and persecution of the church, as well as a well-advanced paralysis of cultural life. In this situation, the Germans lost the possibility of drawing Polish society into the struggle against Bolshevism which Frank considered imperative and saw as a realistic goal, especially after the circulation of the DNB [Deutschenachrichtenbureau] report on the murder of a few thousand Polish officers by Russians at Katyn, near Smolensk.

However, both Hitler and Himmler were opposed to any concessions to the Poles, and it was only in February 1944 that Frank was able to obtain some assurances from Hitler during his visit to the leader’s headquarters. But it was late; the battlefront was then moving fast toward the West.

The year 1944 marked the most interesting phase of the German sponsored press in Poland. There were some signs that the Germans were relenting in their cultural policy; a few concerts by Polish musicians as well as theater performances were allowed and praised as steps toward “normalization.” Also, instead of insisting on centrally controlled newspapers which were forbidden to deal with literature and art or to discuss political matters, the Germans made plans for new journals that would be edited by Poles, who would be free to make comments on their own, enter into polemics with Resistance writers, and debate ideological choices. The new press was to coexist with the ordinary adder press. In other words the Nazis attempted to create a journalism of collaborators.

The Nazis at this stage of the war emphasized the theme of Germany as the unifying protector of Europe from Soviet communism—a theme that was promoted in various occupied countries with different degrees of success. A crusading anti-Bolshevik spirit was supposed to animate the foreign military units fighting in Russia along with the German army, whether they were Italian, Hungarian, Belgian, or Romanian. Throughout German-dominated Europe a number of writers and journalists, mainly from the circles of prewar, anti-democratic parties, were engaged in converting people to “the European cause.” Even if they did not necessarily consider Nazi Germany as a model to follow, they denounced the corruption inherent in parliamentarianism and praised the authoritarian rule of Mussolini and Franco. The collaborationist press in France had such well-known writers as Pierre Drieu la Rochelle and Robert Brasillach; in Norway Knut Hamsun supported the occupiers; in Italy the New Order had Ezra Pound among its defenders.

While in Western Europe the choice seemed to be between the return of corrupt capitalist democracy and a more authoritarian system, in the East the defeat of Germany promised the triumph of Soviet communism. And plenty of East Europeans dreaded this more than anything else because they had tasted it in prisons and gulags—as had many Russians and Ukrainians. Today their hesitations about which line to follow and the choices they made that proved to be wrong are buried in the archives. Nobody seems to remember, as I do, that one of the best wartime periodicals in Europe was published in Berlin by a group of pro-German Russian émigrés who, writing in Russian, managed somehow to keep their distance from the Nazis and smuggle into their paper much more information than was usual in the German language press.

That the Soviet Union had hostile intentions toward Poland was obvious enough. The USSR’s announced aim was to bring agrarian reform, peace, and well-being to Poland, but behind that façade the Soviet regime planned either to turn the country into a seventeenth Soviet republic or to convert it into a satellite state. With Germany losing the war, some rightists may have been tempted to ask themselves whether some kind of accommodation with this weakened power would not be better than relying on Stalin’s good will. It is worth keeping in mind as well that the attempt on Hitler’s life by German aristocrats and military officers in July 1944 might have been successful; and in that case a separate peace between Germany and the Western allies, something Stalin dreaded, would have been probable.

During 1944, the critical year for the Germans, the folly of Nazi policy in Eastern Europe during the preceding years was glaringly revealed. Nazi ideology classifying Eastern Europeans as “subhuman” forced the Germans to reject offers from local leaders who promised their cooperation in exchange for a measure of independence. The Germans failed either to create an independent Ukraine able to defend itself or an anti-Soviet Russian faction on Russian soil. Instead, their cruel behavior turned against them entire populations that had been favorable to them when they first took over Soviet-occupied territory. Now, in 1944, the German administration tried to repair the damage but it was already too late.

In Poland Governor Frank’s office looked for serious writers who would be ready to publish their own periodicals favorable to the German cause. Yet most of the possible candidates would not accept his offer. To mention only one example, the eminent novelist Józef Mackiewicz, from Wilno (Vilnius), a city which before the war belonged to Poland, was a fervent and declared enemy of Soviet communism and saw in it a mortal danger threatening all nations of Europe. Brought up within Russian culture, he admired pre-revolutionary Russia; thus his attitude to the USSR was not based on chauvinistic animosity. In fact, he was a conservative, preoccupied mainly with opposing Bolshevism. He mistrusted the Western allies and reproached the Polish Resistance Home Army for working indirectly with the Soviets; its networks gathered military intelligence that was transferred to the London émigré government and then, through the British, reached the Soviet army. He believed in working out some sort of accommodation with the German army, if not with the German system.

And yet, in spite of those views, he did not join the German side. Invited by the Germans to the site of the Katyn massacre, he was convinced that it was a Soviet crime. His description of what he saw there belongs in the canon of writings on horrors of the twentieth century, together with his pages on the mass murder of Jews in Ponary near Vilnius. However, characteristically enough, he went to Katyn with the permission of the underground authorities; the fear of being accused of treason by his compatriots was a strong restraining factor.

At last two men—Jan Emil Skiwski and Feliks Rybicki—responded favorably to the German proposal and began publishing a magazine, Przelom (Breakthrough), in the spring of 1944. One wonders about their motives, especially Skiwski’s—Rybicki, though known as a journalist, was not highly regarded. But Skiwski was a talented literary critic, a respected figure in prewar Warsaw, as well as a declared admirer of Mussolini’s fascism and a critic of Western democracies. During the war he did not hide his belief in the victory of the Axis countries. He could not publish his views: the adder press did not need sophisticated contributors, and his ideas were anathema to the clandestine press.

Skiwski was completely different from the usual breed of collaborators in many countries, who were attracted mainly by the prospect of gain. His commitment was purely ideological. In occupied Warsaw he led a pauper’s life, on the verge of starvation. At a time when it was obvious that Germany had already lost the war, such a man could not have become editor of a pro-German magazine for personal profit. His aim was to address a desperate warning to his compatriots, a call not to expect liberation by the Soviets but to be prepared to resist enslavement by them.

Today we know the names of writers the Germans proposed to work on Breakthrough. All except Rybicki and Skiwski refused. Dobroszycki quotes a conversation between one of Governor Frank’s officials, Ohlenbush, and Wladyslaw Studnicki, a maverick in Polish political life, who in the past was always openly pro-German:

Ohlenbush: Frank is now very friendly to Poland and the Poles. He asked me to ask you what he can do for the Poles at this moment.

Studnicki: He should pack his bags and leave Poland.

Ohlenbush: What!? Generalgouverneur Frank has come to know Poland and the Poles; he has dropped his prejudices and gained a certain sympathy.

Studnicki: Someone who has carried out a policy of extermination for years, deported our farmers, brought in Germans from other countries and wanted to create colonial relations, even when he wants to pursue other policies, no longer finds any trust and even the friendliest statements will encounter disbelief and leave a bad taste.

Breakthrough, a biweekly, was one of nine periodicals that deserved to be called “collaborationist.” It presented, Professor Dobroszycki writes, a relatively sophisticated political view. Its underlying thesis was that in the present world the sovereignty of individual small and medium-sized states is obsolete and no longer corresponds to historical reality. The only state that can be completely independent must be able to guarantee the security of the nation and its cultural and material value in case of war. Poland by itself could not and would not be such a country.

As Dobroszycki justly comments, such an argument, referring to the “geopolitical” location of Poland between Germany and Russia, sounded abstract at a time when a struggle for survival was taking place—the Poles suspected that in case of a German victory they, in turn, would become victims of a final solution.

The adder press itself was a dull affair of German propaganda offices, and Dobroszycki’s account of it is less interesting to me than his account of the Poles who collaborated with the Nazis during the final phase of the war. Their thinking takes us back to the great wave of disillusionment with democracy that spread over Europe during the Thirties, after the American crisis of 1929. There were hidden links between the fascists, who worshiped violence as a source of political power, and their Marxist adversaries. That affinity was suggested by Thomas Mann in his novel The Magic Mountain, in which the totalitarian, demonic Jesuit Naphta was presumably modeled upon the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs. And Pierre Drieu la Rochelle was a friend of André Malraux.

Among those who collaborated for ideological reasons there was often something both tragic and pathetic. In Poland Jan Emil Skiwski has been largely forgotten but still the enigma of his decision invites speculation. It is difficult to understand how a cultivated man, at home with the European humanist tradition, completely lost his way when confronted with crimes that were so horrible the mind could not fully register them. Perhaps Ezra Pound, speaking on the radio from Rome, did not visualize what his ideas meant in practice when applied by the masters of Europe to their slaves. Yet Skiwski was writing his articles in Cracow, a few miles from Auschwitz. He lived in hiding, for he had been sentenced to death by the Polish underground. He could be seen, according to some accounts, only after an exchange of coded messages and an appointment was made to meet him in a German army canteen.

Drieu la Rochelle committed suicide in 1945. Robert Brasillach was sentenced to death and executed after a trial that left doubts about its juridical correctness. Ezra Pound, captured by the American army, was locked in a cage. Skiwski escaped from Poland to Germany and under an assumed name migrated to Venezuela, where he earned his living as a librarian and where he died.

Lucjan Dobroszycki is also the author of a monumental book, The Chronicle of the Lódz Ghetto, 1941–1944.* Among the Polish Jews of his generation who survived the Second World War, some pursued a scholarly career in Poland as he did. Jan Blonski’s book, which I mentioned earlier, dedicates a chapter to “The Jewish School in Polish Literature,” i.e., to those who write in Polish and chose the search for their Jewish identity as their main theme. In those writers, whether of the older generation—Adolf Rudnicki, Julian Stryjkowski—or the much younger writers who were saved as children—Bogdan Wojdowski, Henryk Grynberg, Piotr Matywiecki, Stanislaw Benski—their very awareness, as both Poles and Jews, of what might seem an impossible situation had been a driving force in their work. Theirs is a literature arising from a cemetery, a literature of disinheritance, for the rich and centuries-old traditions of the Polish Jews no longer exist.

Professor Dobroszycki is much more fortunate; he is now an American scholar, not a creative writer bound to one tongue. His background has allowed him to choose a field of research requiring a familiarity with languages and local conditions that few other historians possess. As he also did in his book on the ghetto of Lódz he brings to the surface details of a sad phase in the history of Europe that are too readily relegated to the archives. He deserves immense gratitude for revealing the unsuspected and tragically absurd complexities behind the destruction carried out by the Nazis. He has been able to do so by remaining faithful to his roots, and to the truth, and by keeping the memory of the Polish Jews alive.

This Issue

May 11, 1995