Off the Shelf: The Bastard Son of Versailles

Poland’s Wlodzimierz Cieszkowski (L), former WW II soldier of Polish 2nd Fusilier Division, attends a ceremony to mark the end of World War II at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris May 8, 2013. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)
A look at Halik Kockanski’s The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and Poles in the Second World War.

Editor’s Note: Every week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.


Almost every guy I know has a little consumerist obsession. My boss, the right honorable Charlie Cooke, likes recording equipment and smart home stuff. I have other friends who like customizing their cars. When I was younger I used to be fascinated with electronic gadgets. My mother worked for IBM, and we seemed to be early adopters of everything on the PC front. But computers attract dust, and you throw them out in a few years. And my own amateur attempts at writing software demystified the “magic” of software. So I’ve turned to mechanical watches.

There’s a lot of lore about them as tools for explorers, divers, and pilots. And sometimes the ad copy can be a little . . . problematic. At least if you have ears that are sensitive to certain historical references. It’s not quite as bad as I’m making it out to be. But sometimes, to my ears, it sounds like certain brands are saying something like “Our watches combine the craftsmanship and luxury of old world Saxony with the engineering precision that made Warsaw a smoking ruin in 1939.”

Which is a long way of saying that this week I occupied my spare time following developments at the big trade show for the watch industry in Basel, Switzerland, and I finally finished Halik Kockanski’s The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and Poles in the Second World War.

It’s hard to overstate the way that Polish feelings about the great wars are almost inverted from the common ones in the United Kingdom and the United States. For Western powers, the common perception is that the First World War is at best a fratricidal slaughter, conducted for ambiguous reasons. At worst it was the suicide of Western civilization. For Poland, that war was the resurrection of their nation from the dead. For Western powers the Second World War is a moment of sharp moral clarity, in which the victorious powers defeated a truly wicked regime, and rebuilt Western Europe on surer foundations. For Poland, it is an unrelenting nightmare. Technically, the war was launched because the United Kingdom intended to vindicate her sovereignty. In the end the West threw Poland to Stalin like a bone to chew on, while investing millions to swiftly rebuild West Germany.

Kochanski gives us a brief look at the Poland that was reborn at the Treaty of Versailles. It was bitterly funny to read British Prime Minister Lloyd George enter the scene and express his doubts about the proposed Polish borders because they would subject an unacceptable number of Protestant Germans to the rule of Catholic Poles. What is unacceptable in Belfast is unacceptable in Danzig, so carve-outs must be made. These had a democratic and sectarian logic, but were not geopolitically sustainable.

This reborn Poland had a fighting spirit, and immediately committed itself to a few quick wars to grab territories and cities, including present-day Lviv, that would make it a more economically viable nation. It was also an extremely heterogeneous nation, with many ethnic and minority linguistic groups. It was also an underdeveloped economic backwater compared with Western Europe.

The German and Russian attitudes toward this reborn Poland were often hysterical. Kochanski quotes German general Hans von Steckt’s remarks to German Chancellor Joseph Wirth around the time Germans and Russians signed a treaty in 1922, renouncing their territorial claims against each other:

When we speak of Poland, we come to the kernel of the eastern problem. Poland’s existence is intolerable and incompatible with Germany’s vital interests. It must disappear, and will disappear through its own weakness and through Russia with our aid. . . . The attainment of this objective must be one of the firmest guiding principles of German policy, as it is capable of achievement — but only through Russia or with her help. A return to the frontier of 1914 should be the basis of agreement between Russia and Germany.

Previously, I was reading about how Germans reacted to the dawning realization that their war was a genocidal one. That was bleak in itself. But the dawning of this realization on the Poles is utterly devastating. Kochanski’s account shows Polish officials struggling to make sense at first of the peculiar ferocity of German tactics, including the deliberate bombing of medical personnel. And then, French and British governmental officials refuse to believe their reports, paralyzed as they were by fear of the oncoming war, and conditioned to view Poles as melodramatic and hysterical. Also, even if Kochanski doesn’t mention this, surely Western powers were also slow to accept these reports because so many false and malicious images of German brutality had featured in the early British propaganda in World War I.

Perhaps the most chilling contrast Kochanski gives us is the view of Polish university professors and the view of Germany’s government on education in occupied Poland. Most professors expected their schools to start up again, even in diminished form, after Germany’s swift and successful invasion. Poles had lived their lives under subjection before, that’s no reason to stop schooling. But Nazi racial ideology demanded something else. Heinrich Himmler sums up the policy here:

For the non-German population of the East, there must be no higher school than the fourth grade of elementary school. The sole goal of this schooling is to teach them simple arithmetic, nothing above the number 500, writing one’s name and the doctrine that it is divine law to obey the Germans. . . . I do not think that reading is desirable.

Germany’s racial policies, backed by its overwhelming military power, began to infect everything in Poland. Kochanski hits on very sensitive material when documenting the subversion of Polish defense efforts, and the sabotaging of Polish resistance efforts by Poland’s native German population. And the insidious way Germany policy warped choices, for people of mixed ancestry and allegiances. The difference between German, Pole, and Jew was immediately reflected in the food rationing: 2,600 calories per day for Germans; 609 for Poles; 503 for Jews. Later, the Jews’ number of allotted daily calories was reduced to 369.

Poles were cleared out of lands that the Germans deemed too fertile for their race. One woman is said to have recalled that German police told her not only that she would soon be herded out of her home and placed on a cattle truck but that she needed to spend the precious moments before this enormity tiding up, and washing the dishes, so as not to leave any trouble for the Germans who would one day occupy her home. From another historian, we find that it is in these months and days that the Germans “mastered the science of human round-ups, the expropriation of property, and the shipment of human cargo en masse to the East.” The expulsion of Poles from the places deemed best in Poland became a kind of dress rehearsal for the Holocaust of the Jews.

Kochanski’s account is meant to depart from more-nationalist Polish histories, but a reader can’t help but be swept up by the incredible, dogged persistence of Polish resistance.

As techniques of Polish resistance became more sophisticated, Germany responded with greater brutality, eventually instituting its Außerordentliche Befriedungsaktion (AB-Aktion), the organized extermination of the Polish intelligentsia. The German commander in Poland, Hans Frank, was anxious that the war in the Western front begin. “It is obvious that as long as this land was in the limelight throughout the world, we were deprived of the chance of undertaking anything on a large scale,” he noted. Although the sheer numbers of dead were dwarfed by what the Germans would do to Jews, they represented real and serious losses for Poland. Three thousand members of its intelligentsia, were murdered. Ten times that number were imprisoned. Thousands of Catholic priests were also murdered.

Frank justified the ferocity by noting the real danger of Polish resistance. Kochanski’s account is meant to depart from more-nationalist Polish histories, but a reader can’t help but be swept up by the incredible, dogged persistence of Polish resistance. A quisling government never came into being. Altogether, the Poles raised four armies throughout the war. And here I note my favorite of the militia groups Kochanski names: the Military Organization of the Wolves.

The Soviets got in on stoking ethnic conflict as well, dropping leaflets urging Belorussians and Ukrainians to terrorize and rob their Polish neighbors. Some minorities welcomed invading Soviets, having formed deep resentments against Poland during its initial state-building period after World War I. Others sought to rescue their Polish neighbors.

And while the Soviets at first were not as fanatical about murdering Poles, they, like the Germans, immediately set on a program of destroying all Polish-language signage and Polish monuments. They also instituted a draconian education policy, banning all religious schools, and banning all instruction in history, geography, and Latin. They instituted Belorussian and Ukrainian as the languages of education.

Similarly ham-fisted attempts at language suppression happened in Nazi-occupied Poland, where Germans attempted to ban the use of Polish even in the confessional booths of Catholic churches. Both armies looted mercilessly. The Germans did so because Polish slaves were deemed to deserve nothing. The Soviets did the same because they were amazed and scandalized by the relative wealth of eastern Poland compared with Ukraine. Both invading nations fixed exchange rates in their zones to enable a legal form of economic despoliation as well.

Almost in tandem with the Nazi AB-Aktion against Polish intellectuals, Stalin authorized the wanton massacre of captured Polish military officers. We’ll come back to this. As they did almost everywhere they conquered, the Soviets rounded up tens of thousands of people in Poland and shipped them deeper into the Soviet Union, sending the men to labor camps. Poles sent to Siberia to live in the primitive homes built by Ukranians who had died doing the work they were now instructed to do. Poles sent to the desolate steppes of Kazakhstan, literally abandoned at a train depot with no instructions. NKVD officers would harass Polish women for even trying to tidy or improve the mud huts in which they had been sentenced to live. Poles were alike enough to Russians that Kazahks and Uzbeks would take their vengeance on them.

For these Poles, salvation came when Hitler finally turned on Stalin, the Sikorski–Maysky agreement secured their freedom, and a new Polish army was organized within the Soviet Union, loyal to a Polish government based in London. Here it is hard to overstate the unprecedented nature of the event itself, a foreign army emerging like lightning from across the Gulag Archipelago, even as Soviet resources were strained trying to move their own armies west and their factories east.

One woman, Eugenia Pavlovna, left her impression of this new army that was emerging from the labor camps: “What I saw was a collection of skeletons covered in rugs, their feet wrapped in newspaper or dirty cloth, kept in place with pieces of string, although many had nothing on their feet at all.”

Another wrote:

The came exhausted, in rags, impoverished, covered with sores, louse-infected, without hair, having come through typhus, and resembling rather some strange creatures more than human beings. They made their way with the last efforts of their dingily strength. And it happened on occasion that near the station, or in the yard of the Recruitment Commission, they expired. They died quite simply from exhaustion, from having wasted away, on the very threshold of a new life.

Kochanski remarks: “The Polish military authorities suspected that the Soviet authorities were deliberately releasing the sickest men and retaining the fittest for labor.” In fact the truth was more often worse than this. Poles who arrived reported that their compatriots who were not turning up were in worse shape than they were — unable to make the journey — or dead. All 3,000 Poles who had worked in the lead mines of Kamachatka died of lead poisoning before the amnesty, Kochanski records.

Yes, Kochanski dutifully records all the lamentable and ugly incidents of Polish national chauvinism, racism, and anti-Semitism. But I have to admit that by the time I read of Stalin’s bluster that the military officers the Polish government was expecting to report for duty “must have escaped to Manchuria,” I wanted to chuck the book out my window. Is all of modern European civilization a kind of macabre plot against Poland? How many absurdities must one people live through, in so short a time, from such a diverse set of sources? Every time Poland makes an ally, said ally becomes unreliable, deceptive, and cowardly. Every time a country becomes Poland’s enemy, its capacity for heartlessness and ferocity seems redoubled.

Imagine living life as a lower-middle-class Pole in eastern Poland and then being dragged across the length of the Soviet Union to arrive in the taiga of Siberia, denounced as a disgusting capitalist in front of Ukrainians who nurse national grudges against you. Then you are called out to join a new army, but one so poorly supplied that you must march through Kazakhstan, looking for salvation in Iran, where the British forces can do what the Soviet Union can’t, or won’t: feed and clothe you. Polish men kissed “the free sand of Persia” and found themselves loaded onto boats, while Brits looked on in horror at their condition.

Roosevelt, much like Lloyd George, greeted Polish inquiries with uncomprehending insults and annoyance, even implying to the Polish ambassador that Poland’s eastern provinces might prefer to be governed by Moscow.

Not everything was absurd. Polish pilots excelled in their contributions to the defense of Brittish skies and became something like war celebrities. I savored the moments later in the war when some Poles living in Nazi-occupied Poland were able to foil the more desperate plans of their tormenter Hans Frank, who tried to get the Poles on side against the Soviets crashing back through the country. Frank wanted to give Poles some share in the administration of governance. The potential Polish recruits were told by Polish resisters of the Home Army that they could choose “between a German and a Polish bullet.”

The contrast between Władysław Sikorski’s ambitions for a postwar Poland and the reality that the Americans and British were preparing is heartbreaking. After the Teheran conference, the job of the two Anglophone governments was mostly to playact while either ignoring the diplomatic entreaties of the Polish government in London or bullying them. Roosevelt, much like Lloyd George, greeted Polish inquiries with uncomprehending insults and annoyance, even implying to the Polish ambassador to the United States that Poland’s eastern provinces might prefer to be governed by Moscow and that, anyway, hadn’t the Poles been rude about Stalin on the “graves question,” the massacre of officers at Katyn. Even as reports flood in of the Soviets’ arresting and shooting members of the Home Army, Churchill literally threatens to “wash his hands of them,” them being the the Polish government, for being so stubborn about compromising with the Soviet-dominated Lublin Committee in Poland. Churchill imagined, or pretended to imagine, that some kind of compromise with the Lublin Committee might save Poland from Communism.

The great irony at the end of the war was that, after a rather limited justice was inflicted on the worst and most obvious German malefactors, the Western allies swiftly dedicated their efforts to rebuilding Germany as their buffer against Stalin. British public opinion was not favorably disposed toward Poland. Kochanski notes that pro-Soviet propaganda flowed through almost all organs of British media, and even Churchill was proclaiming the decency of the Soviets in the House of Commons, spouting that the “religious side of Russian life has had a wonderful rebirth” and other ignorant babble in 1944. All of this worked to reinforce prejudices against Polish claims. All they do is complain, don’t they?

While the Western allies dithered in talks and shirked the Polish government that they had recognized throughout the war, Stalin continued advancing to his fait accompli. His officers continually arrested representatives of the native underground government, and concluded a treaty with the puppet regime he had installed.

By this point the most realistic voice on the scene is George Kennan, who tries to spare Henry Truman’s ambassadors from the humiliation of cooperating with the recognition of Soviet domination over Poland.

The devastation of Poland takes up the penultimate chapter. Almost 20 percent of the Polish population dead by the end of the war. Roughly 6 million in total. Ninety percent of Poland’s Jews, roughly 3 million, were killed. Deaths of ethnic Poles were especially concentrated among the intellectual and cultural elite. Warsaw was annihilated. The peace after the war actually meant even more enormous population transfers, of Germans out of Poland and Hungary into Germany, and of Ukrainians out of Poland. Survivng Jews also migrated from Poland, many fearing popular anti-Semitism. And many Poles, scattered across the world by the war, were being encouraged to leave, despite an extravagant promise of citizenship from Churchill, which the British government then restricted to men who had served under British command and whose homes in prewar Poland had not not been annexed to other nations.

The Eagle Unbowed does not achieve the all-knowing intimacy of The German War, which I read a few weeks ago. But it was cathartic to read nonetheless. I’m sure we will return to my obsessions with Central and Eastern Europe soon enough. But this was more than enough trial to read the last few weeks. And I keep promising myself something lighter. But something about the miserable extension of snowy weather to this late date made it all appropriate.

Anyway, what I wanted to say after reading this is that most of the great pilot’s watches have a strong association with the German military, the stuff from Sinn or IWC, anyway. I think if I ever am in a position to buy a nice one, I’ll go with a Breguet, which is associated with the post–World War II French military. It’s more stylish too.

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