Many nations suffered horribly during the carnage of World War II: China, the USSR and Yugoslavia were among those that suffered massive destruction and population loss at the hands of the Axis powers during the conflict.
While it’s impossible to say which country got the worst of it, no one will dispute that putting Poland near the top of the list is a safe bet.
The Poles had the misfortune of not only being involved in the Second World War from Day 1 on Sept. 1, 1939, when the Nazis invaded, until Germany’s capitulation in May 1945, it also lost a staggering 20 percent of its population.
Many histories deal with the greatest crime of the war years: the annihilation of Europe’s Jews. That chiefly took place in occupied Poland, and the largest number of its victims were citizens of the pre-war republic. But these are books about the Holocaust, not about Poland. Books about Poland abound too. Some deal with the spectacular military events of the war: the Ghetto Uprising of 1943, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Others have highlighted the great neglected scandals of the war, such as the Soviet massacre of 20,000 captured Polish officers. A book called “Dark Side of the Moon” tried to alert the West to the Soviet deportation of hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians to privation and death. There are even books about Wojtek, a bear cub adopted by Polish soldiers, who drank beer, ate cigarettes, carried ammunition and died in a zoo in Scotland.
Kochanski examines not just the military aspect of Poland’s World War II experience, but also the political, diplomatic and human experiences, as well.
“The Eagle Unbowed” considers that the war began not just with Nazi Stukas dive-bombing Polish cities but also, a short time later, with the Soviets invading from the east and the nation being partitioned by a pair of brutal totalitarian regimes.
Poland, ill-equipped to begin with, eventually fought on four fronts, according to The Economist:
One force was in Britain, drawn from those who had escaped the defeat in 1939. It helped liberate the Netherlands. Another was drawn from the deportees in the Soviet Union, rescued from death by Hitler’s attack on the Soviets. This ragtag army mustered in Persia, trained in Palestine and fought notably at Monte Cassino in Italy. A third army was formed from Poles who remained inside the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Polish communists and collaborators. It reached Berlin. The fourth, the Home Army (whose poster urging Poles “to arms” is shown above), was in Poland itself. Once the biggest and best-organized underground military force in Nazi-occupied Europe, it was hounded to destruction by the Soviets.
With that many different forces at work, it’s not surprising that Polish leadership was often at odds with one another, particularly the underground leadership in Poland and the “divided, ill-led exiled government in London,” which was discarded by the Allies as Soviets moved west, according to the publication.
Little known, relatively speaking, is that the Nazis practiced mass killings and ethnic cleansing in Poland in 1939 and 1940.
The ultimate plan was to deport more than 30 million Poles to Siberia to make way for German settlers in Poland, all part of Hitler’s Lebensraum plan. Some 200,000 Aryan-looking Polish children were kidnapped and given to German parents. Most never returned.
Kochanski, according to The Economist, uncovers details that will surprise even history geeks.
“Some Polish Jews under Soviet occupation found life so dreadful that they sought refuge in Nazi-ruled Poland,” it writes. “The Warsaw Ghetto contained three churches for the Christians consigned to the ghetto for their Jewish origins.”
The Economist, toward the end of its review of Kochanski’s work, puts forth the idea that Poland’s World War II experience, like that of every nation that took part in the bloody conflict, cannot be summed up neatly or concisely:
Her view on the thorniest questions of Poland’s wartime history, such as the connection between local anti-Semitism, collaboration and the Holocaust is cautious but fair-minded. The facts do not stitch together into a simple story. Many Jews were betrayed by neighbors out of fear or greed. But nowhere else in Europe was the price of helping Jews instant execution. Many Christian Poles, including some ardent anti-Semites, took huge risks to protect their Jewish compatriots. Others (including some Jews) joined German-led police units.
“The Eagle Unbowed” sounds like an extremely interesting, eye-opening book. It’s a work that those who study both World War II and the 20th century will likely find informative and beneficial.