Norman Davies o Przeglądzie (ang.)


Norman Davies. Fot. MHP
More than sixty years after the Second World War in Europe finished,  every combatant state maintains its own memories of the conflict.   In Britain, people  think mainly of the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk in 1940, the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic against the U-boats, the campaigns in North Africa and Italy, the Strategic Bombing Offensive,  and, as the grand finale, D-Day and the subsequent ‘Liberation of Europe’.  Very few would question the assertion that “We won the war!”

Politically, the British perspective lays emphasis on the achievements  of Winston Churchill, the prime minister who roared defiance when all seemed lost, and who went on to organise the war-winning Grand Coalition of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. It is a story not only of national survival, but also of the triumph of Good over Evil. Britain’s enemy was the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler, and the Jewish Holocaust has been taken as the emblematic proof of the evil against which we were fighting. Despite their differences, the ‘Big Three’ stuck together until  the job was done. .  Very few would question the assertion that ‘Freedom, Justice and Democracy’  triumphed.

In this version of events, Poland plays little more than a marginal role. Most British people would be familiar with the speech of  Neville Chamberlain on 3 September 1939 and hence with the fact that the war began with the German invasion of Poland.  But few would realise that the Poles were Britain’s allies from beginning to end or that the Poles had a prominent part to play in the Battle of Britain, in the Battle of the Atlantic , at Tobruk and Monte Cassino, in the Bombing Offensive and in the Liberation of Europe. Above all, few would comprehend the realities of the war in Poland where as many Polish Catholics were killed as Polish Jews, and where the ravages of Stalin’s Soviet Union held no less terror than those of the Hitler’s Third Reich. The horrific reality that one of our allies could coldly murder c25,000 officers from the army of another ally, and could succesfully deny the crime for decades afterwards, was truly unimaginable. The wartime experiences of Poland, trapped between the swastika and the red star, simply did not  fit into the parameters of the conventional British picture.

In this light, a series of Polish films about the war is bound to prove somewhat disturbing..  At first viewing, some spectators may feel that the Polish perspective is a bit parochial, stressing events of local importance that did not change the course of the war.  On reflection, however, the majority of viewers will begin to see that they are being shaken out of their complacence , being forced to query a number of basic assumptions that do not adequately explain what they are watching.  If Britain was Poland’s ally, why was it that  we did not assist the Poles in the ways that the Poles assisted us ?   If the Polish Home Army was fighting the Germans with heroism, why was it during the Warsaw Rising that the Allied Powers were unable to bring relief to capital city that was being totally destroyed ?  And what on earth were all those Poles doing in Kazachstan ?

No doubt, many such queries about the  war in Europe will remain unclarified.   But British viewers willl learn enough to suspect  several fundamental truths  Firstly, they will see that the war on the continent, and especially on the Eastern Front, was incomparably more savage than anything encountered by the Westen Allies.  Secondly, they may be persuaded  to concede that the central conflict was fought between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, (not between England and Germany, or between the Anglo-Saxons and Germany) and, by extension, that a country lying in the gap  between the two main contestants was doubly exposed.  Thirdly, they may reluctantly admit, if the victorious Stalin was heading  a totalitarian tyranny, that they war did not end with a happy, universal  and clear-cut Liberation.

Poland was among the defeated countries of Europe.  It did not regain the independence and freedom which its British allies had promised in 1939 to uphold.  And it was obliged at the end of the war to submit to an alien, Communist dictatorship installed by one of the Allied Powers.  It made unequalled sacrifices, losing a greater proportion of its citizens than any combatant state.  Yet the recompence was negligible.  And the sense of betrayal colossal.  There is something slightly pathetic, as well as understandable, in the efforts of post-war Polish film-makers to gain recognition for little known events such as the pre-war breaking of the Enigna code or  the defence of Westerplatte as also for tragedies such as the Katyn Massacres where the truth was suppressed for so long.  Yet in the last resort the searing realism of a film like Andrzej Wajda’s can speak worlds that the history books somehow fail to convey.  In 1939-45, it was Poland, not Britain, that lay  in the eye of the storm..  And whatever one makes of particular Polish films, one cannot dismiss the unfamiliar Polish perspective for being eccentric.

                            Norman Davies,
                              Oxford, July 2007