A conversation with Halik Kochanski, historian, and author of The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War.
Interviewer: J P O’ Malley
A review of The Eagle Unbowed can also be found in the January – March (No. 1(VI) / 2013) issue of New Eastern Europe, available now in bookshops and newsstands.
NEW EASTERN EUROPE: What were the reasons for such a weak state developing in the Second Polish Republic between 1921 and 1939?
HALIK KOCHANSKI: There were two problems: the first was that the western frontier was established by foreigners at Versailles and the eastern frontier was fixed by the Poles and Soviets in 1931 after the Polish-Soviet War. These frontiers left Poland with hostile neighbours. The second problem was that Poland had been partitioned for over a century, and the Poles were then attempting to merge three different partitioned territories into one state. They did manage to bring the legal system together, and create one currency, but the political system was particularly weak. When you don’t have a country, you tend to dream of what sort of country you want. However, when you are suddenly faced with a reality, it’s actually quite a challenge.
Where did Poland fit into the Nazi’s ideology in the Second World War?
The Nazi’s ideology was to create Lebensraum in the east, which was to be German. The Poles were to be slaves and therefore they wouldn’t need education, but simply needed to know how to obey German orders. The eventual plan was to remove the whole population of Poland and Ukraine, and create a German state that would hold the Soviets back. Here they would create settlements, in which the Poles, the Ukrainians, and the Belarusians, were just expected to die out gradually from hard work and starvation.
Were the Jewish ghettos created in Poland by the Nazis systematically planned?
The initial part of the plan was to concentrate Jews in one place in each town. In Warsaw, this involved building an enormous ghetto surrounded by a wall. In small towns, it could literally be a matter of taking a few blocks, surrounding them by barbed wire, and putting all the Jews there. But the Germans didn’t have a clear idea between 1939 and 1941 of what they were going to do with the Jews, other than work them, starve them, and steal the wealth that they had.
At what stage was “the final solution” implemented?
My own feeling is that it was in January 1942, at the Wannsee conference. Once the Germans realised they had not succeeded in taking Moscow in 1941, and that the war in the east would be a long one, they started on a plan to clear the area, beginning with the Jews. Starvation as a method was taking too long. It was also emotionally draining on the German soldiers. However much they had been taught to hate the Jews, it’s still very disturbing to be surrounded by starving women and children. Psychologically the Nazi soldiers found it difficult shooting day after day: this is why they eventually started looking for other rapid and secret solutions.
Despite widespread anti-Semitism by the Poles in this period, you maintain that it was a slightly more complicated picture?
There certainly doesn’t seem to have been any disturbance felt by the Poles when the Jews were concentrated in the ghettos. In fact, because there was a lot of envy – in what was perceived as Jewish wealth – there were a certain number of Poles who were glad to see Jews working at last. But extermination, if you think about it, is such an unprecedented action: to take thousands of people, every day, by train, in secret, to a camp, and kill them. There is a mental jump there that even Jews themselves couldn’t make. Nor could the Poles.
Would it be fair to say the overall balance was in favour of Poles not helping Jews though?
Well it was often a case of how do you give help when you know that you will be killed, should you be found hiding a Jew. This was the case in Poland and nowhere else in Europe. The height of the Holocaust of Polish Jews was 1942, the height of German power, when they were just getting towards Stalingrad. They were at their most successful. So when you take on the problem of hiding a Jew, it’s a question of: for how long? And at that point, it seemed infinite.
What was the position of the British Government and the Allies in terms of another massacre during the war: Katyń – where 22,000 Polish officers were massacred in 1940 by the Soviets?
It was in 1943 when the British found out about this. In that period, the Soviet Union was doing all the fighting and had just caused the defeat of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. The British had accepted that the liberation of Poland would come from the hands of the Soviets. This was something the Poles never really accepted. So it was a pragmatic and necessary decision at the time, but the extent of the lies and the deception that went on after the war, even into the Cold War are surprising. You could understand that perhaps the British didn’t accept that the Soviet Union was an enemy until the Berlin airlift, but afterwards, the British could have admitted the Soviet guilt. The problem is once you start lying, when and how do you stop?
Was Poland always going to be the pawn sacrificed to the Soviet Union, in the diplomatic game played out in the Teheran conference in 1943, with Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill?
Well this was the first meeting between Roosevelt and Stalin. And Roosevelt had a very casual attitude towards diplomacy. He didn’t read his briefs, and he really thought that he could settle diplomatic relations with Stalin in a very personal way. Roosevelt was also keen on going straight through France, launching the second front there. In contrast, Churchill was much keener on fighting through the soft underbelly of Europe. So Churchill was losing ground all the time in that conference. It really was a turning point in the war: where you see the American power, and the Soviet power, pushing Britain into the shade. Of course Churchill did not like it.
Why were both Churchill and Roosevelt – further on in Yalta in 1945, when peace terms for the war became public – so willing to give over Poland to Stalin?
I think Churchill and Roosevelt confused territorial occupation with political dominance. This was something that the Polish government had been trying to point out to them: that it was not just a matter of frontiers, but that it was also about a type of government. The frontiers was the question that Roosevelt and Churchill thought would be settled. This was agreed at Tehran, and confirmed at Yalta.
Was the end of the war an anti-climax for the Polish army?
Among those who had resisted the Germans, there was very much a sense of anti-climax. In some of the diaries, you can see entries of “1946, the seventh year of the war”: they don’t see the fighting as having stopped. The fighting against the Germans may have stopped, but the fight for Poland’s independence continued, and this was why Polish communist forces had to come down so heavily on the other resistance groups that became successors to the Home Army, because the Poles were still fighting for their liberation.
How bad did the Polish army treat German refugees expelled from the eastern borders after the war? You refer to it in the book as “the wild phase”.
The Germans of course have placed great stress on that, because there is a strand of German historiography that likes to show the Germans as victims of Hitler as well. This was blaming the Poles, but it was tit-for-tat really. The Poles had been deported from the western part of Poland that was incorporated into the Reich. So the same happened to the Germans. It was seen as revenge, for the way the Poles had been treated.
What about those Germans who claimed they didn’t support Hitler and were also victims in the war?
Well they still have to remember that throughout the war, they had adequate food supplies, while the rest of Europe starved. And that the people looking after them, and tending their fields, were usually Polish forced labour, who should they have objected to anything, were threatened with the concentration camp. Even many German children – whom you might call innocent – were clothed through Winterhilfswerk – a relief programme in Germany for the poor. The clothes were taken from Jews at extermination camps, and given to German children. These children may not have been guilty themselves, but they certainly were beneficiaries.
How did it feel for you personally to write this book, exploring your own family history and Polish roots?
Well I was born in Britain, but my parents both came from Poland to Britain in 1946. But they actually only met in London. However, I was never brought up with a strong sense of Polishness, which meant I could be very objective writing this book, because I hadn’t been brought up with the Polish myths. Both my parents are dead so they will never know what I have written in the book. But there are points that challenge even some of their conceptions of the time. Oral history is 100 per cent correct, because it represents one’s views and experiences, but it’s also 100 per cent wrong, because it only presents a part of the picture. What I have tried to do in this book is to present the wider picture: to try and show individual people’s experiences, and show the terrible decisions they had to make, with incomplete information, and often insufficient time to consider their actions.
Halik Kochanski is a British historian and writer. Her most recent book The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War is reviewed in New Eastern Europe I (VI) / 2013.