I started reading Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II by historian Roger Moorhouse last summer, with the intention of reviewing it on the 82nd anniversary of the tragic events that unfolded in September of that fateful year. But life caught up with me and the book remained unfinished on my desk for several months. That was until Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine.
Let me start with an observation. Not much – not enough I should say – is written in English about Polish military history. I remember reading Adam Zamoyski’s Warsaw 1920 in 2012, when I first visited Poland. During that trip, I also visited the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army and the Warsaw Uprising Museum, both located in the capital city. Notwithstanding these contacts with Polish military history, I always have the image of Polish lancers attacking the mighty Wehrmacht in a useless charge.
In his seminal book, historian Roger Moorhouse shatters this myth. It is worth quoting him at length on the subject:
“Where the story of Poland’s defensive war is known at all, beyond Poland, it is often this myth—of “cavalry against tanks,” the desperate Polish lancers taking on the armored might of the Wehrmacht—that takes center stage. It was a story first publicized, unsurprisingly, by the organs of German propaganda, a way of ridiculing the enemy while producing a stereotype of Polish foolhardiness and German superiority.”
Only for that, the book should be read. During these five fateful weeks in September and October 1939, the Polish military offered the word a display of courage and determination not unsimilar to what we have seen in the fields and streets of Ukraine in the last 11 days. Apart from learning more about Polish bravery when their homeland was sandwiched militarily by the Nazis and the Soviets, the most chilling lesson to take from Poland 1939 is the similarity with the war launched by Vladimir Putin.
A dictator who only believes in strength revamped the military sector of his country, decades only after the régime at the helm of his country had experienced a catastrophic disintegration. The madman is emboldened by Western weakness, in light of his past aggressions. He desperately wants a war and will go any distance to get it. Under the pretext of territorial and identity grievances, he orchestrates a provocation to manipulate public opinion and bring it his way. Even though the invader loses the element of surprise, war ensues, nonetheless. The invaded country’s soldiers fight with a sobering and inspiring courage, against all odds. Brutalities are committed and innocent civilians are victims, despite the aggressor’s assertions that only military objectives are his target. “Faced with enemy superiority, [the invaded army’s soldiers] had to use every advantage they possessed” to defend their homeland, notably using guerilla warfare tactics. The capital city is a main military and psychological target of the attacker. If you watch CNN these days, you will certainly think these observations apply to Ukraine in 2022. But they also happened in Poland 83 years ago.
I was often told that Vladimir Putin was a student of history, poring over tomes on Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and so on. Shockingly, I now realize that the strategy he developed, and the tactics used by his army on the ground are not dissimilar to the deeds of the men of the Wehrmacht throughout Poland.
I don’t know for you, but it gives me chills.
But what I find more worrisome is the slowness of the West to understand that nothing short of a show of force will show the Kremlin warmonger where the buck stops. As one of the Polish defenders wrote during the fateful days of 1939, “we have no use for lofty words from our allies but need specific actions to prove that our allies deserve that name and are truly on our side.” For those who might not want to understand the extent of that call for help, Konstanty Peszyński, a major in the Polish 4th Army who fought in 1939 said that “nothing demoralizes as powerfully as fighting with nothing but heroism”. These words apply as much today as they did then.
With Poland 1939, Roger Moorhouse offers the reader a fantastic – yet tragic – military history read. One can encounter Colonel Stanisław Sosabowski, whose name will come back during Operation Market Garden and my favorite, Brigadier-General Władysław Anders, who will later serve at Monte Cassino and whose body lies for eternity at the Polish War Cemetery located at the foot of it. Most importantly, in the current context, the author offers a cautionary tale of where things could go. “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy”, said Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke. And no one knows where a war of aggression might lead, as we have seen with the events of 1939.
Anyone interested in the fate of the world should grab a copy of Poland 1939 and read it seriously. If you think history doesn’t repeat itself, this book will convince you otherwise. Polish military history is a prescient ally, as we confront another insatiable aggressor.
Roger Moorhouse, Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II, New York, Basic Books, 2020, 432 pages.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Johanna Dickson, Senior Publicist at PublicAffairs, for providing me with a copy of the book.