Acclaimed author and historian Roger Moorhouse, whose Poland 1939 I had the pleasure of reviewing on this blog last weekend, accepted to answer my questions about Polish military history, the war of aggression against Ukraine and the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Below is the content of our exchange.
Mr. Moorhouse, thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions, despite your busy schedule. While reading Poland 1939, I kept wondering if and what Western countries did to help the government of Warsaw in the crucial weeks and months leading to World War 2. Could you tell us more about that?
Not enough, is the short answer. There were military alliances signed with both the British and the French – the French one in May 1939, and commitments were made – specific in the French case, more vague in the British – to assist in the event of an invasion. The French committed to send “the bulk” of their forces across the Rhine on Day 15 of mobilization, and the British talked vaguely about sending RAF squadrons to Poland. Little of it, of course, came to pass once Germany actually invaded. The French made a half-hearted advance across the Rhine, and the RAF dropped leaflets over Germany politely asking that the Germans cease and desist. They then shifted the narrative from one of defending Poland to one of promising to restore an independent Poland at some time in the future. It was driven by circumstances, of course, but it was also morally rather cowardly.
The Allies talked a good fight and kept the Poles expecting assistance which never came.
We can’t rewrite history. But do you think Poland’s fate could have been altered if the West had done more?
Actually, I don’t. I think Allied inaction in 1939 is a betrayal, but more because they never told the Poles that they would not be assisting them. Instead, they talked a good fight and kept the Poles expecting assistance which never came. I think that is rather unforgivable. However, had the British and the French actually intervened with real force and vigor in 1939, I’m not sure that it would have done anything except prolong the agony for Poland. They could have attacked Germany more determinedly, and that would have obliged Germany to withdraw forces from Poland to meet the threat, but because of the Allied inability to project their power to eastern Europe to assist the Poles directly, I think the end result in Poland would ultimately have been the same – only (if it were possible) bloodier and more brutal.
There is no shortage of Polish military heroes in September 1939, but fewer political heroes.
One can only admire the brave resistance of the Ukrainians, notably of their president Volodymyr Zelensky. In your book, you write about “Warsaw’s redoubtable mayor” Stefan Starzyński. Were there other politicians resisting as fiercely?
Not so much, actually. In most places there weren’t the possibilities for local politicians to play the vital role that Starzynski did in Warsaw, because other places fell more quickly to German forces and there were fewer sieges. There is no shortage of Polish military heroes in September 1939, but fewer political heroes.
I have a question, which is an extension of reading about Stanisław Sosabowski, and Władysław Anders – one of my favorite general in World War II – in the book. How would you rate the contribution of Polish soldiers in the fight with the Allies against the Nazi horde?
If you mean the later fight, after 1939, there are a few. You mention Sosabowski and Anders, who frustrated Allied commanders as much as anything by their impetuousness or anti-Soviet instincts but were very much respected commanders. But there were numerous others, not least Polish pilots who acquitted themselves very well in the Battle of Britain and beyond – men such as Stanislaw Skalski or Witold Urbanowicz, both of whom were aces.
Anders’ is an odyssey that few in the West know about, but it rather encapsulates the Polish experience of World War Two – facing two mortal enemies instead of just one.
About Sosabowski, and Anders again, could you tell us more about how they escaped and arrived in the UK?
The two very different paths taken by Sosabowski and Anders rather typify the experience of those Poles that fought in 1939. Sosabowski’s was the more conventional. He was captured by the Germans, initially, then escaped and made his way west, via Hungary, before fighting in France and then making his way to the UK, alongside the Polish government in exile. The less conventional – or less well-known – path was that of Anders. He was captured by the Soviets in 1939, and – unlike many of his fellow officers, who were murdered in cold blood by Stalin’s NKVD – he survived imprisonment and then emerged as the commander of the reformed Polish army in the Soviet Union, which was then evacuated via Persia and Palestine, before ending up fighting in the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. His is an odyssey that few in the West know about, but it rather encapsulates the Polish experience of World War Two – facing two mortal enemies instead of just one.
Polish people and army bravely resisted the Germans and Soviets in 1939, notably using guerrilla warfare. Was it comparable to what we now observe in Ukraine?
Up to a point. It was certainly asymmetric – as the battle is in Ukraine today – but there were profound differences within that. The Poles fought the Germans in a conventional manner in 1939 and were mauled. However, because they lacked the hardware for a conventional fight against the Soviets in the east, they were obliged to fight a more guerrilla-type war there, using urban tactics in Wilno and Grodno, for instance. Beyond that, the Polish Underground Army – which was a legal continuation of the army of 1939 – fought an extended guerrilla campaign against the Germans throughout the war, targeting infrastructure, assassinating senior officials and so on. So, there were many tactics employed, according to the circumstances.
I once witnessed the ceremonies of November 11 (Independence Day) ceremonies in Warsaw. How important is military history to Polish people?
I think it is very significant. Poland, like the UK and others, is very proud of its military traditions, and it holds the military in high esteem. Some western countries think they’ve outgrown such things and would consider them as so much “toxic masculinity”, but Poland is still living in a “heroic age” – as is Ukraine – in which martial endeavour and bravery is valued. And, in that, Poland is drawing on a rich military tradition that stretches back to the Battle of Warsaw, the Napoleonic Legions, and the defence of Vienna in 1683. Perhaps, the stout Ukrainian defense of their country against invasion might serve as a reminder to western societies that seem to have forgotten that some things are worth defending.
Poland – and Polish history – has a habit of falling through the cracks and being seen as peripheral and irrelevant – which is strange when one considers the central role that Poland plays in World War Two.
One of the lessons I take from Poland 1939 is that our knowledge about Polish military history is anemic. You are part of those contributing to reversing that trend. Are there others? Do you see that field expanding?
It would be nice to say yes, and sometimes when one is involved in a field of study it can feel that the field itself is growing. But, rationally speaking, I think there are some obstacles to any great change in these matters. Poland – and Polish history – has a habit of falling through the cracks and being seen as peripheral and irrelevant – which is strange when one considers the central role that Poland plays in World War Two. That will only change slowly. Books on German history will be written by the barrow-load and will consistently command larger audiences – and larger advances – than books on other subjects, however relevant they might be to the wider story. In addition, there is a recognition problem, where potential readers will look at the shelves in their bookshop and will be more likely to buy a book that they know something about already, rather than something that they don’t. So, this tends to consolidate and perpetuate the ignorance of anything that is, shall we say, off the beaten path. It’s a shame, and I am doing my best to change it, but that is how it is.
The Ukrainians have beaten the Russians hands-down in the social media war.
I can’t resist to ask what are your observations about the leadership and persona of President Volodymyr Zelensky?
I think he has been remarkable, as have all Ukrainian forces in the field, as well as their keyboard warriors, who have beaten the Russians hands-down in the social media war. It has been the most amazing display of patriotism and martial dash that I have seen in many a year, and it is truly and profoundly inspirational. Whatever the result of the current conflict, Mr. Zelensky and his forces have written themselves into the annals of Ukrainian history and have made a vital contribution to the Ukrainian national idea. One day, there will be statues to him in a free Ukraine – and rightly so.
Do you have another book on your writing table and, if so, are you at liberty to tell us what it will be about?
Yes, I am currently finishing a book about the Holocaust – specifically about the activities of the so-called Lados Group, a group of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists, who masterminded a passport forgery operation out of Switzerland, to help Jews escape the Holocaust. It is an amazing story and I’m very excited to bring it to the reading public. It will be out in 2023 in the UK, US and Poland, so follow me on Twitter, and watch out for it!
Thank you very much for the generosity of your time Mr. Moorhouse!
Roger Moorhouse, Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II is published by Basic Books.