City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Book Festival: Halik Kochanski,"The Polish People and the Second World War" Review

By Bill Dunlop - Posted on 18 August 2013

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
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Halik Koschanski

Although Poland disappeared from the map of Europe in 1939, her people did not. Halik Kochanski’s book, The Eagle Unbowed, reminds us of what happened next.

Kochanski’s distinguished academic career and Polish parentage make her an ideal chronicler of this chapter in Polish history.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact made the dismemberment of Poland that country’s inevitable fate, as her allies prepared for German armies to turn westward and the enormous distances involved made intervention in Poland effectively impossible.

The escape of hundreds of individual Polish soldiers to the West demonstrated their determination to fight on. The record of this is often patchy and the retellings frequently inaccurate or biased, and it is here that Kochanski’s work has particular value.

The broad outline of events is fairly well known, from the initial resistance by the UK to the formation of distinctly Polish forces, and the subsequent performance of units such as 303 Squadron in the latter part of the Battle of Britain. Polish forces were involved in nearly all the major theatres of operations in Europe, from the Western Desert to Italy and beyond.

However, once the USSR entered the war on the Allied side, as Art Spiegelman might put it. ‘their troubles really began’. Historical and diplomatic imperatives meant that the USSR would seek to disable and if possible dominate any post-war Poland.

The Tehran and especially Yalta conferences effectively ensured that the USSR would have its way in Eastern Europe, and the two risings of 1944 in Warsaw (that of the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto in April of that year and the general rising of August to September) effectively destroyed resistance at the very point it might have helped shorten the war.

A combination of deference to the USSR, indolence and indifference, along with the undeniable difficulty of supplying the resistance all contributed to the tragedy, which left many Poles understandably resentful of their allies.

This is to simplify complexity, and Kochanski is strong on unravelling the many strands of this, but the devil is only part of the detail.

Finding themselves straitened by rationing when about to entertain a Polish guest in 1940, a family (of which this reviewer is a member) turned to a Scottish standby. On entering the house, the guest sniffed the air ‘Ah! Stoveten!’ he exclaimed. To Scots, the one-pot standby of Europe’s poor is known as stovies. It’s such small links that create affinity and perhaps, despite the prejudices Poles experienced in post-war Scotland, encouraged them to stay.

Kochanski has less to say about domestic detail than grand strategy, but her book remains an excellent account of the period and a people’s experience of war.

Halik Kochanski - The Eagle Unbowed, Poland and the Poles in the Second World War Allen Lane £30.00 (Penguin p/b £10.99)