Poland and the Second World War

This is the third of four reports from the Edinburgh Book Festival.

This event was chaired by Allan Little, the featured speaker being Halik Kochanski, who has recently published a book documenting what happened to Poland during World War II. Various books have appeared on this subject over the years but, according to the author, none of them have attempted to give us the whole picture. In her book ‘The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War’, the author has attempted to do this.


I am not qualified to say how successful she has been: I have only read one book on this subject – Jan Karski’s “Story of a Secret State,” published during the war itself. However, to judge by the reviews it is likely she has done very well. This post is intended as a reaction to the event rather than the book, but I have included at the end a summary review from Publishers Weekly.

After a brief introduction from Alan Little, Kochanski gave a talk on her subject. It was immediately clear that – though some manage to be both – the lady is an academic rather than a performer. Sticking closely to her notes, she showed slight signs of nervousness and on occasion said ‘as you can see from the map.’ I don’t know about others, but I couldn’t.

Among the contentious subjects she dealt with was the treatment of Jews by Poles during the German occupation. Without denying anything which had taken place, she pointed out that the penalty for a Pole harbouring a Jew was more extreme than in any other country. Both would be shot. She also pointed out that Poland was the only occupied country with an organisation set up with the sole purpose of helping Jews.

As these events go, Kochanski’s talk was unusually short, coming in at under twenty minutes, so the rest of the time was taken up with questions and the occasional statement from the floor. For me, two things stood out. The first was the appearance of a conspiracy theory. A lady who identified herself as Polish complained rather bitterly that the UK government had withheld publication of relevant files for twenty years past the time when they should have been published. They still weren’t available. Kochanski didn’t deny this. However, another member of the audience also addressed this issue. She was a historian. The files in question were all publicly available and had been for some time. She would know, she’d consulted them all in connection with her research. Furthermore, a committee had been formed which had access to relevant MI6 files. Several members of this committee were Polish, and it was ‘unprecedented’ that foreign nationals had access to these files.

A second piece of information came as news to me, and no doubt it shouldn’t have. This concerned the shocking massacre of Polish officers by the Soviets at Katyn. When the bodies were discovered it was assumed that the massacre had been carried out by the Nazis – it would, after all, be entirely in character. But at some point it became clear that the massacre had in fact been carried out by the Soviets. Yet when the intelligence services in UK learned the truth, they sat on it, sticking to the line that the massacre had been carried out by the Germans. Unfortunately for them, the Soviets eventually admitted it, but several more years passed before the UK authorities confirmed that they had known this for some time.

Kochanski’s parents settled in UK and Polish was not spoken in the household, her parents believing that the family should integrate in their new society. I think this misconceived and very sad. Few things could be more useful than growing up speaking two languages, and I can think of no reason why this should be a barrier to integration.

Kochanski spoke to a full house, many of whom were Polish or had Polish connections. Her reception was friendly to say the least and I have little doubt her book will do well. From what I can see, it deserves to.

Extract From Publishers Weekly

Kochanski, a British military historian, integrates concise, clear, and persuasive campaign analyses with an account of the brutality suffered by Poles under German and Soviet occupation during WWII. She also examines the complex internal politics of Poland’s armed forces in exile, and Poland’s international position. She incorporates the creation and performance of the 1st Polish Army on the Eastern Front into a narrative that in most Western accounts is too often dominated by action in Italy and Northwest Europe. Her treatment of the Polish Resistance and the 1944 uprising is excellent. She also establishes the complex mix of operations, logistics, and politics behind the Allies’ limited support for the Home Army in Warsaw. Kochanski’s sympathies clearly lie with Poland’s exile government in London, but she neither conceals nor trivializes policies and decisions that often proved self-defeating. Kochanski also gives an account of the Holocaust and the thorny issue of Polish collaboration in it. Above all, this is a story of expedience: the critical decisions that had to be taken, the terrible role of sheer chance, …the simple desire to survive under the most difficult circumstances. And expedients, as Kochanski ably demonstrates, are not always wise.

4 thoughts on “Poland and the Second World War

  1. With Katyn, I think mother Russia still claims it wasn’t them – but I may have outdated information from when I was in school.

    It’s funny that her last name is not properly polish either, the way it’s formed suggests that she’s a man. It would have been Kochanska if the parents haven’t decided to “integrate”. But this is a sad thing as you say when people want to “integrate” into society in this way. I am not against integrating as such, far from it, but I think it is such a waste… I used to live with a girl whose parents were Iranian but she didn’t speak any Persian. This was because when she was little and went to school she said she didn’t want to speak Persian anymore but English instead as this was what all the other kids would speak. WHY?! It’s not like one excludes the other…

    But you know I am a bit obsessed about languages.

    • The Russians admitted it some years ago.

      I wondered about her name too. When I entered the marquee
      I was expecting a man.

      I think it’s crazy to deprive children of a language growing up.
      They’re so easy to learn when you’re young

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