Filling a Huge Gap in the Literature: Roger Moorhouse on ‘First to Fight’
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‘I wanted to tell the story as well as possible and – especially for a non-Polish audience – to restore the Poles to the narrative, because it is a narrative from which they have been shamefully excluded,’ Roger Moorhouse tells Juliette Bretan.
The historian Roger Moorhouse recently published First To Fight in both English and Polish to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II. It is the first English-language book to tell the story of the Polish campaign in 1939 in full, and often grim, detail. The author spoke to Culture.pl to tell us why a more widespread understanding of this important story is needed.
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Juliette Bretan: The invasion of Poland and the outbreak of WWII, some may argue, is a recognised story – how are you adding to this?
Roger Moorhouse: The story of the invasion of Poland in 1939 might be reasonably well-known inside Poland, but it certainly isn’t outside Poland. Indeed, I would argue it is one of the significant campaigns of that conflict that is least understood in the English-speaking narrative of the war. For most of us, ‘knowledge’ of the September Campaign barely advances beyond the old propaganda nonsense of ‘cavalry against tanks’ and the myth that only one totalitarian power invaded Poland in September 1939. So, for the world beyond Poland, there is a huge corrective story to be told. And, even for Poles, there is a wealth of new archival material presented, as well as the attempt to link the campaign to the wider context of international relations and Poland’s system of alliances. So, even for those that think they know the subject, the book will contain a few surprises.
JB: Why do you feel the Polish side to the events of 1939 has not been covered in detail in Western historical narratives?
RM: Essentially because – as we know – ‘history is written by the victors’. So, the story of the September Campaign has fallen through the cracks. The Germans wrote some propaganda about it in 1939-40, but then they went on to bigger campaigns and bigger crimes, so hardly anyone there – academic or otherwise - is interested in it now. The Soviets had no interest in telling the story honestly, partly because it could damage their lie that they didn’t invade Poland in 1939, and also because pre-war Poland was (to them) a land of aristocrats and landlords, so it deserved its fate. Under Putin, Russia basically carries on in the same vein, and has even moved in recent years to blaming Poland for its destruction in 1939, which is ridiculous. The British, meanwhile, have a curiously parochial view of the war, in which the actions of their own forces are constantly examined and re-examined, but knowledge of events beyond that can be frighteningly poor. So, it is easy to see how – in this constellation – Poland’s story of 1939 has not been told. It is a situation that I hope my book will start to redress.
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JB: Is the Polish war effort covered in a similar fashion – and with similar emphasis on specific events – by Polish and Western historians, or differently? And why do you think this is – and has this changed over time?
RM: I think Poland’s war is hardly covered at all in the non-Polish narratives of the war. And this is absolutely incomprehensible to me because Poland was very much front-centre in that conflict; the country for which the war broke out, the country in which the brutal nature of ideological warfare was made most horrifically apparent, and – of course – the country with the highest per capita death toll. Happily, I think this myopia in Western circles about Polish affairs is changing – albeit slowly. For instance, in the last ten or fifteen years, the story of the contribution of the Polish pilots of 303 Squadron to the victory in the Battle of Britain has finally achieved widespread recognition, and the same can also be said about the contribution of Polish mathematicians to the breaking of Enigma. So these two examples show that it is possible to change popular opinions, it just takes time, good will and effort. I hope we can begin to change opinions about the Polish campaign in the same way.
JB: And why did you want to tell this story?
RM: Primarily because it is a huge gap in the literature. More than that, I was keen to combat the mythological propaganda tales that have arisen in the absence of knowledge.
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JB: Your book fills a gap in the Western coverage of events, but as an English author, do you feel you have a subjective take? Do you intend for the book to dismiss the idea of a 'phoney war', for Poland at least?
RM: All history is subjective, of course, it can’t be otherwise. But we can strive for objectivity, and we can strive to view events from a different perspective to our own. This is what I have tried to do, to shift the perspective. Traditionally, the September Campaign was viewed in the English-language historiography in an almost comically Anglo-centric way, in terms of the agonies of Westminster politicians at the prospect of going to war. And all the while, the real agonies of the Poles at the other end of the continent were ignored, rendered at best as a footnote to the story. I wanted to reverse that. So, yes the Western story of the ‘Phoney War’ – as the phase of the war in which not much happens – really needs to be revised.
JB: And in a nutshell, why do you think this story should be better known? Is it a matter of publicising the heroism of the Poles, or the brutality suffered in Poland and Eastern Europe?
RM: I think it deserves to be better known in its own right, as it is an essential part of the wider narrative of the war, and it is woefully under-known and misunderstood. More than that, there is a general ignorance of Polish aspects of the war, which should be remedied. Most British and American readers, I think, scarcely understand Poland’s suffering in World War Two. They really should.
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JB: In your opinion, what is the most important story that people outside Poland should know about?
RM: Oh, there are so many! The heroic defence of the Westerplatte is probably the best example, but also the suffering endured by Warsaw under siege. More generally, the Soviet invasion is one of those aspects of the story that has been left out of the conventional narrative, thanks largely to the skill of Stalin’s propagandists. It would be good to spread knowledge of that invasion wider – if only to spite the old Georgian tyrant!
20th century history
world war ii
JB: Would you say that the Polish side to the events of 1939 has, so far, been a hidden secret?
RM: I think that is about right, yes. I hope I have been able to do it justice.
Interview conducted via email by Juliette Bretan, Sept 2019
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