#language & literature
The Eagle Unbowed, written by Halik Kochanski, a British writer of Polish descent, is the first comprehensive account of the fate of Poles on the fronts and wastelands of Second World War published in the West.
The world has been presented a collection of precious reports of participants and witnesses of the historical military struggles and the events that accompanied them. This formally disciplined and thoroughly documented popular scientific book is characterised by lively, flowing narrative, offering many a moment of thrill.
The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War, written by Halik Kochanski, was released in autumn 2012, to positive critical reception. It became a bestseller and soon saw a re-edition.
The book is targeted at Western readers, to whom the author explains many phenomena, traditions, customs, and historical events which Poles are well acquainted with. Nonetheless, even a Polish reader will be interested by this cultural recap, as he or she stumbles across many details that have thus far been unrecognised or omitted in old, or even contemporary, history textbooks. In other words, it is a coherent source of knowledge, outlining Poland's past and current position in European and global history – which has not been as prominent as Poles often imagine.
The book seems invaluable in its portrayal of facts as seen from the perspective of the sturggles for power of the greatest global forces present on the military fronts of World War II. It describes the battle with Nazi Germany, during which the leaders of Great Britain and the United States counted on the Soviet Union to a much greater extent than on Poland, which was crushed in the September Campaign and abandoned by the military leaders and state authorities, seeking shelter across the borders – the borders of a country which was conquered by the Germans and Soviets and suddenly ruled by chaos. In Przemyśl, ‘columns of Jews fleeing German cruelty met columns of Jews fleeing Soviet poverty, each group beseeching the other to turn back.’ The Red Army's invasion of Poland, which was paralysed by the German Blitzkrieg, met with rather restrained reactions in the West.
… Chamberlain made a statement in the House of Commons: ‘His Majesty's Government has learned with indignation and horror of the action taken by the Government of the USSR in invading Polish territory.’
From the Polish point of view, the steps taken by the British and American leaders, who were giving in to Stalin's increasing demands, are often perceived as disgraceful or even reprehensible. Halik Kochanski confronts the understandable frustration of Poles, describing Yalta as the fifth partition of Poland, with the conservative positions of Churchill and Roosevelt, always infused with a brutally sober realism. Taking into consideration their own, more or less farsighted political goals, they left Poland to Stalin's rule, in lieu for his army's participation in the ultimate struggle with the Germans: ‘the choice was clear: the war could be won without the Poles […], but not without the Soviets.’
Western diplomatic representatives were for a long time unaware of the repressions by the NKVD faced by the Poles, who were held in Gulags and other similar Stalinist detention sites. Polish reports were treated with extreme distrust. ‘It became clear as time passed that whenever the Soviets issued any statement criticising the Poles and the Poles issued a refutation, the British Government and military authorities would give publicity to the Soviet argument argument but gloss over any Polish riposte.’ This is how Churchill approached the British raison d'etat – by appeasing Stalin, referred to as Uncle Joe, with all kinds of concessions.
The pro-Soviet publicity machine was active in the United States and the Office of War Information (OWI) ensured that newspapers followed that line. In 1942 the influential Time magazine made Stalin its 'Man of the Year,' and, notoriously, its 29 March 1943 issue was dedicated to the Soviet Union and described the NKVD as “a national police force similar to the FBI.”
In this context, the fact that Poles were considered to be credible intelligence is indeed astounding. Perhaps this was thanks to the legendary Polish cryptologists, who decoded the German ciphering machine – Enigma.
Under the terms of the Anglo-Polish intelligence agreement of September 1940, the Poles agreed to pass all all information they received to the British unless it concerned purely internal Polish affairs. The Poles were in a unique position since their presence as forced labourers os as underground fighters throughout occupied Europe enabled them to gather information to a degree unequalled by any other power. This contribution was quantified in a British report in 1945: it claimed that of the 45,770 intelligence reports from occupied Europe processed by the Allies during the war, 22,047, or 48 per cent, emanated from Polish sources. Wilfred Dunderdale, the report's author, paid tribute to the Poles: “It will thus be seen that Polish agents worked unceasingly and well in Europe during the last five years, and that they provided, often at great danger to themselves and to their relatives, a vast amount of materials of all kinds on a wide variety of subjects.”
The book also dispels many myths, for instance about the insufficient support from the Home Army (AK) to the Jewish resistance movement. ‘[R]ecent research has suggested that in the spring of 1943 each ŻOB fighter was in fact far better armed than an average AK soldier would be during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.’ Two opinions are worth bringing up from the numerous claims about the Polish help for Jews: ‘Adolf Berman, a Jew who liaised between the Polish and Jewish undergrounds, wrote that too much had been written about the threats to the Jews in hiding and too little about the Poles who risked their lives to save them: "The flotsam and jetsam on the surface of a turbulent river is more visible than the pure stream running deep underneath, but that stream existed." On the other hand, according to “Władysław Bartoszewski, a "Righteous Among Nations": 'From the moral point of view it must be stated clearly that not enough was done either in Poland or anywhere else in occupied Europe. 'Enough' was done only by those who died while giving aid.’
Nonetheless, in order to avoid turning The Eagle Unbowed into a simple book of wishes and complaints that Poles directed at their Western allies, the author does not forget about Poland's internal conflicts. All kinds of soldiers, both members of domestic conspiracy and those fighting abroad, eager to fight for their motherland, surprisingly often lacked support from responsible leaders. This is one of the reasons why Halik Kochanski's book should be an obligatory position – especially for the current exponents of political life in Poland.
In April 1944, Bór-Komorowski informed London that the reality was that the AK ’was a conglomeration of commanders and detachments, whose attitudes to one another are frequently undisguisedly hostile, and who are held together in a badly frayed thread of formal discipline that may snap at the start of operations.’
The ideological disputes of the Polish emigre community – including the questioning of the moral motivations of highly placed nationals who represented different political views – crushed various plans that would be profitable for Poland, which the Allied leaders interpreted as arrogance, ingratitude, and lack of discipline.
Margaret McNeill, who worked at a camp for displaced persons, made a statement in Frankenburg:
The more we got to know the Poles, the more they baffled us … They respected their Church and counted honour something to be defended to the death, yet they earned for themselves a reputation for drunkenness, dishonesty and cruelty. They were often hopelessly lazy and unreliable as far as steady routine work went, but in a crisis they would, at the eleventh hour, rally and work with unparalleled speed and determination.
Lastly, a correction is in place. The corpse of Marshal Józef Piłsudski was indeed buried in St. Leonard's Crypt in Wawel Cathedral. Eventually, however, following discussions between the clerical and secular authorities, the Marshal's coffin was moved to the Crypt under the Silver Bells on 22nd June, 1937, as requested by Adam Stefan Sapieha, the Archbishop of Kraków.
the eagle unbowed
second world war
history of Poland
politics and society
Halik Kochanski studied contemporary history at Balliol College in Oxford. She received her PhD degree from the King's College in London. She has lectured at King's College and University College London, and presented papers at conferences devoted to the history of the military. She is an author of numerous articles and of the book Sir Garnet Wolseley: Victorian Hero. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society, Army Records Society, and Society for Army Historical Research, as well as the British Commission for Military History and of the Institute for Historical Research. She is currently a jury member for the Templer Medal Prize, awarded for best history books. It is worth mentioning in the context of this particular work that Halik Kochanski is a daughter of Poles who were forced to emigrate by the war turmoil in Poland.
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, November 2013, transl. AM, March 2016
The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War
Harvard University Press, 2012
dimensions: 127 x 197 mm, 168 pages
paper hardcover with dust jacket