Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Wprost--Britain, Poland and History

I have a new sideline as a fortnightly columnist for the Polish weekly Wprost. My opening salvo is here (in Polish). For the non-Polonophones, the English version follows

Did the British kill General Wladyslaw Sikorski? Or connive in a Soviet plot to do so? I doubt it. But as the wartime leader’s fate comes again into focus, so too comes Britain’s irritatingly lopsided view of wartime history.

It’s personal for me: my great-uncle, Charles Portal, (known in the family as “Peter”) was chief of the air staff during the war (and knew Sikorski).

He argued strongly for Polish pilots to be allowed to fly alongside the RAF in the Battle of Britain (some British military bureaucrats thought they were too ill-disciplined). His beaky face can be seen, just behind Churchill, in the most famous picture of the Yalta conference (see above, ringed in red). After the defeat of the Nazis, he insisted, against Soviet objections, that Polish aircrew be allowed to march, in uniform, in the Victory parade in London. He won that fight-but the Poles said that unless all military units were included, the airmen would not take part.

Sadly he died when I was nine, so I could not quiz him about General Sikorski, Yalta, or anything else. But I like to think that he was horrified by the post-war settlement in Europe that handed half the continent over to the Soviet occupiers.

Most British people see it differently. For them, the story of the war is a Hollywood one, of heroic solitary struggle followed by glorious victory. Every time I hear talk of how Britain fought “alone” after the fall of France in 1940, I complain (on behalf of the Poles, and also the Greeks). And as Poland gets forgotten, Stalin’s Soviet Union gets a whitewash: sanitised as our “wartime ally”, with little mention of the cost borne by both Russians and others.

Every time I hear that victory in 1945 brought “freedom” to Europe, I quibble: to Western Europe, maybe, but what about our allies? And what’s this about a neat end in 1945? The Żołnierze wyklęci were fighting for years afterwards and Józef Franczak was not caught until 1963. The last Estonian partisan, August Sabbe, hid in the woods until 1978 (he drowned trying to escape from a KGB search party). It was not until the last Russian soldier left the Baltic states on August 31st 1994 that one could really say that the military venture launched by Hitler and Stalin was really over.

It would be nice to think that this is just an interesting argument for historians. But Vladimir Putin’s Russia makes it topical. When I am presenting my book, the New Cold War, I like to shock audiences by asking them to imagine that the Third Reich had survived for decades, with Hitler dying in 1953 like Stalin, and being followed by a long period of stagnation under a German version of Brezhnev. Then I ask them to imagine that a “reform Nazi” (called Michael Gorbach for the sake of argument) tries to reform the unreformable with a mixture of “Öffenheit” and “Umbau” (ie “Glasnost” and “Perestroika”).

Then Herr Gorbach is toppled by a failed hardline coup (just like Gorbachev); the Third Reich collapses (just like the Soviet Union); long-forgotten nations like Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria return to the map of the world from which they were obliterated in 1938-40 (just like the Baltic states).

Then we get a new country called the German Federation, supposedly democratic and friendly. But after a few years a former SS officer (called Waldemar Puschnik) becomes leader. He moves swiftly to limit media freedom and control the political system (just like retired KGB officer Vladimir Putin). But outsiders argue that the German people want stability and it is not our job to interfere.

But then imagine that our putative SS-Obersturmbannführer Puschnik says that the Anschluss and the Munich agreement were “legal” (Just as Mr Putin does about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). That German officials tell the Dutch and the Danes that they should be grateful to the German people for their independence, that they should keep German as a second official language and that they should allow automatic citizenship to all settlers who moved there during the occupation era. (This is pretty much what the Kremlin says to the Baltic states now).

And then imagine that a German government newspaper argues that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz (Rossiskaya gazeta, a state-run Russian newspaper said in September 2007, followed by four other mainstream Russian news outlets since then, that the Katyn massacre was the work of the Nazis and not of the NKVD).

My British audiences often find that bewildering and shocking. But at least it gets them thinking. Dealing with Russia now is not just about geopolitics and realpolitik. It is about values-and they are particularly visible in our treatment of historical facts. General Sikorski knew that and complained fiercely about wartime Soviet lies on Katyn. I wish my compatriots took history seriously too.


Jens-Olaf said...

At least the Allies learned something from WWI: To deal with the Germans after WWII there must be a unconditional surrender at firsthand. Yes and it helped.
Even then it took a long time inside Germany to get a kind of "Offenheit" to face the war crimes.
Maybe dealing with 70 years of soviet crimes are too much for many. And many simply do not want to know.

whoissecretdubai said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JP said...

Mmm, this is an interesting post. What are we to make of Charles Portal, then? He was instrumental in the circle which promoted the doctrine of area bombing, writing in 1940:
'... [When we] have... reached the stage of desiring to burn down a whole town... we shall do it by dropping a large quantity of incendiaries first and then a sustained attack with High Explosive to drive the fire-fighters underground and let the flames get a good hold.' In November 1942 he added that the expected result of such an onslaught would be the complete destruction of six million German houses. Twenty-five million German civilians would be left homeless, while 900 000 German civilians would be killed and another one million seriously injured.

It is a complicated one. Portal shortened the war, he ordered the bombing of cities (especially the Hanse ports ... and others in eastern Germany ...) and targets in support of the Soviet offensive called Operation Bagration ... and we in the West lived in freedom in part because of his methods and because of the Soviet offensives that overran Germany. Are we to be grateful to both, or to neither?

Colleen said...

In the end Rees admits that the only way Russia's domination of post-war Eastern Europe could have been prevented, would have been by getting there first and liberating it ourselves. D-Day would have had to be a whole year earlier. And what would have been the cost? The Soviet Union lost 27 million dead.


Karol Karpiński said...

Well done. At least now I have any reason to buy 'Wprost' back at home. Comparing it to the Economist makes a big quality gap, but after a few pieces for Daily Mail I'm sure you got used to jumping over it. Good luck!

mail said...

Dear Edward,
I regret that only Britain has a writer with such a broad knowledge of Polish, Russian and European history without blank spots as it ususally is in case Frenchmen or Germans. Where people who claim themselves to be educated, posses the knowledge of Poland reduced to the fact that WW2 started there. Where Russia is seen as "fully democratic and friendly country". Etc. etc.
It's a pity, since it would spare me the efforts of explaining to the foreigners numerous historical facts that are completely unknown.
Greetings from Brussels ;)