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Mentioning the war

Mentioning the war
Jun 4th 2009
From Economist.com


Misaligned histories in Britain and eastern Europe

BRITAIN is gripped by a feeling of historical injustice. The 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings has been hijacked by the ungrateful French and self-obsessed Americans. President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to grandstand with Barack Obama. Neither country wants to admit the role of British (and Canadian) forces in the victory in Normandy. The Queen (the only living head of state actually to have worn a uniform in the war) was not even properly invited.

Yet this is how the Poles usually feel when the war is discussed. And not only them. One of the most tiresome statements in the British mythography of the war goes along the lines of “Our island fortress fought alone—all of Europe was either conquered by Hitler, or stayed neutral.”

It is hard to find even the narrowest sense in which that is true. Britain never surrendered, but neither did many other countries; their governments-in-exile shared the delights of the Blitz with us in London. Few if any countries counted as truly “conquered”. The Nazis met systematic armed resistance in France, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and other countries as well. By contrast, the Channel Islands, which were under German occupation during the war, were not exactly a hotbed of anti-Nazi resistance.

The most fatuous expression of this fatuous Britain-centred view of the war came when the xenophobic British National Party used a picture of a Spitfire in a poster. The party’s strategists presumably thought this epitomised British national pride. Unfortunately they failed to check the markings on the plane depicted. It actually flew in the RAF as part of the Polish 303 ("Kościuszko") squadron.

In short, if the British want their wartime history to be treated fairly by other countries, they need to make sure that they themselves present a balanced perspective. Admittedly, that process is in part underway. Your columnist’s bookshelves groan with two giant tomes examining Anglo-Polish wartime cooperation. The historians were given unprecedented access to the files of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (commonly known as MI6). They didn’t find much (spies tend to regard record-keeping as a menace, not a duty).

Some of the most interesting documents turned out to have survived, neglected and untouched, in cardboard boxes in the attic of the Sikorski Museum in London. It is nearly 20 years since the British Foreign Office finally acknowledged that the Katyn massacre was the work of the NKVD, not the Gestapo (disclosure: this newspaper covered the disclosure of Katyn abominably, demanding that the Polish government-in-exile sack those responsible for slandering the Soviet Union—see article).

Against that background, how should Britain deal with another looming snub: the planned Polish commemoration of the start of the war in Gdansk on September 1st? It is entirely reasonable for the Poles to highlight the unprovoked Nazi attack. It is touching that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is planning to attend to highlight Polish-German reconciliation (that has two strands—the epic process launched by Willy Brandt in 1970, and the more recent rapprochement caused by the change of government in Warsaw).

It is outright remarkable that Vladimir Putin is apparently planning to attend (thus distracting attention from the equally disgusting Soviet attack on Poland on September 17th 1939). The message is “Poland was attacked, but we survived and now we are all friends”. But what about the British, who declared war on Nazi Germany September 3rd in response to the invasion? Senior British figures will not want to provide the unacknowledged backdrop for a German-Polish-Russian love-fest. Will anyone notice if they don’t show up?

Re: Mentioning the war

For countries to take pride in their accomplishments is natural; and in the matter of what Britain, Poland and the U.S. did during WWII is for them amply justified. They also made mistakes.

The American mistakes generally were a matter of over-simplifying. That characteristic is also a source America’s virtue. Once a matter is defined as wrong, evil or dangerous the American will is swiftly and effectively put to changing it. The uptake may be slow, but the application is not.

The British penchant for ordering things into classes and moral relativism leaves it susceptible to inaction and, worse, counterproductive action. Yet if something does not fall into the British sense of order then it will not be tolerated.

For Poles it is the dichotomy of fervent belief in axiomatic social and national tenets. This leads to internal dissention, but under threat it leads to an internal cohesion that few countries can emulate.

Regarding the war; the British and Americans were not prepared to deal with the Soviets and Stalin. For the British, internal class politics allowed Soviet sympathizers to play the system to Stalin’s advantage. Churchill could order flights to supply Warsaw but Labour/Union/Socialists in the Ministry would redirect resources. The American black and white perspective could not parse the need to lend tactical support to the Soviet Union while strategically countering the Soviet position in central Europe.

The Poles, on the other hand, did not have the luxury of national choices either large or small. Their choices were individual choices of honor, loyalty, trust and faith. That so many made the same choices makes it appear to those from the outside that there was a mandated national position. It was, however, individual choices that defined the nation.

A not infrequent debate in post-war Poland was (is) whether Poland would have been better served if it had acted more as had the Czech’s. There is no recurrent history of Czech uprisings, rebellions and revolts and yet Czech’s exist. The conclusion to these debates, long or short, would invariably be: but then we would not be Poles.