Poland and the Second World War
Poland fought with such courage yet she was denied her just fruits of victory by Allied prevarication and Soviet obduracy.
1. The Essence of Poland
Poland has always been Roman Catholic and rode out the rough passage of Protestantism in her neighbours in the 16th and 17th Century. Her military character emerged with her mounted lancers in Napoleonic times. In the 19th Century she was denied full autonomy and jurisdiction by Russia (Tsarist), Prussia (Hohenzollern Monarchy) and Austria (the Hapsburg Empire). Come the Great War she was fought over by these belligerents and the fresh State of Poland was created in the aftermath of the Versailles Conference in 1919. Poland went to war with Russia and won a short series of engagements (1920-21). Poland’s security raised its head in 1938/39 and we gave an undertaking to guarantee her territorial integrity as war with Nazi Germany loomed. In the event the Nazi-Soviet Pact carved up Poland and the Poles were overrun. A significant number escaped through Russia and Central Asia and then to the West, probably after Hitler had declared war on Stalin in June 1941 with operation Barbarossa. (Yet from all accounts some numbers of Poles and Polish Jews were given this escape route before June 1941). All the Polish fighting men in Italy (1943-44) and Northern France (1944) had to follow this passage. The terrible massacre of forty thousand Polish Officers, at Katyn in Western Russia, by the Red Army officered soldiers will never be forgotten. The Poles gave their very life blood for their country in World War II without any doubt.
2. The Second World War
The Polish Cemetery at Monte Cassino the Benedictine Monastery in Italy containing the Polish dead of 1943/44 is testimony to the commitment of her men under arms fighting for the Allied cause in very adverse conditions. Their comrades suffered grievously in Normandy 1944 (June/July) within the Battle of the Falaise Gap. Their noble pilots were crucial in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Wherever the Poles went they left their mark. Strangely they fought for the right cause yet gained no free Poland, as she became a Soviet Satellite in the post war period. The Allies gave in to Stalin without demur – a crying shame as we had gone to war to defend Poland’s frontiers. Poland as a free nation emerged 45 years later with “Solidarity” the Free Trade Union and John Paul II post the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 – indeed slightly earlier due to this Polish Pope – Our Holy Father.
3. The Contribution of the Poles
Indomitable resistance to Nazi Germany and the Red Army. The Warsaw uprising was suppressed in 1944 by the Germans as the Russians advanced on Warsaw, yet the order was given to the Russian Soldiers to hold back to enable the Wehrmacht to quash the uprising, something never seen before or since militarily. The Poles suffered in this War more than any other – that is their glorious stigmata as a nation like the George Cross to Second World War Malta, another Catholic County. Polish people always support the British and rightly have a home in our hearts and country. We know what they have done for us past and present. Polish memories and British remembrance do not fade.
4. Their Catholicism
Very powerful as shown in the physical strength of John Paul II in his pre-war and wartime days. To this day the Poles are Catholic almost to a man and revere their holy religion and its practice in their Cathedrals. They are Roman Catholic not Orthodox nor Eastern Rite and always have been. The election of John Paul II was crucial to his Polish countrymen and Eastern Europe. He did not neglect his duty as the first Polish Pope.
5. The Polish Jews
They were all but wiped out in the Holocaust and only the Israeli Memorial records their names – how and where they died will never be known. The worst Concentration Camp of all – Auschwitz – is ironically located in Poland. The Nazi death toll on the Polish Jews was on the innocent and unarmed (even the Polish Resistance in the latter stages was defending Poles). The atrocities against the Jews were indescribable and barbarous in the extreme. Apart from Bonhoeffer no one in Germany raised a word of objection – it all went through on the nod. One speaks of all the persecuted Jews yet the Polish Jewry stand out as the first to suffer outside Germany in 1939/40. Auschwitz Camp has made the Polish suffering of her Jews truly and indelibly marked in our memory and souls. The course of history is difficult to halt but we did not play our cards intelligently. We will always be in debt to the Polish Jews and the Poles. You can bring back Poland and Warsaw but you will never recover those lost Polish Jews.
By sheer doggedness the Poles fought in WWII and yet they must have known Stalin was going to deny them a free Poland. Roosevelt and Truman and Churchill and Atlee simply refused to grasp the nettle and extract the Polish concession from Stalin. It would have been difficult but everything is possible with military power as the Western Allies had and our diplomatic skills. Why not call Jozef Stalin’s bluff? He looks like a blatant bluffer in the photographs. His Red Army was battle hardened and very formidable but we had better armour, artillery and airpower and dare I say it, tactical nuclear weapons. His numbers against our fire power. Nobody likes a showdown yet Kennedy successfully carried it out over Cuban missiles crisis in the early 1960’s. This was the heart of Europe and Poland was a combatant nation on the victorious side. Stalin could not deny the Poles had supported Russia indirectly with her fighting men from 1941-45 and in 1940 over Britain’s skies. Stalin was a bully and even bullies get their comeuppance and run away. We used properly the nuclear option in the East later in 1945 and Stalin’s nuclear arm was not refined in mid-1945, as we knew. There is no point having nuclear weapons and conventional forces in place if you are not prepared to use them effectively and with discretion. The time was right in May 1945 for the sake of Poland to intervene militarily. Moshe Dayan would have done. The Poles would have backed us and we owed it to them. East Germany would also have been liberated. The nuclear option would have come after the ultimatum and the conventional attack. May be the nuclear weapon would not have been required.