December 17, 2003

YET STILL THEY FIGHT BESIDE US:

The battle between heart and politics: a review of FOR YOUR FREEDOM AND OURS: THE KOSCIUSKO SQUADRON: FORGOTTEN HEROES OF WORLD WAR TWO By Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud (Montagu Curzon, The Spectator)

The Kosciusko squadron had the highest kill total in the Battle of Britain and well-placed RAF officers reckoned it and its fellow Polish squadron may well have swung the very fine balance of the battle. It was named after the 18th-century Polish patriot whose first fight for independence was with the American colonists against the British; he then returned to die in an early bout of the long-running Polish struggle to get free of Russia. His memory inspired American airmen to volunteer in the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-20, when the squadron was formed. Their feats made a significant contribution to Polish victories and so to the formidable, if woefully ill-equipped, Polish air force of 1939. Far from absurdly charging tanks with cavalry, as Nazi propaganda put out and the Western media swallowed whole, the Poles fought like tigers; their pilots shot down 126 German aircraft, would not accept the inevitable defeat but, by desperate means, made their way to France (hopeless) and to England (scornful) and back into the air.

At length the RAF twigged that these were superb pilots, crucially with combat experience, with phenomenal eyesight and every reason to wreak revenge on the Luftwaffe. They chafed at the language and the regulations and the English throttles that pushed forward to go fast not backwards like Polish ones. The English clenched their jaws at Polish wildness and improper dress and tendency to fly off as opportunity beckoned and not keep formation. But when serious business began each saw the point of the other and a deep, even passionate, bond was formed, of real brothers in arms. [...]

Churchill had made heartfelt promises to the Poles, knew well their history, their suffering and how they had fought back. Roosevelt made high-sounding declarations, with at least half an eye to the seven million Polish-American voters, and only really cared about his delusory personal understanding with Stalin. Both were caught between the closing pincers of these promises and the perceived imperative of preserving the huge lie of Big Three unity and common purpose. Thus Stalin, well known to be a monster, was dressed up as Uncle Joe, the Katyn massacre was hushed up, and vast amounts of aid sent. [...]

From underhand agreements at Teheran in November 1943 to outright betrayal at Yalta in 1945 the slope to infamy got steeper, the promises thinner, the Poles’ despair deeper. Finally General Anders asked for his Polish II Corps to be withdrawn from the 8th Army and pilots questioned the point of taking off. They had seen the Warsaw uprising left to be destroyed, with derisory help from the Allies, while Stalin stopped his advance to look on, content that the SS was saving him some bullets. The Polish Parachute Brigade, formed specifically to drop into Poland, clamoured to go, were refused, then dropped into Arnhem and massacred, all because the Russians would not allow Western aircraft to land and refuel (until far too late). Churchill wanted to send aircraft regardless and call Stalin’s bluff, but the Americans would not hear of it.

Nevertheless, Anders and the pilots fought on for the sake of their honour, this being all they had left. Even this was derided at the end of the war when the Attlee government would not allow them to march in the Victory Parade for fear of annoying the Russians.


Quite the most infuriating book you'll read this year as you realize how profoundly and carelessly we betrayed Eastern Europe in general but the Poles in particular. Demolishes the notion that WWII was worth fighting if we were going to wimp out as badly as we did.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 17, 2003 2:51 PM
Comments

Jeszcze Polska nie umarla,
Kiedy my zyjemy.
Co nam obca moc wydarla,
Szabla odbierzemy.


Marsz, marsz, Dabrowski,

Do Polski z ziemi wloskiej,

Za Twoim przewodem

Zlaczem sie z narodem.

Jak Czarniecki do Poznania
Wracal sie przez morze,
Dla ojczyzny ratowania
Po szwedzkim rozbiorze.

Marsz, marsz, Dabrowski...

Posted by: Mike Morley at December 17, 2003 3:37 PM

Another reason to move our troops from Germany to Poland in addition to the economic and geostrategic advantages.

Posted by: Genecis at December 17, 2003 4:12 PM

Vansittart is with you on Attlee.

Just what do you propose could have been done to assist the Poles? Strategic bombing didn't work against Germany, did it?

Dropping a Polish brigade into action against 3 Russian army groups would have been a very Polish thing to do -- gallant, brave and idiotic.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 17, 2003 4:19 PM

About about a word or two about the ruthlessness of Communist imperialism; a word or two to celebrate Polish courage and snub Uncle Joe. To defend dishonor as a necessity is to poison one's soul.

OJ:

At least one Englishman saw the glory of Poland for what it was: see G. K. Chesterton's The End of the Armistice.

Posted by: Paul Cella at December 17, 2003 5:59 PM

Harry:

Cut a deal with the German officer corps to ditch the Nazis and help fight the Soviets. Tell Stalin to leave Eastern Europe or we'd demonstrate to the Japanese the effectiveness of nukes by using them on Russian cities, not Japanese. Etc.

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2003 6:33 PM

You're fantasizing about the German officers. They'd sworn a personal oath to Hitler, remember? And they were honorable men, speaking, as Paul does, of honor and dishonor.

What cities do you propose? We didn't have any bombs and the Russians hardly had any cities in May 1945.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 17, 2003 9:22 PM

Harry:

Sufficient were ready to act, but FDR insisted on his absurd innovation of Unconditional Surrender--no honorable soldier could accept such a thing.

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2003 9:57 PM

Hindsight is wonderful. It makes everyone a genius.

Okay, that was a little sarcastic. But it isn't clear that, within the realm of human endeavor, a better outcome was possible.

After the fact, it is possible to persuasively argue that insisting on unconditional surrender was counterproductive. But at the time, less than 30 years after WWI, it would have also been easy to make a persuasive argument that the only way to get rid of German militarism was to yank it out, root and branch.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 18, 2003 8:02 AM

Presumably if Hitler had acquired nukes before us, and unleashed them on Stalin, thus reconfiguring the Cold War at between Christian West and Nazi East, Mssrs. Eagar and Guinn would be here to tell how necessary our compromises were that imperial tyranny were.

I mean no discrespect, but it is possible to retain a sympathy for the constraints placed on decision-makers in times of troubles, but still maintain that they made grave errors.

Posted by: Paul Cella at December 18, 2003 8:50 AM

Paul:

It is more likely that Hitler would have dropped the bomb on London than on Stalin. Remember, he was not the best military thinker around. But he knew how to hate and how to kill.

The Poles lived in a rough neighborhood and not much would have helped them. They were not going to flourish until both jackboots were removed. It is too bad that both could not have been taken away at the same time.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 18, 2003 10:15 AM

A fortiori my point if Hitler had bombed London (were deep into counterfactuals here, I know). Then would we have seen a rapproachment between Nazis and Communists? or would Hitler have reduced the USSR to servitude? Either way he would have been master of Europe, and faced off in a Cold War with us.

Posted by: Paul Cella at December 18, 2003 10:42 AM

I find exceedingly odd the belief of generally sensible people that systems so fundamentally flawed as either communism or Nazism could have maintained control of massive empire that included developed nations and at the same time have waged war with us in any way that might have threatened us.

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2003 12:04 PM

OJ:
Remember Sputnik?

I don't deny your theory that those systems were fundamentally flawed. However, at the time, the experiment had not been run, and the results, to many were far from certain.

I'm sure many otherwise conservative people at the time were not at all sure that a market economy would best a command economy in a war.

Certainly, the Soviet Union could have destroyed us. And if it had invaded W. Europe, our economy would have taken a beating, at the very least. And the attitudes of other countries would have changed significantly.

The alternatives to the courses of action we chose were not cost free. However, having not chosen them, it is impossible to know the costs we would have borne.

That is the other problem with hindsight and considering alternatives. The costs of what you did are easy to assess, and the benefits of what you didn't do are easy to hyptothesize. But guessin the costs of the action not taken is very difficult.

For example: The costs of leaving Saddam in place after the Gulf War are obvious. But there is no way to know what the costs would have been otherwise.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 18, 2003 12:17 PM

OJ, you make these comments from time to time and they are never remotely persuasive. You should really drop this tack.

Set aside Soviet communism; it's a different story.

But Nazism *did* work. The German economy roared. The trains ran on time. We're supposed to pretend that German research was crippled after the Jews left, but that is a pious lie. German mechanical and scientific engineering continued to make triumphant advances. The Hitler-era Germans made better tanks AND better civilian cars than we did. They utterly dominated the gold, silver, and broze medal counts in the 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens propaganda notwithstanding. Do the research.

In 1939-45, little landlocked Germany fought the rest of the world to a standstill for years. The Nazis invented the rocket. (We jump-started our own feckless postwar rocket program by waiving in a whole shipload of sketchy ex-Reich guys to the US.) Heck, the Nazis even invented the *jet fighter* in 1944, in the middle of saturation bombing by the US and UK.

If you take the view of the bluntest materialism (and that is the criterion implicit in your claim that we would inevitably triumph over this "fundamentally flawed" system in war), fascism works great. It probably "works" better than liberal democratic capitalism.

The problem with Nazism was that it was founded on armed conquest and a bloodthirsty racialism. Surely that is a sufficient basis for criticizing it.

Posted by: RT at December 18, 2003 12:46 PM

I think RT put OJ argument to rest right there. I will add that a tyranny hardly need be efficient, humane, or even particularly producive to subjugate.

Communism remained in power in Russia and Eastern Europe for 70 years, annexing and enslaving proud nation during much of that time. It still rules in China, and is morphing into something more like soft Fascism.

Posted by: Paul Cella at December 18, 2003 1:17 PM

I think Jim's about right.

It is true the Poles lived in a rough neighborhood. They did nothing to make it easy for well-disposed people (of whom there were few to begin with) to help them, either.

Just as I welcome the fact that Stalin did most of our dirty work for us in 1941-45, I welcome the fact that the Poles by stopping the Russian advance (with cavalry, too) on Warsaw in 1920 probably saved much of Central Europe from a Soviet tyranny for another 25 years. That they also helped keep Germany safe for militarism and Naziism was unfortunate, but international relations frequently make for messy outcomes.

The unconditional surrender demand was directed at the German government, not the German army. The soldiers surrendered in the field in the old, traditional way.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 18, 2003 2:10 PM

Jeff:

You're fond of arguing that things could only be known in hindsight when folks made mistakes you approve of. Read a little about the offhandedness with which FDR made the ahistorical Uncoditional Surrender demand and how much it outraged our military and our Allies, before you assume no one knew at the time it was disastrous.

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2003 2:20 PM

Harry:

If you read the book or many others, you'll find that the image of Poland to which you refer was crafted by the putative allies who stabbed her in the bacxk and then wanted to cover their tracks. Churchill sobbed as England betrayed its promises to the Poles. But then New Deal historians had ample reason after the war to make Poland appear unworthy of any help, since they'd given it none.

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2003 2:34 PM

Robert:

You lost me when you got to "standstill". That's the point. After they took on the Soviets there was no chance of their achieving much more. Even if they'd eventually defeated Stalin they'd not have had the manpower, industry, etc. to rule hostile peoples from Paris to Vladivostock. They couldn't even take on Spain.

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2003 2:41 PM

Jeff:

Who was the first Russian to walk on the moon?

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2003 2:48 PM

I had a few thoughts on this, which is basically that fascism works fine for a while, but is simply unstainable long term because it's not self-correcting.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 18, 2003 4:49 PM

Yeah, those dirty New Dealers invented the seizure of Teschen.

Guy, I wouldn't even say fascism works well for a time -- Naziism wouldn't have worked at all without a lot of stupid foreign bankers -- but even a staggering fascism can do a lot of damage on the way down.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 18, 2003 8:03 PM

OJ:
Who was the first man in space?

I didn't say no on believed at the time that insisting on unconditional surrender was disastrous (a position I agree with, in fact); rather, I merely said that at the time it was possible to make a persuasive argument based on recent history.

And it is only in hindsight that we can approach a conclusion. However, not having pursued the alternative to unconditional surrendeer, we have no idea how that Germany would have turned out. That some nascent militarism might have survived could have made postwar history different in ways we can't imagine. Therefore, hindsight is very good at assessing the costs of what you did, and assuming the benefits of what you did not do.

In particular, your conclusion that fighting WWII and the Cold War was pointless because both those societies would have ultimately flamed out anyway is rather like deciding not to fight a fire in the family room.

Just because that fire will burn out eventually doesn't mean it won't take everything else with it along the way.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 19, 2003 7:49 AM

Jeff:

It wasn't our house.

Posted by: OJ at December 19, 2003 8:22 AM

Sure it was. Unless you think spending three generations trying to demonstate it would be possible to build capitalism in one country was a desirable national goal.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 20, 2003 2:08 PM
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