Friday 25 September 2020

September 1939: the Polish perspective

by Antonia Senior

In late August 1939, the Polish Ambassador in London visited Bognor with his wife and children for the weekend. Count Edward Raczynski writes in his 1962 memoir, In Allied London, that the weather was glorious. '..the sea [was] warm and everybody cheerful. The girls were bronzed and extremely fit, the sky cloudless, and the moon at night like a glorious lantern.'

Reading Raczynski's memoirs in this odd September eighty-one years later is salutary and a little chastening. I'm reading them as I try to keep my own children happy as the storm-clouds gather, conjuring for them a metaphorical cloudless sky.  

Raczynski returned to London on the Monday, and resumed his task of trying to flog his reluctant allies into action as Hitler's anti-Polish belligerence grew. The following Friday, on 1 September, the Ambassador rose early 'after a restless night'. At 10 AM, he was informed by Warsaw, via the Embassy in Paris, that the Germans had crossed the frontier into Poland. Raczynski was given formal instructions from Warsaw to declare to the British that 'The Polish Government is determined to defend its independence and honour to the last...'

Count Edward Raczynski

The story of the German invasion of Poland is brilliant told in First to Fight by Roger Moorhouse, newly out in paperback. Roger is a friend - and it was friendship that led me to the book. It was not friendship which kept me there - but the compelling sense of reading something entirely new about a period I thought I understood. I knew nothing. The extraordinary story he tells so eloquently led me to read some of the sources too, chiefly Raczynski's memoirs. 

Raczynski's memoirs are written as a diary, and this lends immediacy and urgency to his account. On 1 September, the afternoon of the invasion, he visits the House of Commons. "The building was blacked-out, and small ghostly electric lamps, covered with metal shades, cast a blueish light on the paved floor of the corridor."  To Raczynski's relief, the Prime Minister gave a bombastic speech about defying Hitler. 

 But the next day,  he watches a House of Commons 'full of irritation and disquiet' debate what to do, and 'sick at heart' hears Chamberlain attempt to explain away Hitler's refusal to respond to the British warning of the day before. Churchill rings him that afternoon, while the British and French were still prevaricating. "He said slowly and in a strangled voice: 'I hope - I hope that Britain will keep its...' - and could get not further. His voice stuck in his throat and I was startled to hear him sob. He sounded both anxious and deeply humiliated."

The declaration of war by Britain and France changes nothing for the Poles. In First to Fight, Roger describes how the expectation of Allied helped define Polish military tactics, and how valiantly the outnumbered Poles fought. Meanwhile, in London, Raczynski spends the next two weeks attempting to persuade the British to offer military help, not words, to their Polish allies. Nothing is forthcoming. He visits the US ambassador Joseph Kennedy "who startled me by his pessimism and lack of enthusiasm for the war. He wondered aloud: 'Where on earth can the allies fight the Germans and beat them?'"

On Sunday the 17 September, Raczynski visits the Polish church for Mass. That morning, he had received the news that the Soviets had invaded Poland from the East. "The news of this stab in the back was like the sensation one feels in the theatre when a crime which has long been impending is finally perpetrated."

At the Polish embassy, he organises a 24-hour radio listening service. The Press Attache, Bauer-Czarnomiski receives the news from Poland and pieces together events. The London Press gain a source beyond the relentless German propaganda, and Raczynski describes his PressAttache: "scribbling on his knee one message after another and shaken all the while with tears over our country's fate."

This is just a small taste of a remarkable book. It is odd to read history, while living so vividly through it. Here is Raczynski sounding oddly like a contemporary, if articulate, twitterati: "One must admit that at the present time a large part of Europe, not to speak of other parts of the world, is governed by people who are past praying for."

Roger warned me that Polish history, as fascinating and terrible as it is, does not let go easily once you are gripped. I was fascinated too by Carolyn Kirby's excellent new novel When We Fall, which tells the story of Poland later in the war - and the Katyn massacres of Polish officers by the Soviets. 

First to Fight is full of remarkable stories, many of them uncomfortable reading as a citizen of one of the allies who promised so much but did so little. When Warsaw, destroyed beyond recognition by the German attack, finally capitulated, its mayor, Stefan Starzynski continued to be defiant. He addressed the people of Warsaw: "For the last time, I call upon our allies. I no longer ask for help. It is too late. I demand vengeance. For the burnt churches, for the devastated antiquities, for the tears and blood of the murdered innocents, for the agony of those torn by bombs, burnt by the fire of incendiary shells, suffocated in the collapsed shelters and cellars. And you, bandits, barbarians, who have attacked our country - carrying death and destruction - know this, that there is justice, that there is a judgment, before which we shall all stand to answer and be held responsible for our actions." 


Susan Price said...

Thank you for this. My late Polish uncle, Stanislav, was a 19 year old cadet officer in the Polish Army when the Germans invaded his country. I may not have the story entirely straight but, as I remember, he and some others escaped south into what would then have been Czechoslavakia and were interned for a while. They listened every night to the BBC news, escaped the camp and continued south.
My Uncle spent some time in Italy and, when Italy fell, crossed the Alps into France where he joined the Free French. He was captured and imprisoned in a POW Camp for French prisoners because he had French dog-tags, a French-German surname and, by then, spoke fluent French. Across the river, in plain view, was the camp where the Germans were starving Polish prisoners.
After the war, he was sent to the UK where he wasn't exactly welcomed. He was planning to go Canada, to join his brother, when he met my aunt and decided to stay.
He had nightmares about his war experiences for years. - The suffering and heroism of the Poles, and the degree to which they were betrayed by their 'allies' is little appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Dear Susan, How fascinating! Almost impossible to imagine what people like your Uncle went through - and I completely agree about our failure to appreciate what the Poles suffered and how little we helped them. Roger's book is very good on the influence of German propaganda on the narrative that emerged after the war. Added to that, the Poles were not able to write their own history because of the stifling effects of the Post-war settlement.

Sue Purkiss said...

Horrific. And then, at the end of the war, we betrayed them again - despite the heroism of the Polish air squadrons, they were not allowed to join the victory parade for fear of offending the Russians. And of course, there's much, much more to that story.