Customer Reviews: The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War
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on December 28, 2012
Kochanski has presented a comprehensive, fair and balanced history of Poland and the Poles during the Second World War. Sadly, some professional reviewers have chosen to focus solely upon one topic, viz., anti-Semitism. More specifically, the focus for some is upon the age old canard that the Polish people, during the occupation, did not do enough for their Jewish neighbors. The result of this miss-characterization of the Polish people has been their pervasive portrayal in the media as being dumb, unwashed simpletons.

The material presented by Kochanski is no Polish joke. There is nothing funny about what the Germans or Soviets did to the Polish people or their land. There has existed a veritable silence regarding the suffering of Poles during WWII compared to that of the suffering of Jews. Thankfully, Kochanski details the suffering of the Poles and does not neglect the suffering of the millions of all others during what may only be characterized as an epic conflagration.

Of special interest to me was the detail of the politics surrounding the debate by other nations to support or not support Poland. Simply put, it appears that Poland was essentially abandoned by nations who had been presumed to be allies. It was not until it became clearly obvious to Britain and France that Hitler would soon be knocking on their door that these nations joined the battle----but, unfortunately, much too late for Poland. Sadly, because of the Polish geography, Poland has been a frequent battleground for all of her neighbors.

Also of interest is the manner Poland was treated by the Allies at the end of the war. It is not until recent times that Poland has experienced any semblance of "democracy".

In summary, Kochanski's book is an easy read offering an abundance of material relative to the trials and tribulations of the Polish people during WWII. She also deals fairly with Polish/Jewish relations---meaning that, yes, there have been examples of anti-Semitism, yet, there also have been many examples of Polish valor and defense of Jewish neighbors and friends. Furthermore, lest we forget, there have been examples of Jewish bigotry vis-à-vis the Poles. Nevertheless, at some point in time, it is hoped that the general public will come to understand that there really were no winners of WWII. Also, no singular ethnic group was the sole victim. Yes, millions of Jews died and were brutalized; however, so too were millions of Poles, not to mention the countless deaths of those who belonged to the other warring nations---on all sides. And lastly, as to the charge that Poles did not do enough for their Jewish friends and neighbors, one must ask themselves the question, "How brave will I be facing death, torture or the destruction of my home and family?"
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on December 2, 2012
In my work on the Brute Polak stereotype, I attempt to explain why so many otherwise Politically Correct people, who find stereotyping of African Americans, homosexuals, and women to be utterly beyond the pale, feel free to engage in the most egregious stereotyping of Poles. One justification for anti-Polish stereotyping: "Poles have not suffered." Others have suffered, and they must be shielded from verbal assault. Poles, on the other hand, have not suffered, and deserve no such protection.

Poles have not suffered: that anyone could say this, never mind as an excuse for stereotyping, demonstrates that Poles have not adequately communicated their story on college campuses, in literature, through museums or in the political arena. In addition, there are pressures against Poles speaking the truth. In 1939, a week before the Nazi blitzkrieg in Poland, Hitler stated, "I put ready my Death's Head units, with the order to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of the Polish race or language." I was once told that I could not include that quote in a scholarly work if I wished to see my work published. Referencing Polish suffering, I was told, would be interpreted as an attempt to minimize Jewish suffering.

According to the Harvard University Press webpage, in "'The Eagle Unbowed,' Halik Kochanski tells, for the first time, the story of Poland's war in its entirety." It's been a long wait, but now that Kochanski's book is here, one thing is clear: if the word "genocide" cannot be applied to Poland during World War II, then the word "genocide" has no meaning.

The sadism and suffering recorded in these pages is overwhelming. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland in September, 1939. Both intended to erase Poland. Both explicitly stated as much. Both Germany and Russia had, for hundreds of years, tried to erase Poland. Both performed genocidal acts, including mass murder of non-combatant civilians, mass murder of political, religions, cultural, and military leaders, targeting children for persecution, outlawing education, outlawing Polish language, focused attempts to erase Polish culture, mass deportations, enslavement, and resettlement of former Polish territory with non-Poles. Both had clear and plausible plans for the ultimate elimination of Poland and Polishness; the German was named Generalplan Ost.

Polish priests in Dachau concentration camp; Polish professors in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp; Polish military officers mass murdered by the Soviets in Katyn; Polish children kidnapped by Nazis; some to be raised as Nazis, some to be gassed; Polish children starved to death in the Soviet Gulag; Polish villages destroyed by the Nazis; Polish villagers massacred by Soviet partisans; Polish villagers massacred by Ukrainians; Polish museums, factories, forests, libraries, artworks, burned, bombed, despoiled, crated up and carted away; Poland abandoned and betrayed by her allies France, England, and America: If the word "genocide" cannot be applied to this, the word "genocide" has no meaning. It does not belittle others' suffering to state that Poland was a victim of genocide during World War II. It demeans humanity to refuse to say so.

We've read bits and pieces of this history in other volumes. If Harvard's advertising is correct, this is the first English-language overview of WW II in Poland. It is the first such book I have read. Even though I am familiar with this history, reading it all in one sitting is an emotional and spiritual challenge.

Kochanski's style is brisk and no-nonsense. She covers a massive amount of material - addressing diplomacy, military maneuvers, espionage, torture - in the most efficient manner possible. She does not linger over the heartbreaking aspect of her narrative. She does select quotes that do the work of bringing to brief life the emotional impact of massive human evil. These quotes flame out on the page, and, like lit matchsticks, go out quickly, as we return to the forced march through hell. At times, Kochanski's text can be dry. This is especially true of the opening chapters that hurry the reader through a necessary introduction to Polish history. Even when discussing highly contested material, such as the role of Polish non-Jews in the Nazi genocide of Jews, Kochanski is dispassionate and quick. This book will never be a bestseller, but anyone who has any interest in Poland owes it to himself to read it, indeed, to soldier through it.

I am not a historian, and I am not qualified to assess this massive amount of data. I have read professional reviews of "The Eagle Unbowed" and been positively impressed. I've also read two critical reviews of the book, one by Antony Polonsky, the other by John Connelly. Polonsky praises the book on its handling of military history and the Second Polish Republic. Polonsky cites errors of fact, errors that could easily be corrected in subsequent editions. Polonsky faults the book for not citing recent work by Barbara Engelking, Andrzej Zbikowski and Jan Grabowski, including work that depicts Polish-Jewish relations during World War II in a less favorable light.

In his December 3 review of "The Eagle Unbowed" in The Nation, John Connelly mimes a tone of forced befuddlement. He doesn't understand how Poles can be sometimes stereotyped as noble, and, at other times, as base scum. Connelly would benefit from reading "Bieganski, The Brute Polak Stereotype." Ironically, Connelly chastises Kochanski for not being aware of current scholarship. This current scholarship, Connelly writes, demonstrates that Poles, inspired by their own anti-Semitism, collaborated with Nazis in the Final Solution. He also criticizes Kochanski for citing anti-Communism as the cause of Polish hostility to Jews, for example, in territory often occupied by the Soviets. In sum, Connelly writes, Kochanski is to be faulted because the Polish viewpoint prevails in her book.

No doubt historians will debate whether or not Kochanski is too soft on, or underrepresents, Polish anti-Semitism, and whether or not the book is representational. I am not an historian, and I can only watch from the sidelines of such a debate. No matter the outcome, the book as it stands now is one that must be read by anyone who wants to talk about Poland during WW II.
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on February 16, 2013
Page 536 (my book): "A war begun in the defence of the inviolability and independence of Poland has ended with the deprivation of Polish independence and the placing of the country under the rule of a foreign power."

This book traces the sad history of Poland during World War II. No country suffered more than Poland, which faced, at the beginning, two occupations by Germany and the Soviet Union, then Germany from 1941- 44, and at wars' end that of the Soviet Union. In a very real sense Poland's occupation ended only after the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's. It could be argued (which is not a debate I have any inclination to be involved in) that the Soviet Union suffered more than Poland during the Second World War, but proportionately more Poles were victimized and Poland's war started in 1939.

The author describes all the events beginning with the dual occupation and the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union - both were vicious occupiers. Even though Poland was a poor country, the Soviets were impressed in 1939 by the abundance they found, and abruptly started to take everything. I was not aware that during its occupation the Soviet Union killed and/or deported to their extensive Gulag system - thousands upon thousands of Poles. Many starved to death - and many that were sent to the Western Allies after 1941 from their Gulags, via the circuitous route of Iran, were in a deplorable physical state.

There are chapters on the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the Holocaust, the Warsaw uprising of 1944 with Soviet troops looking on sixty kilometres away. As an aside, the author points out the extreme arrogance of the French army who did not consult with the remnants of the Polish army after 1939 - the French were next on the German "chopping block".

The author recounts the Katyn massacre of Polish officers in 1940 and its constant denial by the Soviet Union - the guilt of this was only acknowledged by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin in the early 1990's. There is a direct link between the Katyn massacre "controversy" and Stalin's non-recognition of the exiled Polish government in London in April of 1943.

Yalta, Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill, The Polish London Government (or Polish exile government) & Lublin Polish Government (Stalin's puppets)

There is a strong tendency I wish to comment on throughout this book to blame the Western Allies - particularly Roosevelt and Churchill - for allowing Stalin to set up his own puppet regime in Poland - which started in 1944. It is Stalin who set up a cruel dictatorship in Poland, not the Western Allies.

For instance on page 508 of my book: "Ultimately the success of the Yalta conference would rest on whether Churchill and Roosevelt had been correct in assuming that the Soviets could be trusted not to impose communist dominated governments on the countries of Eastern Europe." This is pointing in the wrong direction. The question should be: would Stalin live up to his agreements at Yalta - which he clearly did not. He never allowed any opposition parties in Poland (in fact many were arrested and killed) and "unfettered and free elections" as called for at Yalta, did not happen until after 1990. The author also points out that Stalin had 2 million Red Army troops in Poland - he had all the cards - having over 10 million troops in Eastern Europe. Going to war with Stalin after the Germans had been defeated was not an option. Stalin wanted his puppets in Poland and there was very little the Western Allies could do about it. Stalin had "boots on the ground" in Eastern Europe, the Western Allies did not. With these "boots on the ground" Stalin was able to build his own government - and sadly, this became a rule by terror with massive population resettlements and the arrest of thousands of members of the Polish resistance.

The author on page 358: "But for Stalin... to ensure political dominance over the entire population of Poland the authority of the Polish government in London had to be undermined". I find this statement unrealistic. The Polish government in London never had authority in Poland after September 1939. It was a government in absentia. Much closer to the truth is the author's statement from Stalin (page 510): "Churchill wants the Soviet Union to share a border with a bourgeois Poland, alien to us, but we cannot allow this to happen." Did this London Polish government really think that a person of Stalin's' nature was going to merely let them waltz into Warsaw and set up a democratic government?

On page 436: "The Polish government (in London) wanted the British and United States governments to give guarantees that they would uphold Poland's post-war frontiers and that the Soviet occupation of Poland would end as soon as the war did". This guarantee would have merely been a paper guarantee which was worthless in front of Stalin's Red Army in Eastern Europe. As mentioned on page 439 by Roosevelt to the Polish ambassador: "Do you expect us to declare war on Joe Stalin if they cross your previous frontier?" On page 479: "The men of the II Polish Corps held on to the belief that after Germany was defeated they could go into action against the Soviet Union." This was a delusion.

Up until the end of the Second World War the Soviet Union was viewed as an ally - and correctly so. Beginning in 1943 it was the Red Army that was primarily defeating Germany, which was the main objective. They were hardly viewed as someone to go to war with. Unfortunately Churchill and Roosevelt needed Stalin more than the London Polish Government (and the same applied to DeGaulle). It was only after the war - and the beginning of the Cold War - that many saw the Soviet Union for what it was: a despotic dictatorship that waged war against its own people.

One must realize that Poland's vulnerable geography places it directly between two of Europe's most dangerous nations - sadly Poland risks being emasculated by one of the two.

Despite all, this book is still very worthwhile. There is a thorough examination on the ramifications of the Warsaw Uprising along with Russia's intransigence. I did feel the author went on too long about Polish participation with the Western Allies (like in Italy) - but it does make us understand more the dismay and bitterness of the Polish people when their country became usurped, once more, under the yoke of a powerful neighbor.

One further quote:
Page xxix: "In 1939 Poland was a heterogeneous country with significant national minorities of Ukrainians, Belorussians, Lithuanian, Germans and Jews, but in 1945 Poland became a homogenous country."
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on August 17, 2013
This is a comprehesive work on Poland in World War II and contains a tremendous amount of detail. All this detail makes it somewhat difficult to ferret out the basic story which goes something like this.

In 1772 the great powers of Prussia, Russia, and Austria began partitioning Poland which led to its disappearance. Warsaw ended up in the Russian Empire, Krakow in the Austrian Empire, and Gdansk (Danzig) plus Poznan (Posen) in the German Empire. All this came to an end when the three empires collapsed in 1917-1918 as a result of World War I.

The Treaty of Versailles then restored Poland as an independent nation in 1919, which made Poland a largely ethnically homogeneous country. The Poles however were upset with the Curzon Line that established their eastern boundary because it excluded Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Lithuanian areas Poland had controlled before 1772.

At this time Russia was in the chaos of its civil war and Poland took advantage of this situation in 1920 to attack the Russian-held areas east of the Curzon Line. The Soviet counteroffensive pushed the Poles back to Warsaw but the Poles defeated the Soviets in the ensuing Battle of Warsaw. The two countries then signed the Treaty of Riga which extended Poland's eastern border up to the Riga Line about a hundred miles east of the Curzon Line, thereby regaining its lost territories. The Soviet political officer at the battle was named Stalin and he would get his revenge later.

Poland then existed as an independent country from 1919 to 1939. After the Hitler-Stalin pact secretly divided Poland, Germany began World War II in 1939 by invading Poland. When Poland was basically defeated the Soviets moved in and occupied the Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Lithuanian areas they had lost in 1920, giving Stalin his first taste of revenge.

Much of the Polish Army managed to flee the country and ended up fighting with the Allies under British command. Some of their noteworthy campaigns included the Battle of Britain and taking Monte Cassino in Italy. But the major Polish campaign was the Warsaw Uprising by the anti-communist underground Home Army in 1944 during the German occupation. As the Red Army approached Warsaw the uprising began after being egged on by Radio Moscow. It lasted over two months before the Germans were able to force the Poles to surrender. Meanwhile, the Red Army waited across the Vistula River until the uprising was over and gave the Poles little help. With most of the underground Polish army destroyed or imprisoned, Stalin was able to install his communist Polish government after the Soviets eventually took Warsaw and the rest of Poland.

The Germans were so impressed with the valor of the Polish uprising that they proposed that the Germans and Poles join forces to fight the Soviet advance through Poland but the Poles refused. One wonders what would have happened if such a combined force had been established. There is always the possibility that the Soviet advance could have been halted and some sort of settlement reached between all the parties to the war with a reduced but independent Poland.

At the end of World War II Stalin got the old Curzon Line border that he wanted since the western Allies were powerless to do anything about it. So the pre-war eastern Polish border was shifted about a hundred miles to west. Most of the Poles left in the the Soviet area were deported to Poland while most of the Ukrainians still in Poland were deported to Soviet Ukraine.

To compensate Poland for the loss of its eastern territories its western border was shifted about a hundred miles to the west to the Oder River at the expense of Germany. This is where the Polish-German border used to be in the Middle Ages before Germany began its eastward expansion. Millions of Germans were deported from these new Polish areas to Germany. Poland obtained the old German cities of Breslau (Wroclaw) and Stettin (Szczecin) as well as Danzig (Gdansk).

The result was that Poland ended up being an ethnically homogeneous country without all the problems of muticulturalism. Meanwhile, Ukraine also benefited because it became a unified country for the first time since the Middle Ages, albeit first as a Soviet "Republic" but now as an independent country.
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on January 31, 2014
Halik Kochanski's book gives highly detailed information and analysis on the roles of Polish political and military figures and conditions in World War II and in its lead-up and aftermath. Interestingly, it treads rather lightly around the issues of anti-Semitism in Poland (and largely neglects the same issues in the rest of Europe and the world). It's political analysis of Western and Soviet or Communist strategies is excellent as are its summary judgments on military operations. A detailed, clear system of footnotes and recommended supplementary reading are models of scholarly work. A classic book on the subject.
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on October 21, 2013
This historical work provides a comprehensive overview of a segment of WWII history that has seldom received such a wide-angle perspective . General public perception about Poland during September 1939, and subsequently, is of a small country simply rolling over for the German blitzkrieg and then becoming the geographic site of numerous Nazi concentration camps. Poland before, during, and after WWII is a story of many, many moving parts, This works does a great job in presenting the broader perspective of what was going on in that corner of eastern Europe during that tumultuous timeframe.
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on April 11, 2013
In this very exhaustive work on the modern history of Poland, Kochanski makes a strong case for seeing this much maligned and misunderstood nation as one that has always struggled to defend its national identity. For over two hundred years, Poland was partitioned and re-partitioned by European powers only because its existence stood in the way of their hegemonic ambitions. This historian looks at Poland's interwar years when it attempted to define itself as a new territorial expression emerging from the ashes of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles. Those twenty years were fraught with all kinds of external conflicts with the Bolsheviks, Hungarians and Ukrainians over issues like land and minority interests. Even with a decent military defending its national interests, Poland still feared its chances of surviving an invasion by Hitler's Germany. Poland's inability to get ironclad assurances from Britain and France leading up to WW II point to the fact that its fears were never taken seriously because its traditional allies found it to be inconveniently located between two very militaristic world powers. Kochanski points out that everything that ensued from the Nazi invasion in September 1939 involved an insiduous arrangement by Stalin and Hitler to dismember Poland in an effort to advance their own geopolitical interests. This book looks at the many faces of this attempted obliteration not only of a nation but its people, culture, and economy: genocide, race relations, nationalism, government-in-exile, foreign relations, resistance, war contribution, and heroic expression. When the dreadful and tragic facts are analyzed, this author has made a very strong case for viewing Poland and the Poles as much victims of genocide as the Jews were during the same period with the Holocaust. Marring the national history are terrible events like the Katyn Forest Massacre when thousands of Polish officers were slaughtered by the NKVD and forced exiling of millions of Poles into Soviet-held lands. All told, hundreds of thousands of Poles died defending their nation against tyranny. As to the controversy as who really helped the SS run the death camps in Poland, evidence points more in the direction of minority groups like the Ukrainians living in southern Poland at the time and were friendly with the German invaders. I recommend this book because it has a very strong thesis based on very reliable evidence from a wide range of archival sources: war records, diaries, interviews, letters, and monographs.
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on February 18, 2013
This is a very good book about what happened to Poland and what Poland did in the years leading to WWII and during the war. It's a tragic story full of missteps, misunderstandings, bad neighbors, bad ideas, miscalculations and just plain bad luck (like the real estate people say, location is EVERYTHING) on the part of the Polish government and, even more so, their very naïve and less than honest allies, France and England.

Not a pretty story, but balanced and very well told and not hiding anything...telling the (much) bad along with the (too little) good.

The author had a good editor, too...the book "reads" well.

If you are at all interested in the history of Poland in this period, you NEED to read this book.

Very pleased that it is available as a Kindle.
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on July 10, 2013
As a person of Polish-American descent, I had an interest in the history of Poland during this period. I was looking for something more than the cursory treatment of TV documentaries - and believe me, this book provided thorough coverage and revealed many details I had been unaware of. There are personal accounts, excerpts from official documents, and day-by-day accounts of crucial events. The bibliography is massive - the author has obviously spent much time and effort in writing this book. Amazing!!
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on March 3, 2013
My Polish dad who is 87 won't put this book down. He says it is well written. He's engrossed in this book constantly telling me the stories...he's particularly angry with Roosevelt for selling Poland outright to Stalin, saying he's going to grab his own WWII Springield M1 off the wall and make 'em pay.
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