The purpose of this very valuable addition to the literature on the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 is clear. Roger Moorhouse insists that the heroic resistance of the Poles against German aggression in the West has received too little attention. Indeed, they were the first nation to face Hitler's appetite for an empire, and they paid a heavy price for this decision. By the end of the war, almost six million Poles, half of whom were Polish Jews, had died.
The great strength of this new report lies in the extensive use of Polish sources, which are all too often overlooked when trying to summarize the history of the campaign. Moorhouse insists that, despite the large differences in the number of men and weapons between the opposing sides, the Germans did not have everything in their own way. From the first resistance at the border to the last desperate battles in early October, the Polish army and air force gave their best. Occasionally they defeated their opponent. The SS Germania The division, which carelessly rested in a forest, was exposed to a wild bayonet night attack, leaving piles of German corpses and demoralizing the survivors.
This is just one of many Western misunderstandings about the Polish war that Moorhouse is trying to unravel. From the beginning, he shows that reports of the alleged Polish attack on the radio station Gliwice casus belli] describing bodies in Polish uniforms are wrong: there was only one body of a Polish civilian riddled with bullets. The widespread view that the Poles are deploying cavalry against tanks is also questioned: As Moorhouse shows, cavalry was used as a mobile infantry instead of piling up senselessly like so many light Crimean brigades. He also tries to show that this was a two-man show: both Hitler and Stalin destroyed Poland. The Soviet invasion on September 17 made the Polish defeat inevitable and quick. The result for the unfortunate Polish population was appalling, a fact that was overlooked too often.
Moorhouse is rightly tough on Britain and France, the two great powers that guaranteed Polish sovereignty in a panicked moment in March 1939, and then gave up any claim to real physical help. The British and French high command agreed until April that there was little to do and that after a long war of wear and tear, similar to the First World War, Germany would be defeated and Poland restored. The Poles did not know this and remained confident that help would come. Moorhouse quotes the diary of a young girl in Warsaw, who happily accepted her father's assurance that the British and French would be arriving within a few days and feared that she only knew the English word "goodbye". As it turned out, that was the right word. The British and French remained in the west and did not reach Poland until the end of the war in 1945. Poland was on its own.
Moorhouse is most original in its detailed account of the war. Almost from day one, he brutally reports of the brutality of the German armed forces when they massacred the villagers and city dwellers because they provided the least evidence that they had attacked German troops. This was done during the entire campaign in clear contrast to the actions of the German armed forces in the fight against their western enemy.
Moorhouse attributes the difference to German racism, but the problem appears to be more complicated. Many of them were "virgin soldiers", slightly alarmed by the idea of a people's local resistance, which in their pre-war preparation was defined as treacherous, untrustworthy and underhanded. Poland was supposed to be the German colonial area, and the residents were treated with the kind of violence that was used against colonial people in the other empires. Italians treated Ethiopians the same way, the Japanese behaved similarly in China. The decision to behead the Polish state by killing politicians, intellectuals and artists can be seen as a rough means of de-modernizing Poland and turning it into a colonizable area.
One thing is certain with Moorhouse's account. Admirably, he achieved his goal of putting the German-Polish war back on the broader screen of the Second World War. Poland suffered greatly from its initial decision to fight. The two dictatorships that shattered Polish independence and dried up their bones agreed that Poland would no longer be, but in the long run, both proved wrong.
First fight: the Polish war in 1939
Bodley Head 312pp £ 25
Richard Overy is Professor of History at the University of Exeter.