The Beginning – reviewing Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II by Roger Moorhouse7 min read

 In Central Europe, Review, Reviews
Armchair historians rejoice. Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II by Roger Moorhouse is the book you didn’t know you were waiting for. If you’re past reading school textbooks about World War II but not quite ready to pick up an esoteric academic text then this book is for you. Moorhouse manages the fine balance between pop history and specialized academic research and what we get is Poland 1939, a book that doesn’t quite occupy either category. 

Moorhouse’s storytelling zooms in and out of the Nazi occupation and Red Army invasion. For example, when recounting the Red Army invasion, he cites telegrams, meetings between Waclaw Grzybowski and Vladimir Potemkin, to time tables of where exactly the Byelorussian [historical name for Belarus] and Soviet fronts were situated geographically to the number of troops and formation of mobile spearheads. There is no singular narrative of a certain day, and that’s what I think most non-historians will appreciate about Poland 1939. He lets the primary accounts of people present at this time and space tell their story. He also provides a nuanced take to the question of how exactly did World War II start?

Zooming in, zooming out

In a single chapter, Moorhouse goes from recounting strategic military movement to relaying the highly personalized accounts of life during a massacre. In the introduction, Moorhouse writes that this book “is an attempt to embrace… new Polish historiography, and to rebalance the wonky Western narrative of the Second World War’s opening campaign.” Moorehouse’s book is an attempt to salvage this by going against the Western narratives that are often Western European-centric at best and dehumanizing at worst.

This book is written for history buffs by the ultimate war history buff. Moorhouse is an expert on Germany and German history, but his specialization does not come into his writing through any type of loyalty. He dives deep into Polish history and the origins of the two invasions in Poland that began World War II, as these events reveal the unlikely sequence of events that led Germany to essentially conquer Europe only to see it divided at the end of the war. Any historian who claims expertise on twentieth-century Germany should certainly consider this book. 

This book bares it all; the gruesome, the logistical, the truth about the beginning of the Second World War. First of all, the sheer volume of timelines, maps, appendices, and step-by-step accounts of wartime events reveal just how reader-friendly Poland 1939 is. Though Moorhouse did not intend on penning an encyclopedia of both invasions of 1939, as he shares in the introduction, that is essentially what he has created. Secondly, on almost every page is a primary source account from a Polish war general, soldier, or citizen. Without outright stating it: this book’s goal is to show the Polish people, within the ever-changing borders of their country during this tumultuous time, in the most accurate light from a foreign historian’s perspective. 

Eighty years later

Is a book about World War II in 2020 timely? Reviewer Adam Zamoyski at The Spectator certainly thinks so. For the Polish diaspora, there remains unspoken histories and traumatic experiences, especially on the eightieth-year anniversary of the campaign. 

Moorhouse accounts for “Britain’s own heroic wartime narrative” and the prejudice of returning Polish veterans. Brits perceive themselves as liberators of this impoverished country, whereas Poles often view themselves as victims, caught between two vicious powers – Germany and the Soviet Union – of which they perceive as sharing no historical connection with. Postwar Communist Poland focused on damning the German fascists. In the 1960s, a nationalist communist narrative maintained that ordinary Polish soldiers were betrayed by the duplicity of their capitalist allies. At the same time, this new narrative denied any connection to the Red Army. Moorhouse writes that it was only after communism’s collapse in 1989 that aspects of Polish history allowed to be examined objectively at home. 

Absent Allies

My favorite chapter was Of ‘Liberators’ and Absent Friends. This chapter is less focused on battles or diplomatic maneuvering overseas, but rather on the aftermath of fallen Polish cities following Red Army sieges. As a non-historian myself (and someone rather uninterested in war), these zoomed-in accounts of the turmoil and social tension in the villages spoke most to me, even if New York Times Timothy Snyder thinks that the social aspects of Poland 1939 are the book’s weakest point. However, I felt that Moorhouse gave commentary on society an adequate treatment in Poland 1939

For me, it is the lack of humanity and voice of the women and children away from the battlefield whose narrative often gets lost in books about war. Moorhouse’s book is brimming with anecdotes: One letter describes the starvation felt by the people by the second month of the occupation. Another gruesome letter describes the rapes and sheer abuse experienced by villagers during a pillage.

Perhaps my affinity for this chapter comes from Moorhouse’s focus on the lack of immediate action from Poland’s allies. The worldwide Comintern, including the British Communist Party, failed to react to the turmoil brought by the Soviet invasion working in tandem with a despised ideological foe in Nazi Germany. There was not much they could do, being almost entirely internally guided by the Soviet Union and any rumblings of discontent over Josef Stalin conspiring together with Adolf Hitler was buried. Treaties broken and forgotten obligations also characterized the British government’s response. Later, circles in Poland would remember their then-allies’ response to the German-Soviet invasion as the ‘Western betrayal’ for leaving it at the mercy of Hitler and Stalin. Poland’s complicated relationship with Russia and Britain today stems, in part, from the trauma of 1939 and the old wounds that remain tender for the Polish people

Moorhouse also momentarily spotlights American photographer Julien Bryan, who became one of the primary visual chroniclers of the siege of Warsaw in 1939. He recounts Bryan’s interviews, photos, and diaries, which are highly valuable to the narrative. To this day, the clearest and most accurate footage of the siege was captured by Bryan. His photos remain some of the most consistent primary sources for World War II historians. Just one look at his photos of a ruined home in Praga, a business besieged, or elderly Jews forced to dig trenches tug at my heart. 

Maybe the criteria for what can counts as a good book is one that motivates the reader to action. I am surely moved to explore and learn more about Bryan’s photographs, many of which are stored in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC after finishing Poland 1939. 

Not just Poland, but Central and Eastern Europe 

I recommend Poland 1939 for anyone interested in the beginnings of World War II. Sure, the book focuses on Poland but is it not a microcosm of the events that followed in the rest of Europe during World War II? An understanding of Poland in 1939 paves way for a more nuanced understanding of relations between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany for the subsequent years leading up to Hitler’s own invasion of the USSR. Understanding the division of Poland also aids one’s understanding of the onset of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe after the war, and the lingering fears these states have today towards Russia. Arguably, the mistreatment of the Polish people and the lack of nuance in understanding how these events unfolded can still be found in modern-day foreign policy in the region. Moorhouse’s accounts will surely enrich your current understanding of how the war started and the experience of the Polish nation that remains alive today.

Book details: Moorhouse, Roger. Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II, 2020. Basic Books. It is available to buy here.

Featured image: German troops entering Poland in September of 1939 / STF/AFP via Getty Images
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