Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January's Book: The Eagle Unbowed

The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski
History (2012 - 591 pp.)

The Eagle Unbowed is an ambitious look at the experience of Poland and Poles during the Second World War. The book touches upon everything from life in the Second Polish Republic (1918-1939), to military operations, evacuations to the Soviet Union and then worldwide, social life, the situation Polish Jews faced, and the diplomacy that led to Poland's 1945 borders. As a result, it is a valuable reference, but reads as though it could have been split into two, or even three, books. The Table of Contents shows just how much material The Eagle Unbowed covers.

The book's central theses are that Poland contributed a considerable amount to the allied effort of World War II, and that the plight of the Poles has been overlooked by foreign historians. Five-hundred and ninety-one pages later, it is difficult to disagree.

Kochanksi does very well in placing the 1939 war in its farther-reaching historical context. The three Partitions of Poland, which had split the country between Prussia/Germany, Austria and Russia from the late 18th century until 1916, had prevented Poland from being a unified nation-state. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact repeated these events all at once. (95-96)

Germany and the USSR justified dividing Poland between them in many ways, including ethnic ones. Between the World Wars, Poland was one of Europe's few multicultural states during the era of self-determination. Whereas Slovaks and Magyars had been separated by land, or Greeks and Turks by religion, Poland contained not only Poles but also Germans, Jews, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Belorussians, among others. Poland was also not homogeneously Catholic; there were many Lutherans, Jews and Orthodox Christians. This diversity, while a cultural asset, presented a "fundamental weakness" (22) during World War II, explaining why Poland contained so many political dissident groups.

The underground factions in occupied Poland require a list of abbreviations at the start of the book. The most prominent Polish underground army was the Armia Krajowa (AK), the army most associated with the Government in Exile, and most representative of the pre-war government. However, there were also the socialist Armia Lubowa (AL), which received aid from the USSR, and the anti-Semitic extreme-right NSZ. Some Jews sought membership in the AK or the AL, or in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB). There were also Ukrainian armies, such as the OUN, the OUN-B and the UPA. The only time the AK and AL fought with any cohesion was during the Warsaw Uprising, which also saw participation from "Italians who had deserted the Germans, escaped Soviet POWs, Hungarians, Slovaks and a Frenchman." (404) Otherwise, divisiveness was the norm, and civil war was the worst case. During the OUN's short-lived declaration of Ukrainian independence in 1939, "Ukrainians flocked to help the Germans, providing much of the manpower needed to shoot the Jews, joined German paramilitary formations and wore German uniforms", (260) whereas UPA units may have unofficially cooperated with the Soviet internal police NKVD. (546) Kochanski's not always flattering treatment of the Ukrainian groups is likely one of the book's more controversial points.

Still other pre-war Polish citizens - soldiers and civilians alike - were evacuated and expelled. Many ended up in such far-flung places as Siberia, Kazakhstan, Iran, India and South Africa. The Eagle Unbowed follows Wladyslaw Anders's II Corps, most famous for its capture of Monte Cassino in 1944 but which had completed its training in the USSR, Iran and Palestine, and which had nearly invaded the German-occupied Balkans. Other stories focus on the efforts of families in exile to reunite when possible and to resupply each other when not.

The Eagle Unbowed manages to do what possibly only a book about World War II-era Poland can do: list statistics that move the reader emotionally. The UPA frequently massacred entire villages of Polish civilians, such as on July 11-12, 1943, when it "coordinated attacks on 167 localities and killed about 10,000 Poles." (361) This was part of a campaign that killed approximately 60,000-80,000 Poles in the Kresy lands during the war. (363) Holocaust statistics are published widely, but see more compartmentalization here, such as in the three dedicated and compact extermination camps. In Belzec, 600,000 Jews died; in Sobibor, along the 100-metre-long "Road to Heaven" from the undressing stations to the gas chambers, 250,000 Jews died; and in Treblinka, 900,000 Jews died. (299-300) Perhaps most stultifying is the number of survivors of these three camps, and the earlier camp at Chelmno, combined: 110. (300) In total, 20 percent of the pre-war Polish population (6,000,000) died during the war, along with 90 percent of the pre-war Polish Jewish population. Specific pockets were targeted: "A third of all academics, scientists and doctors had been killed, and over half of all lawyers." (532) Nor was the suffering limited to humanity; "[Poland's] agricultural ouput had been devastated by the loss of 72 percent of all sheep and 60 percent of all cattle." (532)

Touching personal stories from soldiers and civilians, many in exile, make The Eagle Unbowed far more than a series of battle diagrams and tragic statistics. In Tehran, according to Polish minister Karol Bader in a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Raczynski: "You should see Teheran today: the streets are full of Poles, including attractive girls in uniform who captivate British officers and the local male population; Polish bands and choirs who have invaded all the bars and hotels..." (249) Even among the normally humourless events of occupied Poland, there were occasions to smile. In the Warsaw ghetto, in 1940, "One enterprising Jew even managed to keep a cow in the ghetto, and milk was sold in return for fodder and cash. When a German owner of a factory in the ghetto found out, he provided an official ration for the cow." (295) The weaving together of a story about war with a story about survival is one of the book's finer points.

Kochanski emphasizes the warmth of Polish-Hungarian relations. Hungarian hussars smuggled Polish army officers across the Polish-Hungarian border. (205) Hungarian, rather than German or Soviet, soldiers were charged with the occupation of Stanislawow (now in Ukraine); Hungarian soldiers sang a Polish national song with Poles in the churches, and actively encouraged Poles to evacuate to Hungary before the Germans occupied the territory. (263) Poles in Hungary received government aid, self-governance within makeshift cities during integration, ran their own newspaper (Wiesci Polskie), and educated their own children: "Official support for cooperation between the Hungarian authorities and the Poles meant that, after the fall of France, Hungary was the only belligerent or neutral country in the whole of Europe where Poles could still receive a secondary school education."* (240) The refusal of Hungary to acknowledge the most recent partition of Poland is among the reasons Germany invaded Hungary in 1944. (239)

Wherever the Poles went, they were concerned with education. Poland was a major contributor to higher education between the wars: "many of the universities, including those in Krakow, Warsaw, Lwow, Poznan and Wilno, were highly regarded both at home and abroad." (24) A Polish cadet school for exiled military trainees in Palestine was based off of the six-year pre-WWII Polish secondary school curriculum. (195) In India and in South Africa, Polish children received education based on the pre-WWII Polish curriculum, with English as a second language. (254) Polish University College (1947-1954), a Polish architectual school in Liverpool, and a Polish agricultural college in Glasgow all received British university accreditation. (562)

Oliver Bullough of The New Statesman calls the book "opinionated, fluid and forceful". (back cover) While these attributes are usually assets, Kochanski's slant is evident throughout the book. It is unsurprising that a book based on Polish sources would be pro-Polish. Kochanski may have gone a step farther. Many of her sources are personal interviews with people who surface disproportionately often, including ones whose last names are Kochanski/Kochanska. These sources are still vastly outnumbered, but they appear decidedly less neutral than, for example, diplomatic discussions between President in Exile Wladyslaw Sikorski and British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. As always, though, each source can be taken at face value. Kochanski lists them very thoroughly.

The Eagle Unbowed represents years of searching through an impressive list of books, articles, primary sources, interviews, and anything else. Kochanski discusses issues that are often difficult from both a research and an emotional perspective. Most of her points are well taken. There are occasions when she sounds more like an advocate for Poland than like a truly neutral academic (any time she says "but in fact...", inevitably followed by something good aout Poland) but these are not the norm. Her grasp of her source material is enviable.

A direction for further research could be to write an archival collection like this one but about the Second Polish Republic. Poland's interwar years are still relatively unknown to many English speakers. Poland is a riveting setting for a history book, and it would be good to read one with less death.

Ease of Reading: 1
Educational Content: 10

*There is no indication as to whether a peripheral country, like the United Kingdom or Sweden, offered such a program. However, it would likely not have been in the pre-WWII Polish curriculum, as Polish students could learn in Hungary.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

December 2016's Book: The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Literature (1926 - 130 pp.)

The Sun Also Rises continues my trend of appreciating America's great interwar writers.* The Sound and the Fury also came out in the 1920s; Tender Is the Night is also set among American expats in Paris in the 1920s. It is exactly a year since I reviewed Tender Is the Night. January 4th is Parisian, apparently.

The book stars narrator Jake Barnes, an American living in Paris. He, along with his erstwhile girlfriend Brett Ashley, Princeton graduate Robert Cohn, adventurer Bill Gorton, and Brett's other boyfriend Michael, travel from Paris to Spain. First Jake and Bill go fishing in Burguete, and then the whole crew watches a bullfight in Pamplona. For those in the mood to re-enact this plot, Pamplona still hosts bullfights.

The most striking aspect of The Sun Also Rises is how unbelievably modern it is. The only notably absent technology is smartphones, meaning The Sun Also Rises could realistically have taken place in the 1990s. (The telegrams could be voicemails.) As someone who did not live in a home with a computer until 1996, and who did not carry a cellphone with any regularity until 2006, I felt as though I could have lived my childhood in Hemingway's world. Aside from that, much of 1920s slang persists (see the note below), and the characters act the way 20-somethings apparently still do.

A highlight is Hemingway's descriptions of the characters' more physical moments. An early encounter between Jake and Brett uses the image of a dark gate as possible foreshadowing of a conflict-filled trip, but more importantly, opens up an opportunity for Brett to show her affection: "We turned off the Avenue up the Rue des Pyramides, through the traffic of the Rue de Rivoli, and through a dark gate into the Tuileries. She cuddled against me and I put my arm around her. She looked up to be kissed. She touched me with one hand and I put her hand away." (8) The reader sees how the characters' relationships build through their actions, which delivers more excitement when they finally do get what they want.** The fight between Jake and Robert is a less happy, but equally riveting, moment. (100) It is the only truly sad part of the book, as Robert soon reflects that Jake is his "only friend". (102)

The dialogue is short, fast, clipped and snappy, with very few tags. A lack of dialogue tags increases the book's pace, making it feel more lifelike in a conversational setting, at the occasional expense of knowing who is talking if there are more than two characters present. Hemingway's dialogue (see extended passages on pages 64, 77 and 96, for example) is one of The Sun Also Rises's best features. It rivals William Faulkner's, and the general style is a huge influence on my own novel about 20-somethings.

Hemingway frequently violates the usually-but-not-always-true maxim of "show, don't tell". Robert Sawyer explains why he prefers showing to telling here:
Why is showing better? Two reasons. First, it creates mental pictures for the reader. When reviewers use terms like "vivid," "evocative," or "cinematic" to describe a piece of prose, they really mean the writer has succeeded at showing, rather than merely telling.
Second, showing is interactive and participatory: it forces the reader to become involved in the story, deducing facts (such as Mary's age) for himself or herself, rather than just taking information in passively. [emphasis mine]
Hemingway writes such non-vivid statements as "But the effort of talking American seemed to have tired him" (57) and "Then after a while it was better and I lay in bed and listened to the heavy trams go by and way down the street, and then I went to sleep" (17). The reader never sees the man's eyes droop or hears the screech of wheels on tracks, but that is no problem. Hemingway shows when it makes the setting come alive and tells when it is perfectly fine to trust Jake's admittedly usually drunk judgment. There are many more of Jake's offhand observations throughout the book, even during longer paragraphs, few of which create the evocatic imagery of the settings. Ironically, Hemingway's later essay Death in the Afternoon, which also discusses bullfighting in Spain, is largely seen as one of the greatest examples of "show, don't tell" of all time.

NOTE: As can be expected of a book released in 1926, The Sun Also Rises contains some 1920s slang. Many of these have caught on in the North American slang canon, such as drawing out the word "ab-so-lute-ly". Among the key terms in The Sun Also Rises is one I never hear anymore: "tight", meaning drunk. "Tight" appears 32 times in the book, albeit not all in that context, and "drunk" appears another 59 times. At the 130-page figure my ebook has, that is almost 0.7 instances per page. Ah, to be an American in Paris in the 1920s...

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2

*As with many of these frequently reviewed books, I discuss my experience reading it, as well as any point that discusses how the book displays the craft of writing. In many cases, all the literary criticism has already been said, such as a teacher assigning parts of three Hemingway novels, including The Sun Also Rises, in the eighth grade.

**Brett gets her wish on page 14: "Brett's face was white and the long line of her neck showed in the bright light of the flares. The street was dark again and I kissed her." Again, the contrast between the white flares and the dark street is what makes this scene magical.