In his synthetically magisterial The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won (New York: Basic Books, 2017), Victor Davis Hanson estimates that some 65 million people perished as a result of this apocalyptic conflict. The greatest number of victims, some 15 million, were Chinese. Then there was the Holocaust, a very successful effort by Nazi Germany to exterminate about 6 million Jews, practically all civilians. Its uniqueness lay in the industrial method of killing and the scope of the crime. Virtually, all Jews were targeted: children, women, men, young and elderly alike. Although other ethno-cultural groups were also singled out for mass murder as “sub-human” (Untermenschen), the Christian Poles for example, the annihilation of the Jews was the most comprehensive exterminationist project of the Third Reich.
Jack Fairweather considers the Holocaust to be the greatest crime ever, “unparalleled in human history” (p. 278). A war correspondent, he frequently has felt helpless as the world ignored his warnings and pleas for help he peppered his dispatches from the battlefields of Asia, Middle East, and Africa with. His battlefield experience resonated best by relating to Shoah. The journalist is so tormented by the sheer evil of the Jewish genocide, that he refuses to acquiesce in it deterministically and thrashes about in a manic desperation to discover, perhaps, a way that Shoah could have been prevented or, at least, stopped. He furiously searches for an alternative history.
To this end, Fairweather has discovered Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki, a Polish underground intelligence officer, and described his travails in a stunningly written The Volunteer: One Man, An Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz (New York: Custom House/HarperCollins Publishers, 2019). Granted, according to the wordsmith, Pilecki is an imperfect vessel. “Witold never came to see the Holocaust as the defining act of World War II or the suffering of Jews as a symbol of humanity. He never let go of his Polishness or his sense of national struggle. At times in his 1945 report, he is brutally frank about the difficulty he felt in identifying with the gassing of the Jews, as his focus was on the survival of his country, his men, himself” (pp. 389-390). A Polish Christian nationalist, the Captain cared more about his nation’s freedom than about the lot of the Jewish people. Nonetheless, he still was tormented so much about the Jewish tragedy as to alarm the world about their genocide. That places him squarely in tune with much of the Polish underground, but sets him apart from most of the Western elite.
In the summer of 1940, he volunteered for a virtually suicidal reconnaissance mission which eventually evolved into an undertaking to stop the Holocaust. Pilecki willingly allowed himself to be arrested by the Gestapo to be dispatched to a mysterious Nazi installation called Auschwitz. There, the Captain established a military underground organization and prepared for an uprising. Meanwhile, he also sent out dispatches alerting his superiors to the nature of the camp which, at first, rained death onto Polish Christian political prisoners and, then, it commenced the mass-gassing of Jews.
Having waited in vain for a signal to action from the clandestine Home Army (AK) command in Warsaw, Pilecki escaped after two and a half years in hell to press his case for the camp’s liberation. Subsequently, he failed to obtain permission for a guerrilla assault on the death factory that would have been coordinated with an uprising from within. In 1943 it would have been plainly suicidal. Even if the poorly armed and supplied AK succeeded in routing the SS garrison of Auschwitz, it stood no chance against overwhelming the armed to the teeth Nazi police and military forces stationed nearby.
Pilecki had also no luck prevailing on the only realistic option, namely convincing the Western Allies to bomb the rail links, the crematoria, and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Although his reports were forwarded to London and the Polish government in exile, as well as to some Jewish organizations which did their best to spread the word, no help materialized to stop the death machine in Auschwitz. Simply, from the Allied view, point bombing Auschwitz was not a priority. The Allied powers that be, both civilian and military, believed that winning the war took precedence over anything else. Air power should be used to that end, and not dissipated in a rather meaningless side-show, as an air attack on Auschwitz was considered. Plainly put, Jews and other inmates were not a priority. Winning the war, after all, meant stopping all killing, including in Auschwitz. So the argument of the high and mighty went.
And Fairweather is righteously furious about that. Essentially, nothing was done to stop the Holocaust. To a large extent, The Volunteer is an inquiry into Allied realistic inaction juxtaposed with Pilecki’s uncommon gallantry. It is too bad that Fairweather did not bother to find out the roots of the Captain’s driving force. The author largely limits himself to depicting Auschwitz and utterly fails to contextualize his protagonist.
A landed noble, Captain Witold Pilecki had volunteered to fight the Bolsheviks in 1920 and served in the field against the Nazis in 1939. He continued the struggle in the underground, including in the Warsaw Rising of 1944. The Captain resisted both the Nazis and Soviets. He was executed by the Communists in 1948 after returning from the West with yet another reconnaissance mission.
Fairweather gives Pilecki’s story short shrift. He entirely overlooks the essentials. There is virtually nothing on the man’s Christian faith. The author mentions the hero praying perhaps a couple of times, but perfunctorily and with no deeper reflection (e.g., p. 364). Yet, Imitatio Christi by Thomas à Kempis was the Captain’s favorite book. Shouldn’t this have rung the author’s bell? Alas, the journalist simply waves off the crucial clues to the basis of Pilecki’s heroism.
Further, Fairweather fails to notice how the protagonist’s Christian faith is intermeshed with his Polish nationalism. Pace the author, it was not just “the fact that Witold’s patriotism furnished him with a sense of service and a moral compass that sustained his mission in the camp” (p. 390). Nationalism devoid of its Christian dimension tends to degenerate into neo-pagan nation worship. It is Catholic Christianity that endowed Pilecki with a powerful “moral compass.” And it was not nationalism that was chiefly responsible for the ethos of service.
The historical dabbler’s liberalism makes him tone deaf and anachronistic in his treatment of a man who came from landed nobility with its ethos to serve God, Honor, and the Motherland. The ethos became universally diffused among Poland’s leadership stratum, in particular the intelligentsia. Fairweather is blind to the fact that those of us who harken from Pilecki’s background have been taught from childhood to serve a cause greater than ourselves. He is almost completely oblivious that Pilecki and others like him have been admonished now for centuries that God has blessed them more than others so they have an obligation to serve those who are less fortunate and less blessed. It is somewhat approximated by the old British adage: “My station and its duties.” Fairweather is also thin on honor? The word honor elicits a sneer among the post-modern, while it still reverberates through every heart permeated by Christian faith and chivalry as Pilecki’s was. Sadly, that angle remains largely unaddressed in The Volunteer. Less mirror imaging liberal post-modernity and more openness to tradition would have served the author much better.
Moreover, there is not much to attest in Fairweather’s story that Poland had two enemies: Hitler and Stalin. Yet, the Captain treated both Nazis and Soviets as equally evil. It was the Reds who attacked Poland once again within twenty years, dispossessed the Pileckis and confiscated their estate in the Wilno area, sending his wife and two children fleeing for their lives to hide under the German occupation. How bad must it have been – with mass deportations to the Gulag and mass executions, including in Katyń – for a woman to choose to escape to the Nazi zone with its mass deportations and mass executions, including Palmiry? The reader will never know, because Fairweather is apparently incapable of reflecting on this and drawing logical conclusions. However, her husband was fully aware of the horrors of the Soviet occupation before he tasted Auschwitz. Just because Pilecki suffered under the Germans more does not mean that somehow he dismissed the Communist scourge. Why would he actively oppose the Soviet regime after the war otherwise?
All this has practically failed to register with Fairweather. The author simply would not understand any of this. He finds comfort in what historian Norman Davies dubbed “The Allied scheme of history.” The charm of “Uncle Joe” Stalin is too irresistible for some. Or perhaps selective liberal sensibility prevents Fairweather from being able to relate to Communist crimes the same way as he does to Nazi horrors.
Thus, the journalist’s ideology cripples him at too many levels to be able to relate to the man he purports to admire. Any deeper reflection about Pilecki and his world is entirely missing from The Volunteer. Instead, we are treated to a battery of usual encomia in tune with the author’s liberal sensibilities. Anachronistically, he praises whatever squares with today’s leftist spirit of the times and suffusing political correctness. Anywhere Pilecki diverges from these, the journalist becomes uncomfortable and tries to apologize for him and explain his behavior away. For example, he treats the Captain’s affiliation with the clandestine right-wing Polish Secret Army (Tajna Armia Polska – TAP) and the radical-right National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne – NSZ) extremely gingerly and apologetically, refusing to analyze the significance of such affiliations. Sure, some of it could have been sheer chance. But did their Christian nationalist ideology have anything to do with Pilecki’s attraction to those outfits? The reader will never know.
In other words, Fairweather projects contemporary concerns onto a vastly different past. That leads him to peppering his book with a barrage of anti-Christian and anti-Polish stereotypes, usually the standard accusations of “Polish anti-Semitism.” They are too numerous to debunk in detail in this short review (pp. 8-9, 22, 40-41, 136, 177, 184, 227, 289, 293, 327, 357, 384, 400-402, 413, 443, 469, 483, 496, 498-499). One example of the author’s flawed methodology should suffice, however. Before the Second World War, Pilecki’s father leased the family estate to a dishonest tenant, who happened to be Jewish. The son sued successfully and regained the inheritance. Fairweather’s knee jerk reaction is nervously to apologize for the law suit and stress there was no anti-Semitism involved. It’s like assuming that since everyone ‘knows’ that black men are rapists, therefore it’s necessary to defend a priori one’s favorite Uncle Tom who most certainly is not. Fairweather can’t help himself. He is a child of his prejudiced liberal times and their Pavlovian anti anti-Semitism by default, whether real or not. Instead of reducing everything to anti-Semitism, a scholar would have investigated both the charge of maladministration of the estate by the lease holder and the allegations of ethno-cultural prejudice on the part of the plaintiff. He would have found that the Jewishness of the man had nothing to do with the law suit (p. 412).
In other words, Fairweather does not get Pilecki. How could he? And it is not just the fact that the author does not know Polish and operated via research assistants who translated texts for him; without that, one could still learn the culture, which sadly is not the case here. The Volunteer thus is an uncomfortable effort to assimilate the hero to the post-modern liberal narrative. And that is just not the waters that the Captain would feel comfortable in. He will never fit in. However, The Volunteer is not an entirely wasted effort. Just writing about Pilecki keeps the memory of the hero alive. And perhaps someday, someone else will do him justice in English.
Meanwhile, those who would like to savor the spirit of this exceptionally intrepid man could do no wrong by turning, instead, to Adam Koch’s A Captain’s Portrait: Witold Pilecki – A Martyr for Truth (Bayswater, VIC: Freedom Publishing Books, 2018). A Polish émigré in Australia, Koch understands Pilecki exceptionally well. His is an unapologetic hagiography of the Captain. The author preaches to the choir: a traditionalist, Catholic, in general, and a Polish Christian nationalist one in particular. A landed noble and a member of Poland’s elite who served his people and his country, Pilecki fought for truth because the truth shall set us free. He emerges in these pages as an officer, gentleman, and a saint. “Witold Pilecki is a martyr” (p. 347). That is truly the key to the Captain.
From the point of view of a professional historian, the most valuable part is Koch’s reproduction of his own English translation of a short 1943 version of the Pilecki report. Few of the writer’s omissions are jarring. For instance, we find nothing on the protagonist’s pre-war intelligence work. Further, the author fails to explain that during the Warsaw Rising, the Captain fought in the ranks of the hard-right National Armed Forces (NSZ); that the “Chrobry II” group stemmed from the extremist Sword and Plow (Miecz i Pług, MiP); and that its “Mazur company,” was a National Radical Camp-Lizard Union hit squad. Why conceal it? (p. 327). Nothing can blemish our hero. He was a man of his times.
The least commendable are the tidbits that Koch assimilated from others. For example, the Holocaust decision did not happen at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. The Shoah had been well on its way: about 1 million Jews had perished already. Instead, the Wannsee Conference was a mid-level meeting of German officials to assess the situation and cheer themselves on to even more mass murder (p. 180).
It appears doubtful that Koch researched in the archives for his monograph. Instead, he relied on good offices, on outstanding scholars like Adam Cyra, which is fine, but not optimal. More worrisome, there are some serious editorial problems. It is annoying to read about “Vilnius” as Pilecki’s home town. It was Wilno then. Why honor the Communist puppet regime by calling it a “Polish cabinet” (p. 371)? Also, when writing about secret police actions, one should employ appropriate technical language: hence, for example, a provocation, and not “a hoax” (p. 351).
But all this is minor in comparison with a multitude of misplaced or missing articles, switching between the tenses, and various syntax errors as well as weird formatting style in long quotes. Why list a litany of names of Pilecki’s underground members in Auschwitz, when the same exact roll is repeated in a document reproduced later in Koch’s A Captain’s Portrait (p. 243-318)? That is all, of course, the fault of the publishing house. Let’s hope that Koch finds a better venue for the next edition of his work. And let’s hope it happens soon because, in spirit, a poorly edited Koch is preferable to a brilliantly crafted Fairweather.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 20 February 2020