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October 21, 2020
Book Reviews Recommended

The September 1939 War: Polish Cavalry Charging, but not Tanks

First to Fight, The Polish War 1939

By Roger Moorhouse

Case White, The Invasion of Poland 1939

By Robert Forczyk

Reviewed by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

On September 1, 1939, Hitler attacked Poland; Stalin joined him on September 17. Thus, the Second World War commenced. From the start it was a war against two enemies: Germans, who were driven by Nazism; and the Soviets, who were goaded by Communism. The Poles were “First to Fight.” For them freedom has never been free. But they never charged, head-long into German tanks.

You’d think the story of the 1939 war would be significant enough to merit a bevy of solid scholarly monographs, but this has not been the case until recently. Now, however, we have heard two solid salvos about combat, diplomacy, politics, and society at this critical conjuncture in world history. British scholar Roger Moorhouse, First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 (London: The Bodley Head, 2019), wrote compellingly for the general public and the average Western academic, who tends to be woefully misinformed about Poland by definition. American historian Robert Forczyk, Case White: The Invasion of Poland, 1939 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2019) has given us a definite story of the German invasion and a less-developed account of the Soviet stab in the back.

Both Moorhouse, a known popularizer, and Forczyk, a professional soldier-turned-military historian, face formidable obstacles to conveying their stories. Most important among them is decades of Western scholarship that largely failed to research the conflict properly. Instead, Western scholars routinely regurgitated war-time Nazi propaganda, as well as German military reports and diplomatic dispatches, to describe a war they were thus singularly unqualified to pontificate about. This applies to, alas, even the formidable John Keegan, not to mention lesser lights like Richar J. Evans and Antony Beevor. They know German but no Polish. So, predictably, we have Polish cavalry charges against German tanks galore. Joseph Goebbels must be giddy with joy.

Further, even if the generalist Western scholars do draw on a few case studies that purport to describe Poland in 1939, they have tended to suffer from the same linguistic affliction: a total and utter ignorance of Polish sources for the lack of Polish. Subsequently, we get Nazi pulp fiction in either liberal or military historical garb.  Robert M. Kennedy, The German Campaign in Poland (1939) (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1956) was most likely the first offender. But many a writer emulated him. This includes most recently Richard Hargreaves, Blitzkrieg Unleashed: The German Invasion of Poland, 1939 (Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword Books, 2008).

Even when a scholar takes a more measured view, the lack of Polish seriously diminishes the level of scholarship achieved. This is the case, for example, with Alexander B. Rossino, Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003), who wrote an otherwise serviceable book on German war crimes in September 1939.

Also, Western scholars tend to focus on the Third Reich and fail to delve into the Soviet Union. This sadly pertains even to those very few who knew Polish. Nicholas Bethell, The War Hitler Won: September 1939 (London: Allen Lane, 1972) is a prime example here. And virtually all of them launch into a knee jerk defense of Western betrayal of Poland. The more they focus on Hitler, the more they can paint him as the sole bête noire. That not only tends to downplay (or even ignore) Stalin’s crimes, but also gets the West off the hook for having cravenly betrayed its Polish Ally.

Were there exceptions to the rule? Yes, there were literarily two, as far as case studies: Steven Zaloga and Victor Madej, The Polish Campaign 1939 (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1985); and David G. Williamson, Poland Betrayed: The Nazi-Soviet Invasions of 1939 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2009). In both cases the authors approached German sources carefully and juxtaposed them with Polish research critically.

And now there are four, with Moorhouse and Forczyk joining the fray. First of all, although their general conclusions are similar, they differ somewhat in the method of presentation of their material. The first account is rather emotional and painful; the second soldierly and harsh. Moorhouse writes with compassion and empathy; Forczyk narrates with Spartan exactness and cool admiration.

Second, both authors get their nomenclature right. They write about Germans and Germany and not some abstract “Nazis” from a mysterious “Naziland,” who scourged the Earth. This is to confirm that the Third Reich’s government was Nazi; but also to restore the balance in Western scholarship populated all too often by the nebulous Nazis, devoid of their nationality, on the one hand, and concrete Poles, very much Polish, who, allegedly, helped them in the Holocaust, on the other.

Third, First to Fight and Case White unequivocally recognize that in 1939 and after Poland, and the free world, had two enemies: Nazis and Communists. The historians therefore devote, proportionally, enough attention to both adversaries.  Consequently, we get an accurate picture of totalitarian monsters smashing Poland. We find out that it was not just the SS or the NKVD who committed atrocities, but also the regular Red Army and the German armed forces. It was the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe who were responsible for the bulk of the war crimes in Poland.

Fourth, both historians ruthlessly take apart the myths of Nazi propaganda and they reevaluate long-held assumptions. There were no Polish cavalry charges against tanks. The Polish lancers usually fought on foot; they used their mounts for mobility. However, there were a few cavalry charges against German infantry, some of them successful until Hitler’s armor surfaced in support. The scholars are quite critical of the Polish high command. The American is truly scathing. His treatment of Poland’s top military leadership, in particular the catastrophic performance of Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły, leaves no doubt about the ineptness and lack of professionalism at the top. German commanders also received scolding where they deserve. For example, General Heinz Guderian’s penchant for riding in the front line translated into interfering with operations at the regimental level, while neglecting the strategic situation at the army level.

Fifth, both Moorhouse and Forczyk write about the harrowing ordeal of all people of Poland. But theirs is a multidimensional approach. Moorhouse spins his tale at several levels. We commune with prime ministers and diplomats; we fight with soldiers of all ranks, and we hear from the common people. Meanwhile, Forczyk shuttles between haute politics and military strategic planning, while only occasionally enlivening the drama with down and dirty grunt accounts. Where the British scholar often tugs at the heart, the American mostly appeals to cold reason.

There are, of course, certain discrepancies in interpretation.  For example, Forczyk disregards the standard narrative, which Moorehouse embraces, that General Juliusz Rómmel fled his command to Warsaw, abandoning the troops behind. As the American historian makes clear, Rómmel’s Łódź Army had been destroyed for the most part and it made sense for the general to retreat to Warsaw to prepare the city’s defense. Moreover, Florczyk gives Rómmel credit for holding off the German armies for over three weeks. Moorhouse however believes that the general played no role in any of this.

Further, the Brit’s tale is heavily Warsaw-centric. While not neglecting the capital city, the American takes us to every relevant nook and cranny of Poland with his narrative. The former gives the battle of Bzura short shrift; the latter restores it to a proper strategic dimension. Florczyk sees the initial success of the Polish counteroffensive as grounded in serious German operational blunders, which Army Poznań logically took advantage of. It is from Forczyk one learns that the Poles killed the first ever German general officer to fall in the Second World War as well as took one prisoner, also the first ever. Moorhouse, however, gets the circumstances of the death of General Józef Olszyna-Wilczyński right: he was taken prisoner and murdered outside of Grodno in September 1939 and, pace Forczyk, not at Katyń in April 1940.

Yet, for the most part, both scholars agree on the essentials. Reading and re-reading both books side by side allows one to savor First to Fight and Case White as emotionally and intellectually complementary.

Take the battle for Modlin, and the Zakroczym massacre in particular. Moorhouse takes the Germans to task for killing Polish POWs and civilians there, while equivocating about the exact circumstances. Forczyk clarifies that the SS took advantage of a cease-fire to attack the unarmed and unprepared, relaxing Polish soldiers and massacred them. When their commanding officer burst out of his bunker unarmed, waving hands, to stop the massacre, the SS-men burned him alive with a flame thrower. The Poles then fought back. Later, after the capitulation, the Germans massacred more prisoners, perhaps to cover up the crime. They also murdered civilians in Zakroczym, while looting and the burning much of the city. Several hundred died; this was the second greatest German atrocity, after the mass murder of the Jews of Przemyśl, where over 600 died.

Both scholars reduce the relative importance of the battle of Wizna in the north, where a single battalion held off a Panzer army for three days. Moorhouse reminds us that, whereas the tanks did stop for three days, the troops at Wizna fought actually for a single day. It was further a part of a broader Polish defense effort with the pivot at Łomża, where the main battle raged and where the credit is mainly due. Forczyk flatly states that the main obstacle for Guderian’s tanks at Wizna was lack of leadership and lack of engineers to help them cross the river. The Poles indeed struggled ferociously but the prize goes to the defenders of a few bunkers at Węgierska Górka on the Slovak border who held off a German infantry division for two days. None of this detracts from the suicidal heroism of Polish troops at Wizna but puts the iconic battle into a proper perspective.

Just to be petty at the end, Moorhouse’s publisher did meticulous editorial work. I found only a single mistake as far as Polish diacritics are concerned.  Forczyk’s editors were comparatively less careful; their record is quite spotty. It is annoying, for example, that they keep referring to General Roman Abraham as “Abraham Roman” throughout (except in the bibliography). But their maps are superb, as well as summaries of particular periods of the September War.

Moorhouse’s opus will stand the test of time and remain a leading study in the popular genre. However, Forczyk’s monograph can stand improvement. Whereas his narrative of the German campaign is seminal and definitive, the part on the Soviet involvement can use augmenting. That, of course, can only happen when the Russian archives are opened again.

All in all, disregard most of what has been written so far about the September War of 1939, and run to order both First to Fight and Case White.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

Washington, DC, 1 September 2020

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