The Winds Of War Flow In All DirectionsMonday, November 29, 2010
For someone my age (68) who was raised in Western society, my knowledge of world events has a decidedly Western approach. I have lived long enough in the Northern Hemisphere to opine that my place of birth, Buenos Aires is “down there”. For many years far away in Spanish was to go to “la Cochin China” the ancient name for Vietnam. Yet if you think about it Canada is as far from Vietnam as Vietnam is from Canada. It’s the reference point that matters.
As a young boy I also suffered from an education that taught me ancient cultures in isolation. This week it was to be the Egyptians, next week we will study the ancient Chinese. It was as if all these ancient cultures lived between huge impenetrable and solid walls.
Little events in the 20th century pointed at the untruths. One that has fascinated me for years is the hearsay account of the finding of an ancient Australian boomerang in Chile.
Anybody who may have read Herodotus will know that the Israelites living in exile in Egypt adopted the Egyptian custom of male circumcision. Cultures and history cannot be studied in isolation.
As a product of Western-influenced history we were told that the Americans won WWII. Nobody will deny that the production of thousands upon thousands of Buick Dynaflow transmission Sherman Tanks helped to defeat the fewer in quantity German Panthers. Few may recall the allied convoys (pursued by deadly U-Boat packs) traversed the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean to deposit war materiel in the Russian port of Murmansk. But those who do recall that fact may then understand and tell you that a lot of the war was not fought from West to East but in the opposite direction.
A few weeks ago I told Rebecca about the famous WWII tank battle of Kursk. It was this battle fought in July and August of 1943, and in conjunction with the other earlier and also German defeat at Stalingrad (July 1942 to February 1943) that did more to end WWII in Europe than anything else.
Also forgotten but brought to my mind by my reading this the delightful and gripping mystery novel, Rag and Bone by James R. Benn (which I finished in one day, it was so good!) is the role, a tragic one, by Poland.
Just about anybody knows that WWII began (what at the time was called the Phoney War) when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. What some may have forgotten is that when that invasion was over in October Poland was divvied up between the German and the Soviets. Poland ceased to exist even though they never surrendered.
|Copy of the NKVD memo from Beria, ordering the execution of Polish officers. Signed by Stalin and other members of the Soviet Politburo.
Rag and Bone is about a US Army investigator, Billy Boyle (an ex Boston cop of Irish extraction) attached to the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower through connections to Billy's aunt, Mamie Eisenhower (I have always had a fondness for Mamie because she and my mother both suffered from that terrible and debilitating disease Ménière's Disease.) Billy Boyle is sent to 1943 London to investigate the murder of a Russian Army officer.
From this novel I found out that the Polish government-in-exile (based in in London) was at odds with the British and the Americans because they and Churchill were trying to keep the Russians happy. They wanted to make sure the Russian army kept distracting the Germans on a second front with their terrible mischief as they, the Germans, invaded and then retreated from the Russian homeland. In this scheme of things the Russians and the Poles were supposed to be allies even though the Poles knew that when the war ended much of their country would be occupied and annexed by the Russians. The Britsh and the Americans remained silent as the Russians blamed the Germans for the Katyn Forrest massacre.
This terrible massacre happened between April and May 1940. It ended the lives of more that 22,000 Polish officers, scientists and other intelligentsia. When the Germans discovered the bodies in 1943 they, in spite of all their previous massacres and massacres to come) blamed it on the Russians, who denied it. The Russians said the Germans had killed these men in the deep of winter yet the bodies showed light clothing.
The Poles tried, in London, to convince the Americans and the British of the role of the Russian army in this massacre. But Churchill and Roosevelt were out to keep the Russians as allies if it meant alienating the Poles. The novel is about the fruitless Polish effort to change Churchill’s point of view.
It was only last week while driving in town that I heard on CBC Radio that in mid November the Russian State Duma approved a declaration blaming Stalin and other Soviet officials for having personally ordered the massacre. What is interesting is that a document from Laverentiy Beria (in which Beria proposed the elimination of the cream of the Polish Army’s officer corps) to Joseph Stalin has been available for viewing for years.
Within the week I was reading the New York Times review of Bloodlands –Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. In the review I read:
Snyder punctuates his comprehensive and eloquent account with brief glimpses of individual victims, perpertrators and witnesses, among them the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who wrote about Soviet Ukaraine and Nazi Germany in the 1930s; Vsevolod Balystkyi, Stalin’s security chief fro Ukraine, who invented the “Polish Military Organization” to explain the famine and justify a roundup of Soviet Poles; and the frightful Vasily Blokhin, one of Stalin’s most reliable executioners, who wore “a leather cap, apron and long gloves to keep the blood and gore from himself and his uniform.” Blokhin is reported to have personally shot more than 7,000 Polish prisoneres in 28 days as part of the notorious Katyn massacre of 1940.
The wonderful mystery novel, Rag and Bone is tinged with the melancholy fact that the poor free-Poles (whose Sptifire Squadron had one of the best kill records in Britain during WWII) really did not know what they were fighting for. Whichever way they looked at it, their country was going to be occupied by a hated enemy even if one of them happened to be their allies. I am not sure how I will explain this to Rebecca but at the very least she will know that the winds of history never just flow in one direction, from here to there.