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August 14, 2003 at 14:06:29 | Blog | Book Reviews | Archives: Opinion | Finance | Society | Letters | Humor

A Question of Honor

W. J. Rayment / Conservative Bookstore -- What was Poland's place in World War II? Even the historically literate often see it only as the starting point of the War. How many history buffs can recite the date of the start of Germany's blitzkrieg, 1 September 1939? The image of Polish cavalry vainly charging German tanks is etched in our minds. And finally, there is the Soviet betrayal of Poland, marching in and taking half of the Country even as the gallant Poles faced the gruesome onslaught of the Nazis.

But there is so much more to the modern history of Poland, as "A Question of Honor" by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud clearly shows. This book begins by recounting the story of the Kosciuszko Squadron. These were Polish Airmen who flew for the RAF, part of a corp of several thousand Polish pilots who were a major factor in defeating German air power, accounting for 15 to 20 percent of the damage inflicted upon the Luftwaffe.

The early chapters are based on a diary kept by Miroslaw Feric and recounts the exploits and triumphs of these courageous men. But as World War II came to engulf the entire world, the story of Poland in the great war expanded to embrace the globe. From the determined resistance fighters in Poland and Warsaw to Witold Urbanowicz who flew for a time with the famed Flying Tigers in the Pacific we are treated to the noble story of a nation that refused to be conquered.

Yet there is a dark side to the story, and it lies partly with the big three allies. Britain went to war to keep Poland free. America promised to allow self-determination to be the over-riding factor when determining post-war boundaries. And the Soviet Union received incalculable assistance from the Polish underground even after it had taken half the country from behind. The Soviet Union was determined to dominate East Europe and this included Poland. The U.S. and Britain were determined to keep the Soviets in the war - so they secretly acceded to Stalins demands for territorial aggrandizement.

The result was the loss of Polish sovereignty until 1989 when the Soviet Union finally crumbled. This is a sad but hopeful story, full of the lessons of history. Poland was the fourth biggest contributor in military personnel for the allies throughout the war with Germany. Yet she was given short shrift at the negotiating table. "A Question of Honor" shows how the sometimes frivolous actions of national leaders vitally affect the lives of everyday people.

"A Question of Honor" brings a different perspective than we are used to seeing on World War II. The leading figures of the day Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Anthony Eden, etc. are viewed through a Polish prism. We gain much from this view. It helps us take a step back from the real-politik that we often associate with historical analysis.

Passages about the lives of individuals are written with passion and charm. The explanations of the geo-politics of the war years are clear and persuasive. "A Question of Honor" is an important work, even a landmark work, in that it sheds new light on important historical events from a perspective that is open, honest and also moral. At the same time its focus on the Kosciuszko Squadron gives it a light and personally engrossing side. An excellent read.

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