Belmont Club

The Life of a Nation

Alan Furst’s The Polish Officer, a novel which follows the activities of Warsaw’s intelligence resistance through the underground Europe, has no particular plot, but it has a tremendous sense of time and place. Polish Captain Alexander de Milja struggles through a world without a narrative. That would come later. But as Furst shows us, people at the time — even the best informed of them — could only ever hazard an educated guess about future events.


“The Germans will be smashed by the French” they said;  and the after the French fell, confidence turned 180 degrees around to despair: “the British will have their necks wrung like chickens”.  In 1940 the surrender of London was not the view of a defeatist. It was the obvious conclusion of anyone who could read a map after Dunkirk. When the contrary outcomes occurred these were simply accepted as facts; they had to be. History makes sense only in retrospect. In prospect only the propagandists know what is going to happen. In contemporaneous view everything has all the appearance of chaos.

That makes events like the Polish Battle for Wizna as incomprehensible as the Fall of France. If the question raised by the latter is ‘how did it happen’, with respect to the Poles at Wizna the mystery is ‘why did they do it?’ Why did 720 Poles hold off four divisions of Germans for three days when even their success only meant eventual failure?

They could not have held out for a military purpose. The defeat for the Poles was foregone from the instant that country was simultaneously invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Hitler sent sixty plus divisions and Stalin nearly thirty five against Poland. That made the rearguard action of the 71st Polish infantry regiment at Wizna to prevent the encirclement of other units of the Polish Army pointless except for the quaint notion of “honor”. Honor is now if not a forgotten then at least a shabby and disreputable word.


Nobody mentions it any more. The feelings now in vogue are self-hatred, shame and guilt. Only yesterday Tariq Ramadan told the readers of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Mohamed Merah, the man who killed French soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren, the man Sarkozy described as a fanatic and and monster, was really their own creation.

Religion was not Mohamed Merah’s problem – nor was his politics. A French citizen frustrated at being unable to find his place, to give his life dignity and meaning in his own country, he would find two political causes through which he could articulate his distress: Afghanistan and Palestine. He attacked symbols like the army, and killed Jews, Christians and Muslims without distinction.

Ramadan argues that “in Toulouse, France now beholds its own mirror image.” In Merah’s face France should see itself, as manifested in its inability to provide all the welfare, all the respect, all the accomodation that any reasonable immigrant might demand.

A substantial number of French citizens are treated as second-class citizens. Mohamed Merah was French (whose behaviour was as remote from the Qur’anic message as it was from Voltaire’s texts). Is it so difficult to acknowledge this fact? There, indeed, lies the French problem.

While that accusation may sound outrageous, Ramadan is may be correct in saying Merah is France’s creation. Where Ramadan errs is identifying the causes of intolerance and murder. It is not the lack of social services or welfare; nor the lack of tolerance shown by Europe towards Islam.  No, the real root of Western culpability lay in inviting the final act of violence itself, in the same way that Hedda Nussbaum’s behavior eventually contributed to Joel Steinberg’s final cruelty to the child in their care. In saying “it is alright, it is alright, it is alright” until finally it was not alright.


The West supplied the means. All Merah supplied was the muscle. Who is guilty of the crime asks Ramadan? Who indeed? That Ramadan even has the effrontery to  suggest that France should blame itself for the recent killings is suggestive in a perverse way that it truly deserves his contempt; what in years past would be called a lack of honor.

Perhaps honor is just another name for a refusal by the spirit to surrender. It is a way of indicating that long after the flesh has wasted away, the will to continue still survives. And who shall say that honor is completely pointless and that the defenders of Wizna really failed?  After all, there is still a Poland. Where is the Third Reich?

But it wasn’t easy. When the Polish government finds its Parisian capital-in-exile about to be overrun for the second time in months, Alan Furst’s fictional chacters say to their French hosts, ‘Warsaw was smashed, but there was nothing of this horrible acceptance there. We are used to defeat. It is giving up that we have yet to learn’.

Perhaps the Poles were too stupid to know they were beaten. At all events they never did learn to give up. The Polish government in exile had to wait 50 years to return to its capital. After the Germans came the Soviets. After World War 2 came the long Cold War; a conflict so protracted that analysts assumed it would last forever. But after Jimmy Carter came Ronald Reagan. And the last Polish President in exile,  Ryszard Kaczorowski, came home at after the election of Lech Walensa. He died, together with virtually the top national leadership, in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010. He died one can say, but that is altogether different from giving up.


The future belongs to those who will show up for it.

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