The Struggles for Poland by Neal Ascherson (Michael Joseph, £14.95)
DO we need yet another book about Poland? In this case, the answer is — yes. Neal Ascherson is among the most distinguished of jouralists specialising in East European affairs. He writes finely and fairly with great knowledge and genuine affection for a country where, as he says, a western visitor feels strangely at home. But Poland, as he points out, remains a smoking volcano, "capable at any time of yet another eruption which could shatter the whole landscape of East-West relations."
It therefore behoves us to learn all we can about a country and people who are — or should be — on our conscience. Poland, as Ascherson's account vividly illustrates, has given the world a great deal through the ages, receiving little in return but broken promises and, in the last resort, shelter for its exiles.
Poland's history is daunting. The country has been so many shapes and sizes. For more than 100 years — from 1795 to 1918 — gobbled up by Russia, Prussia and Austria, Poland disappeared from the map altogether — but only from the map.
To understand the Poles as they are today, one has somehow to come to grips with their elusive past. Here Ascherson is immensely helpful. In 230 pages of stylish narrative and succinct analysis, plus some fascinating photographs, he gallops us briskly through the first ten centuries, slowing to a trot from 1900 to the present day, always allowing time to register the landmarks and enlivening the journey with comment and anecdote.
It is, indeed, a story of hope against all odds — an elegiac tale. Poland — a "normal" country, sandwiched between "abnormal" neighbours — is savaged time and again.
There's no more poignant cameo in the book than the tragic, stormy exchange in Moscow, in October 1944, between Churchill — eager for cosmetic reasons that the Poles should knuckle under make the best of a bad job and accept Stalin's terms — and the defiant Peasant Party leader, Mikolajczyk, representing the war-time London Polish Government. Churchill loses his temper with the Pole and Mikolajczyk, "beside himself with rage and misery" begs to be parachuted into Warsaw, where the Rising against the Germans was in progress, so that he could Ole fighting with the Home Army "for my country's independence, rather than be hanged in full view of your British Ambassador." The two leaders, who liked and respected one another, were desperately overwrought. The confrontation ended with both on the point of ;tears.
Ascherson pulls no punches in his laudable desire to present the facts. Emigre Polish politicians of various persuasions may take umbrage here and there. Some Catholics won't care to be confronted with evidence of anti-Semitism in Poland's prewar Catholic Church. But he also pays tribute to the Church's historic role-particularly that of the priests as "soldiers in black", during and since the war. He is also fairer than some to Poland's present Primate, Cardinal Glemp, under whom, as the author points out, the Church has continued to demand recognition of the banned Solidarity trade union, restoration of civil rights, and to provide Church support for the families of internees and discreet help for the underground opposition.
I part company with the author on one point. Does he really believe that things might have somehow been better for Poland or the rest of us, if Truman had not decided to build the West Germans into the western defence system, thereby — as Ascherson suggests unleashing the Cold War? To me, the evidence so admirably presented by the author himself, rather suggests the decision was an inevitable and, indeed, belated response to Stalin's consistent hostility and duplicity — nowhere more clearly evidenced than in Poland itself from September 1939, when the Germans and Russians invaded. That, perhaps, was then the Cold War really started.