Historian Pawel Ukielski: Possibility of quick victory was much more probable in WWII

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Sep 28, 2017 07:55 PM IST

Deputy director of the Warsaw Rising Museum, Dr Pawel Ukielski, talks about the role of Britain and France in WWII, Warsaw Uprising, and reconstruction process of Poland’s capital.

78 years ago, in September, World War II broke out in Europe. The war left the world in turmoil and from Poland, it expanded to many other countries. Hitler had made it clear that if his demands were not met, Germany will go to war, which she did. We spoke to Polish political scientist, historian and deputy director of the Warsaw Rising Museum, Dr Pawel Ukielski, who is of the opinion that major world powers could have done better to help Poland during WWII. Excerpts:

Warsaw in 1960s: A view of Muranow from the church tower of St. Augustine at Nowolipie Street in Warsaw.(FORUM)
Warsaw in 1960s: A view of Muranow from the church tower of St. Augustine at Nowolipie Street in Warsaw.(FORUM)

Do you feel major powers like France, Britain and Italy were wrong with their take on Danzig that it should belong to Germany.
Free City Danzig was established after the World War I, and it was fulfilment of the request of revival of Poland (which was non-existent for more than 100 years), with access to the Baltic Sea. It is quite opposite — in my opinion the powers (France or Britain, as Italy was Hitler’s ally) should have supported Poland strongly in order to stop Hitler’s demands.

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Do you feel a different approach on part of these world powers could have prevented the outbreak of WWII?
Policy of appeasement was definitely a mistake. As [Winston] Churchill said after the conference in Munich in 1938, when Czechoslovakia was deprived of huge part of its territory in favour of Germany: “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war.” Also after the German attack on Poland, Western powers would have been more successful,if they had not only declared war on Germany but also attacked them. The possibility of quick victory was much more probable.

How significant was Warsaw Uprising for Poland. And do you think that Warsaw as a city, suffered more due to the uprising as Hitler had, after that, given orders to destroy the city completely.
It was one of the most important events for Poland during the World War II, as it was the last attempt to protect Polish independence. It did not succeed but gave strength to the Polish nation to resist against the Soviet oppression in the following decades. The price was extremely high — Hitler gave orders to kill all the inhabitants (therefore more than 90% of victims were civilians, mostly killed in organised genocide action) and to raze the city to the ground. After the war, about 85% of Warsaw was destroyed.

Dr Pawel Ukielski
Dr Pawel Ukielski

Tell us briefly about the reconstruction that took place post war in Warsaw. How much time it took BOS (the Bisro Odbudowy Stoilicy or office for the reconstruction of the capital) to restore some of the historic buildings in Warsaw.
Main work of BOS was done in the first 10 years after the war, including the reconstruction of the Warsaw Old Town, which was rebuilt exactly as it was historically. However, other districts were planned in a new, social-realistic style. Today’s Warsaw is a completely different city than it was before the war.

How difficult was it for the denizens of Warsaw revive their lives after the war. How did children deal with the turmoil, trauma that the war brought?
There was no time for psychical recovery after the war, as a new brutal totalitarian regime was established. Many soldiers of Polish underground army that fought against Germans were persecuted by the Soviets and Polish communists. Dozens of thousands of them were killed, hundreds of thousands became prisoners. There was no organised action of psychological recovery for children to overcome the trauma.

Where did Great Britain falter in helping Poland initially? According to historians, she remained quiet till September 3 and delayed some aid that Poland had been seeking for quite some time.
Great Britain declared war on 3 September. If the declaration would have come with military action of combined forces of Britain and France; Germany, with its army involved in Poland would have no strength to defend their western borders. If German situation turned to be bad, the Soviets could have not decided to invade Poland on 17th September, and the war could have gone in completely opposite direction.

What role did press in Poland played during the days of WWII?
Press and radio broadcasting during the uprising played a vital role — informing people, keeping morale high or being an emanation of the state. Around 150 different titles of newspapers were issued during the uprising, and all the political movements were allowed to publish their papers.

Roughly, what was the count of loss of human life during the war on the Polish side?
During WW II around 6 million Polish citizens perished (around half of them were Jews or of Jewish origin). It was more than 15% of pre-war population. During the Warsaw Uprising there were approximately 150 thousand victims.

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    Saad Ghani writes on Books and Culture, for the daily Entertainment & Lifestyle supplement, HT City

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