Equality for All? Well, Maybe Some Still Don’t Deserve It.
by Michal Karski
‘History is written by the victors’, goes the old adage (or, as it was put less solemnly by Winston Churchill; ‘history will be kind to me because I intend to write it’). There is no doubt that the losers are usually at a disadvantage. However, the recent German television series ‘Generation War’ seems to have turned that apparent truism on its head to the extent that the real villains of WWII seem to be not so much the Germans themselves, but rather thuggish and uncivilized Eastern European Nazi sympathisers.
The central European country of Poland has received particular attention in this respect for some time. After 1945 it suited the Communist regime to portray the takeover of the once-sovereign state as a ‘liberation from fascism’. Stalinist propaganda dismissed the Polish anti-Nazi resistance as ‘fascists and reactionaries’ and this has found its way into Western perceptions.
But how did Poland, the country which was, after all, the first to offer military resistance to Hitler and fought against the Nazis on all fronts for the entire duration of the war, manage to become transformed from hero to villain?
Dr Danusha Goska provides the answer to this conundrum in this scholarly but immensely readable study of a prejudice which seems to surface with alarming regularity in the worlds of academe and media and which few influential agencies seem willing or able to tackle. She points to a pattern in American culture which has been able to denigrate immigrant Slavs in general and Poles in particular which would never have been acceptable with other ethnic groups. She gives the reason why this continues and provides numerous examples of negative stereotyping. The book discusses unflattering portrayals of Poles and other Eastern Europeans in films and also so-called ‘jokes’ based on ethnicity delivered by people who imagine they are being witty when they are otherwise being essentially racist. (May I say, on a purely personal note, since I did not grow up in America - even though I did have the good fortune to go to a superb American Forces school in Germany for quite a few years – that I have never been exposed to any anti-Polish prejudice. This does not mean, of course, that I am denying the existence of such prejudice and the examples cited of Poles and other Eastern Europeans being regarded as inferior beings demonstrate that there is still some work to do in the USA in terms of combating ethnic prejudice. Some individuals clearly need to live up to the ideals of the Nation’s Founders in what is otherwise considered by many people as not only the world’s foremost democracy but also one of the world’s most advanced societies).
Returning to the question of Poland being subjugated by the Communist puppet regime imposed by Stalin and the resulting image of the Poles as fascists which has found its way west. There is no doubt there was an extreme right which was active in pre-war Poland and there is also no doubt that the war would not have been won without the enormous sacrifice of ordinary men and women from all over the USSR (which included Polish contingents incorporated into the Red Army) – and it is only right and proper that their sacrifice is honoured. Unfortunately the flip side to the actions of the USSR which is rarely mentioned in the west other than in history texts, is the two-year Nazi-Soviet co-operation which resulted in the dismemberment of the Polish state. As I wrote previously on these pages, the pre-war multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation, with all its faults and divisions, is extinct and lives only in the memories of a generation who are themselves fading away.
Given the prevalence of the Slavic stereotype, the question arises whether Danusha Goska’s study will do anything to mitigate the entrenched attitudes of some Americans. The overall impression given in the book about attitudes to Poles looks fairly bleak at the moment, therefore all credit to Dr Goska for analysing a controversial and difficult subject. The epithet which seems to come up most frequently in descriptions of this book is ‘necessary’. In this respect, Polonian organizations might consider offering Dr Goska the kind of support which a serious scholar of her calibre clearly deserves.
This is not to say that I agree 100% with everything that Dr Goska says. Personally I think the section of the book which demonstrates the way in which Hollywood has tended to portray Polish characters negatively could do with some balance. A few positive depictions ought to be mentioned, in fairness. Gene Hackman’s General Sosabowski, in ‘A Bridge Too Far’, for instance, is shown to have been one of the very few Allied commanders expressing serious reservations about the wisdom of Monty’s Arnhem plan; there are honourable and sympathetic Polish characters in Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’; Charles Bronson’s Danny Velinski, the ‘Tunnel King’ of ‘The Great Escape’ is quite positively drawn (albeit with potentially damaging claustrophobia); the whole tenor of Jack Benny’s ‘To Be or Not To Be’ (and its Mel Brooks eighties remake) is very much pro-Polish, so that the positives, although perhaps not outweighing the negatives, do appear from time to time.
The average American needs to be reminded that the vast majority of people of different religions and nationalities in pre-war Poland co-existed peacefully, flourished because of the cultural interchange, and are now in no position to defend their good name because they were either murdered by the Nazis for no other reason than their own ethnicity or, in very many cases, for trying to protect their Jewish friends and neighbours.
My single reservation about Dr Goska’s book concerns the cover painting and echoes what Sue Knight also referred to recently on this blog. People do, unfortunately, judge a book by its cover and the picture of Millet’s peasant with the hoe is rather off-putting (in my humble opinion), therefore may I suggest that perhaps a second edition would substitute the famous ‘Bociany’ by Chelmoński, with its overtones of innocent simplicity rather than just brutishness, which would be an implied and pointed contrast to the book’s title? But otherwise, full marks for an excellent, extremely scholarly, objective and fair-minded work which would be a valuable addition to every American school syllabus in the on-going debate about ethnic stereotyping. It would certainly serve as a stimulus to critical thinking and would also be a powerful counterbalance to entirely non-academic creations expressing purely personal viewpoints such as Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ (which, for all its undoubted visual brilliance, is a rather controversial example of an academic teaching aid, since, in my opinion, it reinforces, rather than challenges, ethnic stereotypes). Well done, Danusha.