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Good introduction, but feels biased in places
on 25 November 2013
This book is, for the most part, fairly easy to read and provides a good introduction to the history of Poland. For the periods I knew nothing about (up to 1918) or not much about (after 1945) I found it useful. For the intervening period where I knew a little already, I found the book a disappointment.
For a start, 1918-39 was the one period under consideration when Poland was actually an independent country and hence had an impact on the wider world, and I felt this period deserved more than the one chapter it got in the book. It also struck me that the book often seemed to assume the reader had prior knowledge. Do you know what the BBWR was? OzON? These concepts are introduced well before they are explained. Do you know where Zaolzie is, and that when Davies refers in passing to its occupation, he is referring to the Polish invasion of Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Munich agreement in 1938? If the sins of Józef Beck have been "especially exaggerated", it would be useful to know by whom, and roughly what arguments they advanced, before being presented with Davies' counterarguments.
It feels in several places like Davies has an excessively pro-Polish perspective. This is perhaps natural given that he is married to a Pole and apparently lives there at least partly, but is worth keeping in mind. The book seems to have developed a semi-official status in Poland also, which he is proud to tell the reader about from within its own pages.
While he doesn't shy away from criticising individual Poles and Polish society when he feels it appropriate, in foreign affairs he seems to consistently take Poland's side, sometimes on what seem to me rather flimsy grounds. For example, the wars with the short-lived West Ukrainian republic and Lithuania, where in both cases there was a predominantly Polish city (Lwów and Wilno respectively) surrounded by predominantly non-Polish countryside. Rather than take the opportunity to point out the impossibility of drawing a neat border that respected "the self-determination of peoples", and regret the violent means by which these issues were "solved", he criticises the Ukrainians for "demanding their national rights in full and at once" and the Lithuanians for their "sorry obsession with the city of Wilno, in which hardly any Lithuanians were then living", without reflecting that similar criticisms could easily be levelled at Poland also.
He seems very keen to excuse Józef Beck, who largely determined Poland's foreign policy in the run-up to the Second World War. While it may be true that nothing he did would have made any difference, was invading Czechoslovakia and bullying Lithuania really the best thing to spend Poland's energies on in 1938-9? Davies assures us that this was done to "prevent encirclement by the Germans". I have thought for a while about what this could possibly mean, but am still at a loss. It seems to me that it gravely weakened Poland's international reputation, while making no military difference when the Nazi invasion did arrive a few months later.
As a final point, he has special ire reserved for British liberals, such as David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes and E.H. Carr, who had a mostly critical stance towards Poland and its deeds in this period. Rather than offering suggestions of why they might have developed such views, he instead chooses to place their statements about Poland alongside those of Hitler and Stalin, and suggests they should have considered "the company they were keeping". It seems you could do the same e.g. with statements by Churchill and Hitler about Bolshevism, and arrive at similar conclusions. I may consider myself thoroughly opposed to someone, but that doesn't mean I have a moral obligation to disagree with them on every single subject!