Peter F. Dembowski. Memoirs Red and White: Poland, the War, and After. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. 216 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-268-02620-2.
Reviewed by Matthew Schwonek (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The history of war privileges a narrative of battles, the implements of war, and grand strategic decisions. And where the victors are the authors, it also incorporates a heavy dose of triumphalism. Yet this framework cannot accommodate Poland’s Second World War. Conquest, occupation, and resistance were that country’s lot. Although counted among the victors, Poland was worse off than the vanquished. For just such a war Peter F. Dembowski has fashioned a personal narrative.
Dembowski is well qualified for the task. He was too young to serve in the 1939 campaign, but this did not disqualify him for duty with the underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK). Much of the war he spent in Warsaw and took part in the 1944 uprising. Moreover, at an early stage he showed himself a budding man of letters. After the war he earned a PhD and made a distinguished career in the study of medieval French literature. To this memoir he brings the academic’s discipline and dispassionate approach not to mention a lifetime of reflection.
The author’s perspective is uncommon. The account encompasses not just wartime but also prewar and postwar periods. For Europeans, the war was not a discrete event that began on September 1, 1939, and ended on May 8, 1945. Dembowski’s narrative flows from prewar life to a term as a displaced person and then the painful transition to exile. This is Dembowski’s personal history, furthermore, and it focuses on what he judged important. Family, duty, and faith are key concerns and provide the major themes of the work. The author of Christians in the Warsaw Ghetto: An Epitaph for the Unremembered (2005), Dembowski has a flair for the out of the ordinary. Here he strives to present complexity, challenging simplistic notions of Polish-German animosity, anti-Communism, and anti-Semitism.
There are some important advantages to this account. Dembowski hailed from an intelligentsia family. This stratum then dominated political life. The sprawling family was well educated and possessed a strong sense of duty to fellow Poles and the republic. Patriotic and political action were de rigueur. The ideological struggle after 1945 obscures Poland’s tradition of leftist politics, and Dembowski reminds us that more than a few leaned left. The author notes several accommodated themselves to Communist rule, although they were not bad sorts and he bears them no ill will. The author endured his fair share of tragedy—his mother and sister perished in Ravensbrück camp. Yet his is not just a litany of woe, for the war was much more than this.
For most readers the war will be the book’s chief attraction. Dembowski offers a picture of the underground conspiracy at work. Most AK officers and men served in cadre units, to be called up in the event of an uprising. Much of the war they spent organizing and training. The reader will be surprised that units regularly exercised in the country around Warsaw. All the same it was dangerous work, and Dembowski endured a period of imprisonment in the infamous Pawiak and Szuh Street Prisons. His own brush reveals much about the Nazi terror. He was nabbed in a roundup after a search netted arms and documents, which he had hidden. Yet many were released without interrogation, while Dembowski walked free without his involvement ever coming to light. Dembowski’s Warsaw Uprising was representative, if short; he was captured evacuating Mokotów. AK personnel were granted prisoner-of-war status, and his account also covers imprisonment in Stalag XB at Sandbostel.
Patriotic tropes abound, a few of which amount to old chestnuts. There are too many references to a supposed national talent for conspiracy, and the Soviets are blamed for the AK commander’s decision to launch the uprising. Yet the author cannot be entirely faulted, for these are after all his memories. On the other hand, reminiscences on certain issues are not very searching. The daily struggle for survival is noted but not explained. The disappearance of Jewish neighbors along with the ghetto uprising pass without comment. All the same, this is a clear and cogent recounting of the experience of a generation. There are plenty of insights for the attentive reader. The editors of the University of Notre Dame Press are to be congratulated for correctly rendering Polish words and phrases, while the author deserves credit for descriptive and lively prose. The book is but a modest contribution to a fairly hefty body of material but will nonetheless reward the reader seeking insight into Poland’s world war.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Matthew Schwonek. Review of Dembowski, Peter F., Memoirs Red and White: Poland, the War, and After.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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