HISTORY AND LITERATURE: by David FlintNews Weekly
Drama set in occupied Europe
, June 10, 2006
Last year saw the publication of Despite the Barking Dogs*, a novel set in post-1939 Europe and Australia, written by Polish-Australian author Stanislaw Gotowicz. Professor David Flint spoke at the book's launch at the Polish Consulate-General in Sydney.It is a particular pleasure to be invited to speak at the launch of what is a compelling and gripping story, Despite the Barking Dogs. The author Stanislaw Gotowicz was born in Poland. He is an engineer and is prominent in Australia's Polish community. With this, his second book, and his work on a third, he is also an author, and if I may say so, one clearly with considerable talent.
Set in two continents, the story unfolds against the background of those titanic struggles, not only for land but for the soul of man - those struggles that so marked, and so grievously affected the last century. The cast of Despite the Barking Dogs
is made up of people from similar backgrounds, but from opposing sides.Honour and conscience
The book reminds us - especially those of us who have never lived under tyranny - that the very best of people may be pressed into service by the very worst of regimes, but in doing so they can still preserve their honour, their dignity, and above all their conscience, and that by the very way they perform their duty.
The story is exciting, and, just as life is, it is unpredictable. If ever it were filmed - and I sincerely hope that it will be - there may be a temptation to change the story in significant aspects, in brief to choose melodrama over life as it is. That should be resisted and resisted firmly. Just as it is, as it stands, the novel reflects the sheer unpredictability and volatility of life as we know it and as it has always been.
The pillar of the novel to me is the German officer, Graf Alfred von Lindemann, a noble man. But he is noble not so much because he is an aristocrat, but rather because of his inner, innate, spiritual nobility. We see through his eyes, and those of others in the cast, the invasion of Poland and later Russia, as well as the plight of occupied France. We are at the terrible bombing of Dresden; we live under the Soviet occupation; and then we survive under the grim, dark soulless days of the German Democratic Republic (communist East Germany). We see too our own continent - not the lush hedonistic cosmopolitan coast, but its harsh interior.
Now each of us will read any book through different eyes, particularly a book set, as this is, against the momentous events of the 20th century. To an Australian, living throughout this period, the book will recall vividly those dark days of the Second World War when this nation, for the very first time, was directly threatened with invasion; when Australians, with good reason, feared deportation, slavery and even genocide; and when the territory of our Commonwealth was subjected, at least on the periphery, to attack from the air and to invasion.
Poland, of course, was central to that world war. If Belgium had been the cockpit of the First World War, surely Poland was the cockpit of the second. Poland was, let us recall, the place where Great Britain, with the Commonwealth and with France by her side, had drawn a line in the sand. It was where they had said "enough" to appeasement.
It was clear that Hitler's territorial ambitions had been well and truly satisfied, not as he had so fraudulently promised with the Sudetenland, but with the occupation of the territory of the unfortunate Czechoslovakian nation. Hitler's treacherous breach of the Munich Agreement - entered into to ensure "peace in our time" - meant that he could be allowed to go no further. Not one further inch of territory would be ceded.
In earlier conflicts, and in particular the First World War, Australians had gleaned their meagre information from the printed word about the campaigns waged by their nation's disproportionately large forces. The war of 1939 to 1945 came to us more through sound, through those disembodied voices coming miraculously across the ether, crackling and surging just as the raging seas do around our island continent.Weapon in struggle
Short-wave radio was to prove itself a significant weapon in the struggle for freedom. Lenin had mistakenly envisioned short-wave to be like a single newspaper with a single message of propaganda beamed across the vast expanse of the USSR, a weapon of persuasion in the service of the dictatorship not of the proletariat but of the Communist Party. He did not realise that it would also work the other way, and that radio crossed frontiers. It was to prove an invaluable force in the Second World War and in that long Cold War which was to follow.
Those who listened to the voices of freedom risked their liberty and even their lives in so doing. Reflecting this, a BBC director when confronted with inferior work in the Second World War would ask: "Would you risk your life to listen to this
?"Despite the Barking Dogs
has reminded me that my very first recollection of the war, and indeed of Poland, was in a short-wave broadcast on September 3, 1939. I suspect my recollection is not of the original, but of a repeat in the years soon after. The message, dignified and restrained, was broadcast without fanfare or music. It contained just those momentous words, honourable words, words which would change the world forever:
"I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10, Downing Street," the voice began. It was Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister. Britain, the Commonwealth and her Empire, and the world were listening. Mr Chamberlain continued:
"This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11:00 a.m. that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.
"I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany."Australia at war
This was to be followed by a broadcast to the people of Australia by the Prime Minister, Mr Robert Gordon Menzies, who said:
"Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that, in consequence of the persistence of Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.
"No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement.
"Great Britain and France, with the cooperation of the British Dominions, have struggled to avoid this tragedy. They have, as I firmly believe, been patient. They have kept the door of negotiation open. They have given no cause for aggression.
"But in the result their efforts have failed and we are, therefore, as a great family of nations, involved in a struggle which we must at all costs win, and which we believe in our hearts we will win."
But these radio broadcasts were not my only knowledge then of Poland. The walls of the home of my music teacher were filled with paintings and photographs. One was very large, dominating the others. It was of a distinguished, wonderfully passionate man with flowing grey hair. To my inquiry as to who he was, my father said:
"That is the great pianist, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who has left this world. But not only was he one of the greatest musicians in the world, he was also a fighter for the liberation of his country, and rose to be Prime Minister - a rare combination."
It was of course later in my education that I would learn of the partitions of Poland and her long fight for freedom which was lost and regained during the course of the 20th century.
It is through this prism of glimpses, especially of radio broadcasts, of the precious few newsreels, and of print, that I have read and experienced the wonderful story that is told in Despite the Barking Dogs
Through short-wave and print, we Australians learned of those other momentous events, all in the background of this book - the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler's double-crossing of Stalin and the disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union. All are so important to this story.
And then, at the end, when victory seemed so sweet, when it seemed a new peaceful world would be born, a speech brought to us by radio and cinema from Fulton, Missouri, contained a message we did not wish to hear. Now in opposition because of, as he put it, the "damned ingratitude" of the British people, Winston Churchill warned us that Hitler's occupation of Eastern Europe had been replaced by Stalin's new empire. Churchill said:
"I have a strong admiration and regard for the valiant Russian people and for my wartime comrade, Marshal Stalin. There is deep sympathy and goodwill in Britain - and I doubt not here also - toward the peoples of all the Russias and a resolve to persevere through many differences and rebuffs in establishing lasting friendships.
"It is my duty, however, to place before you certain facts about the present position in Europe.
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.
"Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow."Evil empire
The Iron Curtain. A new term to describe the outer border of this harsh, dare I say, evil empire. It is through this new prism - that of the vast Stalinist Empire, and its final collapse - that we see the rest of the story unfold in Despite the Barking Dogs
The second liberation of Poland was not to occur until the latter part of that century under the influence, not only of Ronald Reagan encouraged by Margaret Thatcher, but under the spiritual influence of another Pole, Karol Wojtyla, the Roman pontiff, Pope John Paul II.
This is a story, a human story, set against the background of those struggles, those great struggles of the 20th century for the soul of mankind. It captures those events and relates a great and essentially human story. It is a story of all that is good and evil in the world, and how mankind responds to that. For me it was a revelation and a reward.- David Flint is a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and Australian Broadcasting Authority.* DESPITE THE BARKING DOGS
by Stanislaw Gotowicz
Softcover: 345 pages
Rec. price: $24.95
(Avail. from News Weekly Books)