WORLD WAR II: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
When the screen is mightier than the sword
, June 26, 2010
An important new study, Hollywood's War with Poland, 1939-1945, by American history professor Mieczyslaw Biskupski (University Press of Kentucky), focuses on wartime Poland, a country that was viciously dismembered by history's most brutal genocidal killers and enslavers, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Biskupski explains how Hollywood, where fortunes were made from trivia and soft pornography, willingly contrived to ignore Poland's plight.
Wartime Poland struggled to gain sympathetic global coverage of its ordeal, because it had the deck heavily stacked against it.First
, the United States Roosevelt Administration, via its New Deal-style Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) and Office of War Information (OWI), was "bent on selling Russia" to Americans as a benevolent domain led by the genial and reassuring pipe-smoking "Uncle Joe" Stalin, with Hollywood concurring with and promoting this wilfully deceitful White House line.
"The BMP 'monitored the content of every film coming out of Hollywood'," Biskupski reveals. "The OWI was accused, deservedly as it now appears, of employing a large number of Communists in key positions. Several of the employees of the Polish section, for example, later figured in the post-war communist government in Warsaw."
These agencies even sought and obtained help from the Soviet embassy in Washington.
But Hollywood's pro-Stalin line was not prompted solely because of a sudden rush of public wartime sympathy for the beleaguered Soviet Union. Far from it. The groundwork for it had been laid long before war broke out.
Since "no studio enjoyed more cordial relations with the BMP and its Hollywood office than Warner Brothers", one contemporary observed, "There is a grip of Rooseveltian loyalty about Warners."
The FBI found that pro-Soviet propaganda in the US originated from articles by the Comintern propaganda genius Willi Münzenberg in the Daily Worker
in 1925 that "extolled the significance of motion pictures as a means of political propaganda and hence the need for the Communist Party of the USA to control their production".
For much of the interwar period, Münzenberg ran communist front organisations and newspapers across western Europe. Eventually, however, he fell foul of Stalin and was assassinated by the Soviet secret police in the south of France in 1940.
Münzenberg in his heyday was a farsighted and strategic propagandist.
"The screenwriters and directors of films in which Poland is portrayed, most unfavourably, are a virtual gallery of the activist radical Left," Biskupski writes. "John Howard Lawson, Lester Cole, Robert Rossen, Arthur Kober, Jay Leyda, Leopold Atlas, Guy Endore, Philip Stevenson, Lillian Hellman and Sidney Buchman, were members of the Communist Party." Lawson, later described as someone who spoke "with the voice of Stalin and the bells of the Kremlin", had turned "a blind eye to Soviet reality", according to his son.
What this coterie helped achieve was the successful undermining of Poland's wartime struggle for liberation by helping ensure Moscow's strategic interests were realised.Second
, although American Poles formed one of America's largest recently settled minorities, they were generally poor, less well-educated, and lacked a cohort of sympathetic actors, scriptwriters, directors and movie financial backers to counter-balance the ongoing slander against them and their conquered native land.
Although highlighting these realities, Biskupski sometimes criticises Poles. He writes: "Under great pressure to assimilate in the decades before 1939, the Poles in America had conspicuously abandoned the loyalty to the Polish cause that had distinguished their parents' generation. The fact that absolutely no one publicly known as Polish existed in wartime Hollywood discloses both the defensiveness of the Poles in American and their insignificance."
Unlike Russia, pre-1939 or wartime Poland never rated highly with Americans, so Polish interests received far less of a hearing within Washington's corridors of power.
Biskupski presents Poland as "simply a theme that had no friends and many enemies". The enemies were invariably high-income Hollywood luminaries organised by Münzenberg's trans-Atlantic confreres along conspiratorial Leninist lines.
Poland was light years from having anything resembling an organised lobby to act on its behalf. Added to that was the fact that, in mid-1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. (In September 1939, he had collaborated with the Soviet Union to dismember Poland).
Hitler's launch of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 became the crucial turning-point for overstretched Britain and immensely helped American opinion-formers in enthusiastically embracing Uncle Joe's beleaguered Soviet Union at Poland's expense.
"Americans insisted that the war be one in which 'the good guys were firmly distinguishable from the bad guys'," Biskupski says.
"To make the Russians good, the Poles had to be bad, because if the Russians were bad, the simple moral clarity of the war disappeared. This combination of factors resulted in an episode in American motion picture history that has the dubious distinction of contributing to the American public's abandonment of Poland by maligning a cause that deserved far better."
Biskupski highlights scores of films with Poland always getting "the short straw". Reinforcing this was a deliberate depiction of Poles as fascist - and anti-Semitic - reactionaries ruled by feudal or landed aristocrats.
Biskupski rightly points out that pre-war Poland, although not a parliamentary democracy, certainly wasn't a fascist state, although, like all other European countries, including Great Britain, it had fascist parties. These right-wing fringe groups, however, were far smaller than Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists.Condemned
Although, before and throughout the war, Poland, more than any other European country, consistently opposed Hitlerism, this historical fact remained ignored. No Pole betrayed the cause of freedom by working for Radio Berlin, as did a number of treasonous British and Americans. However, this honourable record did not redound to Poles' credit. Inexplicably, Poland remained condemned whereas other countries were wholly exonerated.
Poland inspired virtually no favourably oriented films, whereas Norway and France were elevated to symbolic status as valiant resisting nations, even though they were headed by Hitler collaborators, Vidkun Quisling and Marshal Pétain. Poland's huge anti-Nazi underground resistance army, Europe's largest, was invisible on wartime screens.
Poland never had a collaborationist government. Its London-based government-in-exile enjoyed the loyalty of Poland's underground to the end.
Hollywood never acknowledged Stalin's 22-month alliance with Hitler (under the infamous 1939-41 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact), so crucial to Hitler's rapid conquests of Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries, Luxemburg and France, and later Yugoslavia and Greece.
Hitler's 1941 invasion of the USSR meant that the German Wehrmacht did to Stalin's domain what Stalin helped Hitler do to Poland. But movie-goers were deliberately kept ignorant of Poland's plight at Hitler's and Stalin's hands; it was only the gallant Soviet Union's plight that was interminably emphasised.
Biskupski writes: "Holly-wood showed interest in Czech, French and Norwegian occupation, but the situation in Poland was virtually ignored. Poland's contribution to the war effort after 1939 was also unnoticed. The systematic extermination of Poland's Jews was also not presented.
"Certainly nothing of Russia's invasion and seizure of eastern Poland ever was mentioned by Hollywood."
Hollywood's leftist fraternities saw Stalin's Soviet Union as "sacrosanct", with the powerful Screen Writers Guild rightly described by one member as being used "as a weapon of war".
Virtually all guild members toiled to ensure that the screen remained mightier than the sword.
The feudal or landed aristocrats smear was outrageously false, even though it was avidly peddled throughout the entire war.
"At the time of the invasion," writes Biskupski, "the Polish government was largely composed of men of humble origin.... The president was a prominent scientist, the commander-in-chief a child of poverty, the foreign minister a soldier.... There were no landed aristocrats within the Cabinet."
Ignored by Hollywood was the fact that no-one in that Polish Government was as wealthy or landed as were some members of the Roosevelt Administration and Churchill's Coalition Government.
The emphasis on anti-Semitism can be variously viewed, not least because this was a European-wide phenomenon, from which Poland was certainly not immune.
Biskupski, however, points out that "repeated polls between 1938 and 1940 showed 60 per cent [of Americans] ... thought Jews had objectionable qualities" and "in 1938, 20 per cent wanted to drive the Jews out of the US".
But only wartime Poland kept being reminded of its shortcomings in its dealings with its Jewish minority.
Interestingly, Jewish author Gunnar Paulsson's Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-45
(Yale University Press, 2002) reveals that Polish assistance to fugitive Jews was amongst the highest in wartime Europe. (The "Secret City" refers to Warsaw's non-ghetto quarters, sometimes called the Aryan side).
Paulsson, after years of meticulous research and cross-checking, estimated that 28,000 Jews were hidden in Aryan Warsaw at one time or another, with 17,000 still there in hiding at the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising on August 1, 1944.
American historian, John Radzilowski, says that the "rate of Jewish survival in hiding in Warsaw was similar to that of Western European countries with a far less severe occupation regime such as Holland or even Denmark".
He remarks: "In light of the way so many historians and polemicists alike [not to mention wartime Hollywood propagandists] have treated the Danish and Dutch cases in contrast to that of the Polish experience, such conclusions are earthshaking, if not, in some quarters, downright heretical."
Biskupski's study chronicles an array of detailed aspects of Hollywood's protracted anti-Polish campaigning, including its overt racism, with individual Poles depicted in films as "mentally disturbed" or misfits.
The one encouraging outcome of his story is that America and Hollywood eventually made the turnaround - though without apologising to the land of Lech Walesa's Solidarnosc
which did more than any other to topple the Soviet communist empire, and without a single shot fired by an American soldier.
This proves yet again the wisdom of Winston Churchill's saying, "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else."
Unfortunately, America's about-turn on communism came only after Churchill's Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri in 1946, which marked the commencement of the Cold War. This was, however, little consolation to Poland, which had given America such heroes as Kazimierz Pulawski, who saved George Washington's life during the Revolutionary War, and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, another commander in that conflict.
And it was also too late for Poles, including Jews, who had survived Nazism, only to end up under occupation once more - this time by Stalin's communists.
America's movie-going public, thanks to Hollywood's pro-Soviet sympathisers, were never allowed to see how this tragedy occurred.Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance journalist and historical researcher. He is author of Odilo Globocnik, Hitler's Man in the East (McFarland, 2003).