Devoid of natural boundaries or defensible terrain, Poland has always been easy prey; divided up between Prussia, Austria,...


BITTER GLORY: The History of Independent Poland 1918 to 1939

Devoid of natural boundaries or defensible terrain, Poland has always been easy prey; divided up between Prussia, Austria, and Russia in 1772, Poland was reconstituted in 1918, only to be redivided by Germany and Russia in 1939. The inter-war period is therefore an ironic anomaly in Polish history, and, as Watt (The Kings Depart) demonstrates, the existence of Poland was tenuous even then. Filled as they are with domestic turmoil and international wheeling and dealing, these years are good material for a popular history, and Watt uses his opportunity well. The dominant figure of the period was Jozef Pilsudski, a poor aristocrat who rose from guerrilla leader under Tsarist rule to autocratic head of the Polish state with no ideology but fierce nationalism to guide him. Watt is informative on the various political parties of the fragile post-Versailles period, but once his narrative moves on to the machinations of succeeding Twenties' governments, he starts substituting categories like Centrist or Right for specifics--it is only three-quarters into his story that he mentions the anti-Semitic policies of the powerful National Democrats, for example. Always drawn more to military than to political affairs, Pilsudski engineered a coup in 1930 to end National Democratic rule, and though the ""Marshal"" tolerated no opposition, Watt considers him not antidemocratic, which is overly generous. In evaluating the series of events that led to the German invasion in 1939, Watt castigates Foreign Minister Beck, a Pilsudski prot‚g‚, for his aggressive, ""cavalier"" approach to foreign affairs which failed to win Poland much prewar sympathy (as opposed to Czechoslovakia). After Pilsudski's death, in 1935, there were no figures of comparable stature to pull Poland through, Watt maintains; but he admits that Pilsudski was most responsible for the archaic condition of the Polish army at the outset of World War II, and underestimates the influence of Europe's political fragmentation on Poland's survival in the first place. This style of history-writing relies on individual political figures, which accounts for Watt's judgments as well as the lack of attention to broader historical material; but it's a good account within the limits of the genre.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1979


Page Count: -

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1979