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Churchill’s ambivalence

LAURENCE REES: How do you read Churchill’s attitude to the Poles, for example, in the summer of 1944 at the time of the Warsaw Uprising?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: Churchill has an empathy with the Poles. He knew very well that he was dependent on Poles at the time of the Warsaw uprising. In fact the Poles are resting after the main military action in Italy and there is still an assumption that they will be needed. So there was a very real anxiety that General Anders’ army in Italy would mutiny, so that is a pragmatic anxiety. But Churchill honestly saw these people as having made a major contribution in theatres of war which had very little to do with Poland. So at the end of the war that commitment to the Poles continues on Churchill’s part because he refuses to send them back and the families of the expatriated Poles who came out of Russia with the Polish units brought from various British dependencies are settled in Britain. So the degree of commitment goes well beyond the British practice towards other national groups. But it still does not alter the fact that at that particular time Churchill knows full well that he can be angry [with Stalin] but he still does need the Russians to continue into Berlin.

LAURENCE REES: And then in October 1944, Churchill visits Moscow and couldn’t be more charming to Stalin.

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: It’s very interesting to see that Churchill doesn’t really, after Sikorski’s death, meet the Poles. There’s very limited contact and it’s on a different level then, so he does see the Poles as making a very important contribution, but he also finds them troublesome, because what the Poles are trying to do is to try and coordinate the other governments in exile, to try to put pressure on the British government. So they are starting to be treated as a nuisance to the government here; a problem creating problems. They became notorious for the degree of anti Semitism which prevailed in the British Units and there is also anxiety about a general lack of respect for human rights.

So there is Churchill, on the one hand genuinely and honestly appreciative of the Poles, but at the same time he will not have his hands tied by the intrigues of the pursuit by the [Polish] government [in exile] here, that’s how he sees it. They’re not always intrigues though, they’re sometimes honest attempt to try to find out what is happening. But as far as he is concerned they are a nuisance and he’s got a bigger game to play and that bigger game is not just Germany, it’s also then the defeat of Japan.

LAURENCE REES: Exactly. And of course we also see that with the attempt to downplay the treatment of the Katyn massacre.

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: Churchill doesn’t get involved in it, but he quite clearly does not want to get involved. It’s not that he doesn’t know what is likely to have happened there, because the enquiries about the Poles have been continued throughout the period of establishment of diplomatic relations between the Sikorski government. Whenever high ranking politicians travelled to the Soviet Union they were given a list of these missing officers, so there was a very strong suspicion that they had been killed. But Churchill at that moment makes the brutal decision that we can only suspect that, and he doesn’t want to know.

LAURENCE REES: And Roosevelt never raises it at any meeting with Stalin.

ANITA PRAZMOWSKA: Yes. Because what would have been the reason for doing so? What would be the consequences? I think again is that it is important to see the fuller picture and the fuller picture imposes the pragmatism that nowadays seems brutal. But I think what we have to remember is that the governments were at war and that the war was very far from won.

LAURENCE REES: It must have been so difficult for both Roosevelt and Churchill. Because on the one hand you’ve created this moral myth about the conduct of the war, but now you’re living the pragmatic reality.

ANITA PRAZMOWSKA: I tell my students normally to just flick open Churchill’s biography and find out, at one given date, what were the matters that were on his desk. And it’s shocking to see Malaysia, Burma, out there in the Pacific, defeat after defeat after defeat. To see the overstretch and the anxiety over the future, the economic situation. And for all the fact that Britain is always portrayed as being allied with the Americans, the Americans were not very good allies, they fought their own war and they were exacting a very high [price], and so the British government knew full well that it would have to pay up at the end of the war and its influence would be severely restricted because of that dependence on US policy. And that again and again influences Churchill’s pragmatism. Maybe you and I were not made to be politicians but quite clearly the reason that he’s a war leader is precisely because he’s able to, for all his emotionality, and he really is quite an emotional man, be brutal also. And if we come back to where we started, Poland was a very small player in what was a very big game and the game was the defeat of Germany and the restoration of British influence.