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review of “The Evil Neighbour”

“Zly Sasiad – The Evil Neighbour” by Antoni Szymanski.

Edited and Published by Mirek Malevski. London 2018. ISBN: 978-1-99997-860-0

288pp. Illustrations and maps.  £25


2018 is the centenary year of celebration for the restitution of Polish independence. We should remember that Great Britain and France went to war with Germany in September 1939 in defence of that independence. With this in mind, we should thank Mirek Malevski for overseeing the publication of this, the first and highly-acclaimed English translation, of the   important 1959 memoir by Colonel Antoni Szymanski, a distinguished soldier who was Poland’s military attaché in Berlin from 1932 to 1939. The book is interesting at many different levels.

One is immediately reminded that Poland did not have to await the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and his NSDAP to witness the treaty-breaking re-armament of Germany and an extreme hostility to the very existence of an independent Poland. From the very start General von Seeckt turned the Versailles-restricted Reichswehr into a 100,000-strong cadre for the rapid expansion of the German army; he filtered military expenditure through various civilian ministries; he famously developed every kind of ‘forbidden’ technology deep within the Soviet Union.  It is interesting to see that German military professionals had no problem with such a close relationship with their ideological opposites; they saw Russia as a ‘natural ally’.  One can only try and imagine what it was like for a Polish officer to be engaged in conversation by a seemingly-rational German officer during which your country was described as ‘ephemeral’.

Given the severely restricted size and nature of the German military, it is entirely understandable that Poland’s main defence concern was with the USSR on its eastern border. They were fully aware of the depth of German-Soviet military co-operation, which seems to have been freely discussed.  Hence the Anti-Comintern pacts signed by Germany with Italy and Japan in 1936 were a sharp break with German military preparations of many years’ standing, and when German generals began to express deep concerns about Hitler’s drive towards war, it was only because they planned to be ‘war-ready’ by, say, 1944 and he was ‘jumping the gun’.  It was a purely Nazi party scheme to plant espionage evidence against the talented Marshal Tukachevsky that unleashed the wholesale Stalinist massacre of the Soviet officer corps.

Having been closely familiar with the German military before 1933, it is interesting to follow Szymanski’s awakening to the rising problem of fascism in Germany.  He had been aware of the inherent thuggery of the Nazis before they seized power in 1933 but he is visibly shocked at the blatant violence and illegality of their public behaviour, and deeply troubled by the unwillingness of the German people to raise any objection.  It is this difficulty in believing that a civilised nation could tolerate such behaviour that goes a long way to explain how first evidence of the Holocaust was discounted in the West. It was, literally, unbelievable that people could behave in such a way.  Szymanski was always troubled in Hitler’s presence. “With Hitler I always sensed indifference and alienation”. He gives excellent descriptions of the inner workings of the German military and their staff work, and is very perceptive on the Nazis policy towards youth in particular. He produces strong evidence on Germany’s policy towards resident ethnic Poles – blatant and unashamed discrimination.

A decent man like Szymanski instinctively knew that bullies only respect strength and so he tried to warn his government of the long-term trouble building on their western border. It was not long before he was being called an ‘alarmist’. He catalogues the extreme provocation of border violations in 1938-39 by land, sea and air, and notes that, while the Polish government was seeking means of reaching out to Germany (appeasement?), the Polish military took firmer, successful measures to curb the intrusions. In a very poignant report he describes how German Jewish veterans of the First World War, wearing their Iron Crosses and emblems of the Stahlhelm veterans’ organisation, tried to defend their homes and property from Nazi thugs, all in vain. Some German officers gave him early warnings about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, including its military implications for Poland. (Whether they were anti-Nazi or just annoyed that Hitler was ‘kicking off’ too early is a moot point).  From several sources in 1939 he finally reported a German attack due on 28th August. The report was classified as ‘scaremongering’ and was filed away.  In one long, face-to-face discussion with a Polish minister he tried to explain that, while Russia might seek to change the way Poland was governed, only Germany was intent on wiping it from existence. It is a small comfort that in the very last days before the outbreak of war he received words of encouragement from an ordinary German taxi driver who hoped that Polish defiance would help to bring down the Nazi gang that had taken over his country.

With other diplomats, Szymanski was able to leave Germany via Scandinavia and re-join the Polish field army in time to fight for his homeland. He was captured by the Soviets and endured interrogation for two years in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison before being released for service with Polish forces fighting Germany. He ends his memoir with a ‘confession’: he had thought that Germany “as a nation at a high level of civilisation … would not be capable of carrying out pre-planned mass atrocities.  I was mistaken”.  He explains that it was with a measure of regret that he decided to call his book “The Evil Neighbour”.

The memoir is supported by well-researched and annotated photographs, and with a series of essays and biographical portraits by Mirek Malevski, who knew Colonel Szymanski when he lived in post-1945 London.  These tell us more of some great Polish patriots who have enriched the Anglo-Polish community and, as befits a member of the Women in War Group associated with the BCMH, is good on those strong Polish women without whom we would all be much the poorer.  The observations about Admiral Canaris, the anti-Nazi head of Germany’s Abwehr, and the women associated with him are a valuable addition to this interesting book. In a forceful and compelling Prologue, the editor raises the debate on whether, if A.J.P. Taylor could have read this book in English, he might have drawn very different conclusions in his work on the origins of the Second World War.

John Lee

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