Polonophobia in WWII Hollywood and Its Legacy

Review of Hollywood’s War with Poland 1939-1945, by M. B. B. Biskupski. 2010. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.  Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis

Polonophobia in WWII Hollywood and Its Legacy

The author has examined numerous WWII-era Hollywood films, evaluated them for their content on Poland (usually absent, seldom neutral or positive, and frequently negative), compared them with portrayals of other Allied nationalities, and diagnosed the reasons for these developments.  It all boiled down to how Poles were seen, who had an interest in belittling Poland, and what little capability the Poles had for getting the truth out.

One factor was racism, which was certainly not limited to blacks: “In general the new immigrants were not well received by American society, which regarded them as inferior to the older stock of Americans. In 1902, Woodrow Wilson described Poles, along with Hungarians and Italians, as ‘men of a meaner sort’ possessing ‘neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence’. They were a ‘coarse crew’, even less desirable than the Chinese. Such views were widespread in American society.” (p. 170). Not surprisingly, films were stilted. Blacks, Hispanics, and Poles were virtually absent, Jews and Italians were present, and the Irish were ubiquitous. (p. 188).

Second, Poland’s achievements and sufferings had never resonated with Americans: “There was no conspiracy against Poland in wartime America, in part because none was needed. America, in general, was not concerned with Poland. The Poles in America were insignificant.” (p. 230).

Third, leading figures in Hollywood were Jews, especially Polish Jews. (pp. 213-on). Some of them nursed old grudges and, in effect, conducted a vendetta against Poland on film. This was notably true of the Warner Brothers, who had been born in Poland under a different name. (pp. 175-176, 218). When confronted, by Polish-American organizations, with the gross distortions of Poles in their films, the Warner Brothers brushed it off and resorted to lie-and-deny tactics. (pp. 101-104).

Fourth, Communists and other leftists had a strong influence in Hollywood. Their job was NOT to promote Communist ideology, but rather to defend Soviet conduct at all times, and to smear anyone who disagrees. (This led to the awkward situation of defending the Nazi-Soviet alliance of 1939-1941: p.63). The demonization of Poland was consistent with this strategy, as well as with the prevailing slavishly pro-USSR policy of FDR. Biskupski lists specific radical leftists who were leaders in the smearing of Poland. (p. 201).

In addition, the leftists were forward-looking in their Poland-defaming tactics. Biskupski writes: “The Russian war effort was not in any way dependent on Americans’ thinking that the pre-1939 Polish government was a band of reactionary friends of fascism or that Polish Americans were an obscure community of misfits and incompetents requiring extended processing before becoming fit company for Irish, Italian, and Jewish Americans.” (p. 209). Rather, this served to prepare American public opinion for the post-WWII imposition of the Soviet puppet government on Poland.

The fate of the Poles on film contrasts with that of the Irish. The latter successfully repudiated their earlier portrayals as hooligans and drunks, and forced Hollywood to consistently respect them. (pp. 20-21).

Biskupski provides corrective details for the distortions in war films. For instance, the number of Poles killed by 1939 German bombing of Warsaw, or even of the little town of Wielun, dwarfs that of much-mentioned 1940 Rotterdam. (p. 285). When it comes to aerial fighters, the real eagles were not Americans, but Poles.  Polish fliers inflicting 3 times the German losses, at a cost of a quarter of the losses, of the Americans. (p. 280). As for secret agents under the German occupation, there were about 40,000 Polish ones against the much-featured 2,500 French agents. (p. 55). Lidice, an oft-featured village in Czechoslovakia, was destroyed by the Germans. In Poland, there were thousands of American-ignored Lidices. (p. 317). Total Polish losses in WWII are in the 4.5-7.5 million range. (p. 298).[Including 3 million Polish Jews.]

This book has disturbing implications for the present. Much has changed. The once poverty-stricken Polish immigrants have given way to a vibrant Polish-American community that is, economically speaking, among the five most successful ethnic groups in America. On the other hand, nothing has changed. The influence of Poles in politics, and popular culture, remains virtually nil.  Poles and Poland continue to be defined by Poland’s enemies. Americans form their opinions about Poles and Poland based on the pronouncements of anti-Polish Jews, notably in Holocaust materials. Will the Poles ever learn?

By piotrbein