NY Times Sept. 1, 1939war

Haven’t we seen this before?

*Front page, on September 1, 1939, when Nazi forces invaded Poland in a stunning Blitzkrieg attack. (NY Times archives)

Russia’s assault on Ukraine evokes memories of September 1, 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland.

Footage of Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine is eerily like watching a History Channel special on the origins of World War II in Europe. The deliberation on Putin’s part, the brutality of the assault, and his defiance in the face of nearly global condemnation mirror the resolve of Hitler’s attack on Poland on September 1, 1939. While the world watches, the similarity of these events suggest how Putin’s adventure in Ukraine will end – that is, badly. But at what cost to its victims? We can only hope and pray that the toll will not extract the cost in human life and resources as Putin’s predecessor did in 1939.

Adolph Hitler saluting troops
Adolph Hitler salutes German troops crossing the Vistula River in Northern Poland at the beginning of World War II. (Poland National Digital Archives)
German troops
German soldiers consistently tore down Polish government insignias to establish their cultural and political dominance of the region just as Putin seeks to do in Ukraine. (German Federal Archives)

W. H. Auden (1907-1973), a well-known British poet/playwright who became an American citizen, wrote the poem on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. For complex personal reasons, Auden attempted to ban its publication from his later collections. However, “September 1, 1939” remained wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic.  For many the poem evokes a sad sense of déjà vu as Putin’s senseless invasion of Ukraine unfolds before the world.

September 1, 1939

From Another Time, by W. H. Auden – 1907-1973, published by Random House. © 1940

Another Time by W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,*
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good …

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

*Linz, the Austrian city where Hitler grew up. (Send comments to helenbreen@comcast.net)

Categories: war

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8 replies »

  1. Learn about the doomed or cursed soldiers of Poland after the Russians “liberated” Poland in 1944. The Polish Army soldiers were hunted down, arrested, and executed. One was my great uncle. Check out Doomedsoldiers.com for more information.

    • Donnagawell, thank you for reminding us of the bravery of Polish soldiers even as the WWII was winding down. Indeed, geography is destiny making the Polish homeland so vulnerable throughout history. I checked out Doomedsoldiers, a very heart wrenching account of their sacrifice.

      I would like to suggest a fascinating memoir of the period – THE LAST MAZURKA, A Family Tale of War, Passion, and Loss by Andrew Tarnowski – a story of three generations of a noble Polish family through two world wars and in exile. Their resiliency was amazing.

  2. Many thanks to the readers below for your thoughtful comments on this tragic situation in Ukraine as seen through the prism of modern European history. Peace!

  3. It’s actually more like Czechoslovakia in 1939 where Hitler used the German ethnics there as reason to invade. Essentially gambling that France would not honor its alliance and the rest of the West would give him a free hand. Which, of course, they did.

    Now, actual Poland could be next in Putin’s grand plan to reconstitute the Russian Empire.

    The seriousness of events is made clear by how the Germans are taking the NATO lead. Something, considering their history, they have always steadfastly avoided.

    Know this, the are many sons and grandsons, in the Bundeswehr who’d love a go at the Russians. History has a long shelf life.

    If a protracted struggle develops, you will see German mercenaries on the ground in Ukraine. This will create dilemmas that make the current situation seem quaint. It’s not a coincidence that Putin used NAZIS and fascism in his run up rhetorical propaganda.

  4. I totally agree – Putin is justifying the Ukraine invasion to reunite “Russian” territories. Restoring the USSR prior to 1989. That’s what Hitler did annexing Austria, Poland, Sudetenland….while England, France sat idle hoping to appease Hitler while they were recovering from the 1st world war and economic depression. Let’s learn from history and don’t allow this to repeat and expand. Putin has gone mad and is a power hungry tyrant…. denazification of the Ukraine???? That’s absurd, The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy is jewish.

  5. I don’t remember that but Hitler was mad or crazy whatever, Stalin was, Napoleon was so think Putin is following along those paths.

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