Accountability?



Driving home last Sunday just before four, I caught the tail end of a play on RNZ—something to do with German soldiers having to account for the number of bullets they used.

The absurd recount ended with complaints from the soldiers about having to waste a second bullet on an old woman who had run faster than they expected. Before I could change channels, I heard the word “Polish.”  

I had been disappointed at the dearth of media coverage regarding the Polish contribution to the Allies in WW2, such as in the Battles of Britain and Monte Cassino, and Falaise, so the radio had my attention again. I heard “Polish” repeated, then “Pomeranian,” “cavalry,” and “German tanks.”  

Minutes later the play ended with the Germans laughing at the stupidity of the Polish cavalry charging at German tanks.

I knew it was untrue. I got home still fuming that this kind of programming is allowed in our supposedly enlightened New Zealand, in a society that said, “This is not Us” post Christchurch just six months ago, and on what I consider a reputable radio station.

­­­­I grew up with these kinds of disparaging innuendos against the Poles, and they are what made me distrust history, so often written with an Anglo-western slant, following Churchill’s mantra, “History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it.”

What makes lies like the Polish cavalry-German tank myth so powerful, so difficult to dispel?

It started, apparently, after the Germans invited two Italian journalists to view the aftermath of one of the first battles of WW2.

They saw dead horses, dead Polish cavalrymen, and German tanks, and jumped to the incorrect conclusion that they were all connected in the same battle, whereas the tanks had arrived well after a Polish cavalry unit did indeed charge—at a resting German infantry division.

The incident happened in Krojanty, on the then north-western Polish border with Germany, on the evening of the first day of WW2, 1 September 1939. Units from the 18th Pomeranian Uhlans, saw German infantrymen in a clearing south of the Tuchola forest. Their commander, Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz, decided to surprise the Germans and ordered the cavalry charge that evening.

The Poles scattered the Germans, and occupied the clearing for long enough to allow the Polish 1st Rifle Battalion and the National Defence Battalion, Czersk, to withdraw from the nearby battle of Chojnice.  

Their diversion came at a heavy cost. German armoured units appeared and, as the uhlans retreated, killed up to 25, and wounded up to 50. Squadron leader, Eugeniusz Świeściak and Colonel Mastelarz, who tried to save him, were among the dead.  

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In a way, I can’t blame the Nazis for using the incorrect Italian story for their war propaganda.

And I don’t expect anything else from the Soviets who used the same disinformation, when they were controlling Poland post-WW2, as an example of unprepared Polish commanders wasting their soldiers’ lives.  

But I can’t get my head around the fact that this fabrication was still being taught in history classes in British and American high schools until well into the 1990s.

And why, in 2017, did a US television host on CBNC think it was appropriate to compare then problems at Macy’s department stores, with the Polish cavalry?

The Polish Embassy in Washington was right onto that one:

“… [Jim Cramer’s] statement was unnecessary, inaccurate, and insensitive.

“To compare the service of men and women in uniform to a department store is wholly out of place. Additionally, the historical facts simply do not support [his] comparison… Alone and outgunned, Poland mustered every unit it could to defend the unprovoked attack.

“… not once in 1939 did the Polish Army deploy cavalry against German tanks. This is pure Nazia and Communist propaganda that continues to weave its way into Western media reports… If the mainstream media is to be respected by viewers, it cannot recycle old Nazi propaganda.

“… in 1939 there were a number of recorded Polish cavalry charges against the invading Nazi German forces. These charges were directed against infantry, artillery, supplies, and at times as a means of breaking out of encirclement, but never against tanks…”

The play that RNZ aired on 15 September 2019, was called Accountability by a Roger O Thornhill. I wanted to be sure of what I heard before I made a formal complaint, and tried to find a copy of the play. Nothing, and the only Roger O Thornhill I could find was a fictional character played by Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest. When a librarian friend found the same as I did, I emailed the radio station to ask for help.

The first person to answer said that while RNZ held broadcasting rights, it could not host the play online. I asked whether I could get a copy, and said the only Roger O Thornhill I could find was a fictional character.

The second person to answer said that the play was from the RNZ archives, and it was “very unlikely it will be replayed.” Also, that he suspected Roger O Thornhill was a nom de plume for a satirist.

I suggested that RNZ trash the play. I also argued whether it was appropriate, in an apparently “This is not Us” enlightened New Zealand. I also suggested that describing it as “black comedy” and warning that “some people might find it difficult to accept” in no way let RNZ off the hook.

A third person from RNZ suggested that Accountability was presented “not as a factual programme” but as a “satire in which nothing was as it seemed.”

That did not account for the fact that the commentary about the play on 15 September’s Standing Room Only playlist states that “the only thing more farcical than the play is the fact that it was based mostly on things that really happened.”

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The Collins English Dictionary defines satire as “the use of humour or exaggeration in order to show how foolish or wicked some people’s behaviour or ideas are.”

The Cambridge Dictionary defines satire as “a way of criticising people or ideas in a humorous way in order to make a political point.”

Merriam-Webster says satire is “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.”

I am not sure that Poland, a country protecting itself in the first days of the Nazi Blitzkrieg, 80 years ago this month, deserves any type of ridicule.

And I am not sure why RNZ insists on keeping the play in its archive.

The third person said that RNZ was “no longer making radio plays and none of the staff who produced plays in 1999 are still with RNZ” and that he could not help me further.

I replied to that third person, attaching the May 2017 information, and the full response from the Polish Embassy in Washington. I suggested that to keep the play in the RNZ archives was to sanction it, and to allow some future programmer, ignorant of the history, to re-use it, and continue in the perpetuation the propaganda.

As of today, 25 September 2019, no response.

Stand up and show yourself, “Roger O Thornhill.” Or, if this is the collective name for a committee of RNZ “staff who produced plays in 1999,” show yourselves. Hiding behind a nom de plume is, to me, cowardice.

Accountability? Surely that lies with the programmers on duty two Sundays ago?

Years ago, I may have let this go, but today I know better. I refuse to allow this kind of prejudice to continue without a challenge, and will not be brushed off with an “I’m sorry I can’t help you further.”

—Barbara Scrivens

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