In September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. With thousands of tanks and planes, the invasion was short and victory was absolute. Two days later, Hitler’s steady advancement across European borders was finally curtailed by the Allied declaration of war. It would be the last, world-encompassing dying breath of an empire that once spanned a quarter of the world, an empire that had already sustained massive social and military erosion since the First World War.
“I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” Winston Churchill, Prime Minister
Winston Churchill was not Prime Minister when war was declared — Neville Chamberlain was — so most of his rousing, now-renowned speeches came later, after the fall of France. Ironically, it took Britain’s biggest failure in war to see Churchill become the prime minister. The Battle of Britain followed, as did the joining of the war by the Americans. Bridging both the Atlantic and the 250-year imperial divide created by the American Revolutionary War, Roosevelt effectively, excuse the Americanism, ‘saved our asses’.
The rest is history. Messy, corpse-riddled history. But this story isn’t about America, or even England; it’s about my visit to the Poland in 2008. A trip down a cobbled, dark lane littered with the shadows of my Jewish ancestors. I stood where Hitler had stood. Hitler commanded a vast audience that filled the streets of Danzig (Gdansk) as he delivered his first victory speech. While he spoke and the occupants of Danzig gawped at their new charismatic, self-deprecating emperor, Germany’s vastly superior army was busy destroying the scattered, fragmented remnants of the Polish military.
And do you know the scariest bit about his speech? Not his passion, or immensely self-righteous attitude, nor the propoganda or his fantastic oratory control. It’s the last few words of his speech:
“We are determined to carry on and stand this war one way or another. We have only this one wish, that the Almighty, who now has blessed our arms, will now perhaps make other peoples understand and give them comprehension of how useless this war, this debacle of peoples, will be intrinsically, and that He may perhaps cause reflection on the blessings of peace which they are sacrificing because a handful of fanatic warmongers, persons who stand to gain by war, want to involve peoples in war.” Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of the Reich
Another war, another crusade. One more Earth-shaking tirade in the name of God! However, this won’t be about God or the atrocities committed for and in his name, I’ve already written more than enough on that topic… at least for now. No, this trip was simply to see Poland, to see a friend, to sample the food and the culture. This wasn’t the stereotypical trip to Auschwitz; the kind of trip that many Jews take in a fruitless attempt to absorb a tiny fraction of what war-time Poland must’ve been like for our ancestors. I can’t begin to conceive what the Holocaust was like, and I have no idea how many members of my family were mercilessly slaved and later executed.
(Old town Sopot, close to where Hitler delivered his victory speech, and one of my favourite photos!)
I couldn’t hope to experience the past, but I could certainly go and see what had become of the trading city of Gdansk (Danzig), 60 years on. I had been lured by my Canadian friend Mike, enticed by sleazy, hedonistic promises:
‘Just come for the weekend, Seb. You just have to pay for the flight, I’ll pay for everything else.’
‘Even the hot, Eastern European kurwas?’ Without missing a beat, I’d used one of the few words I’d learnt from my trip to Serbia (pretty photos and a fun story!)
‘If you want some certified-diseased prostitutes, Seb, we can do that… just bring your health insurance documents.’ Mike sounded awfully experienced in the ways of fleeting, paid-by-the-hour love.
‘I’ll see you on Friday.’
The next part will chronicle my long weekend in the Tricity of Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot: the first of many cheap hookers; one of the few times I’ve had acute alcohol poisoning AND… of course there will be more, awful photos of me.