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“Much of what we know about the September campaign of 1939 is wrong”: 5 minutes with Roger Moorhouse

Ahead of our 2019 History Weekends in Chester and Winchester, we caught up with historian Roger Moorhouse to find out what to expect from his talk on one of the “most misunderstood” campaigns of the Second World War…

Roger Moorhouse. (By hyattstudios.co.uk)
Published: September 3, 2019 at 10:33 am
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What can audiences look forward to in your talk?


Thrills, spills, heroism, villainy, betrayal: all of human life is there! Seriously, the September campaign of 1939 has a good claim to be the forgotten campaign of the Second World War. Outside of Poland, precious little is known about it – and most of what we think we know is wrong. So this talk will aim to illuminate, educate and set some of the mythology straight. It’s a much more interesting and nuanced story than many of us would think.

Buy tickets for 'Poland 1939: The Forgotten Campaign of World War Two'

Why are you so fascinated by this topic?

I’ve always been attracted to those areas of history that are relevant but, for various reasons, have been ignored. The September campaign falls squarely into that category: it had a total death toll of around 200,000, so was hardly a side show; it saw many of the hideous innovations that would feature in the later conflict, and – of course – it was the campaign that brought Britain and France into the war, transforming it into a world war. So, there is a lot there to discuss – which makes it all the more surprising that it has traditionally been ignored.

Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history…

The well-known misconception of this campaign is that the Polish sent their cavalrymen against German tanks. In truth, the Polish cavalry generally fought dismounted and could be surprisingly effective against infantry, and even enjoyed some successes using their traditional mounted charge. They even won a cavalry-on-cavalry battle at [Polish town] Krasnobród – one of the last such engagements in military history.

Where is your favourite historical place to visit?

I’ve travelled widely in central Europe over the last few years and I think some of the region’s old cities – such as Gdańsk, Prague, Kraków or Wrocław – are among the most fascinating places in the world, with a rich, dynamic history and beautiful architecture. I think they’d be tough to beat.

Which history book made the most impact on you?

Oh, so many! I’ve long been a fan of the work of Norman Davies, my former professor and co-author(!), and have enjoyed Antony Beevor’s contributions to the reinvigoration of military history. For me, a great history book should tackle a new or little-studied subject, and should do so with a thoughtful, insightful approach combining narrative and analysis. It’s a tall order, so consequently I think there are only a few that have really stood out, among them Neal Ascherson’s Black Sea, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, and Anne Applebaum’s Gulag. All are fascinating subjects, brilliantly told. But, if we are measuring emotional impact, the only books that succeeded in giving me nightmares were Beevor’s Stalingrad and Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning. Both outstanding in very different ways.

Which area of history would you like to see made into a film or television series?

Tough question. I tend to avoid ‘history’ on TV as it is mostly awful, and history on the big screen is usually subject to all the compromises and fudges that tend to leave historians squirming in the stalls. I guess I don’t mind which area of history is picked up for film and TV, but I’d like it to be sensitively done, with nuance, imagination and complexity, and a budget for experts in the relevant field to be brought on board to advise. That way, we might have a fighting chance of producing something worthwhile.


Roger Moorhouseis a historian specialising in modern German and Central European history. He will be speaking about the German invasion of Poland, one of the most misunderstood campaigns of the Second World War, at our 2019 History Weekends in York and Winchester. Find out more about our History Weekends here.

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