Polish Enigma movie protest (and why it's silly)

Some introductory comments

Spoiler warning

If you haven't seen the Enigma movie or read the book, you should note that this article gives away crucial things about the plot. So if you don't want to know at this point who the traitor is in the story do not read this article further.

My disclaimer

I have no connection with the movie other than being on good terms with some of the people who acted as technical consultants for the film. I am a fan of the film and am disappointed that it didn't draw a wider audience, but I also think I understand why.

Who's protesting

In an article published by the Polish American Congress (PAC), which states that it is an umbrella organization "representing at least 10 million Americans of Polish descent and origin". Whether all of those 10 million people feel pleased to have such an organization claim to represent them is something neither I nor the PAC can reasonably presume.

The particular protest is from the anti-bigotry committee of the PAC. Let me be the first to point out that I fully agree that there is a need for such a committee in America, particular to help educate Americans and correct for some truly unjustified anti-Polish bigotry that exists in this country. For those outside of the US or too young to be familiar with anti-Polish bigotry in the US it tends to take two forms. One form is of the "Polish Joke". These jokes are the same jokes that are known of in Britain as Irish jokes, in Germany as East Frissien jokes, and throughout communist countries as jokes about the police. In America Poles have been the unfortunate and undeserving victims of such jokes. The second form of anti-Polish bigotry that exists in the US is more pernicious. It presents war-time Poles as anti-Jewish Nazi sympathizers. This bigotry is reinforced by the fact that any incident of anti-Jewish behavior in Poland gets reported widely in the US. I don't wish to sound like an apologist for any anti-Jewish sentiment that may exist in Poland, I do feel that the situation has been reported disproportionately, unfairly singling out Poles. My own (inexpert opinion) is that anti-Jewish bigotry runs wide, but not deep, through much of Europe. Poland is no better and no worse than the rest of the continent in that regard. I do believe that Poland has been treated unfairly by the American press in this particular respect.

The meat of the protest

Spoiler warning: I really do give away the guts of the mystery here. Reading this will remove much of the suspense of the movie.

Well, if you haven't figured it out by now, the protest is based on the fact that in this particular work of fiction, a Pole is the traitor. He is one of the code breakers at Bletchley Park working on breaking the German Enigma cipher. Instead he is leaking information to the Germans on how the code is being broken, advising them on ways to keep it secure. The motivation for his treachery is that he learns of the Katyn Massacre. He discovers this through reading broken Enigma messages sent by the Germans in the Ukraine reporting the discover of the bodies of 4000 Polish serviceman captured by the Soviet Union when it invaded Poland in 1939. His brother is among those prisoners murdered and buried in the Katyn forest.

Fiction and History

The traitor in the movie is fictional. Bletchley Park and its success at breaking axis codes and ciphers (most famously Enigma) is real. The Katyn massacre is also real. And the war time situation in Poland was complicated. We must remember that for people in Poland the allies were not so much Britain and the US, but more the Soviet Union, which along with Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939. If some Poles in that situation felt ambivalent toward the allies, we shouldn't be too quick to condemn them. (But note an interesting and informative response to this below.) Americans of Polish descent appear to have shown no such ambivalence, and fought bravely and loyally during the war.

The protest

Yet the PAC has specifically protested that the traitor in the movie is a Pole. Their protest letter is titled More Dishonesty About Poland In World War II. I reproduce the text (as of October 7, 2002) of the core of it here, but please refer to their site http://www.polamcon.org/enigma.htm for proper attribution.

New York--The British film "Enigma" is another stark example of the way the history of World War II is twisted and misrepresented.

Rather than just state the facts and show how much Poland contributed to deciphering Nazi Germany's secret code even before the war began, it fictionalized the story and created a character who was a traitor and gave him a Polish identity.

When the movie was first shown in English theaters, historian Norman Davies issued a public statement pointing out its outrageous manipulation of truth.

Now that "Enigma" has come to U.S. movie houses, the Polish American Congress Anti-Bigotry Committee issued the following statement addressed to the Motion Picture Association of America:

Mr. Jack Valenti
Motion Picture Association of America, Inc.
15503 Venture Blvd.
Encino, CA 91436

Dear Mr. Valenti:
We had the pleasure of meeting you in 1989 when you visited the MPAA's New York office.

We were present there for a conference with Charlene Soltz to express our objections to the film "Raising Arizona" which had targeted Polish Americans with denigrating and insulting references.

The British film "Enigma" is currently being distributed in the U.S. We would like to call your attention to the fact it is a movie, which has caused grave concern in the Polish community. It deliberately and invidiously misrepresents historical facts and implies they are true.

The Enigma machine was the instrument Nazi Germany used to transmit communications in a secret code. It was Polish cryptologists who were first to solve the mystery of the Enigma code and pass it on to the British for further development. In the movie, however, it is a Pole who is depicted as the villain of the entire story. Not only is Poland's important contribution to the ultimate Allied victory over Hitler completely obscured, but the audience is misled to conclude that the honor of this loyal and heroic nation was compromised.

We understand artistic privilege may allow for certain deviations from actual fact. But we question if there is any justification for intentionally fictionalizing the historical record and leaving the audience with the impression it is true. From the time the Nazis and Communists invaded Poland and began World War II in 1939, anti-Polish propaganda is something our community has had to contend with. It is disturbing, however, to see that some in the movie industry have often engaged in it themselves. More so when we observe it continues after so many years since the war.

Sincerely yours,
Frank Milewski, Chair
Anti-Bigotry Committee

Letters to and from the PAC

Seeing this prompted me to send the following message (some of my spelling errors have been corrected) to the email address listed on the PAC website. It sums up my feelings of why the protest is doing a disservice to those whom the PAC claims to serve.
Date: Sat, 5 Oct 2002 07:04:57 -0700 (PDT)
From: Jeffrey Goldberg
To: pacchgo
Subject: Enigma movie protest

Dien dobre,

I have no connection to the Enigma movie, but was surprised and saddened to see your reaction to it in


It is true that the traitor in the movie (and book it is based on) is Polish. And his motivation is connected to the Katyn massacre. Just as there have been real and fictional British and American traitors portrayed in film, I see no offense in a fictional Polish one.

Furthermore, the film, if anything, helps communicate a small bit of the difficulties war time Poles felt in terms of alliances. The two foreign armies that Poland experienced during the war had started by invading Poland. Given the circumstances, it should not be a surprise that some Poles would feel ambivalent about supporting an alliance that included Stalin, particularly after the Katyn massacre came to light.

I do not think that you do your community any service by pretending to deny that such ambivalence occurred among some Poles. Reminding us of how bravely and loyally Polish-Americans fought during the war would be useful. Reminding us of the Polish contribution to the breaking of the enigma cipher would be useful. Using the opportunity of the film to remind Americans of the tragedy that befell Poland would be useful. But protesting a Polish character who betrays the allies because of his hatred for Stalin only discredits you.

You are correct to fight the (hopefully fading) bigotry that can exist in the US against Poles. But misinformation shouldn't be replaced with more misinformation. It should be replaced with a deeper and more nuanced understanding.

I would point out that the Enigma movie is the only popular source I've seen which even attempts to acknowledge the Polish contribution to war time cryptanalysis. I am surprised that you found the movie as somehow anti-Polish.


Jeffrey Goldberg http://www.goldmark.org/jeff/
Relativism is the triumph of authority over truth, convention over justice

The PAC's response

In my letter (above) I said that in combating anti-Polish bigotry "misinformation shouldn't be replaced with more misinformation. It should be replaced with a deeper and more nuanced understanding." I will leave it to the reader to decide whether the PAC agrees with me or not.
Date: Mon, 7 Oct 2002 21:16:43 -0500
From: T. Ron Jasinski-Herbert
To: Jeffrey Goldberg
Cc: PAC in Chicago
Subject: Re: Enigma movie protest

Dear Mr. Goldberg:

Thank you for writing. Your message was directed to my office.

I understand the point you are making. However, it seems to many Polish Americans that it is inappropriate to have the role of the traitor represented by a Pole, although in fact Poles were actually the heroes. The historic truth is that it was Poles who broke the Enigma Code. To stray so far from actuality does not indicate a "friendly" attitude.

T. Ron Jasinski-Herbert
Director of Public Relations
Polish National Alliance

> ----- Original Message -----
[original of my (JPG's) message was here]

That is the record of our discussion (so far). If I were an American of Polish decent, I would be embarrassed to have such an entity claim to represent me. But others may disagree.

Polish contribution

The contribution of Polish mathematicians to the analysis of the Enigma cipher is truly remarkable. There is a somewhat skewed account of the Polish contribution to breaking Enigma by a Polish historian. It correctly presents the Polish contribution, but to talk about it as "breaking Enigma" is technically correct, but also misleading. It was truly brilliant work, but much more needed to be done, and that occurred at Bletchley Park. Update 4 Dec, 2002: an English version of Marian Rejewski's 1980 paper in Applicaciones Mathemematicae is finally available on-line from Frode Weierud's cryptography site.

Another account of the Polish contribution (PDF) is available. And likewise it bitterly complains that the British failed to give due credit to the Poles.

In my unsystematic reading of these things, the British authors writing about their code breaking activity wrote largely about their own code breaking activity, and never claimed to be doing otherwise. That is, they were effectively writing memoirs and not histories. More recent histories do properly present the history of the Polish contribution. So I do not feel that they slighted the Polish contribution. Indeed, when I last visited the Bletchley Park Museum it had a substantial room on the tour dedicated to the Polish contribution. And it is featured in the Breaking of Enigma by the Polish Mathematicians page at Tony Sale's virtual tour of Bletchley Park.

What you can do

There are far more important issues than silly and misguided protest of an uncontroversial movie. There really is no need to take action. But if you feel inclined to do something, please let the Polish American Committee know <pacchgo@www.polamcon.org> that you think that they are making themselves look silly. If you are of Polish origin and decent, please be sure to note that as well.

The last word

Mr. Jasinski-Herbert (Director of Public Relations of the Polish American Congress) has sent a very thoughtful response to the above. While there are still points of disagreement, I am very happy to give him the last word
Date: Tue, 8 Oct 2002 21:40:27 -0500 From: T. Ron Jasinski-Herbert
To: Jeffrey Goldberg
Cc: PAC in Washington, PAC in Chicago
Subject: Re: Enigma movie protest

Dear Mr. Goldberg:

I have read your comments at your website. Your statements regarding the unfair use of so-called "Polish Jokes" and your views regarding the myth of Polish anti-Semitism are much appreciated.

On the other hand, you have an unusual view of history. "Ambivalence" is not an accurate word regarding Polish views of the Allies and the Soviet Union, as the vast majority of Poles clearly supported the Allies (as evidenced by the Home Army) and a much smaller number were sympathetic to communism. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons which are too complex to discuss here, some minorities within Poland were more inclined to look toward the Soviet Union in a misguided hope for some form of autonomy. It would be difficult to find a similar affinity for the Nazis that might be worthy of historical note. Ambivalence was not the operating factor.

Unlike other European nations, Poland had virtually no Fifth Column. Collaborators were far less prevalent than elsewhere, largely because of Polish patriotic spirit, but also due to the fact that the Nazis considered Poles to be "untermenschen" unworthy of partnership. Employing a Pole as the traitor in "Enigma" gives a false impression to the movie-going public, one that is particularly unfortunate for just the reasons that you give in your own comments.

I suggest that a further study of Poland in World War II might give you a better understanding of the underlying issues.

Finally, your unabashed antipathy toward the Polish American Congress and the Polish National Alliance, unquestionably the two leading Polish American organizations, is puzzling. Both have long histories of patriotic spirit and action in regard to both the United States and Poland. Why you should find it so distasteful that these groups should attempt to defend the Polish image, even if you may feel that a particular effort is misguided, is totally mystifying.

T. Ron Jasinski-Herbert
Director of Public Relations
Polish National Alliance

> ----- Original Message -----
[My (JPG's) message informing him of this site was here.]

Version: $Revision: 1.6 $
Last Modified: $Date: 2002/12/04 23:25:44 $ GMT
First established October 7, 2002
Author: Jeffrey Goldberg