- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Two weeks ago, CNBC’s Mad Money show did a segment on the ailing health of department stores around the country — not normally grist for diplomats sensitive to a slight. But on Tuesday, the Polish Embassy in Washington released an incensed statement about the segment, accusing U.S. media of “recycling Nazi propaganda.”
So what just happened?
On May 11, Mad Money host Jim Cramer compared the struggling department store Macy’s to Poland’s early efforts against the German Wehrmacht in World War II. “Macy’s is like the Polish Army in WWII — it tried to field cavalry against German tanks and it did not end well,” he said.
The Polish Embassy in Washington issued a fiery response to Cramer, demanding he apologize for comments that were “unnecessary, inaccurate, and insensitive.”
Cramer was recycling an oft-cited tale of Polish lancers who supposedly charged German tanks at the outset of World War II — making it the very epitome of blinkered futility.
The problem is that never actually happened, and it’s become a huge sore spot for Poland ever since.
“Not once did the Polish Army deploy cavalry against German tanks,” the embassy statement said. “This is pure Nazi and Communist propaganda that continues to weave its way into Western media reports to this very day.”
The myth likely stems from the Battle of Krojanty in September 1939 at the outset of World War II, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. On the first day of the war, Polish cavalry charged a German infantry battalion. They initially broke the German ranks, until a counterattack by armored cars with machine guns turned the balance. The charge ended up inflicting heavy losses on the Poles but it worked, delaying the German advance and allowing other Polish forces to retreat. There were no tanks on the battlefield.
But Nazi propagandists spun this battle and other encounters with Polish cavalry — horse was a big component of the Polish army — as vindication of the Wehrmacht’s technical modernity and tactical superiority.
Poles hate the myth because it cheapens what they actually did in the war. As war historian Ben Macintyre wrote: “The Polish contribution to Allied victory in the Second World War was extraordinary, perhaps even decisive, but for many years it was disgracefully played down, obscured by the politics of the Cold War.”
The Allies cracked German codes — Enigma — thanks to Poles, who snared the first, priceless encryption set for examination. Some 250,000 Polish troops served with the British during the war, including during the Battle of Britain, and an estimated 400,000 fought off the Nazis on the homefront in guerrilla warfare that helped chew up the Nazi war machine — a martial contribution the lancers-versus-tanks myth fails to convey.
“If the mainstream media is to be respected by viewers, it cannot recycle old Nazi propaganda,” the Polish embassy statement reads. “We ask that Mr. Cramer apologize for his insensitive comparison and that viewers of Mad Money be made aware of the historical inaccuracy of the statement in question,” the statement concludes.
Mad Money did not immediately respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment.
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