After seeing the superbly acted and directed Imitation Game, I decided to write a bit about the history of Enigma since Poles don’t necessarily get the credit they deserve in the film. Whereas the film wonderfully highlighted an important contribution to the war effort, as well as the personal tragedy of Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and the fight for women to have equal opportunities in men-dominated fields, the film’s overall treatment of the Polish mathematicians and cryptologists leaves something to be desired.
However, as I was working on this article, I found a superbly written letter by the Ambassador of the Polish Republic to the UK which highlights precisely these issues. Thus, I will limit myself to general comments and you can read his article for more details here.
The film stresses that the world thought Enigma unbreakable but Turing, played by Cumberbatch, confidently asserted that he should be allowed a go and then we’d know for sure. Confident remark considering that Marian Rejewski, with the help of Henryk Zygalski, Jerzy Różycki and French-supplied materials broke the Enigma in 1932 using math and not linguistics. At the same time, the British and French intelligence, despite obtaining cipher keys from a German spy were not able to break the code. Increasing complexity added to Enigma made it more and more difficult to break the codes and required ever increasing manpower. So, in 1938, Rejewski built a machine, called bomba kryptologiczna, to speed up the process. The bomba did the work of a hundred workers. The Polish contribution, as mentioned in the film, was that the Poles smuggled Enigma out of Berlin, and that the Enigma Turing was about to break was infinitely more difficult. It seems strange the writers of the script would opt for that considering the Polish contributions to breaking Enigma are well known and it’s often quoted as one of the Pole’s greatest contributions to the war effort. If that was not enough, the first time Enigma was broken during the war was in 1940. In France. By the aforementioned gentlemen. In the presence of Alan Turing. One wonders if the British would have even employed mathematicians if they haven’t seen the Polish contributions since up to that point, linguists were working on decoding. A 1979 Polish film called Sekret Enigmy highlights the three mathematicians. One scene shows the Poles giving their British and French counterparts all their documentation and two copies of Enigma built by the Poles. The only condition is that the Poles be given credit for what they’ve done.
This past week or so, a bit of a storm brewed in the Polish-American circles after an article in the Hudson Valley Magazine quoted Paul Ackermann, identified as a museum specialist with the U.S. Military Academy Museum, who opined that Kościuszko’s legend is “extremely overrated,” claimed that he “learned on the job, but was not a highly skilled engineer,” and that “[h]is only wound in seven years of service was a bayonet in the buttocks while leading an unsuccessful siege.”
This lead to a strong reply from Alex Storozynski (addressed to Lt. General Robert Caslan, Jr., Superintendent of the United States Military Academy) who pointed out not only pointed out that Kościuszko studied with the best engineers in Europe, but that a great number of historians confirmed his incredible role during the fight for “your independence and ours.” Kościuszko’s advice was not followed at Fort Ticonderoga, and the British took the fort. In the battle of Saratoga, Americans followed his advice, won the battle, and turned the war in their favor. As to his war injuries, the doctors that examined Kościuszko at the end of his life were surprised he could still stand due to all his injuries. Actually having an officer school was Kościuszko’s idea, which Jefferson followed.
Some of his non-military ideas included equal rights for Blacks, Jews, serfs, Native Americans and women. During the Kościuszko Uprising he created the first Jewish army since biblical times, and wrote in his will that the money the American government owed him should be used by his good friend Thomas Jefferson to free and educate slaves. Due to his inborn nature, he refused promotion a number of times until George Washington wouldn’t hear of it. He also composed a polonaise for the harpsichord which would become a popular patriotic song during the 1830 Uprising in Poland.
Just as Enigma, this is a strange choice, perhaps Kazimierz Pułaski would have been an easier target? Yes, he is the father of American cavalry but he was cocky. On the other hand he saved Washington’s life and died for liberty.
Dr. Anthony Bajdek, founder and president of the American Association of the Friends of Kosciuszko at West Point and Lt. General Edward Rowny, 1941 Academy graduate also wrote to Lt. General Caslan to express their shock and disbelief at the statements. Lt. General Rowny is responsible for setting up a fund which upkeeps Kościuszko’s Garden at West Point.
A reply from Lt. General Caslen,stressed that there would be no West Point without Kościuszko and that Paul Ackermann’s statements are not represent the official views of the Academy, but asserted that Paul Ackermann has the right to his own, differing opinion.