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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Diagram of a Nation's Struggle Under Nazi and Soviet Occupation.

The Fall 2013 edition of Georgetown University Magazine has a cover article on Jan Karski, a celebrated and beloved Georgetown professor, who, among other things, was a resistance fighter in the Polish underground during World War II. His experiences, and the Polish peoples' at large during this terrible time are also discussed in Google's Cultural Institute, with support from the Polish History Museum.  

Among the striking stories, images and testimonies from people involved in the Polish struggle against both Nazi and Soviet occupation is a diagram that explains Poland's 'Underground State.'

This diagram has many wonderful elements.  It features panels with clean, simplistic icons and thumbnail illustrations that generate a simple but compelling visual harmony.  Each panel conveys an idea that is clearly and recognizably expressed without an excess of adornment or decoration.  Although the iconography is not as aesthetically clean or pure as the standards laid out by Otto Neurath's isotypes, the iconography effectively communicates ideas in a small but readable space.  

Take a look at the final row of iconography at the bottom of the diagram. On the left are weapons and armed personnel; on the right are citizens and their resources for sabotage.  The diagram is structured such that at the ground floor, the reader can tell what individual people like you and me can do for the cause. If people are free to fight, they can engage in diversionary activities, organized military sabotage, or partisan fighting groups. If people are tied to their families or productive economic resources, they can engage in civilian sabotage or underground justice. Higher up on the diagram, the viewer can see how actions are coordinated and directed by the larger organization. From the top down, and the bottom up, people are equally integral to the objectives of the underground state.  

War is hell, and that hell extends far beyond the battlefield. Here the diagram is unapologetic. There's a chilling glimpse of the black-and-white, summary nature of justice in the three panels labelled 'underground justice'.  And the panels labelled 'information service' convey the dedication of the resistance as they work from basements and bunkers to keep hope alive.  

The diagram glosses over some of the more fundamental challenges to running a partisan resistance, such as logistics, supplies, and staging.  However, it does touch upon the most important element: unity.  While war can have a unifying effect on a people as they engage a common enemy, the people are still of many different political stripes: socialists, democrats, and nationalists.  Notably missing: the Catholic church.  The small box in the center of the diagram representing these constituents was probably the most important element in the struggle for a unified front during the occupation.  

Unfortunately, Poland wasn't able to defeat the subsequent and rising Soviet tide, either from London or on the ground within Poland.  But many years later, Solidarity (here heavily in collaboration with the Catholic church) helped Poland eventually succeed in regaining its long-awaited sovereignty.  And Jan Karski (despite his humble, self-effacing nature), post-humously received the recognition he clearly deserved for his service to his country, higher education, and the world in general. 

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