The Role of Polish Mathematicians Against Nazi Germany

A while ago I wrote a post about the role of Poland in defeating the Soviet Empire by virtue of the strength of the Church there.  Little did I know then that Saint Casimir had actually been involved in smashing the Nazis as well, by virtue of his patronage of the Polish people and thus of mathematician Marian Rejewski.

While watching a documentary on WWII with my son recently, we awaited a segment that had be teased earlier about a “secret weapon” that the British had, which turned out to be the team at Bletchley Park who worked to decipher the infamous German Enigma machine.  The documentary mentioned that commercial versions of Enigma were used in pre-war Germany by businessmen passing sensitive information by radio transmission (Morse code).  It also mentioned that Polish mathematicians had begun working to break the German military version in the early 30’s, were ultimately successful before the war, and were visited by Allied counterparts who thus brought back information (and, it turned out, critical deciphering machinery) that helped the Brits at Bletchley Park get a head start on their work.  My interest was piqued because of my admiration for the strength of the Poles during the Cold War.

The story, as relayed directly by the most gifted of the Polish mathematicians, Marian Rejewski, is a fascinating story.*  I don’t pretend to completely follow his explanation of how the Enigma cipher was defeated using group theory, or even all of the coding mechanisms of the machine itself.  But Rejewski gives a convincing, albeit academic, account of the importance of his work, which started with the simple error by a German business which mistakenly shipped a commercial Enigma to Warsaw in the late 1920’s.

In looking through the book Alan Turing:  The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges I could find only off-handed remarks about the Poles having given up what they had to the Allies just before the 1939 outbreak of war.  Yet according to Rejewski and other historical accounts, the Poles had constructed an Enigma of their own and other apparatus used to decipher, which they named bombas.  Apparently, in the recent movie based on Hodges’ book, The Imitation Game, the Polish contribution is omitted altogether (I haven’t seen the film yet, although I will soon).

I believe it’s fair to say the Brits had grit and genius on their side and would have broken the Enigma cipher on their own given enough time– in fact, more complex versions were indeed broken by innovative Bletchley methods; however, Bletchley Park is credited with shortening the war and perhaps even saving enough time to prevent a Nazi victory over England.  It’s clear Rejewski and his Polish colleagues (and Saint Casimir!) deserve just as much gratitude.


* The link here is to a reprint (permissions granted) of a translated Polish paper by Rejewski himself published shortly before his death in 1980.

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