The Unconquerable (While Still We Live) by Helen MacInnes (1944)

Twenty-three year old Sheila Matthews had been living with her Uncle Matthews in London after her parents died when she was very young. As this story begins, she is visiting the Aleksander family in Poland. Andrew Aleksander had met her when he had visited her Uncle in London and had gone home and talked about her constantly. It was after this that his mother invited her to Poland for a holiday.
Sheila had accepted the invitation, partly to find out whether she loved Andrew, but also to understand why her father had gone to Poland where he lost his life. But it was experiencing ‘family life,’ something she knew little about, in the Aleksander home that compelled her to stay longer than planned.
It was 1939, on the eve of war with Germany, and Sheila made the decision not to return home. She had formed an attachment to this family and to Poland and although her Uncle made elaborate plans for her to get out of the country, she didn’t follow them.

Sheila spoke German fluently and was taken for a fellow spy by a German couple who lived nearby. This placed her in a precarious position but her Uncle’s contacts within Poland helped to place her in the Polish Resistance as by this time it was too dangerous for her to leave the country.

Sheila became involved in an undercover mission posing as a German secretary when the vehicle she was in was stopped by Partisans. Now she had to try to convince them that she was not what she seemed.
This is the second time I’ve read this book and I enjoyed it even more the second time. MacInnes and her husband Gilbert Highet were travelling in Europe as the Nazis were beginning to influence the political situation in Germany so they saw firsthand the signs of tyranny before the outbreak of WWII and experienced the foreshadowing of the Nazi threat.

This book was published in 1944 so she was writing it while the war was in progress and the Nazis were winning victories all over Europe. She captures the spirit of the Polish people and their fierce resistance. She places her character in Warsaw at the time of the German bombardment and occupation and it is a very compelling and believable depiction.
As she usually does, a romantic element is included which was mostly believable – I’m sure there must have been episodes not unlike this during war. There’s just enough hope to hearten the reader but enough realism as well – most of the family she stayed with were killed at some point.
I loved the historical aspects and philosophical asides as well as the literary quality of her writing and recommend it for those who enjoy books set in WWII and for those interested in Poland.

My copy of the book was published under the title ‘The Unconquerable’ in 1944. It is mostly known as ‘While Still We Live’ – taken from the opening words of the Song of the Polish Legions first sung in 1797.

‘Poland has not yet perished
While still we live!’

Sheila imagined that the last days of Warsaw were the essence of Greek tragedy where it was known there could be no hope and no happy ending, but this knowledge did not end the suspense. ‘The vision of another captivity made life seem something not to be hoarded.’

‘Why did the Greeks believe so much in tragedy? They must have, or they couldn’t have written such good ones. Didn’t they believe that men must have a periodical house-cleaning in their minds and emotion? Wasn’t that why they gave men drama which roused their pity and fear?
…Pity and fear together make a powerful purge for any mind. A public which won’t look or listen to tragedy develops a sluggish mind. That’s what the ancient Greeks knew. And the richness of their minds has never been equalled.”

MacInnes uses this idea of Greek tragedy to highlight the fact that the nations outside Poland didn’t want to hear or believe unpleasant things. Britain had a foreign policy of appeasement and with everything moving so quickly in Poland, humanity would not be warned in time.

The author points out the Nazis’ organisational ability and thoroughness overall but when it came down to a personal level, there was jostling and petty behaviour where everyone was in it to build their own little kingdoms:

‘It is a point of honour with small minds to put such emphasis on material displays of importance.’

‘…being in command means you must also be in command of yourself. There’s no one to give you orders, so you have to give them to yourself.’

459 Pages

Linking to Reading Europe 2021: Poland

8 thoughts on “The Unconquerable (While Still We Live) by Helen MacInnes (1944)

  1. This does sound like a good one. I read a bunch of MacInnes when I was a teenager and have been rereading some recently. I don’t think I ever read this one. (Though I do find I may have forgotten the ones I read as a teenager, however many– ahem… 😉 –years ago that was.) Anyway, fun! I should look this one up–and I still need Poland for this year!


  2. Wow! A powerful review and powerful quotes. I might have this book kicking round somewhere. I’ve always meant to read MacInnes (my mother loved her stories) and how I MUST! Thanks for a wonderful review. I’m going now to write down some of these quotes in my commonplace book!


    • Thanks, Cleo. I think you’d enjoy her literary & philosophical bent. She was married to Gilbert Highet, a classical scholar and author who worked for the British military government in Germany – acquiring Nazi party property and locating war booty taken by the Germans from occupied countries. Interesting as MacInnes wrote a couple of books related to recovering stuff stolen by the Nazis.


  3. Pingback: The Classics Club: A New List | journey & destination

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