Rising ‘44: The Battle for Warsaw by Norman Davies (Viking, 784 pp., $32.95)
The Warsaw uprising lasted for over 60 days, from August 1 to early October 1944. In one of the most heroic episodes of World War II, the Polish underground army, known as the AK, took on numerically superior and better-armed Wehrmacht and SS units. The outcome was catastrophic. When the AK finally surrendered to brute force, the Germans evacuated all the inhabitants of Warsaw amid scenes of random murder. In the course of the whole ordeal at least 160,000 Poles, and perhaps many more, were killed. With flamethrowers and dynamite, the Germans then destroyed the deserted city with all its historic landmarks, its cathedral and palaces. The street layout became unrecognizable. Hitler was gratified: This was the fate he had always anticipated for the Poles.
From the outset of the German occupation in 1939, many Poles had been preparing a secret army of resistance. They intended to free themselves but could do so only once the Germans were retreating. Timing was crucial. There was an ominous precedent: In April 1943, Jews crammed into the Warsaw ghetto had chosen to fight rather than be deported to their death. The Germans duly killed at least 20,000 of them, deported as many, and razed the entire ghetto.
In exile in London, the legal Polish government had final responsibility for policy decisions. Premier Stanislaw Mikolajczyk and his experienced military staff well understood that a Warsaw uprising was certain to provoke German reprisal, but as patriots they also held that the honor of the nation was at stake. Polish contingents had already fought on a number of fronts, from the Battle of Britain to Italy and the Normandy invasion. With the exception of a few far-sighted skeptics among them, these leaders expected that the Allies, in return, would surely do everything to help. In the summer of 1944, a Soviet army under Marshal Rokossovsky–himself of Polish origins–broke through to the Vistula, the river dividing Warsaw. The Polish government in London concurred when the AK commander in the field, General Bor-Komorowski, gave the order to launch the uprising.
Against all expectation, Rokossovsky’s army then remained inactive, apart from a brief and abortive incursion in September. Churchill quickly grasped that, for political reasons, Stalin was consigning the Poles to their fate. Stalin had just set up the so-called Lublin Committee, a puppet government of Polish Communists. The re-absorption of eastern Poland and colonization of the rest of the country had priority over the immediate war with Nazi Germany. Churchill appealed more and more urgently to Stalin to relieve Warsaw, and tried without success to pressure an indifferent Roosevelt. Mikolajczyk twice flew to Moscow to plead in vain. Stalin denied that there was any uprising. Worse, he accused the AK of being criminals in league with the Nazis. Here was the beginning of the end of the anti-Hitler coalition, and an omen of the Cold War to come.
In three long and thorough opening chapters, Norman Davies uses British, Soviet, and Polish archives to examine the political context in which the Poles had to operate. The issue of Polish freedom had after all started the World War, and Davies uses the term First Ally as a synonym for Poland. He is a historian who sees no wrong in anything Polish; if there is any wrong, then it tends to be the fault of Polish Jews, not of ethnic Poles. In this case, the wrong essentially lay with Poland’s allies: The British had stood by while the Germans overran the country. Thanks to his pact with Hitler, Stalin had swallowed Polish territory, and then ordered the mass murder of the Polish elite at Katyn and elsewhere. Mistrust of anything Soviet was only natural. Mikolajczyk represented those who had a naïve confidence that Churchill would somehow save them from Stalin. Churchill had the will, but not the power.
Davies covers the uprising itself in close and enthralling detail. At barricades, in office blocks, down the sewers, men and women, old and young, fought an unequal battle without a second thought. In extended footnotes, Davies quotes from diaries, letters, poems, and memoirs, mostly Polish but some German, to personalize this epic of courage, folly, and cruelty. Vitold Piletski, a company commander in the uprising, had previously got himself arrested in order to spy out Auschwitz, and then escaped from the camp to report on it. A Polish priest was tied as a hostage to a German tank–an irony, as the priest was a known anti-Semite. Such dramas are unforgettable. This is history at its best, spoiled only by a strange, degrading gimmick: Davies invariably anglicizes Polish names: Mikolajczyk becomes Mick, and Bor-Komorowski Boor. There is a key at the back of the book, but it is so confusing that the reader has to waste time searching for identities. These are men and women who deserve to be remembered by their real names.
British and American aircraft dropped supplies to Warsaw without much success, and at a high cost to themselves. For a while, they were denied landing rights behind Soviet lines; sometimes Soviet anti-aircraft guns fired on them. The governments and the military in the West shrugged off what they felt unable to alter. Davies reproduces a September 1944 article by George Orwell, protesting against allowing the Soviets to treat the Poles as they liked. Orwell was exceptional.
Stalin left no record to explain why he allowed the Germans to devastate Warsaw so utterly. Perhaps this was the fate he too had anticipated for the Poles; perhaps he was just a cunning opportunist. In authoritative final chapters, Davies argues that the Western Allies had not thought through their policy toward Poland. The country was far away, and its condition confusing. Some in decision-making circles were ignorant of Soviet reality, and many more were outright apologists for Communism. No British or American military missions were sent to Poland. By chance, a British prisoner of war named John Ward had escaped into Warsaw, where he was the only informant available to London: a good man, but without influence. Allied conferences leading to Yalta gave Stalin every reason to believe that he could get away with whatever he pleased. Roosevelt’s inaction, Davies sums up with a snap, was different from Stalin’s but “every bit as detrimental.”
Surviving German captivity, Bor-Komorowski and others eventually made their lives in the West. The Lublin Committee turned into the government of the Polish Communist satellite, and, with the Soviets, persecuted and executed any independent Poles. Emil Fieldorf, for example, had been in charge of operations harassing the Germans; the Soviets sent him to Gulag without knowing who he was. Released and then betrayed, he was tried in camera as a collaborator with the Germans and hanged. These travesties of justice alienated Poles, and exposed the mendacity of Communism. Krzysztof Baczynski was a young poet killed in the uprising. Davies quotes a striking image of his about being caught between the Scarlet Plague of the Communists and the Black Death of the Nazis. Millions of Poles were in that position for many years, and this book is a heartfelt tribute to them.