The Warsaw Rising is a topic of strong historical and emotional significance for Poles, but yet is one that is not as visible for many outside of Poland, although it took place at a key time in World War 2, and can possibly be seen as a key trigger for the Cold War. I visited Warsaw a few months ago, and had the chance to visit the Uprising Museum (more to come on that later). Following on from that, I also received a present of the book Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw. It is written by Norman Davies, the pre-eminent ‘Western’ writer on Poland and its history. With a strong pedigree in presenting Polish history through examples such as God’s Playground, Davies can be trusted to tell the stories of Poland that were not recognised outside.
Davies presents the story of the Uprising as “one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century” and “a story that has never been properly told”. In order to frame the story well, it is split into the three parts. First comes before the Rising, particularly trying to focus on Poles and how they were impacted by and were impacting the war so far, in order to give an understanding where the desire for Uprising came from. In the centre of the story he tells about the Rising, chronicling the 63 days from August to early October 1944. This middle section is particularly strong and emotive, as he splices in inserts and personal experiences from those involved, mostly from the perspectives of the Varsovians, but also with German, Soviet, British and American views. And in the final section, he covers the aftermath of the Rising and what it meant for Warsaw, Poles and Poland.
The introduction focuses on Poland as the ‘First Ally’, being the reason why Britain declared war on Germany. By 1944, with the Germans on the retreat and the Soviets advancing through eastern Poland, the decision was agreed to make a break against the tyranny of oppressors and launch an insurgency. However – as Davies recounts – the Rising was beset by issues and looking back had a minimal chance of success. Politics between the Western allies, and within each country involved left the Warsaw insurgents mostly fighting alone. The Germans also chose that moment to stage a fight back, recognising Warsaw as a key defence point as the capital, trying to hold off the Soviet advance. It resulted in them preferring to demolish Warsaw than give it up. There was also the case where the Soviets mysteriously stopped their advance on the east bank of the Vistula for two months, after having made rapid gains in the preceding months. For Poles, it was a repeat of history up to and including 1939, where larger neighbours split Poland as they pleased, and allies were slow to react.
What was particularly interesting from my perspective was the presentation of what the post-war effect was. In terms of Warsaw as a city, 75% of it was destroyed. Up to 200,000 civilian deaths were estimated, meaning the population was decimated. And then with the political wrangling, the Soviets installed the Communist government which would rule for 45 years afterwards. This was the final blow for those who had fought to free Poland. The Communists denied the Uprising taking place, as the lack of Soviet involvement and support was airbrushed from history. This meant insurgents being arrested and tried as ‘anti-Soviet’ with some sentenced to some going to the Gulags. When recognition was given later for an uprising in Warsaw, the Soviets were fine to acknowledge the Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It wasn’t until the 1980’s when Poles could begin to talk about the Rising and recognise it. This is partially why those in ‘Western’ countries have little understanding of it.
Davies’ portrayal of the events of August and September 1944 are strong, and his ties to Poland make it a particularly emotive topic. He does not hold back in criticising the bumbling of the Americans and British in trying to support, and their failings through political wranglings in trying to appease Stalin. He recognises the cold approach of the Soviets, which he notes is a fore-runner of the Soviets extending their sphere of influence ending in the Iron Curtain dividing Europe. The communist regime in Poland, and it’s re-writing of history also get criticism, while the citizens of Warsaw get some credit but ultimately it’s seen as a thankless sacrifice which was worthless in the end.
The book is a very strong retelling of the situations. Davies’ emotions shine through but one or two other choices in presentation are difficult to follow. For example, he made a point of anglicizing all Polish names involved of individuals, cities, streets and other locations. For me, this actually confused the story, as I felt I did not connect with the individuals, as the names seemed to be more nicknames or code names. But overall, it told a story I had not heard before and is one all history buffs should be aware of.