This is not an easy read initially but you will know it was worth it by the time you have absorbed more than 600 pages of one of the Second World War’s most tragic battles. I have been reading this dense account of the Warsaw Uprising over the past few months and was initially surprised to learn that this is not about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which was the year before.
In the years subsequent to the Uprising that began on 1st August 1944, Soviet propaganda has conspired to at first portray the members ofthe AK or ‘Home Army’ as criminals, collaborators (and even, implausibly, as ‘fascists’) and bourgeoisie adventurers whose negligence caused the deaths of thousands of civilians and then later to allow commentators in the West to blend the account of Jewish heroism in the ghetto with the failure of Socialist rebels to overcome the Nazi enemy. That so many intelligent people in the West failed to question the account presented by the Soviets whose army (under Rokossovsky) sat waiting on the other side of the Vistula river was berated as the Uprising was going on by no less a figure than George Orwell.
If you are one of those slack-jawed Tory-voting fools who think that Churchill was an unassailable genius then you will not enjoy this book (just ask the Irish about his ‘talents’ as Home Secretary). This account goes further because you will find the records culled from HMG portray Foreign Secretary Eden as a real sh*t doing as much (by doing so little) to betray the people of Poland as Beria and Stalin, effectively burying all requests for assistance from the Government-in-Exile, once lauded by Churchill as ‘the First Ally’. Churchill’s grasp of where exactly the Curzon Line lay did as much to sell the future of Poland to more oppression as did Roosevelt’s couldn’t give a damn over-simplification of politics. Churchill signed over the future partition of Poland to Stalin on the back of an envelope.
The Uprising was planned to last no more than six days, after which the Soviet Army of the First Byelorussian Front would be welcomed into Warsaw by General Boor, representative of a free city but Stalin had other ideas and was content to have his army sit back and let the Nazis deal with the ‘problem’ of the Home Army. The people of Warsaw, using a strategy of ‘one bullet, one German’ overcame shortage of food, fuel, medicine, weapons and ammunition to give any would-be occupier an object lesson in the perils of urban guerrilla tactics that lasted until October.
As many countries finished the war under the Totalitarian rule of Stalin as were freed to democratically determine their future. The myth that the Western Allies were supremely victorious is laid bear here as accounts of how Stalin dealt with satellite ‘client’ Soviet nations follows the brutally shocking account of a war waged by youths with pistols against tanks. The truth is the Western powers needed the Soviets to smash the Nazi war machine but diplomacy does not exclude ‘plain speaking’ and the Soviets were never pressured sufficiently over their stalling over the issue of allowing Allied flights to operate out of Russia (which overlooks the simple fact that while the RAF flew more than a thousand miles from Italy, the Russians had less than fifteen) and in fact, RAF air crews were shot at by Russian forces on approaching Warsaw. Quite simply, the Second World War was a three-way conflict and the Western Powers stopped before the job was done, weary but leaving half of Europe to endure the hardship of a regime arguably more barbaric – and certainly more long-lived – than Nazism.
The Warsaw Uprising may be little known in the West but it was the seed that eventually overcame Communism. A young priest who found himself caught up in the conflict, Karol Wojtyla, went on to become Pope and in 1979 delivered a speech that became the birth of the Solidarity Movement that would eventually overcome the military dictatorship of General Jaruzelski.
The Rising of 44 was not about politics but about people and cultural identity. Having already fought off the Soviets in 1920, the Poles were not about to surrender their future to the Soviets but wished to greet the Soviet army as (near) equals, knowing that to do nothing but wait for liberation would be to condemn the Polish people to the status of collaborators, meekly accepting Nazi rule. The future of any nation depends on the account we give of ourselves to our children. The people of Warsaw had heard – if not seen – what had happened to their fellow Jewish countrymen in the ghetto when the Nazis had closed down that district but must have also been encouraged that just a few youths could fight the Wehrmacht for so long.
This is not the sort of book that should be commended simply because it is a story we should all know. The dense style of Norman Davies’ writing is extremely absorbing. Picking the book up daily is almost like reading a daily account of the battle. There is almost too much writing here but this cannot be helped because a simpler account, shorter and more concisely written, would have had to exclude some of those brave people who were the very essence of why Poland should have been saved (and perhaps was saved by the innumerable acts of quiet courage).
As with all good history books, ‘Rising ’44’ is as much about the present and the future as it is an account of the past. Lessons in standing up to a bullying Russia have obviously not been learned. One fact that did astonish me however was discovering the origins of the near-mythical ‘Bilderburg Group’.
One of the more successful agents in Warsaw, known as ‘Salamander’, had established links with many politicians among the exiled governments resident in London. These exiled governments became the core of the future European movement and Salamander was the key go-between whose interests in the US sought to guide Europe onto more suitable tracks. The Bilderburg Group, which followed the Hague Congress of 1948, may well be the ‘secretive society of power-brokers who have ruled the world ever since’ but it is this same group who grew out of international distress which has possibly prevented such a disaster happening again.
“…the Warsaw Rising stands as a warning against coalitions of convenience. It demonstrated that great powers may have democracy on the tip of their tongues but not always at the top of their priorities. Anyone who joins such a coalition should not expect to be treated as an equal, or to see their interests fully defended. Coalitions are rarely organized for the common benefit of all participants.”