“My aim in writing Rising ‘44,” Norman Davies begins his huge book, “was nothing more complicated than to tell the story of one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century.” Of course, his stated aim is not as modest as it sounds. He has written a prodigiously ambitious book. There are few subjects more complicated—diplomatically, politically, and militarily—than the destiny of Poland during World War II. In the Warsaw Uprising, between August 1 and October 5, 1944, as many as 20,000 members of the Polish Nationalist Underground died fighting the German troops occupying the city while the Soviet army, across the Vistula River, refused to intervene. At the same time, between 150,000 and 250,000 Polish civilians were also killed by the Germans.
The slaughter of the Polish Resistance was the dreadful climax of Polish history during that benighted time—and it is far more complex than just a tale of supremely courageous Poles confronting the degenerate savagery of Hitler’s brutal SS legions, though of course it is that too. The story is above all about Poland’s terrible fate, which was to be crushed between the two most ruthless tyrants and the two most aggressive nations of the century. One of Davies’s themes is that the uprising was fatally aimed at both tyrannies—and destroyed by both, whether directly or indirectly.
The uprising remains one of the totemic events of the war. Many people know two things about it—the bravery of the Polish Home Army and the deliberate and callous inactivity of Stalin. Just about everything else to do with it is obscured by ignorance and myth. Some readers, for example, may confuse it with the rising of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 which, despite the huge scholarly attention directed toward the Jewish Holocaust, remains equally obscure and requires the same sort of analytical treatment as Davies gives the uprising here.
The uprising’s historical importance, however, has been put into question because of its tragic futility for the rebels themselves and its political irrelevance for the Great Powers. Any history of the battle for Warsaw, as the rebels called it, is a tale of Great Power realpolitik at its most cold and simple. Stalin’s enigmatic personality, his brutal politics, and his serpentine diplomacy, a diplomacy always informed by the most frigid of calculations and the most ruthless analysis of traditional Russian interests—these dominate Davies’s book, which shows how he used these qualities to outmaneuver and outfox Roosevelt, Churchill, and, of course, the unfortunate Poles. Then there is the human story of the Polish Home Army and its destruction by the Germans; and the story of the military campaign itself, with its espionage and intrigue. And finally the Warsaw Uprising is also a quintessentially Polish event of popular culture: the historian of the uprising must also be a literary critic, for in the ruins there was a flowering of poetry.
The questions are colossal, subtle, and often unsettling …