A Great Betrayal


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 for the reader. If this is to be the definitive full story of the uprising, it cannot be so partisan that it denies the interests of other powers. It must answer the big questions. Was the uprising aimed as much against the Soviets as the Nazis? Did the Red Army really need to rest and regroup on the Vistula before it could come to the uprising’s assistance or was this only Stalin’s brutal political logic? Was not the entire Polish enterprise futile since it was aimed at pre-empting the advance of the Soviets while simultaneously requiring their assistance? Why had this assistance not been secured before it was launched? Was it true that the uprising had anti-Semitic aspects suppressed by Polish historians? Of course, there are still gaping holes in our knowledge of how Stalin, his magnates in the State Defense Committee, and his Stavka High Command created his Polish policy.

Norman Davies, as the author of the best-selling Europe: A History, has never been afraid of large subjects. Here he has written a magisterial work. He takes pride in reconstructing the doomed Polish triumph of courage. He wants to show the war from the perspective of Poland—and the fierce condemnation of the Great Powers that results is to his credit, since he lets the evidence speak for itself. No subject is more messy than the Polish question before, during, and after the war. Davies, today’s most distinguished historian—and advocate—of Poland, lets it remain that way, so that the Poles emerge as flawed, fissiparous, politically inept, sometimes anti-Semitic—as well as noble, brave, and humane.

Davies’s book has much to say about the history of modern Poland, which was part of the Russian Empire until World War I and the Russian Revolution combined to grant it a fragile independence. Its tragedy ever since its elective monarchy degenerated in the eighteenth century was to be sandwiched between three ravening eastern empires. By the end of the eighteenth century, Russia, Prussia, and Hapsburg Austria each consumed a third of Poland and the country officially disappeared from the map until the fall of the tsars. Then, following World War I, the swashbuckling Marshal Pilsudski managed to recreate Poland out of the corpses of the three empires. When Lenin and Trotsky tried to crush the new republic and use it as their road to Berlin and toward a Red Europe, Pilsudski soundly defeated the Bolsheviks in 1921, winning twenty years of independence in the flawed democracy that he dominated as a part-time strongman until his death in 1935. (A large gap in modern Polish history is an adequate biography of Pilsudski; surely Norman Davies is the person to write that book.)

Lenin’s trouble-shooter, Joseph Stalin, had served with the Red Army on the Polish front and had ineptly interfered with military matters there. He never forgot that humiliating defeat or lost sight of the danger of a resurgent Poland. Stalin had also studied Russian history, particularly that of Ivan the Terrible and the Time of Troubles after his death, when invading Polish armies looted a recumbent Russia. Adopting what Lenin called “Greater Russian chauvinism,” this Georgian-turned-Russian-imperialist henceforth regarded Poland and Poles as a deadly menace.

Many leading Bolsheviks were Poles: indeed, as Davies and many other writers remind us, there were many Jewish Bolsheviks. But there were also a great many murderous Polish Bolsheviks, especially in the secret police including many of the founders of the Cheka, most famously its creator, Felix Dzerzhinsky. Stalin’s brother-in-law Stan Redens, another top Chekist, was also a Pole. We know from the newly opened archives that Stalin, constantly expecting a new war with Poland and distrusting the mixed Polish loyalties of such colleagues, ordered a mini-Polish genocide during the 1937–1938 Great Terror and killed virtually all the ethnic Poles in the top Bolshevik leadership, including his own brother-in-law and many of the leaders’ Polish wives. Thus the notorious Katyn Woods massacre in 1940 of about 28,000 Polish officers by the Soviets on Stalin’s orders following the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 was just a continuation of Stalin’s Pole-aphobic purge during the Great Terror.

The shattering of the Hapsburg Empire left Poland squeezed between a resurgent Germany and Communist Russia, both of which regarded it as a bastard child of degenerate bourgeois-capitalist powers. Having abandoned Czechoslovakia to Hitler, the Western Allies finally drew the line at Poland, guaranteeing its borders. Hitler, for his part, in exchange for Stalin’s willingness not to fight against Germany, was prepared to offer him a new tsarist empire consisting of Finland, the Baltics, eastern Poland, and Bessarabia. Stalin accepted, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in August 1939. Hitler then invaded Poland from the west, and Stalin took his share of the country from the east. A nightmare settled on Poland as Nazi and Bolshevik secret policemen slaughtered their potential opponents, whether they chose them by race or by class. This frenzy culminated in the Katyn Woods massacre in which Stalin executed many of the elite officers of the captured Polish army. On the Nazi side, the Holocaust started in the shtetls of Poland.

A key point about the Warsaw Uprising and the fate of Poland is that Stalin never gave up his claim to the borders that Hitler had granted him in 1939 nor the hatred of Poland he had gained in 1920. Nor did he lose his murderous suspicion, expressed in the Katyn massacre, of any Polish elite that might interfere with his vision of a Stalinist Poland. However arbitrarily he alternated between charm and threat, his is the most consistent vision of Poland in Davies’s book, and he possessed all the cruel and persistent cunning to realize it.


Davies gives an excellent account of the murderous and irrational Bolshevik terror society, from Stalin and his secret policemen to his superb commander on the Vistula, the ethnically Polish Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky. Davies explains how the Soviet dictator had purged the entire Polish Communist Party, leaving him to insert his own thoroughly submissive vassals into Poland when it suited him. He begins with a superb analysis of how the Nazi invasion of Poland started World War II: to make his point that Poland was a Western ally against Hitler long before Stalinist Russia, Davies calls it the “First Ally” throughout the text.

From the start of the Nazi–Soviet partition of Poland, Stalin had been clear that Poland could not return to its pre-war borders and his views did not change even when Hitler invaded Russia. Indeed, far from treating it as the “First Ally,” Stalin would effectively treat Poland as the spoils of war. Roosevelt and Churchill, whether from weakness or steely concentration on defeating Germany, allowed Stalin “to act as he thought fit” in imposing borders on the new Poland.

Despite this looming reality, the exiled Polish government, based in London and led by Premier Stanisl/aw Mikol/ajczyk, hoped that with the backing of the Western Allies, a compromise could be worked out with Stalin both about the borders and about support for an uprising of the Home Army. “One cannot repeat often enough,” Davies reminds us,

that anyone who thinks that it was the frontier of Russia, not the Soviet Union, which the Germans crossed in June 1941 will already have lost the plot…. All the interested parties without exception had their own interpretation of history, their own claims, their own propaganda….

In fact the Germans in June 1941 invaded not Russia but the sector of Poland occupied by the Soviets. Stalin quickly learned from Molotov’s first negotiations with the Allies and his own meeting with them at Tehran in November 1943 that Churchill and Roosevelt were anxious to win his favor; the interests of Poland were secondary to this. Indeed, as it turned out, Stalin could do as he saw fit with the eastern borders, keeping what he liked, eventually compensating Poland with German territory in the West.

Davies shows that before the German invasion of Russia, the Soviet treatment of the Poles in the territory Hitler took over was often as savage as that of the Nazis. One wonders how much difference it made for most Poles whether they fell under the control of the SS or the NKVD. The big exception, of course, was in the case of the Jews. Davies is acutely aware that the questions raised about the treatment of Polish Jews have damaged the image of the Poles in Western eyes. On the question of Jewish loyalty to Poland, it is hard to fault his analysis that “most Varsovian Jews had the same…inclination to be regarded as Poles as New York Jews had to be regarded as Americans.” Yet the situation was all the more complicated because some poorer Jews looked to the Soviets to liberate them from Polish prejudice or to communism to improve their lot, and this undoubtedly increased Polish anti-Semitism.

Davies acknowledges that “massacres of Jews had begun as soon as German forces…moved into towns.” In one country town, Jedwabne, “a group of locals” took part in a “particularly brutal massacre.” Davies argues that this “cannot be used to fuel stereotypical misconceptions about all Poles being…eager participants in the Holocaust.” He observes that occupied Poland contained between 10,000 and 20,000 such villages, and those in which such massacres were reported “can be counted on the fingers of one hand.” The Home Army, Davies points out, created a Council for the Rescue of Jews in 1942. “Owing to the unusual size of Poland’s Jewish community, the Nazis managed to kill more Jews in occupied Poland than elsewhere. Yet it is also true…that more Jews were rescued in Poland than anywhere else”—between 100,000 and 150,000, Davies estimates.

Even as the Nazis solidified their rule, the Poles managed to maintain a stronger infrastructure of resistance—the “Secret State”—than any other people under occupation. It is startling that the largest resistance force, the Home Army, controlled by the government-in-exile based in London, had over 40,000 men-at-arms in mid-1944, while the various armed wings of Stalin’s Communists, led by the sycophantic Boleslaw Bierut, had scarcely eight hundred fighters.


Davies describes how Marshal Ro-kossovsky’s armies reached the Vistula in the summer of 1944. Would they stop for a breather or roll on toward Warsaw? No one knew—except Stalin. The moment of decision had arrived for the Home Army. The timing had to be extremely precise. Its insoluble dilemma was how the Home Army could use its forces most efficiently when faced both with the overwhelming power of the retreating Nazis and with the army of advancing Soviets. The aim of the uprising was not just to expel the Germans but to consolidate an independent Polish force, which Stalin would have to make part of postwar Poland.

The Polish leaders wanted to deal with Stalin “from a position of strength.” Many of them, including General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, their commander-in-chief-in-exile, were firm disciples of what was called Poland’s “Doctrine of Two Enemies”—both the USSR and Germany—and therefore had no illusions. They knew the Soviets were not going to support a rebellion that would undermine their own (Soviet) interests. Nonetheless, both the government-in-exile and the local command under General Tadeusz Komorowski were keen to start the uprising, even though there was ample evidence that Stalin did not regard the Home Army as useful or friendly to his purposes. Indeed Premier Mikol/ajczyk had not yet managed to win Soviet agreement to support the rebellion. Thousands of fighters and civilians were therefore placed at risk before their leaders had secured any real help from outside: courageous this undoubtedly was, splendid even, but also a terrible, perhaps necessary, perhaps quixotic, gamble. The odds were vastly and obviously weighed against it. One thinks of the famous French comment on the Charge of the Light Brigade: “C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre.”

There is so much bravery and poetry in Davies’s book that one’s heart sinks in hindsight as a young man recalls the exciting days in a Warsaw on the eve of the uprising:

I remembered what the date was—“1 August—Sunflower Day”…. I was still young and sentimen-tal. After all, those times were naive, primitive, carefree, romantic, conspiratorial….

Across Poland, “teams of runners were at hand to carry the order to every Underground unit in Warsaw”:

Alarm—by hand!…I am fixing V-Hour for 5 p.m. on 1 August.

Warriors gathered, buildings were taken, the uprising began. Himmler informed Hitler, “We shall finish them off…. Warsaw will be liquidated…. Poles themselves will cease to be a problem for our children….” Hitler agreed enthusiastically.

As the Germans moved to crush potential uprisings across Poland, they raided a house in Cracow where Karol Wojtyl/a, a twenty-four-year-old underground actor and an aspirant priest, hid in a secret compartment. They did not find him and he was guided to a hiding place in the archbishop’s palace. Davies’s book abounds with such moments. When the fighters liberate a Nazi death camp on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish prisoners join the uprising, forming ranks in the square while one of them reports: “Sergeant Lederman, sir, and the Jewish Battalion ready for action!” A witness to the scene adds, “My wonder at these people knew no bounds.” In the chaos of this terrible fight, we also hear the account of a German law professor, a conscripted soldier, who was ashamed of the horrors committed by Himmler’s thugs—especially the diabolical Ukrainian renegade SS Colonel Mieczysl/aw Kaminski, whose atrocities were so appalling that the SS themselves later murdered him. A recent documentary on the uprising suggests that the Nazis killed one hundred Poles for every German killed.

Davies is also frank in showing how Stalin’s claim that in early August the Red Army was too exhausted to attack the Germans and relieve the uprising was essentially true:

As is now known for certain, the Soviet Army was running into a determined German counter-attack…. In the first week of August, there was little chance that Rokossovsky could easily have crossed the Vistula in force.

But Stalin, as Davies also makes clear, was hostile to the uprising from the first moment.

In Moscow, where the outcome of the uprising would be decided, Premier Mikol/ajczyk, on August 3, finally met Stalin, who vaguely offered help, but also showed his disdain for the Home Army. One thinks of a particularly cruel cat playing with a naive mouse when one reads how Stalin suggested that Mikol/ajczyk get in touch with the Lublin Committee, the pro-Communist puppet group the Soviets had set up to rule Poland on their behalf.

Back in Warsaw, the Germans, assisted by Kaminski’s apocalyptic brigade, were brutally massacring civilians by the thousand while crushing the uprising. A poet helped to build a barricade but apologized to her daughter in verse for her modest role:

Let me tell you, dear daughter
That I was no heroine….
But I did see heroes;
And I must tell you about them….

Davies has unearthed tales of heartbreaking courage and adventure and horror, telling of how moments of chance saved some lives and destroyed others. A German soldier writes a semiliterate diary:

17.VII. Poles want to drive us away with the fire and with the bottles of benzene…. Several men lost the nerves and committed the suicide. Terrible stink from the bodies, who are lying on the streets.

At the front, on the Vistula, Rokossovsky proposed to Stalin an offensive in the third week of August with a major push to take place on the 25th. In his talks with Premier Mikol/ajczyk Stalin remained genially ambiguous about the possibility of military aid, but he did nothing. Even by late August there was still time for the uprising to be saved by a Soviet offensive, but Stalin delayed it. On August 18, he revealed his real view in the message read by the vicious Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Vyshinsky to Western diplomats in Moscow. It attacked the uprising as an “adventure” and said that the Soviets believed there would be difficulties in dropping supplies over Warsaw.

Nonetheless the Warsaw Airlift—“one of the great unsung sagas of World War II”—began with American and British aircrews flying some 930 miles from Brindisi, in Italy, risking their lives to supply the uprising; one bomber out of every ten was lost. But Davies has also found plenty of evidence in the British Foreign Office archives that the British were hostile to the uprising and anything else that was inconvenient to their Soviet allies. A British official wrote:

The Poles are now blaming everyone else for not sending them help…. As usual, they impute sinister motives to the Russians, such as…not pressing their assault on Warsaw because they wish the Poles to be exterminated….

Of course, this ignorant London mandarin did not understand that Stalin had only recently ordered the liquidation of 28,000 Polish officers at Katyn and was now letting the Germans finish the job of eliminating Polish interests hostile to Soviet domination.

Meanwhile, despite heroic Polish fighting, the Germans and their Ukrainian protégés were crushing with barbaric cruelty not only the uprising but the civilian population. Davies quotes from the memoir of a wounded Polish fighter sent to help save more severely wounded patients from massacre in a beleaguered hospital. His account of carrying out stretchers is remarkably dignified and moving:

Whenever an approaching missile could be heard, we did not lie down but stood the stretchers on their legs and knelt beside them, so that the patients did not feel worse than we did. None of my colleagues left their stretchers even though we had wounded men now wounded for a second time…. I saw truly awful things….

In mid-September, pro-Soviet Polish forces under General Zygmunt Berling actually crossed the Vistula in an apparent attempt to relieve the uprising, even though it was too little and too late, for they were pushed back. Stalin, who presumably allowed Berling to make a minimal effort as some sort of alibi, was receiving all sorts of confused and deliberately misleading NKVD reports, which Davies memorably describes as “an indigestible macédoine of fantasies, falsehood, and occasional facts…quite incapable of rendering a recognizable picture.” While the NKVD under General Ivan Serov was unleashing another brutal purge against the Poles in the liberated territories of Poland, Stalin still held back. In any case, by mid-September, the uprising was in extremis.

Yet Davies also wants to show how love and religion sustained the desperate fighters, describing two of them who

thought more about Love, and about the survival of Love…. Lt. “Hawk” and [Halina] had been “going out together.” …Now they insisted on a marriage—in the cathedral…. The ceremony took place in the evening when the shelling died down…. [Shortly after,] the twenty-three-year-old couple were buried alive during a Stuka attack.

Typically, Davies quotes two very different and telling accounts of the Jews in the uprising: one relates how some Home Army fighters summarily murdered six Jews for being “Bolsheviks.” Another tells of the Jews’ heroic part in the uprising.


The last shot of the uprising was fired in the evening of October 2, sixty-three days after its start, and 11,668 Poles surrendered. Premier Mikol/ajczyk had been conned by Stalin. When Churchill visited Moscow soon afterward and began negotiating the new Polish borders on October 13, he worked hard to push the London government-in-exile toward a compromise with Stalin, but it turned out, to the Poles’ chagrin, that at Tehran, Roosevelt had already casually agreed to the Soviet border demands. Churchill shouted at Mikol/ajczyk: “You are callous people who want to wreck Europe…. You only have your own miserable selfish interests in mind….” Eden, “exhausted and depressed,” was also tormented about ceding to the USSR the previously Polish city of Lvuv, which the Soviets had annexed to the Ukraine in 1939. He asked his colleagues, “If I give way over [Lvuv], shall I go down in the history books as an appeaser?” This was not Churchill’s finest hour and he knew it. Davies comments that “Eden’s belated soul-searching, and Churchill’s rage, were undignified symptoms of their impotence. Both British statesmen had fallen into a pit of their own making; and they did not enjoy it.”

As for Stalin, Davies pulls an intriguing cat out of the archival bag with a document of October 1944 in which Beria reports that ethnic Poles in Belorussia were resisting “repatriation” to Poland. This is significant because it shows that even before the negotiations on the borders later that October, Stalin was already swapping the populations of these regions. This is evidence that he regarded his agreement with Roosevelt at Tehran in November 1943 as binding; he must have been shocked to find the borders questioned all over again in October 1944. After taking over Poland and Stalinizing it with NKVD purges, the triumphant Soviet dictator unleashed the NKVD against anti-Soviet elements, deporting vast numbers of Poles to camps. At the same time, in a forgotten struggle, thousands of Underground fighters now fought a small war of raids and ambushes against the Red Army and the forces of the new Stalinist regime. Stalin arrested Home Army leaders and put sixteen of them on trial in Moscow.

When one considers the behavior of the Polish leaders such as Mikol/ajczyk, or of Churchill and Eden, or Stalin’s Polish vassals like Bierut, or Stalin himself, no one comes well out of the tragedy of the Warsaw Uprising, no one, that is, except the noble young fighters themselves. In a work that moves as much as it informs, Norman Davies has written a masterful, readable, and poignant narrative, filled with heroes, villains, battles, slaughter, poetry, and peerless courage, and illustrated with vast new materials (archival, photographic, anecdotal), yet never failing to confront the unsettling truth. The book is a superb achievement. (Two minor warnings: Davies has a modernist taste for structural “models” that he calls “nonlinear,” so the text is peppered with “capsules” containing excerpts from mem- oirs that might in a less forceful book shatter the narrative and irritate the reader. Yet they contain such fascinating anecdotes that the reader is grateful. His other eccentric decision is to call Poles with difficult names by letters—“Vera L”—or nicknames—Premier Mikol/ajczyk becomes “Mick.” This works better when the character is an underground operative so that Davies can call him by one of the dashing noms de guerre such as “Bear Cub.” But Davies’s practice here has the effect of distancing the reader from his characters. It probably would have been better to give us the Polish names.)

As for the uprising, it is hard not to agree with the fury and contempt of the Polish General Wl/adysl/aw Anders, commander of the Polish troops abroad, at the ways the members of the Polish leadership wasted the lives of their own warriors:

I was completely shocked by the outbreak of the Rising. I regard it as the greatest misfortune in our present situation. It didn’t have the slightest chance of success…. No words can express our pride and wonder at the heroism of our Home Army and of the capital’s population….

Anders, a former prisoner of the NKVD, was only too aware of Soviet perfidy and ruthlessness. He was not the only observer (Polish or otherwise) who understood the naiveté and desperate gamble of launching a rebellion aimed partly against the Soviets on whose support the enterprise depended for its success. Davies starts with a dedication that catches the complexity of the tragedy he describes so brilliantly: “To Warsaw and to all who fight tyranny regardless.” In that last hopeless word lies the essence of his story.