“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.