Book Review // Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising

By | Jan 27, 2014

The Other Warsaw Uprising

by Konstanty Gebert 
Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising
Alexandra Richie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2013, pp. 738, $40.00
Over the past few years, a series of books has brought to the attention of English-speaking readers the morally challenging, historically important and often overlooked or forgotten story of the Polish contribution to the Allied war effort in World War II, and of the terrible fate of the Poles under German rule. These works challenge the traditional perception of Poland in the war that usually boils down to two aspects: the “gallant but futile” resistance to the German invasion in 1939, which started the war, and the “murderous hatred,” which sealed the fate of Polish Jews. Even these two aspects deserve a closer look—but, more importantly, they are hardly the entire story.

The fate of Warsaw is a case in point. The capital city alone suffered more casualties (at least 580,000 dead, most of them Jewish) than any of the Western allies (France, with 555,000 dead, comes closest). Of those, some 180,000 men, women and children were killed over just 63 days—the duration of the Warsaw uprising of 1944. This cataclysmic blood-letting—ordered by Hitler’s personal command—is the subject of historian Alexandra Richie’s Warsaw 1944. The story was largely unknown to the West, at least until the 2003 U.S. publication of Norman Davies’s Rising ’44 (whose book, oddly, Richie does not discuss, apart from a mention in the bibliography).

The president of Germany, Roman Herzog, visiting Warsaw in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the uprising, actually confused it in his speech with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, which is the one military confrontation almost everybody associates with wartime Warsaw. Yet even the Ghetto uprising, with its awful toll of almost 60,000 dead, was less devastating than the general military uprising by the underground Polish Home Army one year later. To be sure, such comparisons cannot be taken out of context. The uprising of ’43 was a desperate reaction to the Holocaust, and the ruthlessness of the German response to it pales in comparison to the horror of what the Nazis had already inflicted on the Jews. The uprising of ’44 was a calculated political reaction; it followed a fierce debate among the Polish leadership in Warsaw and in exile in London about what many by then knew would happen: the Soviet takeover of Poland. However, the savagery of the German reaction to the uprising was unexpected.

Relying heavily on Polish survivor testimony, often unbearable to read, Richie documents in agonizing detail the systematic murder and rape of men, women and children and the looting of homes and stores as the uprising, at first relatively successful, was defeated in district after district. As the daughter-in-law of Władysław Bartoszewski, a hero of the Polish Underground, Richie had privileged access to dozens of sources—and came to share much of their perspective.

Eventually, the entire city was systematically razed to the ground, and the lucky survivors of the slaughter were expelled. While Davies’ book concentrated on the diplomatic maneuvering by Western Allies and the Soviets concerning the uprising, sharply condemning the cynicism of the former and the criminal inaction of the latter, Richie paints a much more complex picture. The Wehrmacht, routed just two weeks earlier by the Red Army, was by then successfully counterattacking. And Stalin’s troops neither had the intention of helping the Poles—they considered the Polish Home Army an obstacle to the Kremlin’s intended domination of the country—nor were they, in the crucial first two weeks, in any position to do so. Richie damns, however, Stalin’s general indifference to the fate of the rising (no surprise there) and his refusal to even assist Western allies to make supporting airdrops.

Richie criticizes the decision to launch the rising, given the lack of resources and any thought of coordinating with a hostile Red Army, and the poor military skills of some of Home Army’s top commanders. Descriptions of doomed attacks against superior targets, and especially of abandoning civilian populations in districts that became indefensible, make for harrowing reading. Yet she places primary blame squarely where it belongs: on Hitler’s and Himmler’s written command decision to utterly destroy any sign that Warsaw and its population ever existed, together with its inhabitants, and on the bloodlust of the German forces, which were depraved by crimes already committed on the Eastern front.

Richie is largely fueled by a moral outrage at the immensity of the Nazi slaughter in Warsaw and by the cynicism, and later oblivion, with which the uprising was met in the West. Yet this outrage, which does not, to her credit, prevent her from criticizing military failings of some Polish commanders, also allows her to paint a much-too-rosy picture of the Polish capital. Leveling Warsaw was a crime against humanity not because, as Richie repeatedly says, the city was a “gem” of European architecture. It was not thought remarkably pretty; it already had been badly scarred by urban sprawl in earlier decades. Stressing her view of the capital’s uniform beauty paradoxically subverts Richie’s case, for if Warsaw had been simply ugly (which it emphatically was not), would the German crime have been less?

The same holds true of more important generalizations. The Poles had not “fought to see the restoration of a free, liberal, democratic state” because pre-war Poland, alas, was far from that. Its deepening authoritarianism, oppression of minorities, growing denial of basic rights and freedoms were not much less oppressive than the totalitarian regimes East and West, nor was it characteristic of Poland alone in the region—but it was a fact. To be specific, if Poland had, for a time, been “a tolerant and welcoming place” for minorities, this was not true “always”—and especially not in the interwar period.

One can understand such formulations as an implicit polemic against the legend—sustained later on by Communist government propaganda and long accepted by large parts of Western opinion—that the Polish state, and then the AK, or Home Army underground, had been “fascist” and therefore undeserving of Soviet support during the uprising. Stated thus, this is a slur. However, fascist tendencies did exist and even thrive back in the 1930s. Contrary to what Richie writes, if then “the Jewish world was changing, as many young people were choosing to study at Warsaw University,” the university had chosen not to accept them. A numerus clausus Jewish quota was established, soon followed by a “bench ghetto” for Jewish students, and had the war not intervened, a numerus nullus principle would have been enforced.

While undoubtedly many Poles in wartime “unwaveringly shared Western Allies’ vision of freedom, democracy and self-determination,” others wanted an authoritarian, ethnically pure Poland and rejected the idea that any possible Jewish survivors could return to it. The Ghetto uprising certainly had not universally “won the respect of non-Jewish Warsawians.” While some empathized with Jews fighting and dying, or at least cheered the discomfiture of the common enemy, others said that “the Germans are solving the Jewish problem for us,” a phrase so common as to be reported in most memoirs of Jews hiding on the “Aryan side” of the city.

The issue of Polish political orientations would be a marginal one for the topic of the book—after all, even if Poles had not all been sterling democrats, crushing the Warsaw uprising still remained a war crime—but it did have consequences for the few surviving Jews, who were liberated by insurgents or emerged from hiding in areas from which the Germans had been expelled. Richie seems to believe, on the strength of one quote from “Antek” Cukierman (not “Zukerman”), a leader of the Ghetto uprising, that anti-Semitism was not an issue and maintains that the murder of “at least twelve Jews” during the uprising was only the act of a “gangster warlord.” In fact, anti-Semitism was common enough for AK units to refuse to admit Jews and for several dozen Jews to be murdered, mainly by units of the extreme-right underground National Armed Forces, the NSZ. It is stunning that the NSZ is not even once mentioned in the 700-page book. And the deputy commander of the Ghetto uprising, Marek Edelman, fought in the Communist fighting unit AL, as the author points out—but precisely because among the fighters of the AK he feared a bullet in his back. Doing justice to this aspect of the uprising would not detract from the validity of Richie’s overall message but would go a long way toward explaining why Western opinion found it so easy to accept Communist slander of the “fascist Poles.”

The book in general suffers from sloppy editing; it reads as if it had been hurried for publication. Though Polish diacritics, the bane of foreigners, are generally correct, Polish names (“Plac Piłsudski” instead of “Piłsudskiego,” for example) often are not. “Ostra Brama” is “Sharp Gate,” not “Gate of Dawn”; Puławy is the name of a Polish town, not of a Soviet commander, and so on. Wilcza 61 was a hospital, not a makeshift arms factory, where even the wonder-working armorers of the AK could not have manufactured “25 howitzers.”

Such mistakes need correcting, and the message concerning Poland’s overall political composition and its consequences needs revising. Both unnecessarily detract from the credibility of what otherwise is a very good book on a subject that deserves to be known and discussed not only by specialists. Without understanding the political, demographic and cultural roots of the 1944 Warsaw uprising, it is difficult, even today, to understand the way Poles think of themselves—and of the world. The uprising epitomizes in their eyes Poland’s sacrifice for the cause of freedom, only to be abandoned by its putative allies and met by cynical indifference across the globe to unspeakable carnage. In short, Poland deserves, at the very least, recognition and respect.

Konstanty Gebert is a columnist and international reporter for the independent Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza. He has written ten books on the Polish transformation and other works on  modern European history and Israel.

4 thoughts on “Book Review // Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising

  1. Mack Hall says:

    Mr. Gebert seems to be retrofitting contemporary sentimentality in suggesting that Poland’s resistance to Nazism was somehow invalid because Poland was not modern Sweden. If only the ideologically perfect may struggle against evil, then there will be no struggle at all.

  2. John says:

    The Germans brought prisoners from Auschwitz to Warsaw to clean up the debris after the destruction of the Ghetto. A large number of them were Jews from Greece. When the August 1944 revolt broke out the Greek Jews, many who had been in the Greek Army that had defeated the Italians in 1940 formed their own unit, fought under a Greek flag, and were very effective against the Germans.

  3. Victor says:

    It’s strange how perspectives change over time. When I was growing up in post-war Britain, everyone knew of the 1944 rising but only my fellow Jews knew about the Ghetto rising in 1943. Apart from anything else, ’44 was the subject of one of Wajda’s cinematic masterpieces but there were not, to my knowledge, any films about the Ghetto rising .

    And the one thing everyone knew about the ’44 rising was that the Soviets had halted their advance and let the Germans finish the Home Army off. Some years later, though, I met a Jewish Red Army veteran, who said that his comrades were on the point of mutiny by the time they reached the Vistula after battling all the way from Kursk and Stalin (rather uncharacteristically) didn’t dare risk a further advance.

  4. Szybicki says:

    Dear Mme Richie.

    As a young boy ( within limits of my possibilities ) I took part in the underground resistance in Warsaw against the German occupation and later I also participated in the Warsaw uprising.
    I am also the author of the book:
    “To Hope or Die; from Warsaw Uprising to Concentration Camp Sachsenhausen …”
    I have therefore with great interest read the book “Warsaw 1944” and obviously have
    some comments to make. I would prefer to send my comments directly to you, but since
    it was almost impossible to find your coordinates I use this way to express my view.

    1. First of all there are some practicalities. Your definitions of the Polish pronunciations
    on page 653 are not quite correct. Your advisor is not in a good command of the Polish
    language, nor of the French language. For example: “ą” is pronounced more like the
    French “on”. Similar comments apply to the other Polish sounds.

    On page 177 last line, 31 August should read 31 July.

    2. I am very surprised that you do not spend much time on describing the resistance against
    the Germans before the Uprising 1944. And yet, you had lots of space in your 650 page
    book to do it. You should know that there were several resistance groups. Although AK
    (Home Army) was the biggest group, it was by far not alone. There were also AL, ZWM,
    Farmers, Students, etc. By-the-way AL was recruiting civilians from various classes, not
    necessarily communists.
    The best book describing the resistance is that of Tomasz Strzembosz “Oddziały
    Szturmowe Konspiracyjnej Warszawy 1939-1944” and yet you do not even make a reference
    to it.
    Is it your father-in-law ( AK member ? ) who advised you not to do it ?

    3. There is some sort of unjustified glorification of AK (Home Army). First of all, seemingly,
    the same people who in 1939 sent the Polish cavalry against the German panzer divisions,
    most probably became later members of the Home Army.
    Secondly, you should know that the uprising started on 1 August at around 13h30 and not
    at 17h00 as was scheduled by AK. Consequently, since AK did not move before 17h00 it
    is almost certain that other groups than AK have started the uprising, probably pushed by
    rumours and encouragement by the Soviets.

    4. Page 194. The uprising at Grzybowska-Graniczna Streets started around 13h30. There was
    lots of explosions and when I arrived at the meeting point there at around 15h00
    (communication problems) the police station there was already taken by the insurgents and I
    personally saw my ZWM leader in uprising action. I saw wounded Germans on the run and
    there was already one German soldier taken as POW.
    And yet, you do not write anything about this event, nor about the other groups in the
    On page 197 line 16, on page 555 line 21 and on page 562 last line but 1, you admit that
    there were some 1700 AL people taking part in the fights.
    Bravo, you spend 650 pages on AK, but a very few lines on AL and nothing on the other
    groups. Your father-in-law again ?

    5. You should also know that I knew 2 days before that the uprising will start on 1 August.

    6. Page 404 line 3.
    Dear Mme, AL was not a political party and hence not a communist organisation,
    although AK probably wanted to make it so. AL was a resistance group composed mainly
    by civilians from different social classes, also working class, but not all communists,
    contrary to what you are saying in your book. Some of AK members switched also to AL.

    7. Page 411 line 1: I was personally in the magazine on Stafki Street on the 21 or 22 August.
    There were no Germans there. In fact there was nobody there, but there was plenty of
    sugar and flour, while Warsaw was starving. I do not know what happened afterwards as I
    was captured by the Germans on the 24 or 25 of August.

    Today, a posteriori we may think that the uprising was a mistake.
    But in any case, we shall not falsify the history.

    Best regards

    E. Szybicki

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