The Other Warsaw Uprising
by Konstanty Gebert
Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising
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.