Adam Zamoyski

Solving the Polish conundrum

Text settings

Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw

Norman Davies

Macmillan, pp. 660, £

The Warsaw uprising of August 1944 was one of the most tragic episodes of the second world war, resulting in the destruction of the city and some 200,000 of its inhabitants. It is also one of the least well known. The fact that the Red Army had stood by while the city was pounded to rubble by the Germans meant that the subject was a touchy one in postwar communist Poland. And it was no less embarrassing to Poland’s wartime allies in the West, who had also failed to help. It was avoided by historians, as it aroused unease in those who liked to see the war as a straight- forward fight against the Nazi evil, and distaste in those with pro-Soviet sympathies.

For Poles, it is the subject of a never-ending conundrum — was the rising an act of heroic if doomed self-defence, a historical imperative, or was launching it an act of criminal recklessness, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands and the destruction of the capital? The arguments on both sides are such that no intelligent and honest person can embrace either view wholeheartedly to the absolute exclusion of the other.

The issue will not go away because it has affected and continues to affect life in Poland. As it took such a toll of the inhabitants of the capital, it effectively decapitated Polish society, robbing it of a huge portion of its intellectual elite. Since the city was levelled in consequence, it also destroyed a vast proportion of the nation’s cultural heritage. Despite the meticulous reconstructions, one cannot walk around Warsaw today without being aware that one is walking over a battlefield.

Norman Davies does not address the question of whether it was right or wrong to launch the rising. He sets out the arguments for and against, but devotes surprisingly little space to the decision, taken by the leadership of the underground in the last days of July 1944, when the Red Army was approaching Warsaw, the German front appeared to be tottering, and news of the bomb plot against Hitler gave the impression that the time had come to take action.

Nor does he chart the progress of the fighting over the 63 days of the rising or attempt to assess it from a military point of view. He describes some key actions and gives an idea of the nature of the fighting. He does justice to the resourcefulness and ingenuity as well as to the extraordinary bravery of the men, women and children who stood up to the overwhelming German onslaught. He peppers his text with vignettes of heroics and tragedy. He describes the unspeakable conditions in fascinating detail and does not spare us the horrors that confronted combatants and civilians alike as they struggled for survival in the ruins and the sewers. But the events are treated in an impressionistic way, and those looking for an overall synthesis will be disappointed.

In fact, Davies is concerned not so much with the rising itself as with its deeper significance in the context of the war. He ranges far and wide (and it says a great deal about his skill as a writer that he can do so without losing his reader completely) to bring together the various elements involved. These include not only Poland’s politics and alliances, German and Soviet policies, British and American priorities, but also ideological trends within the Foreign Office and the American State Department, and the rivalries of agencies such as SOE and MI6.

He takes us back some years before the war, and through its aftermath right up to the present day. And this provides some of the most uncomfortable passages in the book. The persecution of the heroes of the rising by the communist regime in Poland in the late 1940s and early 1950s makes particularly sickening reading, as much by its sheer injustice as by its brutality. But he is right to bring it out into the open, as it helps to explain much about what is happening in Poland today, as well as revealing some of the darker aspects of the war. And his coverage of postwar reactions in the West makes one wonder at the boundless ability of human society to avoid confronting the truth.

It is an extraordinary story, and it is fairly and honestly told here. Davies is an intelligent and balanced guide through its intricacies, and he is always entertaining. There are bound to be inaccuracies in a book of this scope, and experts will quibble. My own gripe is that in an attempt to assuage the usual panic felt by the English-speaking reader when confronted by a Polish name, Davies has created a nomenclatural dog’s breakfast. But such things cannot obscure the essential importance of this book.

Its real merit is that it lifts the question of the Warsaw rising out of the parochial Polish conundrum of whether it was justified or not and places it firmly at the centre of Allied policy and planning, where it belongs. Since it was ‘the big three’ — Great Britain, the United States and Soviet Russia — who took decisions on behalf of the other allies with respect to every single operation, why, Davies asks, did they wash their hands of this one?

The Polish underground had been an element of the Allied war effort since September 1939, providing invaluable intelligence and operational possibilities at the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe — only a couple of weeks before the rising, it captured and sent to London a prototype V-2 rocket. The underground army, the AK, co-operated with SOE and MI6, which channelled a vast amount of effort into arming it for the moment when, in conjunction with an Allied advance, it would come out into the open and assist the liberating forces by stabbing the Germans in the back. The timing of such a rising was discussed at the highest level in London and Washington. Yet when the time came, the Allies distanced themselves from the whole issue and told the Poles they could do as they liked. It was as though Montgomery had been instructed that he could either fight in the desert, or, if he preferred, go to Palestine, or cross over to Italy, or just surrender, without consulting London.

The answer to Davies’s question lies in the murky compromise at the heart of the grand alliance. The liberal democracies which had stood up to Nazi Germany in 1939 had been obliged to enlist the aid of Soviet Russia. But Soviet Russia was not interested in liberal democracy; it despised the other allies and pursued its own agenda, which was no more edifying than that of Nazi Germany. Churchill was dimly aware of this, but most people in positions of power and influence in the Allied camp, including Roosevelt, refused even to contemplate such a possibility — it would have been tantamount to admitting that they were backing one evil against another. They willed themselves into believing that their ally of convenience was as morally upright as they held themselves to be, and did everything to bury anything that might contradict this — hence the taboo on any talk of the Gulag, the cover-up of the Katyn massacre, and so on.

As the Red Army began liberating Poland from the Germans, Stalin incorporated part of the territory into the Soviet Union and set up a puppet government for the rest, making it quite clear that he was taking over the country. He was letting his mask slip, but neither Churchill nor Roosevelt wanted to see what was behind it. That is why they did not get around to co-ordinating action over Warsaw. Had they done so, they would have had either to formally agree to Stalin’s demands or defy him outright, which they felt themselves in no position to do. Worse, they would have had to confront the true nature of their ally.

Some historians have seen this as the beginning of the Cold War. That may be to accord the episode too much significance. But it was certainly the moment when, realising that he had duped the Allies, Stalin began to feel his strength. And their reaction confirmed him in his conviction that they would rather acquiesce in his crimes than complicate things by denouncing them. As one delves deeper into it, one comes to realise that this power ful book is not so much about the Warsaw uprising as about the defeat of liberal democracy in the second world war.