BOOKS: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
RISING '44: The Battle for Warsaw, by Norman Davies.
, May 10, 2008
The Battle for Warsaw
by Norman Davies
(Pan Macmillan Australia)
Paperback: 816 pages
Rec. price: AUD$29.95Poles, like Australians, annually commemorate a military disaster. However, unlike Australians, who on Anzac Day recall the tragic losses of the April 25, 1915 landing at Gallipoli, Poles remember the deaths of more than 200,000 fighting civilians and underground combatants who perished during August-October 1944 within their capital, in what is called the Warsaw Uprising.
To picture an equivalent Australian scenario, you'd have to imagine an underground army of former Diggers plus Sydney's entire wartime population rising up to fight an enemy that had occupied Australia for the entire war.
On the eve of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the end of World War II at last seemed to be in sight. On June 6 - D-Day - American, British and Canadian forces had successfully landed 155,000 troops on the beaches of Normandy, France, establishing a crucial Allied bridgehead in German-occupied Western Europe.Red Army
In the east, the vast Soviet Red Army was advancing into central Poland. By late July, it reached Warsaw's eastern outskirts. Soviet-controlled Polish-language radio stations called on the city's population to assist the Red Army's westward drive by rising up against the Nazi occupiers.
On August 1, the Poles rose up, expecting to liberate their capital from the retreating German army within a week. However, the Soviet Red Army, even though it was stationed only kilometres away, failed to come to their aid. Instead, Soviet Marshal Rokossovsky, under orders from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, halted his troops - for two months - while the Nazis massacred the Polish resistance. The Soviets made no attempt even to give the Poles air-cover or parachute supplies.
The Marxist historian, Isaac Deutscher, wrote: "The Poles begged for help... Stalin promised help but failed to give it... Then he did something that sent a shudder of horror through the allied countries. He refused to allow British planes, flying from their bases (hundreds of miles in the West) to drop arms and food to the insurgents, to land on Russian airfields behind the fighting lines."
The Warsaw Uprising, originally expected to liberate Poland's capital in a few days, instead lasted 62 days and ended in tragedy.
During this time, Warsaw's entire population was involved in the struggle: no-one was a non-combatant. Some 40,000 Polish partisans fought, of whom 15,000 were killed. About 200,000 civilians perished, including children, such as girls working as medicos, and units of boy scouts. The city's cellars and lofts were the nerve-centres for the Polish underground resistance's struggle.
The Poles managed to inflict severe casualties on the German occupiers, of whom 17,000 were killed and 9,000 wounded. Despite minor victories, however, the Polish units were steadily overwhelmed by the German army and SS-divisions which inflicted massive reprisals.
On October 2, the Poles were forced to surrender and the Nazis re-possessed what was left of Warsaw. Only after the Nazis had reduced Warsaw to rubble did the Red Army resume its westward advance.
British historian, Norman Davies, author of Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw,
is unique for several reasons, not least because he's done more than any other non-Pole to foster greater insight and understanding of Poland's recent and distant past.
According to Polish-American former US Air Force Brigadier-General Walter Jajko: "The defeat of the Warsaw Rising essentially finished the [Polish] Underground State. Stalin knew that the Underground State was an existing alternative government, organised throughout all of Polish society, that would prevent his Sovietisation of Poland.
"Stalin knew too that the Home Army was the force that would insist on Polish independence even unto war against the Soviet Union. Stalin's facilitation of the German suppression of the Warsaw Rising prevented the armed opposition to the Sovietisation of Poland....
"The Warsaw Rising showed that Nazis and Communists still had overriding interests in common. The moral equivalence of Hitler and Stalin, of Nazism and Communism, of Germany and Russia is striking."
Stalin's 1944 Warsaw betrayal was, of course, consistent with his and Hitler's August 1939 agreement - the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact - that set the stage for their dismembering of Poland in September that year, the event that sparked World War II. Their joint aim, from beginning to end, was to ensure Poland, which both dictators pathologically hated, ceased to exist.
To appreciate the significance of the '44 Uprising, it is important not just to focus on the countless, bloody house-to-house clashes and other urban combats, including in Warsaw's sewers, but to consider the uprising within a broader historical context.
In 1918, at the end of World War I, the Poles had liberated themselves, following the collapse of occupying Prussian and Austro-Hungarian forces. Only two years later, Warsaw came within a hair's breath of being re-occupied, this time by V.I. Lenin's and Leon Trotsky's newly-formed communist Red Army.
In 1920, the so-called Miracle of the Vistula, a counter-attack devised primarily by Poland's iconic military leader Jozef Pilsudski, saw his newly-created Polish Army outflanking and nearly destroying a fleeing Red Army in a series of battles to Warsaw's north-east. This not only thwarted Lenin's attempt to Bolshevise Western Europe, including Great Britain, but saved Warsaw.
At the outbreak of World War II, on September 1, 1939, Hitler's formidable and largely mechanised Wehrmacht
invaded Poland, while, on September 17, Stalin's Red Army moved in to occupy eastern Poland. Occupied Warsaw thus became the capital of World War II.
The response of Poland's underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa
, or AK) and its London-based government-in-exile, led by General Wladyslaw Sikorski, was to devise a plan that, in part, sought to repeat the process of 1918 when Prussian and Austro-Hungarian forces collapsed allowing the Poles to take over their homeland with minimal fighting.
Underlying this plan were elements of French theorist Georges Sorel's theory of the "general uprising" - something that occurred with considerable success during the 1980s when virtually Poland's entire population joined Lech Walesa's Solidarnosc
(Solidarity) movement to remove Moscow's ruling puppets, but by non-military means.Polish underground
In World War II, what this meant was that the Polish underground slowly and clandestinely armed itself, but it definitely did not plan to confront German forces until they were about to withdraw, as had happened in 1918.
Unfortunately, for Poland's London-based planners and their Warsaw underground colleagues, 1920 had also returned - that is, the Soviet Red Army was again on Warsaw's eastern doorstep. The Germans may have been doomed to ultimate defeat, but were still a dangerous foe.
Norman Davies's use of British, Soviet and Polish archival material makes his book an important element in a fuller understanding of the broader question of allied and Soviet relations in their fight against Hitler, who, we must never forget, was Stalin's ally for the first 22 months of the World War II.
Although it is often said that history repeats itself, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising was far from being a simple re-run of 1918. Instead, it was a tragic montage of both 1918 and 1920 - with German units considering, even preparing, for eventual withdrawal towards Berlin, as in 1918; and the Red Army being in Warsaw's vicinity, as in 1920.
There are two broad Polish schools of thought with respect to what Poland's underground should consequently have done.
Some, probably most, contend that hatred of the Germans by 1944 was so intense that, even if the underground's and London's leaders had not given the go-ahead for an uprising, it would have occurred in a haphazard way - a likelihood that cannot easily be discounted.
Warsaw's population, on the eve of the '44 Uprising, was in a state of high tension. Nearly everyone had lost a relative or friend to the German occupiers; knew of jails where torture was standard practice; and knew that millions of Poles, including Warsawites, had been deported to Hitler's Reich as forced labourers. Many thousands narrowly missed being caught or executed on a Warsaw street.
Much is often made of Polish anti-Semitism, including within occupied Warsaw. What such accusers rarely state, probably because they've never bothered finding out, is that 30,000 Jews were hidden by Poles in over-crowded "Aryan Warsaw". Furthermore, many of Warsaw's Jews fought and perished in the '44 Uprising, alongside Poles.
Jewish historian, Gunnar Paulsson, in his study of the Jews of occupied Warsaw, estimates that 28,000 sought to hide in the city at one time or another and that about 17,000 were still living in Warsaw when the Uprising broke out on August 1, 1944. Amongst other things, this demonstrates that the rate of Jewish survival in hiding in Warsaw was similar to that of Western European countries where the Nazi occupation was nowhere near as oppressive.
Polish-American historian, John Radzilowski, says: "In light of the way so many historians and polemicists alike have treated the Danish and Dutch cases in contrast to that of the Polish experience, such conclusions are earthshaking, if not, in some quarters, downright heretical."
The other school of thought is that the '44 Uprising was futile, a waste of innocent lives, and militarily downright foolhardy. This case is also difficult to contradict as the uprising came hard on the heels of nearly five bloody years of Nazi terror, the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, widespread illnesses, hunger, squalid living, and much more.
The 1944 Miracle of Warsaw was that its people were still able to fight, and so well and for so long, despite the Red Army's refusal to assist the Warsaw Poles and its blocking of Western Allied attempts to parachute in supplies.
The intensity of Polish patriotism, as well as romanticism, meant that there could be no holding back. The decision to fight was thus made - and in a city crowded with civilians, the least ideal location for such an historically crucial clash. To engage one fierce enemy while being betrayed by another was an unenviable plight.Costly last stand
Right or wrong, Poland's underground leaders opted to take a tragic and, in human terms, costly last stand.
Was it all in vain? Not entirely. During much of Poland's postwar existence as a Soviet satellite state, Stalin and his successors, no doubt recalling the fierce patriotism of the country's population, tended to treat them more cautiously. All this emboldened succeeding generations of Poles to create Solidarnosc
in 1980 to rid themselves of the communist yoke.
The 1956 Hungarian Uprising and the 1968 Czechoslovak Spring provoked Soviet-led invasions of those two countries; but Poland's Solidarnosc
, despite the mortal threat it posed to communist rule in eastern Europe, never triggered a third Soviet attempt to occupy Warsaw.
Why not? Surely the answer has something to do with the '44 Uprising.* This review is dedicated to the memory of the late Stanislaw Gotowicz OAM (1926-2007), a freedom-fighter in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, who, after the war, became leader of South Australia's Polish community. See URL: www.newsweekly.com.au/articles/2007jun09_obit.html