Warsaw 1944 – The Fateful Uprising
By Alexandra Richie
William Collins – £25.00
”A country, completely overrrun by two invaders and torn in half, had decided to fight. No dictator, no leader, no party and no class had inspired this decision. The nation had made it spontaneously and unanimously.”
Along with the pending 100th Anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, 2014 also marks the Seventieth Anniversary of D-Day and of course, the Warsaw Uprising. A profoundly heart-breaking saga of both epic and pointless proportion if ever there was one.
That the Warsaw Uprising happened in the first place, isn’t at all surprising; especially given what I know of the continuing trajectory of Polish induced pride – both young and old alike. The opening quote, which can be found in the fourth chapter (‘Resistance’) of this absolute marvel of book, goes some way in underlining this brave, rather commendable trait. Although what is horrendously, as well as frustratingly surprising, is the degree to which the allies turned a duplicitous blind eye; which allowed so much of the populace of Poland’s capital – the very country for whom Britain and France declared war on Germany in the first place – to be literally massacred.
Such altogether loathsome let alone shameful truth, is succinctly brought to bear in the chapter ‘The Allies, Hitler and the Battle for Czerniakow’ of Warsaw 1944 – The Fateful Uprising; wherein authoress Alexandra Richie writes: ”’False face must hide what the false heart doth know,’ Lady Macbeth famously said. Both Churchill and Roosevelt were informed of the fact that Stalin was responsible for the massacre, but they feared that if they confronted him with the truth he might abandon the war effort in the east, or make a separate peace with Germany […]. As the American diplomat and historian George Kennan put it, the Allied victory in the war was ‘mortgaged from the very beginning by the fact that the Allies were not strong enough to defeat Hitler alone and had to take advantage of the power of the Soviet Union… They had to compromise with the political aims of the Stalin regime. This placed them in a false and hypoctitical position. And Poland was the place where this became most evident […]. Roosevelt’s interest in the Poles did not extend much past the need to secure the Polish-American vote in the coming presidential election; indeed, he told Stalin that six or seven million Poles lived in the United States, and as a practical man he didn’t want to lose their support.”’
This most inflammatory of issues, one of just many touched upon amid these six-hundred plus pages, is what fundamentally sets this politically complex, tough, yet altogether humane and wonderfully written book apart from a cascade of others written on the subject. It is as indeed Alan Clark has substantiated in The Daily Telegraph: ”A combination of scholarship, elegant writing and grasp of the subject that has few rivals.”
To be sure, along with Norman Davies’ Rising ’44 – The Battle for Warsaw, this is an altogether outstanding work, that can be read in the full knowledge and trust that what’s written is the truth, the whole truth, and unfortunately, nothing but the truth.
That Richie is connected to the events of this story through her father-in-law, Wladslaw Bartoszewski – who participated in the Uprising and whose vast private archive forms the basis of Warsaw 1944 – has done much to authenticate and honestly explain said harrowing truth(s). And I use the word harrowing in its absolute sense here, because some of the terrible, terrible events that took place during the Uprising, were, and will forever remain, exactly that.
Although deplorable and debased as they invariably were, it was the regularity and the flippancy with which they were conducted, which quintessentially breaks the heart.
In chapter two for instance (‘To The Very Gates of Warsaw’), Richie sheds enormous light on the degree to which the German occupying forces would, for whatever reason, psychologically and physically stoop. A facet of barbarism, which, depending on one’s point of view, either explains a great deal or explains very little: ”’Money had become meaningless. We used paper money for rolling cigarettes or gambling it away indifferently.’ There was a feeling of impending gloom. ‘Only a few sought intimacy, most drugged themselves with superficialities, with gambling, with cruelty, hatred, or they masturbated… Our comdradeship was made from mutual dependence, from living together in next to no space. Our humour was born out of sadism gallows humour, satire, obscenity, spite, rage, and pranks with corpses, squirted brains, lice, pus and shit, the spiritual zero.” […] ”In Russia the normal rules of warfare no longer applied: everything was permissible, as long as any criminal behaviour was directed against the racial enemies of Germany. White flags were used to draw Soviet soldiers to their deaths; red crosses on field hospitals were used for target practice.”
Furthermore, in chapter seven (‘The Massacre In Wola’), the authoress continues to home in upon ”the spiritual zero” by bringing to our attention just one instance that (in an an excruciating manner) depicts the complete and utter lack of aforementioned, moral decency: ”Dirlewanger’s men took pride in their ‘tradecraft,’ as von dem Bach called it. A small girl of around twelve, with torn clothes and dishevelled hair, appeared from a basement long after the other inhabitants had been assembled in the courtyard. Schenke motioned to her not to be afraid as she stood by the wall, unsure of where to go. She raised her hands and said, ”Nicht Partisan.” She walked with raised hands. She was squeezing something in one of them. She was very close when I heard a shot. Her head bounced. A piece of bread fell from her hand. In the evening the platoon leader, who was from Berlin, came up to me and said proudly, ”It was a master shot, wasn’t it?” He smiled, very full of himself.”
Talk about tragedy. Talk about chauvinistic treachery.
Even though some readers might find Warsaw 1944 just a little hard going at times; I can’t imagine anyone who will have picked it up to begin with, were not already somewhat well versed in the dense and complex history of the Second World War; especially that in direct relation to Poland and Germany. For as Christopher W.A. Szpilman, Professor of Modern Japanese History at Kyushu Sangyo University and son of Wladyslaw Szpilman – author of The Pianist – has written on the book’s back cover: ”This beautifully written and judicious work is by far the best account of the Warsaw Uprising to date. Drawing upon a wealth of archives and interviews, Richie meticulously traces the shocking details of the uprising from its planning stages to its sad end. The book vividly and in great detail describes the heroism and suffering of the people of Warsaw in their struggle against the Nazis without neglecting to address the wider issues such as the causes of the uprising, Stalin’s criminal refusal to assist it in any way and the equally criminal Anglo-American unwillingness to put pressure on Stalin. This book is required reading for anybody interested in the history of the twentieth century.”
I cannot help but feel compelled to go one step further by adding that this book is required reading for anyone remotely interested in the very way (the potential beauty of) human nature works. Or doesn’t work. Period.
Reason partially being, Warsaw 1944 absolutely does not beat about the historical bush. This may in part be due to the simple fact that seventy years have now passed since the Warsaw Uprising. It may also be in part due to a number of new archives and files having been made available to historians – especially since the nigh complete collapse of the Soviet Union during the early 1990’s.
The ongoing story of which is as resolute, and as equally, if not sadly pronounced, right up to this very day. One need look no further than what’s currently going on in The Ukraine to fully ascertain the degree to which Messrs. Stalin and Hitler truly, truly damaged said region of the world. That in ”1939, Warsaw had had the second-largest Jewish population in the world after New York,” yet ”only 11,500 of them survived the war,” is a mere tiny testament to that of the full story: ”What was done in the Polish capital was, as the historian Gunnar Paulsson has put it, ‘the greatest slaughter of a single city in history.’ For Warsaw, the deaths of so many of its citizens was a tragedy from which it will never truly recover; the end of so much life and the elimination of an entire culture completely and forever changed the character of the metropolis on the Vistula.” (‘Ostpolitik’).
The enormous humanity of this book lies in its very writing; which, in and of itself, is very brave, very eloquent and very necessary.