world war 2: warsaw uprising 1944

Michael Kenney. Shedding Light on a WWII Tragedy.

Reprinted from August 3, 2004 The Boston Globe.

  rising 44In Paris, the French Resistance launched attacks against the German garrison on Aug. 18, 1944. Six days later, a French armored division split off from the Allied advance and entered the city. Two days after that, on Aug. 26, the German commander surrendered, having ignored Hitler's orders to set the city ablaze.

The news from Paris was greeted in Warsaw with ``profound and sincere joy'' by the Polish Underground, which had launched its own assault, the Rising, against the German occupation on Aug. 1. But there would be no supporting attack by the advancing Soviet army, and the Underground's Home Army would fight on in Warsaw for another month before surrendering on Sept. 29.

It was, historian Norman Davies writes in his powerful and compelling account of the Warsaw Rising, "one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century'' – and until now it remained a largely untold story.

Davies, a British historian whose "God's Playground'' is a highly regarded history of Poland, anchors his account of the Rising in that nation's "tradition of fighting for its freedom.''

Its "armed risings'' against occupying European powers, he writes, "were a regular and well-publicized fixture of the nineteenth-century scene.''

The Polish cavalry, charging with lances and sabers against German tanks in the opening days of World War II, were gallant, but the Polish defeat of an invading Red Army in 1920 had "postponed indefinitely'' Soviet plans for "World Revolution,'' Davies writes.

By 1944, Davies reports, the Polish Underground was Europe's largest Resistance movement. And Warsaw, like "other capital cities awaiting liberation, was a dangerous place,'' with a "restless'' occupying garrison and a populace that, by August 1944, had been awaiting liberation for five years.

Davies provides a detailed account of the Resistance in those five years. It owed part of its success to "the prevalence of instinctive, spontaneous social support'' of the city's residents. Polish agents flown in from Britain, the seat of the government in exile, brought ``knowledge that the Underground had allies, that it was not fighting alone.''

The weeks leading up to the Rising, Davies writes, were agonizing. The Underground's leaders realized they could not "smash the Wehrmacht single-handedly,'' but could seize large parts of the city and hold out for a week.

"Within that time,'' they believed, the exile government's premier, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, then in Moscow, "should be able to strike a deal with Stalin.'' It would also allow the Western allies "to fly in arms and possibly reinforcements,'' the Underground to "establish their own administration,'' and the Soviet Army, then advancing toward the Vistula River on the city's eastern border, to be ``in position to mount the conclusive assault and to drive the Germans from the scene.''

The Soviet advance had been stalled in early August by "a determined German counter-attack,'' Davies reports. Military and political considerations directed an advance on Berlin through the Baltics and a nation-seizing swing into the Balkans.

More significant, Davies suggests, was the attitude of Soviet leaders. George Kennan, then the US charge d'affaires in Moscow, recalled that Stalin and Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, had expressed "a spirit of malicious glee'' in a meeting with the US and British ambassadors, implying that they intended "to have Poland, lock, stock and barrel'' and that they did not "care a fig for those Polish underground fighters.''

Davies provides a gripping account of the Rising, interspersing his narrative with many first-person accounts that detail moments of heroism and of tragedy. A British observer, an escaped prisoner of war who had joined the Underground, radioed London that "it is a battle that is being carried on by the civilian population as well as by the AK [Home Army]. ... It is total warfare. Every street in the city has been a battlefield. ...''

But the Rising was doomed, taking a toll of 200,000 lives. And Red Army units, by then just across the Vistula, "watched impassively'' as the Germans exacted a "merciless revenge'' – carrying out, as they had not in Paris, a 'total razing'' of Warsaw.

Repression of the Underground's leaders and fighters continued after the Soviets entered the city four months later.

Unlike the uprising in April 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto, the 1944 Rising is a relatively unknown part of World War II history. This is not the result of the attention given to the history of the Holocaust.

Davies writes of a deliberate decision by the postwar Communist government that "it was not in the Party's interests that children should learn how the people of Warsaw stayed loyal to the `Bourgeois Government' in London, nor how the great fraternal army of the Soviet Union had mysteriously ceased its advance.''

Popular accounts of the event appeared only with the Solidarity movement, which surfaced in August 1980. And while a monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto uprising was erected in 1947, no similar monument to the 1944 Rising was erected until 1989. Davies's monumental account completes the work of memory.