In August Poland commemorated the 70th anniversary of its uprising against the Nazi occupation. The heroic but hopeless 63-day struggle of the poorly armed Polish underground Home Army against the S.S. troops devastated Warsaw, killed thousands and fulfilled, at least temporarily, Hitler’s wish to erase the Polish capital from the face of the earth. Attempting to correct Soviet lies about the uprising and the Poles’ uncritical celebration of its fighters, Alexandra Richie has written an absorbing account of this barely remembered footnote to the war on the Eastern Front.
In September 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union carved up and invaded Poland. In June 1941, however, Germany attacked Russia and quickly occupied all of Poland. Although the Russians suffered staggering losses in population and territory, the tide of battle began to turn after they defeated the Germans at Stalingrad in early 1943. In June 1944, the same month the Western Allies launched the D-Day invasion of France, Russia began an offensive in Byelorussia that within weeks unexpectedly destroyed over one million German troops and brought the Russians to the gates of Warsaw. In July 1944, Hitler narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, which suggested to the Poles that the Nazi regime was rapidly crumbling.
By August 1944, Warsaw had endured the German occupation for nearly five years. Unlike most of occupied Europe, the Poles refused to collaborate with the Nazis and organized a large resistance army. Hitler hated Warsaw, with its huge Jewish population and its implacable hostility to the occupation, perhaps more than any city in the world. After the Nazis liquidated the Jewish ghetto in 1942 and 1943, Warsaw’s pre-war population of 1.3 million had shrunk to 900,000.
The Poles decided as soon as the occupation began that they would rise up against the Nazis when the timing was right. With the German army unraveling in the face of the Russian offensive in the summer of 1944, the timing seemed right. But, as Richie explains, the Polish Home Army tragically miscalculated.
Richie, the Canadian-born author of Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin, lives in Warsaw and writes sympathetically of the plight of the Poles: “The Poles were in an impossible situation in August 1944, caught between two of the most brutal and murderous regimes in history.” The Home Army thought that if it did nothing to liberate Warsaw, it would lack a legitimate claim to self-government. The Home Army knew that it could expect no help from the Russians. Stalin wanted to annihilate the Home Army and install a Soviet satellite in Poland. Stalin had, after all, ordered the murder of 4,410 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest and the arrest of Home Army soldiers who fought with the Red Army in eastern Poland.
Richie, however, criticizes the Home Army command for the timing of the uprising. The uprising was a political rather than a military action, but the Home Army ignored military realities. Recently reinforced by battle-hardened divisions from Italy, the German army launched a counter-offensive that not only stopped the Russian advance but gave Stalin an excuse to avoid assisting the Poles. Richie also explains that the Home Army knew in advance that the Western Allies, who considered Poland part of the Soviet sphere and the Poles little more than a nuisance, would not provide assistance to the uprising. To mount an uprising under these circumstances, according to the respected Polish General Wladyslaw Anders, was “wishful thinking beyond reason.”
The Poles were not alone in making irrational decisions about the uprising. Hitler and Himmler ordered that Warsaw’s civilians, including women and children, be murdered and that the city be reduced to rubble. S.S. officers, who had perfected the art of mass murder in Byelorussia, were happy to oblige. At a time when the German army needed every available resource for the battle against the Russians, the decision to liquidate Warsaw was, in Richie’s view, “sheer madness on every level.”
Drawing on the archives of her father-in-law, a Polish historian, Richie provides testimonials from residents who witnessed the fighting and massacres. These first-hand accounts allow Richie to describe in exhaustive detail the battle in each of the city’s neighborhoods. While this evidence graphically shows the human cost of the uprising, its cumulative effect is numbing. As Stalin infamously remarked, “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”
Additional weaknesses stem from Richie’s polonocentric perspective. She describes Warsaw between the wars as a vibrant and tolerant cultural mecca, glossing over the right-wing government’s antipathy toward Jews, who were excluded from certain professions and had quotas imposed on their university attendance. She also fails to analyze possible explanations for the Western Allies’ reluctance to jeopardize their alliance with the Soviets. Total Russian army war casualties approached 30 million, approximately five million of which occurred after August 1944. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill could have assessed the risks to the alliance of aiding the Poles differently, they cannot be faulted for opting to have the Russians continue to absorb the primary burden of finishing off the German army.