on 13 February 2004
This book has finally and definitively placed the Warsaw Rising of 1944 on the map of World War II. Norman Davies shows how the Rising, far too long overlooked, confused with the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, or downright forgotten, marked the start of the War's endgame, contributed to the shaping of post-War Poland and the division of Europe, anticipated the disintegration of the wartime Alliance and the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Norman Davis approaches the Rising from many angles: political and military, national and international, collective and individual. The author presents many a detail unknown or vaguely realized even by Poles, and explains how the Rising spawned persistent myths, both negative and heroic.
He does it all in an immensly readable style and innovative form, known from his previous work, inserting "asides" into the exhaustively researched and coherent narrative, free-standing testimonies by individual participants from all sides to illustrate their personal experience of the Rising and its aftermath, which he extends up to our own times.
Perhaps it may be too much to expect that Rising '44 should become a world bestseller, illuminating the subject for all and once for all, although the book certainly deserves it. But at least from now on there will be no excuse for those who pronounce on the subject, in or outside Poland, to misconstrue the facts and perpetuate ideologically-based misconceptions.
It would be petty to point out insignificant and inconsequential errors and omissions (very few and far between). However, one might question the stylistic device of weeding out and translating ALL but a handful of Polish personal and place-names. The author explains, feasibly, that he aimed to spare his global readership the confusion of exotic Polish spellings, but, perhaps, that has been taken a name too far.
This reservation does not detract, though, from the immense achievement of the best among contemporary historians writing on Polish affairs, and that includes Poles as well.
I was born after the war, and have, I suppose, an average amount of knowledge/ignorance about it. I had some awareness of the Ghetto Uprising, but had never heard of the Warsaw Uprising until I visited Warsaw with my Polish son in law. He explained in simple terms what had happened in 1944 as we walked round the city centre and the restored 'old town'. I was returning to Poland this summer, shortly after the release of the paperback edition of this book, so could not resist taking it with me.
This is a mammoth book. Really it is more than one book. The Warsaw Uprising is at its centre, but it would also serve as a good general introduction to the Second World War in Europe as well as the Cold War that followed and the recent emergence of modern Poland. It is thoroughly reseached with a great variety of sources, and written in a very readable style.
Davies seems to have a mission to tell the world about Poland. He loves Poland and the Poles love him. (During my recent visit he starred on at least two current affairs TV programmes, speaking perfect Polish of course.) This, together with the passionate pro-Polish stance of the book, makes me wonder whether it is as balanced as it is possible to be, but never mind. Who wants a fence sitter, anyway?
The descriptions of the fighting, the backstage political machinations of all the allies, and the great variety of individual characters involved are gripping. The book is long but not tedious; I was left with the feeling of having read several books and of having learned a lot about a subject that is more interesting and more central to the story of modern Europe than I had ever imagined.
I had one or two beefs about the style and layout. I don't really think Davies needed to take all of those liberties with Polish personal and place names, and to refer to Poland not by its name but as 'The First Ally' throughout the first section of the book was a bit annoying. The 'capsules' interspersed throughout Davies' narrative were all very readable, but made the reading of the book a rather disjointed experience. Perhaps it would be better to ignore them initially, and read them all afterwards. But these are minor irritations that could never detract from the five star status of this book.
The obvious comparisons are with Antony Beevor's books on Stalingrad and Berlin. Like Davies, I may be a little biased due to my Polish connections, but I think this book knocks spots off both of them.
on 11 November 2004
Curiosity made me pick up Rising 44. I was born after the war, but I remember my parents telling me that there was a rising in Warsaw in 1944 but that it failed because the rising was sold out by the Russians. Having read the book I can't escape the conclusion that Poland was screwed by everyone, the British, the Russians and the Americans.
In part one, Norman Davies does an in-depth study of the history leading up to the rising. He thoroughly discusses all the political factions and their various aims and political manoeuvrings. Following this network can be a bit confusing but Norman Davies manages to explain the complexity of the matter in readable style. His naming Poland as "The First Ally" in the first part of the book does become a bit tedious but I suppose he does it to remind his western audience of the fact.
The Rising is similarly accounted in detail. It was sold out by Russian opposition to the whole undertaking and American indifference. It would appear that the Rising and ultimately Poland was sacrificed over the larger picture of winning the war against Nazi Germany with the Allies cuddling the Russian bear, sometimes, to extremes.
Part three deals with the aftermath. Having opposed the Rising in the first place the Stalin-installed Polish Government went after the survivors of the Rising. To me personally this is the most tragic part of the book. Instead of receiving gratitude and honour for rising against the oppressor, there is only the torture chamber and prison. The people who staged the Rising have only really come into their own since communism fell in 1989.
I like Norman Davies' use of capsules. When you read the book you will do yourself a favour if you read the capsules as you progress through the book. They provide the emotional companion to the narrative.
I don't mind that Norman Davies uses English abbreviations instead of the original Polish names, but I prefer it that way due to my lack of knowing the Polish language.
Norman Davies' work properly recounts the Warsaw rising for the first time. His book is destined to be come the standard volume on the subject. You won't find any better.
on 10 July 2005
Davies is right in pointing to the fact that in the West there hardly has been recognizing for all what happened in the East during the Second World War. At least not during the Cold War. Of course the Allied governments never took responsibility for their failures concerning the `First Ally' (as Davies keeps referring to Poland in this way). But at least the destruction of Warsaw and the slaughter of tens of thousands of Polish citizens should have its place in history. Luckily, Davies has given it.
Whether or not the Polish should have risen in 1944, it once again showed their bravery. The Polish already made name during the Battle of Britain and were unfairly blamed by Montgommery for their Arnhem 1944 participation, despite their heroic effort near the Bridge. During the Battle of Warsaw they were outnumbered in quality and quantity against special German forces, but nevertheless kept them busy for two whole months! They could have been relieved by the Russians, or been helped more by the Allies, but that wasn't to be. The rising was smashed and Poland entered 45 years of communist terror.
And this latter subject is relevant, as Davies points out. The war hadn't a happy end for Poland in 1945: the horror simply continued. One third of the book is dedicated to the years after the final shot was heard, but I think it's relevant. It only describes better how tragic this Rising ended. Another third Davies dedicates to the build-up, but it completes the whole picture he wants to give. So, readers only interested in the actual fighting can find their satisfaction in two hundred pages. The remainder of the book only adds more drama to the story.
Finally, I share criticism about Davies handling the names of the Polish involved. He uses their `nicknames' to make them easier to remember, but I think he's wrong here. Let's hope a reprint will see this changed.
on 16 February 2004
This is a magnificent book, and well stands comparison with the other, perhaps more well-known, recent books, ‘Stalingrad’ and ‘Berlin’ by Antony Beevor. In my opinion, it surpasses them both.
The tragedy of Warsaw is well known, although sometimes confused: the Jewish ghetto uprising, of 1943, in which desperate Jews determined to die fighting rather than go passively to their fate, and then, in 1944, the subject of this book, the general uprising, which the Soviets, with devilish cynicism, refused to support and simply allowed to be crushed before sweeping in and taking control of a wilderness of ruins.
And so to this book; 635 pages of main text, and some 35 appendices, by the foremost historian of Poland, who, oddly, happens to be an Englishman. Interjecting some personal details, the author sports facial growth of proportions impressive even by Polish standards, and speaks more fluent Polish than he does English: there cannot have been a more impressive or obvious candidate for this history. It is immediately and certain to remain the standard text on the Warsaw Uprising; Professor Davies brings to his subject both an immense compassion and a clear-eyed objectivity.
Oddly enough, the Uprising is extremely well documented, which is a feature of both the Polish desire to record and preserve their culture, and (perhaps) their love of bureaucracy. Professor Davies has mined the British and Polish archives well, and the book is well balanced between the academic analysis and the thrilling personal accounts: indeed, the book could well have been longer.
The book concentrates particularly on British reactions to the Uprising. (Generally: Churchill, excellent; the Foreign Office, useless; journalists, offensively ignorant.) Without wishing to diminish the worth of this book, this is a failing, because the book avoids detailed examination of the other Powers - although it is fair to say that Roosevelt comes out badly in his abandonment of Poland at the 1943 Tehran conference (which, no doubt, led Churchill to describe the Americans as being ‘profoundly ignorant of the Polish situation’ at Yalta in 1945.)
The book is extremely good on the question of Polish - Jewish relations, a subject where American historians fear to tread. It is a pity that the myth of Polish anti-Semitism (and Professor Davies clearly exposes it as such) was itself propagated by Soviet propaganda and as a Zionist touchstone, and yet remains today.
In a book as comprehensive as this, there are bound to be quibbles which can be raised: the trams between the two halves of the Jewish ghetto had their windows whitewashed, so ‘their inhabitants could [not] see the towering walls with their own eyes, and [know] that their fellow citizens were being horribly maltreated’ [p.103] (although it has to be admitted that this is not shown on the relevant photograph); the disgusting Hans Frank gets a peculiar description (‘... a complex character, who was much more intelligent than his fellow Nazis, yet incapable of resisting the temptations of his post’ [p.86]) and his most notorious quotation (‘In Prague, big red posters were put up on which one could read that seven Czechs had been shot today. I said to myself, ‘If I had to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests of Poland would not be sufficient to manufacture the paper’’ [p.87]) is referenced to a secondary source rather than the primary one (the ‘Voelkischer Beobachter’, June 6h., 1940); a quotation from Karski [on p.274] about the negative attitude of the British embassy in Moscow is weakened because: (i) Karski was not there; (ii) the author himself acknowledges the pressure put on Stalin by the British Military Mission in Moscow [p.298]; (iii) the picture painted is completely different to that painted by Czapski [‘The Inhuman Land’, 1951], a first-hand witness; and criticism of the British Ministry of Pensions in not supporting Polish émigrés [p.540] might be leavened were readers to know that Churchill did not receive a pension either.
Similarly, the lack of a bibliography is an irritant: von Krannhal’s ‘Der Warschauer Aufstand’ does not seem to have been consulted, but this probably does not matter, given the quality of this book; one reference [44 to Chapter VIII] simply reads: ‘vanished reference’. At other points, the author references his other published works; no criticism should be made of this, given his standing.
Other areas are left unexplored: the gratuitous destruction (by Wehrmacht sappers) of cultural monuments such as the beautiful Lazienki palace; the question of whether Warsaw could have survived had the Uprising not taken place (probably not; like Gdansk, it would simply have been shelled into rubble by the Soviets); interesting speculation on whether the Lodz ghetto - please, Professor Davies, make this your next book! - could have been saved; and the attitude of both Hitler - the destruction of Warsaw was the subject of his last speech to the Reichstag - and Churchill, who somewhere created a moving tribute to Poland, as the only other country to fight the war from beginning to end, without surrender or collaboration.
Even today, the subject of the Uprising is hugely contentious to Poles, on the question of whether it should have been launched at all. The results - the destruction of the country’s capital city and the cream of its youth - were tragic and an undoubted military defeat. And yet, in its affirmation of a free Poland, at the expense of the destruction of everything held dear, the Uprising was a triumphant success.
Professor Davies deserves great credit for this book. British foreign policy towards Poland, from 1939 right up until today’s ‘ethical foreign policy’, has been pretty useless - most Poles, for example, are convinced by the Stalinist propaganda that the British had a hand in the death of General Sikorski, a situation not helped by the refusal to release documentation. It is not overdoing it to say that Professor Davies has done more for this country by his academic work, as far as the Poles are concerned, than our ambassador. Writing this review at a time when the British honours system has again honoured the usual collection of failed sportsmen, pop-singers, and bureaucrats, one cannot help but feel that some worth could be restored to it by honouring the author of this book.