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1944’s glorious, hopeless battle for Warsaw

John Lukacs is the author of numerous books, including "Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred," to be published by Yale University Press in February.

We judge the relative importance of events from their consequences. The consequences of the first world war were greater than those of the second. Yet many events during World War II were more dramatic and tragic than events during World War I. And perhaps the most dramatic and tragic of such events was the Warsaw uprising in 1944 (not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of the previous year).

Five years before, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia had conquered all of Poland. Now Stalin’s armies were driving Hitler’s out of much of Poland. As the Russians approached Warsaw, a Polish underground army rose up against the Germans. This was a veritable army, not some kind of ragtag ephemeral group of “resisters” or “partisans.” This Polish Home Army fought the Germans for 63 days. Through immense pain and desperation, through filth and death and blood shines their glory. “Courage” or “bravery” are insufficient words to describe them. They were among the greatest -- and the most tragic -- heroes of the second world war.

Norman Davies’ main interest is the history of Poland. “Rising ’44" is an enormous book, written with verve. I wholly share his admiration for the Poles in their battle for Warsaw. Yet there is a contradiction in his assessment of his own book. He wrote it because, as he says in the foreword, “It is a story that has never been properly told.” Yet later: “I have no doubt that the definitive academic study of the Warsaw Rising still awaits its author.” But historical knowledge is neither definitive nor academic. And Davies’ summary of the uprising is curiously stumbling: “It was embroiled at a sensitive interface of the three-sided arena where Western Democracy confronted Fascism on the one hand and Stalinist Communism on the other.” That confrontation was with Hitler’s Germany, not with “Fascism,” and the confrontation with Stalinist communism would not come until later.

As in every grand tragedy, in the uprising of 1944 heroism meets with betrayal and fails because of betrayal. The Home Army rose on Aug. 1, 1944, because the Russian army was coming near. Its purpose was to drive out the Germans and become master of the capital city before the Russians arrived. The plan called for achieving this in a few days. That did not happen; but the Home Army fought for nine weeks, three weeks longer than the armies of France had fought the Germans in 1940. Halfway through those nine weeks the military situation east of Warsaw changed. At first the Russians could not break through the Germans to come close enough; now they were close enough but not willing to help. Stalin did not mind seeing the free Poles crushed and Warsaw destroyed. Churchill minded and tried to help. Roosevelt minded and helped little.

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It may be argued that the purpose of historical knowledge is the study not only of periods but of problems. Two grave problems involving the Warsaw uprising ought be considered. The large one is something that present neoconservatives conveniently overlook: that the British and the Americans could not conquer Hitler’s Germany by themselves, not without Russia, not without Stalin. Churchill and Roosevelt knew that. They could not endanger their alliance with Stalin, not even for the sake of Poland. Yet Churchill felt a moral obligation to Poland. Roosevelt did not. Churchill’s original plan was to satisfy Stalin’s wish to regain the eastern part of prewar Poland (once part of the Russian empire) in exchange for Stalin’s acceptance of a pro-Russian (but not Communist), largely free Poland after the war, a state also compensated by considerable German lands. But by 1944 Churchill was the least powerful of the three greats.

The second problem is intimately connected with the first. The uprising had a political purpose: a Polish liberation of Warsaw before its Russian “liberation” or occupation. That did not succeed, and in all probability it was fated to fail. There was an inconsistency in the thinking of the Polish patriots who planned the uprising: It would exclude the Russians and yet its success depended on the Russians. The Home Army would be the master of Warsaw before the Russians, but at the same time the Russians had to destroy and drive the Germans out of Warsaw.

There were not a few thoughtful Polish patriots (for example, in London, Ambassador Edward Raczynski and Foreign Minister Tadeusz Romer and Gen. Wladyslaw Anders) who knew that the uprising was doomed from the beginning. Davies does not give them adequate credit. Nor does he rely on two unquestionably honest Polish historians, Jan Ciechanowski and Janusz Zawodny, the first a Polish ambassador in Washington who wrote a wrenching 1947 memoir, “Defeat in Victory,” about how Poland was abandoned during the war. In Zawodny’s book, there figures an Isadore Lubin, advisor to Roosevelt, who influenced the American president against the Poles during the uprising. (Lubin was a close friend of the writer Sidney Hook, who later became one of the intellectual champions of the American Cold War against the Soviet Union.) Davies devotes many pages to the lamentable opinions of leftist British intellectuals during the uprising, but his indignation is selective. His American hero is Ronald Reagan.

The British did not altogether abandon Poland; their planes flew long, hazardous distances to drop supplies to the fighters in Warsaw. Churchill fought for the existence of a largely free Poland months after the uprising collapsed, though in vain. The Americans mounted one large supply mission toward the end of the uprising. What is interesting -- though, alas, merely significant rather than important -- was that the Russians, too, gave at least some support to the fighters during the last three weeks of the uprising, in the form of air drops, shelling of German positions and tacit permission for a pro-Russian Polish unit to cross the river and join up with the Home Army. There are even some indications that Stalin’s plans for Poland were not as rigid and consistent as they eventually appeared.

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Freedom for Warsaw was lost in its blazing ruins in 1944, freedom for Poland in 1945. Was the uprising worth it? Was the incredible bravery of Polish patriots worth it? Yes, in the long run -- and indeed, not in a very long run. After all, unlike after previous great European wars, Russia’s ruler did not incorporate Poland into the Soviet Union. After all, Poland was compensated for its loss in the east with large German territories in the west. Eleven years after the end of the war, in 1956, Poland regained at last some of its freedoms, even more of them 24 years after that, and in 1989 it became a free country where the heroism of the uprising is venerated, remembered, again and again rehearsed. “Rising ’44" deserves to be read by people who know little or nothing about it (so many of them, including important chiefs of state visiting Poland, have confused it with the siege of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.) But there is more to ponder about Warsaw 1944 than may be found in this massive book. *


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