The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 was surely one of the most tragic events of the Second World War. With the Soviet army seemingly about to capture the prewar Polish capital – and the Nazis seemingly on the point of total defeat – the underground Home Army (‘Armia Krajowa’, or AK) rose in revolt.
The local AK leadership, opposed to both the Germans and the Soviets, had made a terrible miscalculation. The German army under Field Marshal Model was able to hold the eastern approaches to Warsaw, while the revolt within the city was crushed with utmost barbarity by the Nazis and their large rabble of non-German auxiliaries. The killing of 40,000 Polish civilians in the Wola district in the first days of the rising – described here as the largest single “battlefield massacre” of civilians in the entire war – was followed by street battles and bombardments in which hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians died. Allied tension increased with the accusation that Stalin was leaving the AK and Warsaw to their fate. The last insurgents, driven into the city’s sewers, surrendered in early October. The destruction of the ruined city then began.
Alexandra Richie has produced a detailed, if harrowing, narrative history of the rising. She has mastered an immense range of material in both German and Polish, starting with the library of her father-in-law, the Polish politician and journalist Władysław Bartoszewski. There are powerful first-person accounts from the Polish side and effective pen portraits of monsters such as SS members Dirlewanger, Zelewski and Kaminski.
The account of the uprising itself only begins 200 pages in, before which Richie effectively places the events into their military and political context. Her analogy with the sacking of Carthage is interesting, but not sufficiently so to justify a separate epigraph from Appian’s Roman History at the start of each chapter: Hitler and Himmler did not need a precedent from antiquity to implement destruction of the population and city.
Richie’s treatment of Soviet conduct before and during the rising is balanced, although based on English and Polish sources. She argues that the military situation would not, in any event, have allowed the Red Army to enter Warsaw – or even its eastern suburbs – until the second half of August, but that in the weeks that followed, the Soviets could have reduced the population’s suffering.
Criticism can be levelled at the lack of help given to readers: a ‘who’s who’ of participants would have been beneficial, as would a clearer listing of the organisation of the various detachments of the AK and the German punitive units. The book is, however, impressively accomplished in terms of research and narrative. Readers who can make their way through the story, and stomach accounts of appalling atrocities, will gain an understanding of an extraordinary event.
Evan Mawdsley is professor of international history at the University of Glasgow