While the World Watched: The 1944 Warsaw Uprising

A masterful new history tells the story of the doomed 1944 Warsaw uprising as no other book yet has writes Ilana Bet-El—and the contemporary parallels are haunting.

Poland and Syria do not immediately appear to have much in common, but the people in both have been abandoned to untold violence with the full knowledge of the world. And while Poland and Ukraine do not share a common history, they have undoubtedly suffered the common problem of being considered a Russian possession: in 1939 Poland was partitioned between Germany and the USSR, then taken by the Soviets at the end of the war as if no more than a Russian province. As recent developments reflect, Russia still sees Ukraine in the same light, though it has been independent since 1991.

One of the many attributes of Alexandra Richie’s fascinating Warsaw 1944 is that it often brings into focus current events and international circumstances no less than the dire story it has to tell. It is an important book that should be widely read.

Warsaw was totally destroyed in the autumn of 1944: its inhabitants either murdered or deported, many to concentration camps in which they then found their death; its buildings burnt and razed to the ground. Its magnificence today is a complete reconstruction—there was absolutely nothing left by the time Himmler’s troops had finished with it. Indeed, it was the only German military operation in WWII conducted entirely by the SS, not the army. And the world stood by, leaving the Poles and the Warsavians to their fate.

The actual chronicle of events is relatively simple: the Polish underground Home Army launched an uprising on 1 August 1944, which lasted 63 days and ultimately failed. The Nazis, who had occupied Warsaw since 1939, responded with extreme brutality and intent to the uprising:

On 1 August 1944 Hitler and Himmler released their now infamous Order for Warsaw, which stands as one of the most barbaric documents of the war.… ‘Every citizen of Warsaw is to be killed including men, women and children,’ it read. ‘Warsaw has to be levelled to the ground in order to set a terrifying example to the rest of Europe.’ The order clearly stated that ‘no matter how the Poles will behave, even if they behave according to international law’, the judgement was ‘final’. In short, Hitler and Himmler had decided to slaughter the inhabitants of an entire European city, and then to remove all traces of its existence.

Richie’s book is a passionate and detailed account of this endeavour. She writes with a fluidity which belies the content: repeatedly and not incorrectly using terms such as thug, lowlife and barbaric to describe the Nazis, the bulk of the narrative is devoted to a chronological depiction of the unspeakable acts they committed. Following upon their own despicable precedent when putting down the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, the Nazis indulged in a fest of cruelty, murder and perversion that raises many difficult questions about the people who carried it out no less than those who sent them.

For all its passion and gore, this book is not uncritical of the uprising itself. As the author repeatedly reflects, it was a near foolhardy endeavour, launched upon faulty assumptions and intelligence within impossible circumstances. On 22 June 1944 the Soviets embarked upon Operation Bagration which rapidly pushed the Nazis out of Byelorussia and Eastern Poland. The success of this attack, and the resulting confusion it sowed amongst the Nazis, not least in Warsaw, led the Polish Home Army to assume the Soviets would rapidly be arriving in Warsaw—and that it was in their best interests to aid them in so doing. In this way they would “demonstrate to the world that the Poles had helped liberate their capital from the Germans and to prove that they deserved an independent state, free from German or Soviet control.” Unfortunately, the Polish command failed to accept intelligence sources that noted the Nazi counterattack in the last week of July was a success and that the Soviets had been stopped in their tracks in the outskirts of Warsaw. Though severely undermined, the German war machine was still mighty—and commanded to fight for every last inch of ground rather than surrender.

No less unfortunate was a near wilful decision to misinterpret the intentions of the Soviets: in every town and city that had been liberated in the previous month the Polish Home Army cooperated with the Soviet troops, only to then be wiped out by the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. Stalin had no intention of allowing the Poles an independent let alone democratic state. Moreover, the Poles were informed quite clearly by the British that they would not be in a position to assist with air or ground attacks—they were both militarily overstretched, and by this point clearly the junior partner in the alliance. It was also obvious they could not influence the Americans to do so, partly because Roosevelt needed Stalin to maintain his attack on the Eastern front and so sought not to annoy him, and partly because the US focus was totally upon their own theatres of war: Western Europe and the Pacific. Finally, the Home Army was in no way equipped to fight a battle, definitely not against tanks and planes. Though it boasted some 40,000 women and men in Warsaw, there were relatively few arms and those were largely light.

All these miscalculations ensured that other than miracle, the uprising was effectively doomed from the start. But this was compounded by the core characteristic of the Nazi endeavour: its ideology. Militarily, other than repressing the uprising, devoting troops to Warsaw was counterproductive for the Germans in the summer of 1944, when they were being pushed back on all fronts. Nonetheless, crack SS units were poured in, since “Hitler and Himmler had turned the Warsaw Uprising into an integral part of the racial war which was being carried out with utter ruthlessness throughout occupied Europe.… Himmler was still working around the clock to eliminate his racial enemies while he still had time, and in particular to exterminate the remaining European Jews.”

Other than setting the scene of the Eastern Front, Richie’s focus is avowedly upon Poland—its Jews and Roma no less than the rest of the population—rather than the broader context of the war, and that is actually one of the strengths of the book. It allows the reader to follow a coherent narrative of people and events, and through them to understand from a different perspective the core elements of the Nazi regime: the racial obsessions, the complete dehumanization of opponents and enemies, the murderous conduct, the increasing irrationality of Hitler and yet his fanatic hold upon all levels of command, and the undoubted capabilities of the German military machine.

In the West, 1944 is seen as the year in which liberation began, with a clear emphasis upon the Normandy landings. Warsaw 1944 helps correct that image, reflecting a national tragedy of immense proportions. As Alexandra Richie notes, it is one from which Poland “will never truly recover”. Are we seeing the same in Syria?