Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review of "Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw" by Norman Davies

His wife from the country and the two owning a home there in addition to a residence in Britain, Poland is once again the setting of a Norman Davies’ book.  But where God’s Playground and Poland, Past and Present survey the history of Polish culture (must be ‘culture’ as for significant time periods no country existed) from various perspectives, Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw focuses on a two month event that occurred in Warsaw toward then end of WWII.  Germany feeling the effects of its losses on other warfronts around the world, in mid-1944 the underground Polish remaining in Warsaw saw hope that their city could be reclaimed and staged a rebellion to coincide with the arrival of their allies, the mighty Soviet Red Army.  The outcome of the situation could only have been more tragic for those who lived through it.

Davies divides Rising ’44 into three sections: stage setting, the uprising itself, and the aftermath.  Rather than attempting to outlay the players and game board in linear fashion, Davies opts to divide the first section into three parts: the Germans, the Russians, and the Poles and their allies.  Each group is introduced, their goals outlined, and status set at the time just preceding the rebellion.  Having the effect of three roads converging at an intersection, the uprising bursts from the text in affective detail at the start of the second section.  

Based on the amount of data included, trivial to vital, Davies and his team examined all available records related to the plight of the native Poles and Jews in hiding in Warsaw in the summer of 1944.  Their underground routed through a network of sewers and tunnels, the Poles—with promised but limited assistance from British, Russian, and American allies—maintained their position with guerilla warfare throughout the war, using and salvaging the most basic of weapons.  The Germans never able to fully exterminate them, in August and September that year the Poles switched into full attack mode in the belief their Russian allies arriving on the city’s doorstep would step in and help.  The final section of the book deals with the aftermath of this battle, in particular the state of Polish society and politics from the end of the rebellion until now.  

For those with more than background knowledge of WWII, the opening section can be skipped as many other books offer more exhaustive detail about the movement and mindset of allied and axis powers during the war prior to 1944.  The Warsaw Uprising itself, however, is not to be missed.  The focus of the book, Davies brings it to life in both touching and graphic detail.  Diaries, official documents, written accounts, and verbal histories are all used toward painting a picture of what life was like for the Poles living and hiding in the city, not to mention fighting to reclaim it.  The food shortages, transportation methods, weapons training, communication with the outside world, even a media network are described as they affected events that transpired.  The Germans only mostly portrayed as ruthless oppressors, many of the individual stories involving interaction between the two sides are emotional and transcend scholarly accounts of history.

Davies’ writing, as usual, strikes a middle ground between cut and dry facts and engaging prose.  Confidently and consistently expressed, the uprising comes to life beneath the author’s pen.  What also comes to life is an acknowledged agenda.  Aside from the main goal of bringing attention to the details of the uprising, another of Davies’ goals in Rising ’44, is to emphasize the negative effects of Stalinism.  Not as subtle as the information related in his Europe: A History, Davies’ version of the Warsaw Uprising condemns Soviet involvement in the situation every bit as much as the Nazi’s.  The aftermath section in particular contains specific examples tailored to highlight the atrocities the Soviet “allies” committed against the Poles during and after the war.  Soviet realpolitik not garnering the attention of Nazism has in the half-century since, Rising ’44 makes further inroads toward bringing to light the darker side of Stalin’s regime.

In the end, Rising ’44 is informative and engaging reading for those interested in the history of Poland and WWII.  While the earlier Europe: A History saw Davies riding on the coattails of previous research, Rising ’44 shows the historian and his team more than capable of doing their homework.  The two month window in the history of Warsaw during WWII is examined from many angles and with specific details.  Though biases against the Nazis and Soviets are undisguised, the text suffers none for it.  An emotionally engaging history of the people living beneath the streets of Warsaw and their rebellion against oppression, this is one of Davies’ best works, the quality of human stories that emerge from the chaos worth the price, alone.

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