Pocket Book Review:
Rising ’44 by Norman Davies
It may have been a battle that determined Poland’s destiny, but to date the Warsaw Uprising has received little in the way of recognition from the Western world – so much so that it repeatedly finds itself confused with the 1943 Ghetto Uprising; most famously by German Chancellor Herzog in 1994, and most recently by French newspaper Le Figaro. Norman Davies, arguably the worlds number one authority on Polish history, attempts to redress the balance with this brick of a book.
To do so he breaks with the linear format favoured by the majority of historical authors. Instead he chooses to split his work into several clear sections, thereby allowing the reader to dive in and out of chapters of particular interest. Text is further interspersed with what Davies describes as capsules: sub-chapters comprising of personal recollections; from the blurry memories of a five-year-old child, to the diary entries of a German soldier caught in the midst of a grisly siege.
Surprisingly though, the main focus of the book is not the actual Uprising, rather the prelude and the aftermath. While the first 240 pages of the paperback version are dedicated to events prior to the outbreak of combat, the first day of hostilities are deemed worthy of only a page. Madness. To use a lazy analogy, this is equivalent to winning through to a Cup Final, only to leave your star player on the bench. Indeed, if you’re expecting a thriller recounting savage street fights you will be disappointed.
Davies has also faced criticism for his decision to Anglicise all Polish names; Ulica Bednarska becomes Cooper Street, Miotła becomes Broom etc. For foreigners familiar with Poland, and Warsaw, this can be deeply frustrating. Rising ’44 lacks the pace and the fizz of Antony Beevor’s excellent works on Stalingrad and Berlin, and it has a tendency to become bogged down in the impossibly complicated politics of the day, making it an often demanding read. Fluidity is further disrupted by the constant need to cross-reference the core text with the stack of notes, maps and translations at the back; have plenty of bookmarks to hand. Furthermore, readers will be left with plenty of unanswered questions. The fate of German combatants is largely ignored, while the wholesale destruction of Warsaw is covered in just fleeting detail.
To his credit Davies is a superb historian, and his habit of unearthing fantastic detail often saves interest from flagging. For instance, we learn that the Polish Home Army contained a battalion of deaf and dumb troops, of the existence of a concentration camp inside the city walls (KZ Warschau), and there is a superb section on life in occupied Warsaw. The fate of the insurgents makes particularly interesting reading, and Davies manages to track veterans from as far afield as Mexico and Australia. We learn of one who went on to become a famous anthropologist in the wilds of the Andes, and of an amputee who became a world legless ski champion. The days of state-sponsored terror are described in vivid detail, along with the Soviet show trials and subsequent imprisonment of many of the Uprising’s leaders. In one anecdote the author reveals how one veteran was spied on by the security services for twenty five years following the Uprising. State files opened in 1990 show that the last report on him was written during his funeral; the informant was his wife.
Davies does not shirk from the facts, and much of the book will make uncomfortable reading for Britons. The author is scathing, and deservedly so, towards the allied powers, themselves responsible for double-crossing Poland and pandering to Stalin’s whims; Britain’s indifference to the fate of insurgents epitomised by the original refusal to grant General ‘Bor’ Komorowski exile on her shores. This disgraceful chapter in British history is not passed over.
Rising ‘44 is at times a laborious read, but ultimately a rewarding one. This is not a book about the horror of war, rather a keen exploration of the political intrigues between Whitehall and the Kremlin. Davies warns in his introduction that this is not a definitive account of the Uprising, and with so many questions left unanswered, and so many files still locked in Moscow vaults, we are inclined to agree with him. But this is without a doubt the best book on the subject to date, and if nothing else it is encouraging to see the Warsaw Uprising finally being granted the publicity it deserves. A must for any Polophile's bookshelf.