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Focuses on civilian suffering during the Uprising
on January 1, 2014
This is a lengthy review, for which I apologize, but I urge readers to be patient and read through until the end because it is at the end that I explain what I think is the best and strongest aspect of this book. I should note that I would have preferred to have given this book 3 1/2 stars, rather than 4, but since I did not have that option, and since 3 was definitely an unfair rating, I gave it 4 stars.
Alexandra Richie's "Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising" is a book with significant strengths and weaknesses. For those who are well versed or particularly interested in the subject of the Warsaw Uprising, I can reassure you that this book does make a legitimate contribution to the body of English-language literature on the Uprising. However, it does have weaknesses that prevent it from being a general "go-to" resource on the Uprising.
Richie, who previously wrote a history of Berlin, lives in Warsaw and is married to Wladyslaw Bartoszewski. The spouses of writers are not usually relevant to reviews, but in this case it should be noted that Bartoszewski, a Polish scholar, is also the son of the more famous man of the same name, who participated in the Polish resistance during the war and had a long career as a writer, scholar, and, after the fall of the Communist bloc, government official. Richie explains that the book is based primarily on Bartoszewski's extensive collection of works and documents related to the Home Army and the Warsaw Uprising. Generally speaking, this work is based on Polish, German and English language primary and secondary materials and is pretty well-researched, with the exception, I would say, of some of the more recent scholarship on the Home Army. There are also a few secondary source omissions on the Uprising that she could have benefited from consulting.
Three things should be noted from the outset about the book in general. First, the title is misleading. The subtitle, "Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising," suggests that much of the book will be about the relationship of Hitler and Himmler to the Uprising. However, this is far from the case--they play a minor role in this book (as they did in the actual event). I can only speculate that someone suggested that this particular subtitle might boost sales.
The second thing is that this cannot serve as a general history of the Warsaw Uprising. There are far too many areas left completely uncovered, and the military aspects of the Uprising are very considerably undercovered. The best one-volume history of the Warsaw Uprising in English remains the venerable Warsaw Uprising by George Bruce, despite its relatively short length and its age. We really need a solid and objective study of the Warsaw Uprising based on the latest sources (Norman Davies' book on the uprising is far too flawed to be considered a replacement for Bruce) and abandoning Cold War attitudes.
Finally, it must be noted that Richie's book gives the impression of being longer than it actually is. This massive book clocks in at over 700 pages, but the purchaser will soon discover that the book's font is large and there is generous spacing between lines, so the book is in effect a couple of hundred pages shorter (in content) than it would appear to be. This is why the book is a much quicker read than one would immediately guess.
Writing and scholarship in English on the Warsaw Uprising since the end of World War II up to the present day has been heavily dominated by the Polish exile community, Poles outside Poland who refused to return to the country after World War II, as well as Poles in Poland who fled that country as the Communists took over. They produced the first works in English and much of the subsequent literature has been written by their descendants or others heavily influenced by this first generation. This body of literature has a number of clear themes and emphases: 1) an extremely strong Cold War attitude, which has persisted even after the Cold War ended; 2) an extreme hostility to Communism, even to the point of sometimes trying to re-write the historical record to deny them (both Polish Communists and the Soviet Union) any positive contributions at all during the War; 3) attempts to whitewash the darker aspects of recent Polish history (including its anti-Semitism, the non-democratic nature of the Polish government, the weakness of its claim to the vast areas of eastern pre-war Poland [which it seized by military might and in which Poles constituted a minority of the population], and its sometimes severe repression of non-Poles in those areas); 4) attempts to portray Poland as having been "betrayed" by the West; and 5) attempts to idealize the Home Army, ranging from exaggerations of its homogeneity to defending/excusing the decision to launch the Warsaw Uprising itself.
Richie's book falls squarely within this historical tradition, which is unfortunate, but in some respects she does take a few steps outside this tradition. She acknowledges that the Warsaw Uprising was a horrible decision and she is sharply critical of the Home Army leadership, including Bor-Komorowski and Monter (Antoni Chruściel). She also discusses the declining civilian morale within Warsaw as the Uprising went on, which is something that previous writers have ignored or downplayed. She also forthrightly acknowledges that the Soviet Union could not have liberated Warsaw at the time the Uprising was initiated, because it was getting its butt kicked by a strong German counterattack at Praga. She does claim, though, that the Soviets were in a position to be able to launch a major offensive by August 15 or so. She does not support this claim with any evidence and, in fact, underlines this claim herself by talking about the huge casualties the Soviet Armies were suffering as a result of the Praga counterattack and the Soviets' subsequent fighting to close up to the Vistula. I think one could clearly argue that the Soviets could have launched such an attack in September, but Richie goes too far in arguing for as early as mid-August. Richie doesn't quite demonize the Soviets, as most previous writers have done, but does come close, mostly (but not always) painting them in black and white terms. However, she does not have the extreme conspiratorial vein that some Polish writers have had when discussing Soviet actions around Warsaw (even positive ones) in September 1944.
It should also be noted that, though Richie falls within the Polish exile tradition, the effects of this are lessened in her book because, unlike some other writers, she does not concentrate on the international situation or on the Soviet Union until some 2/3rds of the way through her narrative. What she does concentrate on in the interim (as we shall see) has the effect of creating a different impression in the reader than many earlier books tend to do. This is a good thing.
Leaving aside the influence of the Polish exile tradition, the main weakness of this book is its coverage of military affairs. Richie is no military historian and this shows. There are many important military aspects of the Uprising that she does not mention or cover at all, and much of what she does cover is vague. The maps are few and often insufficient (especially compared to some of the excellent maps in some of the Polish books on the Uprising to which Richie had access). Moreover, Richie clearly has no experience in translating German military terms into English, nor apparently did she bother to find out the conventions that military historians use when doing such translating (including the fact that they frequently retain German unit names rather than translating them). I don't think she shared the manuscript with any military historian prior to publication, because they surely would have been of some assistance. The result is that German (and other) military terms are often garbled, sometimes hopelessly so, especially unit names. For example, the 1st Polish Infantry Division of the (Communist-equipped) 1st Polish Army is rendered as the "1st Polish Footsoldiers Division" (even though, just a few pages later, she provides a correct translation). Elsewhere, a "company of mine-throwers" is referred to, which may possibly be a reference to grenadiers, but I am not sure. There are numerous examples of this.
Another problem is Richie's portrayal of Hitler, which is pretty hopeless. She portrays Hitler as a deranged madman, accepting and even magnifying the worst of the infamous post-war "German generals" characterizations of Hitler in order to excuse their own poor decisions. At a time when most historians have long such rejected such self-serving portrayals in favor of more nuanced versions that take into account both Hitler's degeneration at this late stage in the war as well as his own strategic and operational considerations (some quite valid), Richie comes close to portraying Hitler as chewing the carpet. This is especially unfortunate as this characterization comes right at the beginning of the book, which can cause a reader to question, right from the get-go, how much knowledge and understanding of the war that Richie actually has (luckily, Hitler recedes into the background fairly soon).
So I have spent some time explaining the book's weaknesses. Why, then, would I still recommend this book? The reason is that this book has something to offer which basically no other work in English on this subject really does. What Richie brings to the table is the most detailed description in English (that I am aware of) of the conduct of German forces against the Poles, especially Polish civilians, during the Uprising. Let me be clear that everybody acknowledges that the Nazi suppression of the Uprising was brutal and that tens of thousands of civilians were murdered. And most works on the uprising will definitely mention examples of Polish civilians being used as civilian shields and will at least refer to the German massacres in Wola as their counterattacks began after August 5. However, despite such references to Wola, works on the Warsaw Uprising tend to leave Wola fairly soon after the fighting there stopped and pick up the narrative at the Old Town. When the fighting at the Old Town is over, then the authors leave the scene and go to Mokotow or Zoliborz or Czerniakov or wherever the fighting picks up. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But Richie doesn't quite do that. Richie does something different, something very important. Richie *lingers*. When the fighting in Wola is over, Richie stays. She stays in Wola and reports on what happens there in the aftermath. The same for the Old Town. She doesn't just follow the Home Army through the sewers out of the Old Town. She stays in the Old Town and sees what happens there. Richie uses both Polish and German sources to explain, in great detail, the mass murders and other atrocities that the Germans commit in places such as Wola, the Old Town and elsewhere. Nowhere else in English have I seen these actions discussed in such detail, or with regard to some places, at all. Richie truly brings home the no-limits savagery of the Nazis, discussing in great detail the actions of the men under Bach-Zelewski, Dirlewanger, Kaminsky, Reinefarth. and others. She does a really excellent job here. I find it ironic that a couple of other reviewers apparently got nothing from the book other than that Stalin was nasty, because what Richie really concentrates on in this book is the tremendous brutality and criminality of the Germans in their attempt to subjugate fighting Warsaw.
It is because of this emphasis that Richie's book truly makes a contribution to the English-language literature of the Warsaw Uprising and, indeed, the Second World War. And it is because of this emphasis that I can recommend this book, despite some of the other weaknesses that it may possess.