Customer Reviews: Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising
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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.
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on January 3, 2014
This book is well researched and gives the reader a panoramic view about one of the most tragic and least understood episodes in the history of WW2. The AK's arranged Warsaw uprising and the destruction of Warsaw stand in the focus here.
The author who is living in Poland had access to her father-in-law's vast archive about the events which transpired in the summer of 1944 and she writes about the immense scale of beastly brutality perpetrated by the Nazi hordes against the Polish nation. The tragedy of Poland has been already told many timeds, yet this book is a very good microhistory about the fate of those living in the hellish conditions in Warsaw during August, when the uprising was a total failure and, as a result, the Nazis simply decided to erase the city. This was a unique decision and no other city suffered the same fate during the war. The decision to do it was taken under the auspices of Hitler and Himmler, and Ms. Richie is extremely good when describing the whole background of this tragic event, which claimed the lives of at least 200000 Poles.
But why not award this book five stars? There are some things which could have been incorporated here but are missing. First, there is a lack of relevant maps. Even those that are to be found here are simple and do not give the lay reader the information so much needed when reading about microevents.
Second, the fate of the AK's leadership is almost non-existent during this long book and all we get is a good introduction the the topic.
All in all, this is a book I would recommend to those who know something (or nothing) about this tragedy and would like to expand their horizons.
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on December 15, 2013
We sometimes forget how brutal and inhumane WWII was, or simply can't comprehend this horrific event. This book takes us to the late stages of the war when the Soviet Union was gaining an upper hand on the German Forces. Beginning in 1939 German occupied Warsaw seen a brutal eradication of their national identity and the murder of over three million Jews. Polish resistance forces of approximately 50,000 were eager to retaliate against the Germans in 1944 believing the Russian Army was on the outskirts & would rally to the rebel's aid. This force was only partially armed and not prepared to attack a modern army - the results lead to a 63 day conflict with the SS & RONA (a Russian force comprised of former POW's allied with Germany) ending in a massacre of both rebels and the civilians of Warsaw.

The home army rebels misunderstood the intentions of Stalin. They did not know his intention was to dominate and bring Poland into the world of Communism. Stalin did not want the uprising to succeed & did not intervene. The uprising resulted in the loss of 200,000 souls (mostly civilians) and a city in total ruin.

The author did a brilliant job in bring this horrific event into focus as it pertains to the human side of this inhumane event. The cold hearted politics of the time resulted in misery and loss that I hope never happens again. A great read and moving tale of history we should all read.
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on February 15, 2014
This is a painful and important book to read about man's cruelty to man. Alexandra Richie vividly transports the reader to Warsaw 1944, to experience the tragedy of a proud and resilient people. Many eyewitness accounts are included. A tremendously moving, well-written and sad chronicle.
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on January 21, 2014
With her book on the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 against German occupation Richie has created both a real masterpiece and a more than deserved literary monument to the heroic and suffering people of Warsaw at that time.
The book blends the overall military and political aspects and the pertinent decisions made by the key players on the Polish, German, Soviet and (Western) Allied sides. It contains a rich supply of highly vivid accounts laying out the details of the actual street fighting and suffering which makes for a fascinating and most gripping read. It is a page-turner, as well it must be, as it is very long indeed (650 pages). I spent my Christmas vacation reading it.

Nevertheless, the book is in some respects wanting: first, it would probably win if it was simply streamlined down a bit to, say, 400 pages (instead of the 650 it actually has). Second, the book does not go into how the Poles succeeded in building up such a huge and highly effective fighting force that could resist such overwhelming power as the Germans employed to put down the uprising – right under the nose of Gestapo, SD (the SS' secret police) and all other forms of control employed by the occupation forces and how they could subsequently endure for so long. What was it, that proved both the German and the Soviet expectation, when the fighting started, that any Polish resistance against the occupation force could last a few days at best, so utterly wrong?
Third: how come it was possible for the Germans to put down the uprising district by district with the Poles living in the currently not attacked areas remaining ignorant of the brutal fighting going on next door and not launching relief-attacks from there? Why, finally, did Stalin choose to delay his advance on Warsaw so much – if indeed he could easily have done otherwise, as the author contends -, as such a delay would slow him down considerably in his race to reach Berlin before the Western allies and to secure as much territory within Germany for the Red Army as possible. Wasn't that a more important goal for him than waiting for the Germans to crush the insurgency and then waiting another three months to give the Germans time to blow up the whole of Warsaw? Not a word about this riddle! There are indeed many more questions of this kind, but let's leave it at that.

A few formalities require also mentioning:

First, the title. I can't see why Himmler is mentioned in the subtitle while Stalin is not. Surely the latter's actions or, rather, failure to take any of the actions clearly available to him to aid the uprising, were more important to the overall course and outcome of the uprising than anything Himmler could – or did – decide?
Also, I recommend including a short time-table somewhere in the book containing the dates of the main events mentioned.

Second, the book contains a myriad of German expressions, most of which (though for non-obvious reasons not all) are printed in italics. The great majority of these contain some mistake (spelling, grammar, number, gender etc.). Just to illustrate what I mean (collected from only a few pages); p.606 “Goldenenschwestern” ought to be “goldene Schwestern”, p.619: “Räumungsstabe” = “Räumungsstab”, p. 621: “Reich Agent”(why not printed in italics?) = “Reichsagent”. The best thing of all, bordering on the ridiculous, is to be found on page 589 “Frankfurt-am-Oder” (sic!) One seriously wonders how – with such limited German language abilities - she can claim to have written “the” authoritative – or indeed any - book on a German topic, viz., on the history of Berlin, (“Faust's metropolis”, her one previously published book, hailed by many as just that - authoritative)! But this only by the way!

While these mistakes, as such, don't matter much here, they throw a very negative light on the ability of the author to be self-critical in general, that is, to recognise where her limitations lie: why the hell did she not ask someone more familiar with German than herself to just check? Any – otherwise totally unqualified - German native would have done!
This puts into doubt the expertise she assumes as a matter of course in some other respects, too. One example is when she describes battles, rambling on like “the 194th German infantry division was no match for the third tank battalion of the Belorussian front supported by the 34th artillery regiment” and the like. One wonders from where she derives the competence for judgements like this? Does she even know the difference between, say, a regiment, a battalion and a division? After all, most civilians wouldn't know! Or how is she able to judge with certainty, e.g., that during the first fortnight of the German counter-offensive, while the Red Army would not have been capable of taking Warsaw, it could easily have provided air cover for the Polish troops inside the city? I wonder how anyone without training as general staff plus some actual battle experience can so confidently make statements like that – and she seems unlikely to be so qualified – unfortunately, the cover of the book is very sparse on the details of her curriculum and on her pertinent qualifications!

“The Economist”, in its review (November 30th), criticizes the book for what it calls its “polonocentrism”. While this is certainly true, it is hard to fathom how a book whose subject is an event having taken place in Poland's capital could have escaped this reproval without missing its topic? Her sympathies, it is true, clearly lie with the insurgents. If this is a weakness, it is also a strength. After all, it is hard to imagine how she or anyone else, for that matter, could otherwise have managed to sift through all this material and compose it into such a vivid book.

Finally, it may be in order to briefly draw the reader's attention to the fact that the German soldiers, too, were not the fighting robots they sometimes appear to be whose only legitimate destination was to be killed. Instead, they were just as much human beings – husbands, family fathers, humans! – as their Polish counterparts who – like them - yearned to live and were desperately afraid of having to fight in that hell. And who – as individuals - bore no more responsibility for the situation they were thrown into by powers not under their control than did their Polish adversaries. Maybe this is something the actual Polish fighters were more acutely aware of (e.g., when they cared for the German wounded) than the author at times seems to be.

Finally, two (out of many) brief afterthoughts - not to the book but to the events described therein:

First, how grateful mankind must be to the Czechs for having abstained from taking a similar action in Prague when the Red Army approached that city almost a year later! While this abstention may have made them look less “heroic” than their Polish counterparts, it not only saved them innumerable sufferings, it spared at least this European architectural marvel from similar destruction! Furthermore, to the extent this decision was informed by the events in Warsaw, this would suggest that it is indeed possible – sometimes - to draw useful lessons from events of the past.!

Second, the experiences described in the book once and for all put to rest an idea advocated by some Western pacifists during the Cold War: the idea, that, in case of an all-out Warsaw Pact military attack, a better alternative to defending itself militarily would be for the West to surrender and put up a “civilian” resistance (whatever exactly was meant by that term) against enemy forces thereafter instead. As the Polish Uprising clearly shows, such a “civilian” resistance would have stood no chance whatever against a well-equipped occupation force determined to use any means at its disposal! (Civilian resistance against an occupation force that has sufficient qualms to do so, is quite another matter, as was shown by the events around the fall of the Berlin wall!).

I consider the book to deserve three-and-a-half stars out of five. Since this grade cannot be given, I will be generous and give it four!!
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on December 5, 2014
As a person of Polish descent, I've always been proud of my heritage. I am even more so after reading Warsaw 1944. This was a pretty intense read as it delivered countless graphic scenes. But Richie brought the struggle to life, and while the book was nearly 700 pages, it was difficult to put it down. She really places you in the scene with firsthand accounts and detail. The will of the people of Warsaw was something to behold, and you couldn't help but wish that they were able to withstand the brutal onslaught of the Nazis. It also made me sad that Poland was simply a bargaining chip for the US/UK and USSR, sadly which the former pushed too easily across the table to Stalin. The Warsawians went from oppression under Hitler to oppression under Stalin. After all their (and the rest of Poland's) struggle to have been cast under the Communist boot is a heartbreaking thought. Yet, Poland has always persevered and survived... This book was one of the best I've ever read on the topic of the Warsaw uprising and WWII in general.
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on April 5, 2014
An exhaustive and exhausting study of the incredible horrors of the Warsaw uprising and the destruction of the city. When I finished the book -- and it often kept me up at night because of horrors that never seemed to end -- I found it astonishing that I had never heard these stories before. This incredible wrong and the wanton German cruelty to the Polish people will remain alive for me because of this book. Stunning scholarship, and wonderful writing.
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on November 28, 2014
I could not put this down. It will disturb you and leave you in awe at the tenacity of those who fought to save their city and their lives. This is one of the best books if not the best on the Warsaw uprising.
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on February 17, 2014
I've read a few other books on the warsaw uprising but this was by far the best. The author gets into the hearts and souls of the brave people if warsaw and into the twisted minds of the nazis as well. It is an emotional book. Because of it for the first time I want to visit warsaw and see what the remarkable poles have done to revive it.
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on July 14, 2015
On August 1, 1944 the Warsaw Uprising began. Every Pole remembers this date, even those who, like me, left Poland in 1939. The story of the uprising has been told many times. Richie, a Canadian-born historian, has written a compelling narrative, with much painful detail and chilling statistics. She lives in Warsaw and had access to, among other sources, the archives of her father-in-law, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski.

Richie provides a framework of military and political history putting the uprising in context. Though she has been characterized as "polonocentric" in her approach, she does not sugar-coat the faulty intelligence and poor leadership which undercut any chance of success for the uprising. Nevertheless, she gives full credit to the combatants who fought valiantly against impossible odds for 63 days. Around 200,000 people died in the uprising, mostly civilians. The author's main focus is on the civilian and on the "interface" between Germans and Poles in Warsaw. She points out that in most accounts of the uprising there is very little about the suffering of civilians and the activities of the occupying Germans. In Richie's book we find many personal testimonies: from ordinary people, from SS men, Wehrmacht soldiers, foreign journalists. Richie observes that...the destruction of Warsaw was unique even in the terrible history of the Second World War... She describes the systematic, wanton demolition of the city. One of the examples she gives is of a young Wehrmacht soldier who was sent to Warsaw in October 1944. His only task was to walk around with flamethrowers burning the ruins....We ruined the city. I am so sorry.... He told a post-war interviewer.

I found the chapters dealing with the aftermath of the uprising to be the most effective. Most people know that Warsawians were ordered to leave the city. But I don't think many know about Pruszkow, a transit camp where 60,000 innocent men, women and children were sent. One nurse in the camp wrote...I can risk the statement that all people expelled from Warsaw were in a state of physical and nervous exhaustion and many of them were ill...the burns were terrifying....There was a separate category for women who had been raped.... Everyone waited in appalling conditions and in constant fear. Their fate was grim: some were dispatched to concentration camps, the able-bodied were sent as forced laborers to the Reich and those who were old or sick were released to forage for themselves in occupied Poland.
Richie also talks about the "Robinsons"--those who stayed behind and hid in the ruins and bunkers of Warsaw after capitulation. The largest number were Jews. These brave people hid for months at a time, facing shortages of food and water. Of course Hitler's squads searched for them and many were killed.
As The Economist reviewer observed...many Poles feel that foreigners still lack any real understanding of Poland's wartime fate (or in some cases contrition for their countries' part in it). Richie's book should go a long way to redress this. It is garnering some positive reviews in this country and in the U.K.
Monica Mieroszewska, Polish Library in Washington
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