Those Streets Over There

John Connelly

  • Rising ’44: ‘The Battle for Warsaw’ by Norman Davies
    Pan, 752 pp, £9.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 330 48863 5

Six weeks after D-Day, Allied armies had advanced only twenty miles beyond the beachheads. The generals feared stalemate. Then, in an armoured assault supported by overwhelming airpower, they broke through the German lines and a series of offensives began which opened the way to Paris and the frontiers of the Reich. In the East, the Red Army had just annihilated the German Central Army group, killing or capturing over 350,000 soldiers, and was moving rapidly on Berlin. Forward units approached Warsaw. There, an underground army lay in hiding, waiting for the Germans to begin to withdraw, when it would rise up and re-establish Polish sovereignty after almost five years of Nazi rule. On 1 August, the command of this army – the Home Army (AK) – sent its soldiers into action with the order to seize control of the capital, and to welcome Soviet forces from a position of strength.

From that point, everything went wrong that could go wrong. Some 40,000 soldiers were ordered into action, but 30,000 at most responded to the call. They occupied several districts of the city, but failed to secure major strategic objectives, such as bridges and ammunition supplies. In less than a week, the AK had yielded the offensive, and began sacrificing block after city block in heavy fighting. The Germans often advanced against the insurgents with civilians strapped to the front of their armoured vehicles as human shields. By mid-September, Soviet forces were watching the fighting from positions across the river Vistula, which divides the city. They stood and waited, and did not aid the rising. Stalin even refused landing rights to British and American aircraft that might have brought supplies. On 1 October, what was left of the Home Army surrendered. Along with the city’s surviving civilians, they were taken to internment camps, and from there to forced labour in Germany. German sappers then systematically dynamited most of the remaining city, leaving it the most extensively demolished urban area in Europe.

The uprising failed to achieve any military or political objective: in a memoir, Czeslaw Milosz condemned it as ‘an unforgivably reckless act’. Around 180,000 civilians were killed, among them many of Poland’s elite, who might later have opposed Soviet dictatorship. When the Red Army and its Polish collaborators finally crossed the Vistula in January 1945, they found a tabula rasa on which to inscribe their rule.

Could this fiasco have been averted? In his new account, Norman Davies distributes blame among the major powers, including the United States and Britain. But he does not explore the culpability of the Polish leaders who decided to launch the insurgency.

The Germans were the main authors of the tragedy, choosing from the start methods of fighting that ensured huge numbers of civilian casualties. In destroying Polish elites, by arresting Home Army soldiers in areas east of Warsaw and sending many to camps from which they would not return, the Soviets were reverting to their role as the Nazis’ accomplices. Stalin must have rejoiced at the news of the insurgency: the Germans could dispose of the Polish bourgeoisie more effectively than world opinion would have permitted him to do.

It makes little sense to demand retrospectively that the Nazis behave humanely, or that the Soviets aid their political opponents. But what about the Polish leaders: did they have any real sense of the chances of success? What weapons did they have? Such questions do not greatly concern Davies. In his account, the uprising transcends what individual Poles may have willed. Warsaw here is one of several European capitals watching the battle front move rapidly in their direction. Like Paris or Prague, it was a ‘dangerous place’ where ‘something could erupt at any moment . . . Once someone caught sight of the first Allied tank, it would be obvious that action was about to be joined.’ Warsaw’s ‘civilian population was restless . . . there were fears they might take things into their own hands.’ To do nothing would ‘invite automatic defeat’. The Home Army command was thus organising a revolt that would have broken out anyway, and perhaps spared the civilian population even greater losses.

Davies is reiterating what is known in Poland as the ‘romantic’ position. For romantics, Poland is endowed with a mission to defy tyranny, by armed force if necessary, as in the 19th century, when Poles tried to break free of Russian rule. Russian armies crushed the rebellions, with devastating effects for Polish nationhood. After the defeat of 1863, Poles were denied any form of self-rule, and the tsarist state attempted to make them into Russians, suppressing their religion, denying them higher education in their own language, rewarding assimilation. The trauma produced a counter-tendency to romanticism: positivism. Positivists judged their lot according to the possibilities for ‘real’ action: they promoted libraries, education and mutual aid societies, and abhorred insurgencies that had no chance of success. Modern Poland’s positivists are known as ‘realists’.

In 2001, Wlodzimierz Borodziej published a concise ‘realist’ history of the 1944 rising. In it, he traces the fateful call to arms to two men: Leopold Okulicki and Tadeusz Pelczynski, Polish generals who met on 21 July 1944 in a flat in Warsaw. Radio stations were just broadcasting news of the failed attempt on Hitler’s life; Allied and Soviet armies were advancing quickly on Germany. The Nazi regime seemed wounded beyond repair. The generals decided that an uprising should be staged, and plans to keep Warsaw out of the fighting reversed: AK strategists had deemed the city too large to seize without sacrificing thousands of civilians, and had been moving weapons out of the capital.

Okulicki and Pelczynski thought the plan for Warsaw’s underground fighters to wait until the Wehrmacht evacuated the city, and then harass its rearguard, was too passive. They believed that Poland had to demonstrate strength on the battlefield if it wanted to play a role in the postwar world – and ultimately determine its own fate. In their plan, Home Army units would storm the German garrison and hold the city until the Red Army arrived. There was no time to lose. Along with the Soviet units bearing down on Warsaw were Polish collaborators eager to set up a leftist government. Soon, the chance to reassert Polish sovereignty would vanish. The generals approached the Home Army Commander, Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, who gave his immediate approval. Nine days later, the rising began.

Enthusiasm for the new plan was by no means universal. Strong reservations were registered by those in the AK responsible for intelligence. The Soviets had only just taken the city of Lublin, 140 kilometres south-east of Warsaw. Polish railway staff were reporting the movement of fresh German armoured units into the Warsaw area. Home Army units lacked the resources to seize strategic objectives, let alone the city. At most, one in five underground soldiers had a firearm, usually with less than fifty rounds. There were only 39 heavy machine-guns. Other critics pointed to a basic logical flaw: this Polish show of strength required Soviet strength to succeed. What if the Soviets failed to co-operate?

By late July, with Soviet forces disarming Home Army troops, and combing the forests for those still in hiding, it was clear there would be no co-operation. On 22 July, a new Soviet puppet government in Poland issued a proclamation full of contempt for the Home Army and the London government it served. Bór-Komorowski seems to have had no illusions. On 27 July he cabled London that the ‘Soviets want to destroy the AK, as a Polish force not subject to their will.’

Those who decided to launch the uprising had the knowledge necessary to plot likely German and Soviet responses. What about Warsaw’s ‘restless’ civilians, who might have taken matters into their own hands? The ‘realist’ Borodziej draws attention not to what Varsovians might have done, but to what they actually did. In mid-July they watched passively as defeated German troops streamed westwards, some begging for water and without shoes. If these demoralised soldiers were left alone, what reason is there to think that the fresh German troops called to Warsaw in late July would have been attacked? And how would the attack have been supplied and co-ordinated? City-wide military operations require weapons and organisation, which only the AK could have provided. Its soldiers remained a highly disciplined force, and if ordered to hold their fire, they would have obeyed.

Contemporary photos seem to support Davies’s ‘romantic’ position, showing insurgents in poses that suggest willing self-sacrifice, whether building barricades, tending to the wounded, or spotting German positions. The faces – many female, many very young – seem to show a certain cheerfulness, a palpable sense of liberation, even as the insurgents emerge from sewers or crouch in ruins. Nor was the effort solely military: as the underground came into the open, cultural life briefly flourished, with daily newspapers, theatre, patriotic Masses, poetry, even the first analyses of the rising. According to many testimonies, there was popular support for the rising, uniting civilians and soldiers.

A ‘realist’ looking at these same snapshots would be haunted by the apprehension that these people had been led to believe that the rising had a chance of success. They were asked – indeed expected – to risk their lives, but denied basic information. To be sure, soldiers are often sent into battle on false pretences, but these were not soldiers. When civilians in the old city finally understood that help wasn’t coming either from East or West, they often tried desperately to escape. There are stories of mothers trying to break through the insurgents’ barricades in order to save themselves and their children. Home Army commanders forbade this, and in some cases shot at civilians. None of this figures in Davies’s account.

There is, however, one problem with the realist interpretation. From 1944 on, the Communists portrayed the insurgency as the work of irresponsible adventurers, and the realist position is sometimes uncomfortably close to the Communist one: it is this condemnation perhaps that has moved Davies to embrace the rising so romantically. The reader will look in vain for searching criticism of the insurgents or the historic ‘Poland’ they claimed to represent. Instead, Davies misses no opportunity to highlight Polish virtues and downplay Polish misdeeds. Polish historians estimate, for example, that at most 40,000 Polish Jews were saved by non-Jews during the war, while 60,000 more survived in camps (out of a total of about three million). Yet Davies suggests that all the Jews who survived owed their lives to Polish beneficence: ‘More Jews were rescued in Poland than anywhere else. The figure is usually put at 100,000.’ Polish historians believe that Poles massacred Jews in 24 towns in the summer and autumn of 1941. In July 1941, Poles in Jedwabne murdered Jews in a day-long pogrom, as we know from Jan Gross’s book Neighbours, published in 2001. Since then, Polish researchers have located 23 other towns where Poles massacred Jews. Ignoring this research and citing no sources, Davies claims that ‘the number of reports about massacres with a similar scenario’ to Jedwabne ‘can be counted on the fingers of one hand’.

Davies’s book is dedicated to ‘Warsaw’, but contains little about the city’s ordinary citizens whose streets were suddenly transformed into places of struggle. He devotes a single paragraph to the atrocity of early August, in which the Germans gunned down 40,000 inhabitants of the Wola district. And of allegations that AK soldiers shot Jewish refugees, he writes:

Many years after the war, certain Jewish historians produced the accusation that Jews had been murdered during the rising by the AK and the [nationalist] NSZ. On reflection, the accusation was duly modified and redirected against individuals who may have belonged to the AK or the NSZ. Close examination revealed both a large number of misunderstandings and a small number of rapes and murders of which Jews had been the victims. The difficulty was to know whether these ‘black pages of the rising’ were racially motivated and whether they were qualitatively different from the numerous other crimes which occurred as a matter of course in a starving city of nearly a million people.

In a book full of outrage about the injustices suffered by ‘historic Poland’, these murders prompt barely a flicker of indignation. Granted, initial reports may have been exaggerated, but historians now generally agree that several dozen Jews were killed.

Because Davies is writing about an event that took place in 1944, he doesn’t need to give much attention to Polish-Jewish relations. By that point the Warsaw Ghetto had been razed, and its more than 500,000 residents killed, some of them in the death camps, others in the fighting. At most, several thousand Jews escaped the ghetto and were hiding in Warsaw when the uprising began. Nevertheless, Davies does not evade the issue, and supplies plenty of background on Polish-Jewish relations, in what are the book’s weakest sections. He pronounces himself an opponent of all forms of ethnic discrimination, but that is precisely the problem. He refuses to discriminate. He effaces distinctions between Jews and Poles, suggesting a basic equality between the two groups, whether as citizens of the Polish commonwealth or as victims of the Nazis.

Unlike Davies, the Nazis made clear distinctions. The Poles did, too: they were Poles, and Jews were Jews. Even those Jews lucky enough to escape to ‘Aryan’ – i.e. Polish – Warsaw, and possessing flawless ‘Aryan’ papers, accents and physical features, still found themselves objects of constant suspicion. Poles were hyper-aware of who might be a Jew in hiding. This sense of distinction was not imposed on the Poles by the German occupiers, nor did it result from what Davies calls a ‘postwar Zionist convention’, according to which Poles and Jews had been ‘two completely separate ethnic or national groups’. Rather, it was an expression of modern Polish identity, which increasingly defined itself against ethnic others.

Davies portrays Poland before the war as a haven of multiculturalism. According to him, the 1930s were a time of increasing ‘reconciliation and integration’, when Warsaw’s Jews had ‘the same right and inclination to be regarded as Poles as New York Jews had to be regarded as Americans’. In fact, recent Polish historiography makes clear that the divide between Poles and Jews widened in this period. Poles tended to see Jews not as neighbours but as guests who had overstayed their welcome. Thousands of Jews assimilated into Polish culture, but the overwhelming majority remained distinctly Jewish. Even in cosmopolitan Warsaw, Jews and Poles inhabited not only separate districts, but distinct worlds. In an interview in 1997, the native Varsovian Chone Shmeruk recalled a ‘chasm’ dividing the two groups. Poles regarded the Jewish neighbourhoods as a ‘dark continent’, and Jews referred to Polish sections as ‘jene gasn’ (‘those streets over there’).

True to form, Davies also downplays the controversies that shook Polish higher education, and depicts the academic world as a place where individuals might ‘contrive to be Polish and Jewish with no sense of contradiction’. In fact, by the 1930s, Jewish students increasingly faced discrimination and physical violence. Denied permission to institute quotas, Polish professors nevertheless contrived to keep Jewish applicants out of their classrooms, especially in the medical and law faculties. As a result many Polish Jews enrolled at more tolerant German universities: in Berlin or, after 1933, in Prague. In Poland, the proportion of Jewish students dropped steadily. In the 1938-39 academic year, Poznan University, Poland’s fourth largest, did not enrol a single Jew.

Davies, whose two-volume history of Poland, God’s Playground, is now a standard text in Polish schools, must be very disturbed by how little the West knows about Polish history. I had a chance to taste this ignorance when lecturing recently in an Oakland high school. I was told by one history teacher that Gross’s account of Jedwabne had revealed nothing new. She had always known that Poles killed Jews – after all the Holocaust did happen in Poland. The audience agreed. Another teacher mentioned those ‘famous’ newsreel clips of American troops forcing Polish citizens to tour concentration camps after the war – in order to witness the fruits of their complicity.

The distance of such views from historical reality is stunning, because Nazi rule in Poland was not subtle. The point was to strip the country of resources, leaving only enough to secure the Poles’ ‘naked physical existence’. Poles came to be seen as subhuman, not because Nazi racial ideology demanded it, but because the Poles were the first to defy Hitler. Unlike Hungarians, Romanians, Slovaks, Croats and Soviets, Poles had refused offers of military co-operation. Hence the ferocity of the Nazi assault on Poland in September 1939. Like no other people save the Jews, the Poles had provoked Hitler’s hatred. After subduing Polish resistance with a campaign that made no distinction between soldier and civilian, his regime subjected the unco-operative population to random terror.

Because of their unreliability Poles were not considered fit for collaboration. After smashing the Polish state apparatus, the Nazis ruled through their own administrators. Unlike Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Czechs, French, Norwegians and so on, Poles were not permitted a collaborator government. Unlike Ukrainians or Latvians, they were not used as camp guards. Unlike just about every nationality in Europe – excluding Czechs and of course Jews, but including Russians, Slovaks, Estonians, French and many more – Poles were not recruited to fight for the Germans, even when the need for troops grew desperate late in the war. Davies is wrong to treat the killings in Jedwabne and elsewhere as non-events, but he is right that such crimes were exceptional.

Those not swayed by God’s Playground will not be moved by this hyperpatriotic account. But Davies is not alone in his uncritical stance. Readers of Poland’s historians must be struck by their inflexible polarity: either critical or uncritical, with nothing in between. The polarisation can even mark the work of a single historian. Gross’s recent work could be thought of as that of an outsider framing questions that had not been posed by insiders. But his early work, written soon after he emigrated from Poland, was that of a would-be patriot, its assumptions resembling those one finds in Davies’s books. Slavs and Jews are portrayed as equal in the Nazi worldview; Jews appear as enthusiastic supporters of Bolshevism; and the Nazi occupation is a time of heroic Polish resistance. The ‘patriotic’ Gross depicted the Nazi occupation as a time of democratisation, when Poles attempted to ‘rescue’ higher values such as ‘justice, freedom, culture and morality’: the critical Gross depicts the war years as a time of ‘profound demoralisation’ and the ‘breakdown of moral taboos’.

One reason the praise and criticism of Poland are seen as mutually exclusive is undoubtedly the Polish national narrative, fortified as it is by a combination of opposing forces: the heroism and suffering of hundreds of thousands of Poles and a sense of outrage that their story is largely unknown, but also a measure of bad conscience – that is, their awareness that alongside the heroism went frequent callousness and indifference towards the Jews. This mixture produces a particular stridency among Polish survivors, many of whom Davies has interviewed.

These first-hand accounts give the narrative its liveliness, but they also act as a constraint. Rather than uncover history, survivors shield memory. They do so with the unique self-righteousness of those who have emerged safely from the rubble, leaving comrades behind. Like the now dwindling generation of AK fighters, Davies is incapable of imagining their sacrifice to have been in vain. Their self-righteousness has become his; their rejection of persistent questions about Polish anti-semitism explains his impatient refusal to look squarely at the ‘black pages’ of Polish history. But to be infected by the biases of survivors is to be poisoned as a historian. This is equally true for those who stand too close to the recollections of Holocaust survivors, like Jan Gross. In Neighbours he proclaims the inherent superiority as evidence of ‘Jewish survivor testimonies about the Shoah’, because they ‘have been deliberately written down in order to provide an exact and comprehensive account of the catastrophe’. Relying on these testimonies, he writes that the ‘Polish half’ of Jedwabne’s population murdered its ‘Jewish half’. This is something that is remembered but did not happen. Most Poles in Jedwabne had no role in the massacre.

Those now writing history in Poland feel less and less concern about the feelings of grandparents and great-grandparents. They may even go overboard in emphasising the negative, and lose sight of the fact that Poles collaborated with Nazis less than anyone else in Continental Europe. A new history will have emerged when accounts begin to appear of the collaboration that did exist among Poles – and among Jews. Poland will be seen as the first state to defy Hitler, but also as one pervaded by anti-semitism, perhaps more than any other; where Nazi occupation was both demoralising and elevating, decimating and invigorating; where Poles acted as perpetrators and victims, romantics and realists, anti-semites and anti-Nazis.