Rising '44: the battle for Warsaw, by Norman Davies

A monument to 200,000 lost lives
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The Independent Culture

Poles idolise Norman Davies for giving them back their own history: Communism had cheated them of this. There was no monument to the Warsaw Rising until 1956, and no free discussion until after the Berlin Wall fell. Davies has also tried - in Heart of Europe and God's Playground - to teach Polish history to the wider world.

In December 1970, West German Chancellor Willie Brandt fell to his knees - in unforgettable expiation - at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, provoking worldwide comment. During the 27-day ghetto rising of spring 1943, tens of thousands had died. They inspired Warsaw's freedom fighters the following year.

Yet the rising of August 1944 was an event of an entirely different scale. The city held out for 63 days, with the loss of 200,000 lives. Germans then destroyed Warsaw street by street. These two events were confused as recently as the rising's 50th anniversary in 1994 by Germany's President Herzog, by advisers to the British prime minister, by NBC News and Reuters. Even Polanski's film The Pianist telescopes events of the two risings.

One reason is Communist censorship. Moscow required the failure of the rising for its puppets to take power, which then blackened the rising as ultra-nationalist, reckless, even criminal. They persecuted its surviving heroes.

Davies is well equipped to chronicle this black episode. His first Polish father-in-law was tortured by invading Russians in 1945 on the same table where he had been tortured by invading Germans in 1939. Poles were fighting throughout for freedom from two cruel tyrannies. The Russo-German pact of 1939 heralded the "fourth" partition, the country devoured as of old by both neighbours, who vied in killing and deportation. And the 1944 rising was a tragic preamble to the fifth partition, agreed at Yalta, when Polish freedom was sold to the USSR.

Poland's home army belonged within an Allied coalition nominally fighting a common enemy in unison: 10 per cent of all Battle of Britain fliers were Polish. Davies' originality is to insist upon this international context throughout, and expose its contradictions.

The Soviets first encouraged the Poles, then stalled on the far side of the Vistula, watching the Germans do their own dirty work. America under Roosevelt was compliant to Stalin's wishes. When Churchill - first to fathom Stalin's malevolence - ordered air-drops from Brindisi, the Soviets refused the planes landing-rights, or even shot at them.

Davies' evocation of this seminal moment is timely. It marks a brave, defiant and resourceful country of approaching 40 million, the largest of the states joining the EU in May. Eye-witness capsules lend his exhaustive, chastening book its air of documentary intimacy. But Macmillan's editing out of most Polish surnames shows a bizarre loss of nerve. To discover who "Dr S" is, you turn to an appendix at the end. That makes Poles, once again, seem marginal.

Peter J Conradi

The reviewer's latest book is 'Going Buddhist' (Short Books)