There are some aspects of World War II, believe it or not, that are under-reported, or at least aren't studied as much as others. One reason for that is lack of interest, but another reason is because much of the source material is simply unavailable, and what is out there is likely to be so biased that you have to sift it for useful information. For the longest time, the uprising in Warsaw in 1944, when the Soviet army was on the doorstep of the Polish capital, was one of those things. Norman Davies has done a good job of rectifying that, to an extent, with his book Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw. Still, it is not as definitive as it could be because, as Davies points out, many of the needed documents to write a complete history are still not available through Soviet archives. Davies does what he can, and he does a wonderful, if sometimes exceedingly slow, job of it.
One thing that Davies points out, which is the most important thing I take from Rising ‘44, is how often this uprising is confused with the uprising in the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. Until I read this book, I was one of those who were misinformed about this, and the Soviet Union (and the Communist Polish government) readily allowed this misconception to stand for many years. The two uprisings are not the same, and they deserve to have their separate histories and their separate commemorations.
The Warsaw rising of 1944 began on August 1, 1944, as the Soviet army was rampaging through the countryside. They had reached the Vistula river just east of Warsaw, and the Resistance movement (at least the non-Communist parts of it) wished to rise up, re-take the city, and welcome the Soviets as liberated people (much like the Parisians did when Paris fell to the Americans and French). Rising ‘44 is the tale of this uprising, a tale of woe because the Soviets stopped to allow the Germans to crush it, because the Americans and British were too weak in relation to the Soviets to do much more than provide token airlifts of supplies (many of which didn't reach the Resistance anyway). The attempt to re-take the city, expected to last two or three days before the Soviets moved in, instead lasted 66, with the Germans taking heavy losses even as they systematically destroyed the city.
But Rising ‘44 is much more than that, and sometimes (especially in the beginning), that drags the book down a notch. The book begins with a wide overview of the Polish situation, both in relation to the Allied coalition (Soviets, U.S., and Britain) and with the Germans. It works hard to set up the circumstances that were in effect when the Rising began. Thus it does not move chronologically, except within each specific area, detailing how the Poles were the First Ally of the British and French and how they heroically stood up to the Germans as the British and French decided they did not have the resources to invade Germany from the east in 1939. The first section gives information on the Soviet invasion of 1939, along with the occupation by both sides.
This chapter moves incredibly slowly, with a few annoyances as well that made me almost put down the book, including Davies' insistence on renaming Poland "First Ally," presumably to make the point that Poland was there at the beginning and was let down. He even inserts that phrase in place of "Poland" in quotes from various sources. Davies' prose in this section does not help, and I found it a struggle to continue.
However, once past this section, it is well worth it, the information imparted useful despite how it is presented as everything becomes related when the Rising begins. The middle section gives a chronological history of the Rising almost day by day that is just gripping. Interspersed with the narrative are primary source excerpts that draw you in even more. The only quibble I have with the excerpts is that they are referenced in the main narrative as if Davies is trying to tell you "now is a good time to go read this excerpt and then come back" - but the excerpt has nothing to do with what you just read. He gets better at that as the book goes along, but I was mystified at the placement of some of them.
Davies' prose sparkles in this section, giving the reader a detailed account of the triumphs and the miseries that the Resistance suffered through, the eventually dashed hope that help would be on the way soon. He also details the political machinations behind the lack of help (at least as much as he is able to, though the Soviet side is more supposition than the Western side). Davies tells us about the problems between the various Polish organizations, too, such as the conflict between the Communist-backed organization just waiting for the Soviets to take over the country so they can be instated as the new government, and the Government in Exile based out of London.
Finally, Davies does an effective job of giving us the aftermath of the Rising, both the immediate aftermath and the extended one that carries over to the current day. He details how the Rising was never referred to by the Communist government and, when it was, members of the Resistance were vilified as criminals. He chastises the British and American governments for their weakness in standing up to Stalin, how Churchill felt horrible about the valiant fighters' predicament but could do nothing as the weakest of the three coalition leaders. The last two sections of the book are riveting and more than make up for the very slow beginning.
Rising ‘44 is a valuable book to read if you have any interest in either World War II or the beginnings of the Cold War. Don't let the beginning slow you down. It's worth it to get to the meat of the book. Davies has himself a winner.