I am not in favour of capital punishment, but if anyone should have been hanged at Nuremberg in 1946 it was Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the SS general responsible for setting up Auschwitz in 1940, running the SS organisation behind the central front in the invasion of the Soviet Union, and carrying out the anti-partisan war in Belorussia. In all these roles he was responsible for (and often witnessed) the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, a great many of them Soviet Jews. As if this curriculum vitae were not bad enough, he added to it the eradication of Warsaw and thousands of its inhabitants in the savage German reaction to the uprising of the Polish Home Army in August 1944.
He was in Allied hands in 1945 but somehow he not only got away with it, but also exploited his smarmy gentility to persuade his captors to use him as a witness for the prosecution. He presented himself to his interrogators as someone who had tried to save the Jews in the East, not murder them. He asked them to call Jewish witnesses to his good faith, but of course none could be found, because they were all dead. He was freed, and only in the late 1950s did West German justice catch up with him. Even then he was tried not for the hundreds of thousands of deaths but for a few murders committed on the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. He died in a Munich jail in 1972.
Zelewski, or ‘von dem Bach’ as he called himself during the war to hide his Polish origins, is one of the many monsters tramping through oceans of blood in Alexandra Richie’s searing account of the doomed rebellion in Warsaw in 1944. She claims that this story and the context of the Eastern Front in which it took place are still little known in the West, but this is just not so. Norman Davies’s pioneering account of the uprising has become the classic; and there is a very full history of it in Halik Kochanski’s The Eagle Unbowed, a recent book on Poland in the Second World War. The subject of the Eastern Front, including the massive Soviet offensive in Belorussia – Operation Bagration – has been smothered with writing for the past twenty years. What Richie adds to all this is the unbearable story of what the German and non-German security and police forces actually did to the Polish people in Warsaw and of the Poles’ hopelessly brave fightback against a bestiality that simply defies the imagination.
She cites one exasperated German soldier asking a Polish fighter why the Poles were rising up when they just had to wait to be liberated by the oncoming Russians. The Polish decision might have been taken later, or not at all: as Richie shows, it was a close-run thing. Bór-Komorowski, commander of the uprising, hesitated to take the risk. With the Red Army racing towards Warsaw after smashing German Army Group Centre, there were strong motives for trying to liberate Warsaw before the invaders arrived, in order to show that the Poles could take their destiny in their own hands. But they also knew that Stalin’s NKVD security men were arresting and deporting any members of the Polish Home Army that they caught.
The Home Army had not intended to fight in a city, where they would be much more vulnerable, but the Germans seemed to panic as the Red Army neared and an opportunity beckoned. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the Poles preferred to risk being crushed, if they had to be, rather than go under without a fight. But they judged everything awry. The Red Army was slowing down and in late July was suddenly subjected to a surprise counteroffensive by new German divisions secretly moved into place around Warsaw. The Germans who had fled now began to return and the security garrison was strengthened. Fleeing from Belorussia were some of the most depraved units from the anti-partisan war: the SS Dirlewanger Brigade, made up of criminals freed from prison to become licensed sociopaths, and the Kaminski Brigade, composed of Russians who did any dirty work they were asked to do and enjoyed it, particularly if it involved raping and mutilating women. Richie is right to point out that the savage practices honed by these units in the East had become a commonplace for them. When the uprising began, the Germans (who were fighting desperate rearguard actions against the Red Army) looked for thugs to put the revolt down and found what they were after.
The biggest thug of all was, of course, Adolf Hitler. Richie rightly emphasises the effect the failed assassination attempt on 20 July had on the dictator. He raged and screamed at the treachery of his senior officers; Heinrich Himmler, the amoral fantasist at the head of the SS, was given new powers. Hitler longed for something on which he could take out his psychopathic spite, and the rebellious Poles came to stand for everything in the way of his tarnished ideal of a Germanic empire. The timing was awful. He ordered the whole population to be murdered and Warsaw to be physically eradicated. A month later he had calmed down. Paris had its armed rebellion too but the German commander there gave up and Hitler did little about it.
The heart of Richie’s book is the terrible narrative of Hitler’s revenge. Most previous accounts of the uprising gloss over what the Dirlewanger and Kaminski Brigades actually did. She writes it all down in detail that is so lurid it is hard to stomach. After a hundred pages of this it is difficult not to feel contaminated by the loathsome catalogue of crime. It is not that it is better left unwritten, but this is certainly X-rated. The animal carnality of the non-Germans (around half of those detailed to suppress the uprising) shocked even the Germans. Bronislav Kaminski was spirited away after a week of carnage and shot. Oskar Dirlewanger, on the other hand, was decorated by Hitler, who approved the unmediated savagery of his unit. The only good thing to emerge was the survival of just 648 of his 2,712 men from the combat. He was later spotted in a French prison camp at the end of the war and beaten to death by two Poles.
Richie is, as most historians are, tough on Stalin and the failure to take Warsaw. Yet in military terms, as she points out, the seizure of the city would not have been easy after two months of unremitting combat along the entire length of the Eastern Front. Stalin’s real objective was Berlin, and drawing a line at the Vistula rather than saving Warsaw gave the Red Army its launch pad for the great Vistula–Oder operation in January. The real motive was political. The Germans saved Stalin the trouble of rounding up the Home Army; he could always claim later that the Germans had destroyed Polish patriotic resistance, not him. He regarded the Home Army as a bunch of gangsters and he had his own Poles to put in their place. This was not a humane calculation, but no one would have expected Stalin to be other than he was. He was not, like Hitler, entirely unhinged by the lust for blood-soaked vengeance, but he did want a communist Poland.
Richie’s book is written from the heart. Her father-in-law fought in the uprising. It is a book that someone had to write about Warsaw’s agony; it ends only with tragedy. Warsaw’s deported population slowly returned to the ruins, but half of the people who had lived there in 1939 were dead or missing. Bór-Komorowski is buried in a municipal cemetery in Gunnersbury in west London, now all but forgotten. It might, indeed, have been better if the Home Army had waited.