Ian Baxter, The Warsaw Uprisings 1943-1944 (Pen & Sword, 2021)
In a war full of atrocities, the Warsaw ghetto somehow stands out, perhaps as something tangible instead of the overwhelming numbers and evil of the Holocaust, something symbolic. It is even more so because of the defiance shown by the Jews and other Poles in resisting their fate in what was ultimately a physically hopeless cause but a spiritual and moral victory for good over evil. At first, I thought this was an inappropriate title in the Images of War series, but Ian Baxter shows us something important here, something that goes beyond war into contrasting definitions of humanity and immorality.
Baxter begins with the background of the German invasion of Poland and the establishment of ghettos for Jews. By October 1940, the Warsaw ghetto housed 400,000 Jews in horrific conditions. In January 1942, the Germans decided to liquidate the Jews in purpose built extermination camps; they called it resettlement and it began in July 1942. Realising their fate, a Jewish resistance movement spread. A short-lived but violent revolt broke out on 18 January 1943, then in April another more serious outbreak of resistance took place against the final resettlement order; 750 lightly armed fighters took on the German troops sent to expel them. Only through complete destruction could the German troops overcome the well prepared bunkers and defensive positions, though they had all but succeeded by 16 May. The surviving Jews were executed or transported to the death camps, the ghetto utterly destroyed, and a concentration camp set up for forced labour to clean the streets. But the resistance was not over.
In June 1944, members of the Warsaw Home Army rose up in anticipation of the Soviet offensive, but the Soviets may have betrayed them, waiting outside the city for the Germans to end Polish resistance, or German defences outside Poland stopped them; Baxter leaves this ambiguous but leans towards the former interpretation. This uprising was a much more organised fight against the Germans, resulting in special ‘pacification’ troops being rushed into the city. They initially slaughtered anyone they encountered but that only led to increased resistance. The battle then became more like a regulation urban engagement, though the poorly armed Poles had little chance. They had to surrender and did so on 2 October. Baxter then counts the cost: 11,000 Germans killed or wounded, 22,000 Polish fighters, and 200,000 civilians. The Germans partially reneged on their surrender agreement to transport 100,000 Poles to the concentration camps then started to raze Warsaw to the ground, but the Soviets finally arrived in January 1945 to seize what was left of the city.
Baxter’s narrative is straightforward and uncontroversial. But, as with all the Images of War series, the quality of the photographs give this book its value. Many are truly harrowing, even just the photos of lines of Jews being escorted out of Warsaw because we know their fate. The photos of often frightened fighters being captured conjure up similar emotions, while photos of laughing German soldiers prompt anger. Yet, looking closely, you can see the dignity and determination of the Jews; men dressed in suits, shirts, and ties, sombre rabbis, defiant women having lost everything yet standing upright in the face of death. The story being told in these photographs is one of true heroism, courage, and hope, and it is one worth telling again and again as Europe continues to face the legacy of the Nazism and hate in the 21st Century.