August 2004 will mark the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, when 40,000 members of the Polish underground Home Army spilled into the streets to liberate the city from its Nazi occupiers. The revolt was inspired in part by the belief that the Red Army would come to the aid of the rebels. Russian units had advanced to the eastern bank of the Vistula River and were within supporting distance of the Warsaw fighters, but once Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, commander of the First Belarussian Front, declined to intervene, the Germans were freed not only to suppress the uprising but also to carry out appalling reprisals. Stalin would later dismiss the rebellion as the act of "a gang of criminals."
Norman Davies, a fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford, is the foremost historian of modern Poland. Of his previous books, ''God's Playground: A History of Poland'' is widely regarded as a landmark account. This new work, ''Rising '44,'' draws on a wealth of original material. Yet Davies says he is frustrated at how disappointingly little is available from either Russian or British archives. While Russian unwillingness to release documents (except selectively) is well known, there is no accounting for why 95 percent of the records of the British intelligence services during World War II have remained closed, with little prospect of their being opened in the future. The British penchant for secrecy 60 years after these events hardly seems justified, particularly since a vast majority of the participants are no longer alive.
In any case, ''Rising '44'' is much more than the story of the Warsaw uprising. It is one of the most savage indictments of Allied malfeasance yet leveled by a historian. Unsparing in his depictions of the slaughter of the Polish fighters and the destruction of their capital, Davies challenges the popular assumption that World War II was entirely the triumph of good over evil.
Of the nations caught in the hell of World War II, history's most devastating conflict, Poland became the biggest pawn. The German invasion in September 1939 was merely the opening act of the tragedy. Although they fought valiantly, the Poles were overwhelmed by the sheer weight of 53 German divisions.
Far worse was to follow. The inaptly named Soviet-German nonaggression pact signed in August 1939 contained a secret provision to partition Poland, and by early October 1939 it had become the territorial meal of Hitler and Stalin. Until June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and rendered the treaty a cynical sham, the Poles were subjected to the cruelties of both the N.K.V.D. and the Gestapo. In addition, the most notorious of the Nazi extermination camps were established on Polish soil at Treblinka and Auschwitz.
In April 1943 the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto revolted. Despite their valiant and desperate fight, the rebellion was brutally suppressed. The ghetto was smashed; 36,000 people were either killed or sent to death camps.
As Davies explains, the Warsaw uprising of 1944 – which should not be confused with the ghetto uprising – ended just as tragically. After Hitler commanded the SS chief Heinrich Himmler to take charge of operations in the city, orders were issued to put down the rebellion and reduce the Polish capital to ruins: ''We shall finish them off,'' Himmler declared. ''Warsaw will be liquidated.'' Every inhabitant was to be killed, every house burned. By October the rebellion had been crushed. Fifteen thousand of the partisans had been killed, and between 200,000 and 250,000 civilians lay dead.
Why didn't the Allies intervene? The reasons are complex, almost byzantine, but ultimately they boil down to the failure of the United States and Britain to deal resolutely with Stalin. Roosevelt and Churchill both perpetuated the fallacy of ''a benevolent Uncle Joe,'' described here as ''the mass murderer who was leading the fight against the fascist mass murderer.'' Poland's final betrayal occurred at Yalta in 1945, when the Allies abandoned it to Stalin's mercy with barely a whimper. The result was that ''in the eastern half of Europe, one foul tyranny was driven out by another; and liberation was postponed for nearly 50 years. By the yardstick of freedom and democracy as proclaimed by the Western powers, this outcome must be judged an abject failure.''