These soldiers came through Warsaw’s sewers from the Old Town to city center. Note their soldierly bearing even after several hours of passage in a fetid morass in complete darkness and silence. At any sound of movement down below, Germans tossed hand grenades through sewer manholes. (Poland in World War II: An Illustrated Military History by Andrew Hempel).
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POLISH AMERICAN JOURNAL
© 2004 Polish American Journal
A Heroic Uprising in Poland
by Stanley Blejwas
The Role of Poland and
the Poles in World War II
by Apolonja Kojder and Mark Wegierski
to the Allied War Effort
by Apolonja Kojder and Mark Wegierski
At 5:00 p.m. on Aug. 1, 1944, the underground Polish Home Army launched an uprising to liberate Warsaw. For the Polish capital, which had endured nearly five years of brutal German occupation, the moment of liberation was at hand. German forces were in retreat as the Red Army reached Warsaw’s eastern suburbs. What followed was one of the most heroic actions of the war, and a cynical display of Soviet perfidy.
The Polish underground was anti-communist, and loyal to the Polish government in exile in London, which the United States and Britain recognized. The Soviet Union, however, backed a Polish communist minority. Nevertheless, as the Red Army neared Warsaw in the last days of July, it broadcast radio appeals to Warsaw’s inhabitants to rise up and expel the common German enemy.
The Home Army’s objectives were to liberate the capital and assert the claim of the government in exile as the legitimate Polish government. Polish success was contingent on the continued advance of the Red Army, units of which had already crossed the Vistula River both north and south of Warsaw. However, once the uprising began, the Soviet advance inexplicably halted. For the next 63 days, the Poles fought a furious urban battle with German forces, which had regrouped and counterattacked.
The Soviets rejected Allied appeals to assist the insurgents. They also refused to grant permission for Allied planes flying relief missions from bases in Western Europe to land on nearby Soviet air bases for refueling. And when the Soviets, in the very last days of the uprising, did drop supplies, they mocked the Poles, dropping supplies without parachutes.
The human consequences of the uprising were staggering. Some 200,000 Poles perished and, after the Home Army capitulated, the remaining 800,000 were deported to German concentration camps. Adolf Hitler, enraged by the resistance, ordered the Polish capital destroyed. When U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower visited Warsaw in 1945, he remarked that he had not seen another European city so destroyed. About 95 percent of the city lay in rubble.
German troops crushed the uprising, but responsibility for Warsaw’s human and physical destruction rests with the Soviet Union, which ruthlessly abandoned a fighting member of the Allied coalition. The effectiveness of the Home Army as a fighting force was ended, and the way opened for the imposition of a communist regime upon postwar Poland. As the historian and diplomat George F. Keanan noted, the halting of the Red Army at the outskirts of Warsaw was “the most arrogant and unmistakable demonstration of the Soviet determination to control Eastern Europe in the postwar period” and “no one in the West had the slightest excuse for ignoring its lessons.”
Its lessons, unfortunately, were ignored. In 1945 at the Yalta conference, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill conceded Eastern Europe to the Soviet sphere of influence, damning these nations to 45 years of Soviet rule.
The memory of Soviet inaction during the summer of 1944 haunts Polish-Russian relations. In 1994, Polish President Lech Walesa, in a gesture of conciliation, invited the German and Russian presidents to attend the 50th anniversary commemoration of the uprising. Roman Herzog of Germany accepted, but Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia declined. Although, the invitation was sent early, Yeltsin claimed it reached him too late to be placed in his official calendar.
The late Stan Blejwas was a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, and served on the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial.
During the more than half-century following the end of World War II, an ongoing stream of disinformation from various quarters (e.g., the Soviet Union, and left-wing British circles) has disturbingly clouded the sterling record of Poland and the Poles during World War II. In a climate of increasing ignorance of the most basic historical facts and realities, it is important to remember the Polish role in World War II, on the sixtieth anniversary of the tragic Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (and nearly sixty-five years since the outbreak of the war in September 1939).
THE BEGINNING OF WORLD WAR II. On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s Nazi forces invaded Poland, without warning or a formal declaration of war, launching a brutal, indiscriminate type of warfare largely based on inflicting maximum civilian casualties. His publicly-professed objective was “to get rid of that intolerable Polish corridor.” The day before, Hitler’s SS-men had staged a mock-attack on the German radio station in Gleiwitz (Gliwice)—blaming it on the Polish army—in the hope that this would be the excuse that would allow France and Britain to renege on their treaty obligations to Poland. As it was, France and Britain put pressure on Poland to delay its general mobilization from August 31 to September 1, which resulted in an estimated 300,000 Polish troops never getting into action. Given the diplomatic context of the time, France and Britain might not have declared war on Germany at all, had Poland tried to surrender quickly to Nazi Germany, in hope of more lenient treatment. Poland was unquestionably the first to fight Nazi Germany—and indeed paid a very heavy price for being the first country to stand up to Hitler.
POLAND UNDER GERMAN AND SOVIET OCCUPATIONS. On September 17, 1939, Stalin’s armies crossed the eastern frontiers of Poland, preparing to seize that part of Poland guaranteed to them by secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Hitler annexed Polish Pomerania (“the corridor”), the area around Poznan, and the part of Silesia belonging to pre-war Poland, directly into the Reich. These areas were to be 100% Germanized. The Poles in those areas who refused to renounce their nationality were deported eastward. The rest of German-occupied Poland was designated the “General-Government,” where the Poles were slated to become mindless slave labor for the German “settlers.” Stalin at this time planned to deport all Poles from the areas he had annexed, deep into the Soviet Union. Both regimes committing themselves to perpetually maintain the extinction of Poland. The Polish state, nation, people, and culture were basically ground to near-destruction between the two great totalitarian terror regimes of the 20th century: Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
STALIN’S CHANGE OF POLICY. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, Stalin allowed tens of thousands of surviving Poles, from the over two million he had ordered deported to Siberia, and other ghastly remote regions of the Soviet Union, to slowly make their way southward to join the Polish Second Corps forming in the Near East. He also eventually allowed Poles to volunteer for military units to be formed in the Soviet Union, the so-called Kosciuszko Brigades. Their most notable action was probably their breakthrough at the Pommernstellung (Pomeranian Wall) fortifications in early 1945, quickly opening the path to the Baltic Coast.
THE HOLOCAUST. The German occupation in Poland, as in most of the conquered lands to the east of the Reich, was thoroughly savage—far different from the occupations of Western and Northern European countries, where the Germans acted in a far more restrained fashion. It must be remembered that all efforts to save Jews occurred in a context where the Poles themselves were being subjected to a thorough and systematic genocide. Most Poles were living on the edge of extermination or starvation, and the German occupation forces would enforce the death-penalty (often on entire families, and often by burning alive), for the slightest aid given to fleeing Jews.
Of the six million Jews who perished, nearly three million had been citizens of pre-war Poland. More were shipped from other parts of the Nazi empire to German-occupied Poland (the so-called General-Government), where the largest death camp, Auschwitz, was located. The General-Government was ruled exclusively and entirely by Germans.
THE WARSAW UPRISING. On July 22, 1944, in Soviet-liberated Lublin, the Communist-led Polish National Liberation Committee was created, calling for the establishment of a Polish People’s Republic—in opposition to the Polish Government-in-Exile in London. At about the same time, beginning in August 1944, the tragic Warsaw Uprising, a movement by Poles to win back control of their city was launched. In that same month, Soviet armies had reached the east side of the Vistula River (the main city of Warsaw is on the west side), and it was widely expected that the Germans would soon crumble. Although there is some suggestion that the Soviets had outrun their logistical tether at this point, many historians think that Stalin simply suspended Soviet offensive operations in order to allow the Germans to crush the Uprising at leisure. Over 240,000 Poles died in the Uprising, and the Germans exacted a fearful revenge by leveling the entire city, systematically blowing up buildings and monuments (such as the several-centuries-old, venerable Royal Castle) in their perceived order of importance to Polish culture, and deporting the remaining population to concentration camps.
ALLIES BETRAY POLAND. At the Conferences of the “Big Three” (United States, Britain, and the U.S.S.R.) at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam, it was decided that Poland would be reconstituted in the boundaries of the Polish Piast state of the early Middle Ages, that is, the frontiers would be shifted by about 200 miles westward. While Poland would “receive” lands it had lost some 600 years ago, and would be forced to expel the German population living there, it would also “lose” lands that had been under its influence for over 600 years, and such Polish population there which had survived the various depredations of the war would simply be brutally transferred into the lands vacated by the Germans.
The net loss of territory between the gains in the west, and the losses in the east, was almost one-fifth! In Stalin’s conception, the Polish gains in the west would bind Poland forever to a pro-Russian orientation, and her eastern frontiers would now roughly coincide with the Nazi-Soviet demarcation line of 1939.
Polish soldiers took part in the final battles in Nazi Germany, including the Battle of Berlin. But they did not obtain the real fruits of victory. The adjustment into the new boundaries would have been difficult enough, without Stalin’s attempt to impose hard line Communism on Poland. A civil war between the remnants of the nationalist underground, and the emerging Communist security apparatus, raged until 1949. Over 100,000 Poles died resisting Soviet Communism. Stalin sardonically commented, in his typically crude fashion, that “imposing Communism on Poland was like trying to saddle a cow.”
Churchill and Roosevelt did not treat the Poles in the West, who were seen as “unusually recalcitrant towards Stalin,” fairly. The Polish gold reserves, which had been spirited out of Poland in 1939, and had indeed paid for most of the expenses of the Polish armies under Western Allied command, were unaccountably returned to the Communist government in Poland, with the result that many Polish veterans were left without any means of future sustenance. The general commanding the First Polish Parachute Brigade, for example, ended up working as a common laborer in Britain. Polish soldiers in the West were not even allowed to officially participate in the great postwar victory marches in London and other cities. It could therefore be argued that the real World War II victory march for the Polish military took place on Polish Soldiers’ Day, August 15, 1992, when Polish veterans from all over the world gathered to celebrate the beginning of a new, free Poland, and the end of Soviet Communism.
Apolonja (Pola) Kojder is the co-author of “Marynia Don’t Cry: Memoirs of Two Polish-Canadian Families” (University of Toronto Press, 1995). She lives in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher, published in “Alberta Report,” “American Outlook,” “Books in Canada,”, “Calgary Herald,” “New Brunswick Reader,” “Telos,” and “The World & I,” among others. An article of his about Canada was reprinted in “Annual Editions: World Politics, 1998-99.” (Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1998).
The Warsaw Uprising
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