Who remembers the Warsaw Uprising?
The 1944 Warsaw Uprising saw the destruction of one of Europe’s great cities. But it is a story not widely known outside of Poland, something the Polish government wants to put straight. We asked a random selection of Germans in Bonn what they know about the uprising as Poles commemorate its 73rd anniversary.
“I know that the Russians and the Poles hated each other, but I didn’t know much about Warsaw’s destruction at the hands of the Nazis,” a man in his 60s says as we conduct some – admittedly highly unscientific – ethnographic research into the Rising. Others questioned on the same streets elicited even less knowledge of the event – a seminal moment in Polish history, but seemingly only a footnote elsewhere.
One elderly German woman confused the Warsaw Rising with the Jewish Ghetto Uprising of 1943, while another thought it could have been Stalingrad. “Or was that Leningrad?” she added. Most of the other dozen who I asked were apologetic, but ignorant of the Uprising.
Most post-war Germans have had to come to terms with an often painful and guilt-ridden history, but that hasn’t always translated – it seems – into an understanding of some moments from the victims’ perspective.
A tall order
The Law and Justice (PiS) government, elected in September 2015, wants to put this straight. PiS has placed rethinking how both Poles and the rest of the world perceive Poland high on its political agenda. Last year, for example, it called for criminalising the use of the term of “Polish concentration or death camps”. PiS has also put a stop to a Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk and publicly scorned world-famous US historian, Jan Gross, for his accounts of Poles killing Jews in the war. In February last year it called into being the Institute for Research into Totalitarianism (OBnT), its mission is to translate and make accessible in English the testimonies of witnesses to German Nazi and Soviet crimes.
“We want to demonstrate to the Western European public the extent of genocide in occupied Poland on the basis of documents and eyewitness testimonies,” Wojciech Kozlowski, director of the institute, told me. It is an immense undertaking, some 100,000 testimonies – all in different ways harrowing first-hand accounts of the Polish experience during the war and in particular the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. It is a handbook of horror, turning the pages revealing fresh cruelty.
The Warsaw Rising was an operation by the Polish resistance Home Army (AK) to liberate the city from German occupation towards the end of the war as the Red Army made its way across Poland towards Germany. It was timed to coincide with the Soviet approach to the eastern suburbs of the city and the retreat of German forces. But the Soviet advance stopped short, enabling the Germans to regroup and demolish the city and crush the Polish resistance, which fought for 63 days. It is estimated that about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded. In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions.
During the fighting about 25 per cent of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed and following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically levelled another 35 per cent of the city.
After the Second World War, thousands of investigations were conducted into mass and individual murders by the Nazis in Warsaw. All the testimonies given before the Main Commission for Research on German Crimes in 1946 were given a high-confidentiality status and historians were then not allowed to use the sources. The historiography created during the communist era then concentrated on the military aspects of the war and on creation of underground structures towards liberation, omitting other aspects, including the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Katyń massacre in 1940, and first to be omitted was the fate of civilians.
After 1989, the materials were turned over to the National Institute of Remembrance (IPN), out of which the OBnT was spawned this year.
At precisely 5pm on August 1st, wherever you are in Warsaw you will hear sirens start to wail. You are expected to stop what you are doing and stand solemnly. If you are in a car, you get out and stand by the car. If you are near a crossroads you will see knots of youths setting off flares. After a minute you can resume what you were doing and get on with your lives. This is how Warsaw remembers one of the central events in its history – the Uprising of 1944.
This year’s events follow a familiar cycle: religious services, wreath laying, family days out: all in commemoration of an avoidable disaster.
The Warsaw Uprising was an armed insurrection designed to wrest control from the Germans and to present to the incoming Russians a free capital, loyal to the government in exile in London. It formed part of Operation Tempest, a series of rolling uprisings across eastern Poland – co-operating with the Russians, fighting the Germans. The trouble was that the Russians rounded up, shot or deported the Home Army (AK) soldiers. Nonetheless, the AK command deliberated and then decided.
The Uprising was a last-minute bungled attempt at retaking the city. Warsaw wasn’t in the plan until quite late (many artworks had been moved there from the surrounding areas for safe keeping). Despite the occupation, the city still had a million or so inhabitants and on August 1st 1944, 25,000 fighters (of which ten per cent were actually armed) rose up. The Germans had retreated over the last days of July and it looked as though the Red Army was about to enter. However the Germans recovered and stabilised the front, by which time the Rising had been ordered. It was only a matter of time, ammunition and savagery, all of which the Germans possessed in abundance.
The Poles needed a victory to keep themselves on the world stage and this may have spurred the thinking. The fortnight before was tense enough – a perfect storm of decision making in a rapidly moving situation, military disasters on Western and Eastern fronts, the attempt on Hitler’s life, the establishment of a communist proxy Polish government in Lublin. The commanders had to get the timing right; there was no room for error. But they couldn’t square the circle. As Professor Jan Ciechanowski, a historian and participant of the Uprising has said, the rising was militarily against the Germans but politically against the Russians.
After their initial shock, the Germans rallied, assembled a force of criminals and cutthroats and went to work.
The population was deported and scattered. The city systematically razed. Returnees were aghast at the rubble, two stories high, and the fact they couldn’t recognise their own streets. The city we see today, with its rough layout, is the direct result. Warsaw had gone the way of Carthage or Jerusalem.
Warsaw’s DNA too has been changed forever with the working class areas of Wola and Ochota wiped out in the first week of August and the rest of the population killed or driven out. Varsovians of today are immigrants mainly.
What do we remember?
Warsaw tends to remember the rising as a military campaign. The history is massive – with memoirs, analyses, etc. Until recently the civilian population ordeal was regarded as a backdrop. Indeed it was recently that representatives of the AK apologised to the civilians of Warsaw about the horror that they initiated. One thing was to blame the Germans, but the AK could have held off. It was a rising of choice. For the Germans, the Stalingrad and Kursk defeats loom larger in the overall picture of the Eastern front. The disaster in the East and the hundreds of thousands lost overshadow the relatively run of the mill victory in Warsaw.
Post-war German politics helped the Germans as well. Heinz Reinefarth, the SS police General responsible for many of the massacres, was able to hide his role in the Uprising by stressing his disobedience of a Hitler order in 1945. He was de-Nazified and ended his days as a lawyer and mayor of the sleepy coastal town of Syldt.
Today, the Uprising has entered popular culture. There are board games, figurines, re-enactments, new films and television shows. The pity of war is commemorated – the heroism of soldier and civilian, the allied pilots. The brutality of the Germans and convenient inactivity by the Russians condemned.
To take sides in this is to repeat the versions of the communist government – that the rising was a huge mistake, made by reckless commanders. The Western version broadly states that brave Polish combatants were betrayed by the Russians and the West during 1944-45 and so the Rising was actually the first episode in the Cold War. The problem is that Poland may want the world to care about the Rising as much as Warsaw does. The truth is that it probably has sympathy, but not more than that. The Uprising is a private affair for many outsiders.
Nevertheless, the Uprising falls neatly into the romantic Polish notion of an honourable defeat, which is really a moral victory. Gloria Victis – Glory to the Vanquished – as the cemetery epitaph has it. For Warsaw, Vae victis, woe to the vanquished, may also be appropriate – but much more difficult to bear.
Jo Harper is a freelance journalist and academic based in both Warsaw and Bonn. He has a PhD in Polish politics from the London School of Economics and is the author of the upcoming book Poland’s illiberal revolution. Essays on PiS, which will be published later this year by Central European University Press.
Jan Darasz is a Polish historian interested in studying the history of Warsaw.