Today, 1 August, is the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, one of the most celebrated and contested events in Polish popular memory. Here, Warsaw resident Krzysztof Kokoszczyński gives a personal view of the Uprising, 70 years on.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising – the most recent and, hopefully, last in a long series of different insurrections, rebellions and revolutions that have characterised the history of the Polish people in the last two or three centuries.
Before I say more, allow me to stress that the views presented below are my own and that I do not treat them as the ultimate and absolute truth but as the opinion of someone born, raised and living in Warsaw.
In order to avoid any confusion, let me explain to readers less familiar with the Polish history that there were two uprisings in Warsaw during the WWII. The first one took place in 1943 and was contained within the predominantly Jewish Warsaw Ghetto. It was a horrible, desperate struggle of people who did not have any hope for victory, but simply wanted to die on their feet, with a weapon in their hands rather than be butchered like animals in the death camps of Treblinka, Majdanek, and others. To differentiate it from the later uprising, this is known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The Warsaw Uprising was not meant to be hopeless
But this text is not about the brave struggle of the proud Jewish fighters in the Ghetto. It is about the second uprising, the one that begun on a hot, summer day of 1st August 1944. The mood in town was then much better than a year ago – whereas in 1943 the German offensive was only beginning to grind to a halt, in the summer of 1944 Germans were in full retreat in the east and south of the continent and losing ground fast in the west. As opposed to the Ghetto Uprising, the Warsaw Uprising was not meant to be hopeless.
It had, in fact, very particular goal. Home Army (HA, pol. Armia Krajowa), the main organisation of the Polish underground and an arm of the Polish Government-in-Exile comprising almost half a million members, knew perfectly well how the Soviets treated “liberated” countries – it had helped the Red Army to liberate what was Eastern Poland before the war (the Vilnius and Lvov regions), only to be turned on by the Soviets as soon as the Germans were gone.
Still, HA leaders knew from the Polish Government in London that the Western powers were not likely to oppose Stalin if he wanted Poland to be in his sphere of influence. The solution that they came up with was to start a series of uprisings in the major cities and to seize control from their Nazi governors. That would allow Poles to welcome the Soviets on their own terms, rather than be “liberated.” Furthermore, it would give the Polish Government-in-Exile and its allies a powerful argument in the negotiation of the post-war world order. Warsaw was to be the first of the cities to be liberated in such a way, a proving ground.
But as the old saying goes, the first victim of the enemy is your battle plan. Soon before the planned date of the uprising, an elite German division had moved to the city. However, because Soviet forces were already approaching Warsaw, the Home Army command decided to go ahead with the plan – hoping the Red Army would support the uprising from the other side of the Vistula river.
The uprising began at 5 PM.
It was a valiant fight. Many of the Varsovians had started the fight unarmed – the Polish resistance could not provide weapons for everybody. Yet the initial success, including securing of the Arsenal, quickly provided the Resistance fighters with military-grade equipment.
This, together with the intimate knowledge of the city, including the vast sewer network, allow the Uprising to go on far longer than expected. Varsovians fought for their city and their freedom for 63 days. And yet, they were doomed to fail.
The Soviet support did not come.
The Red Army stood on the other shore of Vistula and watched Warsaw die without providing any help. Even planes with supply drops from the Western Allies were forced to use airfields in Western Europe, as Stalin refused to allow them to use Soviet infrastructure to support the Uprising.
It is not the goal of this text to provide a detailed account of these long 63 summer days. There are some truly excellent and detailed accounts of them, also available in English. Despite the struggle of the Varsovians, the Uprising was defeated in the end. Losses were enormous: around 150,000 people died, all those who had survived were expelled, and the city was razed to the ground.
And this is the true reason behind modern-day disputes in Poland about the Uprising. Some consider it to be a needless waste of life that did not achieve anything. The argument is that many of the brightest and bravest who died then could have provided leadership after the War and perhaps lessened Soviet influence in post-war Poland. That is why the leadership of the HA is criticised – people in Warsaw fought for freedom, yet their leaders knew that the victory is not possible.
Those on the other side of the argument consider the Uprising a brave gesture and the last attempt to establish a free Poland after the war. Many of those who have survived still remember the feeling of seeing Polish flags in public for the first time after five years of occupation.
Did they really have to die?
Nobody contests the fact that the Varsovians who fought in the Uprising are heroes deserving of the upmost respect. The only question is: did they really have to die?
Another undisputed fact is that the Uprising left deep scars on the city and its population. Warsaw was rebuilt after the war (a famous slogan of these years was: “The Whole Nation Builds Its Capital”), with many of the old buildings reconstructed in painstaking details, yet wherever one walks in the old districts of Warsaw, one sees plaques commemorating various moments of the Uprising.
At 5 PM this Friday air raid sirens will be turned on and for a few minutes the whole city will stop.
The scars have healed and the quiet heroism of the often very young fighters of the resistance (some members of the Scouting movement, who helped by providing communications between the different parts of the city, were not even 10 years old) still inspires.
Warsaw does not forget its past and its heroes. At 5 PM this Friday air raid sirens will be turned on and for a few minutes the whole city will stop. In these few minutes the heroes will be remembered – and the mistakes that led to them having to become such heroes will hopefully never be made again.