This history book recounts World War 2 from the Polish perspective, centered around the Warsaw Uprising (not to be confused with the Jewish Uprising) that occured towards the end of the war when the Red Army was camped on the outskirts of the city.
The Gestapo established its control over Warsaw in the early months by filtering the entire population, allocating them to racial categories and issuing them with the relevant documents. In order to live, every person required a Certificate of Racial Origin, an identity card (Kennkarte), and a ration card.
The inhabitants of Warsaw were turned into hunted animals, who had to go outside to live, but who were constantly on edge, lest they were pounced on. One could go out to buy a bottle of milk and not return, then be found on the list of hostages . . . to be shot [as] ‘enemies of German reconstruction’. One could be grabbed in a restaurant, in a shop, in a church, or in one’s own home. Life became a daily game of chance with death.
What the Germans did to the Poles reads like a nightmare. They literally wanted to wipe Poland off the map while enslaving the less intelligent Poles to trudge away in German factories. Most of Poland’s intelligenista and political class were wiped out by the Germans (and also Russians).
The resistance fighters in Warsaw, loosely led by the exiled government in London, built up a surprising amount of organization during the occupation, including a postal system, newspaper presses, and an ambulance service, operating right under the nose of the Germans. They even had an assassination squad that successfully killed many Gestapo officers.
…the tentacles of the exiled Government reached out from Sikorski’s HQ at the Rubens Hotel in London to every town and village and to almost every clandestine formation in Poland.
The resistance fighting began in earnest when Soviet victories against the Germans brought the Red Army to to the Vistula River. The Poles expected help from the Soviets, the British and the Americans, but little help came. The Red Army sat on their heels, watching the fighting for over a month through their binoculars. The British could only manage airdrops from Italy, and the Americans sent one large airdrop that mostly landed in German hands. In the meanwhile, it was already decided by the Allied big three in Tehran that a large chunk of Polish land in the East would go to the Soviets, who had free reign by the British and Americans to do whatever they wanted as long as they kept fighting the Germans. Cities you know of today like Lvov (Ukraine) and Vilnius (Lithuania) were part of Poland before the war.
Much of the book is first-hand testimony from survivors…
“Where AK platoons possessed only one gun for every two men, the night watch would take over the weapons of the day watch. So long as the guns of the dead and wounded could be recovered, the ratio of guns to men was actually increasing.”
“Stalin dismissed the opportunity to help the Rising when assistance would have been most effective. What is more, after a long period of silence, he chose to condemn the Rising in the most callous terms.”
“The Home Army authorities concluded that the hospital, in accordance with international convention, should be clearly marked on the roof with a Red Cross. It precipitated an immediate bombardment by German Stukas and by extremely heavy rocket fire. The hospital began to burn, the upper floors to collapse . . . Immediate evacuation was essential.”
“Many teenagers joined the Rising. They often served as messengers, carrying weapons, reports, orders, and the press with enthusiasm. Many of them fell. They did not always realize the dangers, and had a greater tendency than us older ones to perform dashing deeds.”
“Our daily paper, the Warsaw Courier, wrote: ‘Stalin had planned the total destruction of Warsaw a long time ago. A vibrant city with a long democratic tradition would have been a source of constant irritation in his vast totalitarian empire. Only when he saw Warsaw almost razed to the ground did Stalin decide to throw a few sackfuls of food to the dying few, an empty gesture designed to deceive world opinion.’”
“Further fighting has no sense. It’s madness. Politically, we have achieved a great deal. Yet, since we have not received the assistance expected, we should save what is most dear to us, namely, the biological substance of the nation. This is all the more important because the whole cultural and scientific elite of society is concentrated in Warsaw.”
When Stalin eventually did make aid drops, he didn’t use parachutes, meaning most sacks were destroyed upon making impact with land.
“This is the stark truth. We were treated worse than Hitler’s satellites, worse than Italy, Romania, Finland. May God, who is just, pass judgement on the terrible injustice visited on the Polish nation, and may He punish accordingly all those who are guilty. Your heroes are the soldiers whose only weapons against tanks were revolvers and bottles of petrol . . . Your heroes are the women who tended the wounded, cooked in bombed-out cellars . . . and comforted the dying. Your heroes are the children who went on playing in the ruins . . . Immortal is the nation that can muster such universal heroism. For those who have died have conquered, and those who live will fight, will conquer and will bear witness again that POLAND HAS NOT PERISHED YET, SO LONG AS WE STILL LIVE.”
Despite a critical military situation, in which every last soldier of any age was being impressed into service for the defence of the Reich, thousands of German troops were employed in the ruins of Warsaw, fulfilling the Führer’s orders for its total razing. Some of the units were brought in daily from billets in the countryside; others camped out in the eerie wasteland, huddling round their braziers as the nights grew ever colder. Brandkommandos or ‘fire squads’ attacked the empty, desolate, and largely roofless houses with flame-throwers. Demolition teams used dynamite and heavy equipment to bring down the larger buildings and monuments. Gangs of impressed peasants collected scrap metal and other usable building materials, and carted them off. The operation proceeded without a break, day by day, street by street, district by district. The Soviets watched impassively, making no move. If the work was undertaken energetically, there was a good chance that it could be completed before the next Soviet offensive.
The cream of Poland’s patriotic and democratic youth, who in normal circumstances would have taken over at the end of the war, had been eliminated. Stalin’s puppets could now assume power in their stead with no regard to popular opinion or to democratic niceties.
For helping the allies throughout the war, where Polish soldiers fought alongside British, the Poles were rewarded with 46 years of communism.
A common question is why would the Poles resist against the Germans when Hitler’s defeat was imminent? Why not wait it out until the Soviets saved them? The Poles wanted to welcome the Soviets as hosts to a liberated city, putting the country’s destiny and freedom into their own hands. They didn’t believe that democracy would be handed to them by the Soviets, so they determined to fight for it. They also didn’t want to be labeled as cowards who didn’t fight when given a chance, but without allied help, their resistance was doomed.
After fighting for nearly two months, they surrendered themselves to the Germans and got to watched their city razed to the ground. Symbols and landmarks of Polish heritage were methodically destroyed. Poland was abandoned by her allies twice: at the beginning of the war upon the initial German invasion and then at the end.
Warsaw fell to the Soviets on 17 January with hardly a shot being fired. At Yalta, Churchill was the weakest of the ‘Big Three’, and Roosevelt was dying and allegedly depressed. They called on Stalin almost as petitioners. They desperately needed his cooperation for the showdown against Japan; and they had very little more to offer to guarantee victory over Germany. So they acquiesced in his takeover of Eastern Europe with barely a whimper. Whilst not withdrawing recognition of the Polish Government in London, and continuing to benefit from the services and sacrifices of the Polish forces in the West, they raised no objections either to the installation of the so-called Provisional Government in Warsaw or to the depredations of the NKVD in their First Ally’s homeland.
After the war, many Poles refused to go back to Poland and be persecuted, so they became a diaspora:
In any other political circumstances, almost all exiled Varsovians would have returned home en masse; and they would have flung themselves into the task of reconstruction, no matter how harsh the deprivations might have been. But they were not going to devote their energies for the benefit of foreign masters, whose ideology and practices they deplored. So, despite the risks and the anxieties, they stayed abroad; and they bore all the adversities with fortitude, because they had chosen to do so of their own free will. Many years later, when asked about their life decision, they would generally answer with disarming frankness and absolute clarity: ‘Our country was not free.’ ‘There was no place for us there.’ ‘Members of othe Home Army were persecuted, imprisoned, sent to Siberia, or brutally murdered.’ ‘We sincerely hoped . . . that we would again be called to fight for free Poland.’
The Poles are often maligned when it comes to their intelligence and bravery, but this story shows the opposite. They were quite ready to give up their lives to be a free people once again, seemingly desiring their freedom more than other occupied countries in Europe at the time, but had an unfortunate geographical position between Germany and the Soviet Union.
I have to admit this book put me into a mini-depression upon realizing how trivial human life can be. It was sobering to walk out the house after a reading session to see relatively no suffering on the streets. Even the poor country I was in at the time (Ukraine) had no one coming close to the pain that was endured in Warsaw. World War 2 has produced a lifetime’s worth of amazing stories that encompass the extremes of humanity, and I believe this book shares one such story.
Read More: “Rising 44” on Amazon