Over seventy years on, the rights and wrongs of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising continue to be the source of fierce debate…
BY STUART DOWELL
They say that if you lock two Poles in a room for 24 hours you will get three opinions, not to mention several political parties, break-away factions and the emergence of an underground state. But what would these stereotypes discuss in their time-locked chamber? A good bet is the Warsaw Uprising. There are few subjects that evoke the same emotion, pride, shock and controversy among Poles as the Home Army’s 1944 Armageddon.
Perhaps the greatest subject of continuing discussion is whether the Uprising should have been launched in the first place. Home Army planners had set specific conditions under which an armed anti-German rising in the capital could take place to ensure the best chance of victory and to protect the civilian population against German reprisals.
Few if any of these conditions were met in the summer of 1944. There was no diplomatic agreement between the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Soviet Union; no contact had been made between the Home Army and General Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front; the insurgents were poorly armed as many weapons had been distributed to other fighters engaged in Operation Tempest; the rising was set to take place in daylight forcing insurgents to cross open ground against well-armed, well dug-in and battle-experienced defenders whereas plans drawn up earlier envisaged an initial wave of night-time attacks; and neither was there any agreement for the Allies to support the rising with equipment drops.
Set against this was the need for Stanisław Mikołajczyk, the Polish Prime Minister in London, to make a deposit into the metaphorical ‘account of blood’ demanded by Churchill, Roosevelt and, deceitfully, by Stalin. Furthermore, the columns of broken and defeated German soldiers that had been streaming through the city after the Red Army’s devastating successes under Operation Bagration and the sight of German administrators clearing their desks and fleeing the capital must have given local commanders the sense that victory was possible against the diminished German force that remained in Warsaw.
What they couldn’t have envisaged was the assassination attempt on Hitler at his Wolf’s Lair complex in the forests of Mazuria less than two weeks before. Having lost faith in his Wehrmacht generals, he placed full control of the operation to quell the rising in the Waffen SS, the only major military operation commanded by the SS throughout the war. Prompted by Himmler’s apocalyptic suggestion to solve the problem of Warsaw, which had stopped German expansion in the East for a thousand years, the now infamous ‘Order for Warsaw’ was given: “Every citizen of Warsaw is to be killed including men, women and children,” it read. “Warsaw has to be leveled to the ground in order to set a terrifying example to the rest of Europe.”
That the Poles were planning to rise in Warsaw was no secret; everyone seemed to know something was afoot and the city crackled with tension. Signs that the Nazis would defend the city were also pain to see – in the weeks before the Uprising broke out, Hitler had ordered the Waffen SS to roll through the city on their way to fight in General Model’s counter-offensive around Radzymin with their weapons on full show. However, these signs were ignored.
With little political leadership from London (the orders were to launch an uprising based on local assessment of the situation) and under intense psychological pressure, Home Army commander General ‘Bór’ Komorowski issued the order to mobilize and then launch an uprising to liberate Warsaw.
The failure of the insurgents to achieve their major objectives in the first wave of attacks and the Germans’ relative unpreparedness as they waited for reinforcements created a pause during which both sides could dig in. This, coupled with Hitler’s maniacal plan of destruction, lead to a perfect storm that unleashed an orgy of killing and decimation that was so extreme that it is still hard to comprehend seven decades later.
Other controversies continue regarding the actual events of the uprising, including the role of children in the fighting, the execution of prisoners of war, the attitude of the civilian population towards the insurgents, the assistance provided by the Western Allies and the true intentions of Stalin and whether his begrudging and delayed assistance was only meant to prolong the tragedy.
The greatest controversy though remains whether it was worth it. For some, the answer is obvious. With around 20,000 dead soldiers and up to 200,000 dead civilians, the surviving population expelled from the city with many being sent to concentration camps or for forced labor, a city reduced mostly to rubble and ashes, and the sacrifice of blood never being repaid by the Allies, skepticism about the sense of the uprising is hard to resist.
Others, though, see in Warsaw’s oblation the ultimate expression of a love for freedom and a message to the world that the Poles will always fight and never give up. In support, they would point to Poland avoiding bloody suppression by the Soviet Union in the 1980s as a consequence of the memory of the rising. In a world of polarizing world-views and clashing narratives, these controversies will no doubt persist, ensuring that the legacy of the Uprising retains its relevance.