Nearly four-years after it was destroyed by vandals, a controversial statue of General Zygmunt Berling has been rediscovered lying in pieces in a stretch of Grochów parkland.
Originally sculpted in 1985 by Kazimierz Danilewicz, the three-metre monument was produced from white Russian marble and placed on an equally tall plinth made from red Kielce limestone.
Positioned on the Praga side of Łazienkowski Bridge, the monument depicted the stoic-looking general gazing over the river with a pair of binoculars clasped in his hand.
Lacking the sanctity of Warsaw’s other military memorials, this one, however, faced frequent attacks with the general often attacked with paint to suggest that he had blood on his hands. Finally, on August 4th, 2019, it was smashed to smithereens and left lying on the grass below. On the plinth, vandals had painted the symbol of Poland’s wartime struggle, the so-called Kotwica.
Viewed by many as a communist collaborator, this iconoclasm was met with enthusiasm by the majority of Varsovians.
Born in 1896, General Berling earned Poland’s highest military honour during the Polish-Soviet War, serving with particular distinction at the Battle of Lwów in 1920. However, whilst he officially retired in 1939 just before the outbreak of WWII, he was rounded-up later that same year as part of a wave arrests conducted by the occupying Soviets.
Reputedly imprisoned in Moscow, he opted to cooperate with his captors, a move that most likely saved him from the executioner’s hand. When Polish-Soviet relations thawed as a result of the 1941 Sikorski-Mayski agreement he was installed as the chief-of-staff of the 5th Infantry Division.
Similarly, he was also made the commander of a Soviet camp for captive Polish soldiers. When, eventually, these were given the choice of leaving under the banner of General Anders, Berling refused to follow and instead stayed on in the Soviet Union.
With Anders a prominent supporter of an independent Poland and its government-in-exile, Berling’s actions were viewed as nothing short of national treachery and he was sentenced, in absentia, to death.
This did not deter him. Having made his allegiances clear, he then lobbied the Kremlin to create a Polish army that would be loyal to Stalin. Eventually, his wish was granted and by 1944 he had risen to become the deputy commander of Poland’s forces on the Eastern Front.
Backed by the government-in-exile in London, when Poland’s Home Army launched the Warsaw Uprising that same year it was with the clear intention of securing the capital so that it would not be ‘liberated’ by the Soviets and communist Polish stooges such as Berling.
As such, the Red Army that had gathered to the east of the river stood largely tacit whilst those fighting for a free Poland bled out for their country on the other side of the Vistula. Even so, attempts were made by Berling’s forces to link up with the insurgents.
Six-weeks after the Uprising had begun, Berling issued an order on September 16th for his units to attempt a crossing. Taking heavy casualties, the operation was a disaster and was called off.
Many never forgave Berling and saw his initial inaction as little short of treason. Others, meanwhile, later called into question his attempt to cross the river – was this, they asked, just a half-hearted, token gesture given the extent of his resources, or a genuine bid to help his Home Army rivals?
As such, it is understandable why his statue became one of Warsaw’s most unloved landmarks. When it was secured with rope and torn from its plinth in 2019, few mourned its loss.
However, much mystery surrounded its subsequent fate – that is, until now. Revealed earlier in the week to have been dumped in Grochów, today the shattered remains of Berling can be found resting in undergrowth by the corner of Wiatraczna and Nizinna streets.
What happens next, though, remains subject to debate. Whereas the forthcoming Museum of Polish History has stated they already have two previously unloved communist era statues in their possession (the Four Sleepers and Feliks Dzierżyński), the museum has already rejected the notion of rescuing Berling.
Although the city’s conservator has stated his wish to rehouse the monument inside a museum, for now at least, the dismembered general will remain rotting in Grochów.