Hundreds of books have been published in Poland about the Warsaw Uprising. However, 70 years later the Poles are still divided whether it was the right or wrong decision to launch it.
In July 1944, after almost five years of German occupation, Poland was a theatre of heavy fighting between the Red Army advancing from the east and the German forces retreating to the west. At the order of the leadership of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK) the uprising, which aimed to liberate the capital from the departing Germans, began on 1st August at 5 pm (called W-hour). The AK was the largest underground resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe numbering at its peak around 400,000. The timing coincided with the Red Army approaching Warsaw. Intended to last a few days (there was ammunition in hand for three to five days), the uprising came eventually to a bitter end on 2nd October. This was due to the unimaginable bravery of the insurgents and civilians alike.
A network of street barricades (picture above from Wikimedia Commons) constructed by civilians, home-made grenades and guns as well as arms captured from the enemy were the insurgents’ weapon against the overwhelming German forces armed with tanks, planes and artillery. The Red Army was idly standing on the eastern bank of the river Vistula watching the burning city from a distance. Airdrops of supplies by Allied planes were not allowed by the Soviets to reach Warsaw until mid-September. Inevitably, there were shortages of food, water, medicine and ammunition in the city. Although the living conditions were appalling, the people of Warsaw were in high spirits fighting for the freedom of their country. Life went on as much as the circumstances permitted with theatres, cinemas, post offices open and 130 newspapers and periodicals published overall. The Scout Postal Service was in operation throughout the rising. Mail, newspapers and messages were delivered around the fighting city by 10 to 15 year-old scouts of the Gray Ranks (picture below from Wikimedia Commons).
Tragically, 63 days of heroic and lonely struggle resulted in the death of some 200,000 inhabitants and 18,000 insurgents with additional 6,000 wounded, not to mention the physical and cultural destruction of the city, as described in Władysław Bartoszewski and Adam Bujak’s book Abandoned heroes of the Warsaw Uprising (Kraków, 2008) [British Library LD.31.b.1915]. Moreover, Polish society was deprived of a large portion of its intellectual elite. Following the surrender of Polish forces 700,000 civilians were expelled from the city and 15,000 insurgents sent to POW camps. Before the demolition began Warsaw had been plundered. Trains laden with goods including works of art, books, manuscripts, maps, furniture dismantled factories etc. were leaving Warsaw for the Reich. Nothing of value was left. Then in the course of a few months Germans razed the rest of the city to the ground. Street after street, house after house the city of Warsaw ceased to exist. As the result of all the fighting in the capital during the Second World War 85% of the buildings were levelled including schools, hospitals, libraries, museums and historical monuments.
Grave of Polish soldiers in Warsaw in 1945 (from Wikimedia Commons)
The tragic fate of the city was a combination of political and military miscalculations by the Polish leaders of the underground resistance and global politics played by the “Big Three” – Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 is considered one of the greatest tragedies of the Second World War.
Magda Szkuta, Curator Polish Studies
Norman Davies, Rising ’44: ‘the battle for Warsaw’ (London, 2004) YC.2006.a.1738.