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Monday, August 01, 2005

Something I should have learned more about in history class

Sixty-one years ago today, 40,000 Poles, poorly equipped and with little training, rose up against 15,000 Wehrmacht soldiers in the city of Warsaw in what was supposed to be a week-long "mopping-up" operation to liberate the capital ahead of the Soviet advance. The Polish government in exile had been assured that the underground Home Army would receive assistance from the allies. That help never came.

Though Russian radio had been urging the uprising for weeks, once it commenced, Stalin called it a "fascist adventure". His armies stopped on the eastern bank of the Vistula and watched, as the German forces, now reinforced to double their original size, routed the Poles. Polish soldiers formerly imprisoned in Siberia and conscripted into the Russian army attempted to swim across the river to fight with their brothers. Most were shot in the water by their captors. Some equipment and ammunition was dropped by the allies, but this was largely ineffective. Since British and American planes weren't allowed to land at Soviet air bases a few kilometers away, they were forced to fly from Italy and back, carrying only half their potential load, and dropping it largely into enemy hands. The airlifts were quickly abandoned, and the Poles were left alone to defend their capital.

Despite having enough weapons for just 2,500 soldiers, against German tanks, planes and artillery, the Uprising, though planned to last only a week, lasted 63 days. In that time, the insurgents managed to kill 16,000 Germans, capture 2,000, take down three aircraft, and incapacitate 310 tanks. In the last hours, Hitler gave the order to completely raze the city - 10,455 buildings were destroyed, 943 of them historical (94 percent of the total), Along with: 14 libraries including the National Library, 81 elementary schools, 64 high schools, Warsaw University and Polytechnic buildings, and most of the monuments. A million inhabitants lost all of their possessions.

When it was finished, between 15,000 and 20,000 Polish soldiers were killed, 5,000 were wounded and 200,000 Polish civilians (conservatively) were dead. Eighty-five percent of city was completely obliterated, 93 percent was uninhabitable. Varsovians who survived the battle were either gathered up and shot, or sent off to prison camps (55,000). Some 700,000 were expelled from the city. Shortly thereafter, the Soviets moved in and installed a communist-backed leadership.

The more research I do on this particular episode in history, the more convinced I am of its significance, though I hardly learned anything about it in school. The Cold War, in my opinion, can trace its beginnings to this very battle, as Churchill urged Stalin desperately to let British and American planes use those Soviet airfields. That Stalin refused allowed him to take Warsaw - and Poland with it - without a whisper in January. Since Britain had entered the war as an ally of Poland, the country was the stickiest issue at Yalta, but by then little could be done to wrest Poland away from Soviet influence. Thereafter, Poland became the clearest example of the Soviets betraying their promises to the allies.

The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 is a stunning example of men and women willing to die, not just for their freedom, but for the principle of announcing their freedom to the world. They were certain to perish without aid, and without that aid they fought on regardless. Their deaths were their Declaration of Independence.

When we think of August 1944, our thoughts usually turn to those heroic Americans fighting to break out of Normandy. If you are familiar with the Warsaw Uprising, then I ask you to reflect a moment on these Poles, heroic too, whose fight for freedom began at 5:00 pm Central European Daylight Time (11 am EDT, 10 am CDT, etc.), this day in 1944.

If you are unfamiliar with the Uprising, then I urge you to click on one or more of the links below. The lessons the battle has to teach are worth learning.

And please, at least for today, think twice before you tell a Polish joke.

The Warsaw Uprising - an excellent resource. Start here.

Wikipedia: The Warsaw Uprising (for a detailed summary)

Communications between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin in August 1944

Norman Davies (the foremost expert on Polish history in English): Britain and the Warsaw Rising

The Churchill Centre: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Eastern Europe

Conversation between Roosevelt and Stalin, Tehran, December 1943

Interview with Sir Frank Roberts - advisor to Churchill at Yalta, and British minister to Moscow - Long, but well worth the read.

SUNY at Buffalo - Warsaw Uprising resource page


Blogger Gustav said...

BBC report from August 1, 1944:

Uprising to free Warsaw begins

The Polish Home Army has begun a battle to liberate Warsaw, the first European capital to fall to the Germans nearly five years ago.

At 1700 local time, the code signal "Tempest" was given and there was a wave of explosions and rifle fire throughout the city.

Reports from Poland say the timing of the uprising was chosen for maximum effect as the Germans appeared to be about to withdraw from Warsaw.

The German frontline has been forced to retreat over the past few months in the face of a sustained attack from the Red Army, forcing them out of the Baltic States, Belorussia and western Poland.

Soviet troops are now said to be fighting within 10-12 miles of Praga, the suburb on Warsaw's right bank.

To the north of the city, Soviet troops are advancing north-westward to Warsaw, with the River Vistula on their left flank.

General Tadeusz 'Bor' Komorowski, commander-in-chief of the Home Army, or Armia Krajowa, wanted to take the Germans by surprise and seized his opportunity in late afternoon.

He sent out a rallying call to his troops: "Today I have issued the order you have been waiting for, the order to begin open battle against Poland's age-old enemy, the German invader.

"After nearly five years of uninterrupted and heavy fighting underground, today you will carry your arms in the open in order to free your country again and to render exemplary punishment to the German criminals for the terror and crimes committed on Polish soil."

He has an estimated 40,000 troops, including 4,000 women, but they have only enough arms for about 2,500 - and most of those are rifles and tommy guns.

During the first day's fighting significant areas of the city's left bank have been captured, including the main post office and mint. Gas, electricity and water services have all been returned to Polish hands.

A network of street barricades has been erected blocking the flow of traffic in and out of the city.

Reports speak of a great pall of smoke hanging over the city - though to have been caused by the Germans setting fire to buildings.

Casualty reports suggest 2,000 Poles and 500 Germans may have been killed.

8/01/2005 01:07:00 PM  

Blogger Gustav said...

Just a few minutes ago I was in a car when the siren (at 1700 hours sharp) rang.

All cars on the road stopped (including ours) and people stood outside them for the duration of the siren.

I am not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes.

And this thought occured to me:

Americans know very well what it means to die for one's freedom.

Poles know even better what it means to die for one's freedom - and still lose it.

May we celebrate their sacrifice by celebrating today's free and democratic Poland - with all the problems that it has, it is FREE.

Nigdy więcej wojny!

8/01/2005 05:21:00 PM  

Blogger Andrew said...

Truly tragic. Somehow, though, buildings around Plac Narutawicza remained standing.

8/02/2005 09:20:00 PM  

Blogger Gustav said...

Amazing isn't it?! If you're in Warsaw and your apartment has a ceiling higher than 2m, you can be pretty sure your building is pre-war.

8/02/2005 10:52:00 PM  

Blogger Warsaw Crow said...

I know it isn't a popular view of the Uprising today and I don't doubt that Bor-Komorowski thought the Home Army could succeed - but wasn't his very gutsy decision to try to step in quickly between the Germans and the Soviets to take control over his own city the most catastrophic mistake in Poland's wartime history?

Surely if he had waited longer, left the Germans and the Soviets to each other and not incurred Hitler's wrath the city and all those many thousands of lives would have been spared - to have at least some chance at repelling Stalin?

Always the idea of one man's decision having such an impact on his people leaves me very very cold.

8/01/2006 08:54:00 PM  

Blogger Gustav said...

How was he to know Hitler would raze the city?

Actually, I heard an interview with a woman who took part in the uprising recently, and she said that everyone knew they wouldn't get any help from the Soviets - but decided they needed to make a statement anyway. And the Uprising was widely supported by the people of the city. So don't forget the citizens of Warsaw - It wasn't only about one man's decision.

Also, I'm not sure how much hope there would have been of repelling Stalin. Once the Soviets had beaten the Germans. If they would have beaten the Germans.

In any case, a fight between the Germans and Soviets over Warsaw was sure to be destructive. For them Warsaw was a strategic military objective, not home. What stake would they have in avoiding collateral damage? We'll never know for sure, but a battle between these two armies at Warsaw certainly had the potential to destroy the city in any case.

8/01/2006 09:55:00 PM  

Blogger Warsaw Crow said...

Certainly he could not have known how Hitler would respond. And I don't doubt that Stalin would have had his way with Warsaw anyway. I only wanted to point out that had the order have been given later the human cost of the 'statement' as you put it would have been substantially less. A battle between the Germans and the Soviets would have destructive but I can't agree that it would have left the city as it did - looking like Hiroshima and with a similar death toll.

8/01/2006 10:18:00 PM  

Blogger Gustav said...

Probably not. But I still think the potential was there.

8/01/2006 11:09:00 PM  

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