Diplomatic Pouch / September 19, 2014
By Larry Luxner
Scholars, students and at least one survivor of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising marked the 70th anniversary of Poland’s dramatic 63-day struggle against Nazi occupying forces during an emotional program Sept. 4 at Washington’s American University.
The commemoration — co-sponsored by the Polish Embassy and AU’s Polish Student Organization — featured a screening of the 26-minute documentary “Warsaw Will Not Forget” and lectures by both Dr. Jadwiga Biskupska and Warsaw Uprising veteran Barbara Syska.
Biskupska, a European military historian and currently a fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said this is “an opportune moment” to look back at Poland’s role in World War II.
“Remember that 75 years ago today, America’s allies — Britain and France — were in the process of declaring war on Nazi Germany,” Biskupska told her audience, which included many older people with distant memories of the war. “The globalization of that war was greeted with cheers in Warsaw. Poles piled flowers at the gates of the British and French embassies. The Poles hoped that the guarantees the Western allies had made to them in the summer of 1939 would be upheld.”
Yet Poland would be disappointed very quickly.
“The history of Poland in World War II is very much a history of expectation and disappointment. There are many ways to talk about the war and to tell this history, but understanding the complexities of Poland’s alliances is essential,” she said. “Poland, which fought on the winning side in World War II, lost so much, so badly. That simply doesn’t make any sense.”
After nearly five years of fighting, and a year after the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising — the largest single Jewish act of revolt against Nazi Germany during the war — the Polish Home Army decided to take back the capital, which by then was occupied by 15,000 Nazi troops and police officers. On Aug. 1, 1944, at 5 p.m., code-named W-hour, coordinated Polish units were to rise up against the Nazi occupation, seizing key buildings and taking control of the city.
“The Home Army had about 50,000 members in Warsaw, but only half of them were well-armed. Their ranks included women and teenagers. It was intended to be over within a week, and the goal was three days,” Biskupska said. “This would demonstrate the strength of the Polish underground. It would require the Soviets to work with the Poles rather than dominate them. It was a delicately timed operation, to say the least. It had to be launched at the moment of greatest Nazi weakness.”
However, after initial humiliating losses, the Germans regrouped and reinforced themselves, crushing the Poles with heavy artillery. By the time it was all over, around 200,000 Poles — mostly women and children — had been slaughtered. Warsaw’s remaining 750,000 inhabitants were evacuated by German police in forced marches; many did not survive.
“After the uprising, some 300,000 people were dead or dying, leaving an empty hole where the Polish capital had been,” she said, noting that Poland had total losses of between 935,000 and 990,000 people, compared to German losses of 21,000 to 27,000.
An enduring question remains: Why did the Soviets not intervene to help their less powerful ally? Biskupska has some thoughts on that.
“None of the Western allies were willing to antagonize Stalin and his ambitions for the sake of Polish gains. In late summer 1944, the German armies were in retreat across Ukraine and Belorussia. The Germans were debating where to form a line of defense and counterattack, and the Red Army was moving as fast as possible to capture as much territory as they could,” she said.
“The scale of the tragedy only increases as we know more. Never the Uncle Joe of American jokes, the gravity of Stalin’s crimes has only become clearer as information comes to light. That makes the half-heartedness of Western diplomacy seem weaker and weaker. And the American alliance with the Soviets seems harder and harder to defend. The Polish position is more durable. When the Western allies failed Poland and her Eastern ally attacked her, Poland held out.”
When all is said and done, the Warsaw Uprising remains a powerful, enduring symbol of Polish resistance in the face of fascism, and later communism.
“Poland sacrificed nearly everything she had and lost political independence for generations,” she concluded. “They were willing to fight when others backed down, and were willing to sacrifice for what they believed in.”