This is Part 2 of a broader blog entry detailing the often inconvenient truths of Poland’s Second World War experience. Although dealing with different episodes and elements of the war, it is ideally read as a direct continuation of Part 1, 1918-39.

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The Nazi attitude towards Poles and Slavs has been the subject of some debate. One problem lies in the fact that the National Socialist movement did not really foster ‘intellectuals’ who penned philosophical treatises on such subjects. No document exists that clearly spells out how Hitler & friends categorized Europe’s multitude of ethnic groups. That said, evidence does exist in the form of Mein Kampf and Hitler’s private and public speeches, and, even more revealingly, in Nazi actions and policies during the Second World War – often contradictory, but nevertheless following certain broad patterns.

Having studied Poland’s wartime experience in depth, my own conclusion is that the Nazis did not consider Slavs to be ‘sub-human’, a phrase too readily bandied about in many textbooks. While the Nazi occupation in the east was undeniably harsher than in the west, this can be attributed in large part to the markedly greater resistance the Germans encountered there, through partisan activity and civic disobedience. Warsaw was heavily bombed in 1939 whereas Paris in 1940 was not, but then Paris surrendered without a fight – Warsaw’s citizens, on the other hand, set about digging trenches and erecting barricades even as Nazi leaflets ordered that they cease or evacuate immediately. It’s also worth remembering that non-Slavic countries were not exempt from severe Teutonic punishment either, as evidenced by the heavy aerial bombing of Rotterdam, Holland in 1940.

Nazi policy towards Poland was more or less a re-establishment of the Prussian policy that preceded it. As during the years of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, Polish culture rather than Polish blood was the core issue. In the sector of Nazi-occupied Poland directly annexed by the Reich, the official policy, as endorsed by Gauleiter Albert Forster, was that Poles could receive the same benefits as Germans provided they sign the Volkliste – essentially, a declaration of membership and loyalty to the German racial and cultural community. While this meant having to completely abandon one’s ‘Polishness’, it also indicated that even senior Nazis like Forster did not view the Poles as racially inferior, unworthy of integration – cultural allegiance, not blood, was the discriminating factor. But few Poles signed the list, and as a reward for their impudence were put to work in labour camps or as servants for the next wave of German settlers, ushered in by the Reich to Germanize Pomerania and Silesia once and for all. Polish culture, naturally, was outlawed  once again, and something as petty as hearing confession in Polish could see a priest locked up, brutally beaten, and even pay for the ‘crime’ with his life.

In the General-Government zone, Poles did not have to choose whether to betray their heritage or stand by it at their own risk, but suffered heavily as the Nazis tried to demoralize and destroy the subversive and highly active Polish Underground. There, the governor, Hitler’s murderous lawyer Hans Frank, famously declared that if a piece of paper were printed for every seven Poles shot, there wouldn’t be enough trees in Poland to supply all of the paper. While reprisals against the civilian populace took place all over occupied Europe, there is no doubt that Warsaw’s citizens suffered more than most, and today, plaques around the city still quietly remind passers-by of mass executions by Hitlerowcy (‘Hitler troops’), carried out at random in bloodthirsty vengeance for partisan strikes.

As barbaric as these reprisals were, however, Poles were rarely executed or seriously abused simply on account of being Poles, at least once the heat of the 1939 invasion cooled. The general impression created by school-level history books is that the General-Government was a disorganized dumping ground for Untermenschen – an unhelpful catch-all term used by writers of these books to refer to Poles, Gypsies and Jews alike – which is blatantly incorrect. One of the first things the Nazis did after their victory parades was to wall off the Jewish ghetto in the city, herd all the Jews there and force them to wear Star of David armbands, completely segregating them from the Polish community which was allowed to continue on as normal to a large degree – provided, of course, it was in complete adherence to Nazi orders. While Hans Frank hosted chess tournaments in Krakow’s Wawel Castle, playing host to Europe’s (overwhelmingly Slavic) best players, behind the Warsaw Ghetto’s walls existed an entirely different world, utterly wretched and hopeless, where Jews were piled in to die of malnutrition and disease.

My own family is an interesting case in point. My maternal grandad, who grew up in Gdynia (a newly-constructed port next to Gdansk), remembers German troops commenting “What a beautiful boy” at his appearance, probably mistaking him for one of their own. His father, however, was sent to a POW camp the year of the invasion and never returned. My paternal grandad experienced similar extremes – recruited into the Hitler Youth itself for some time, then, when the war effort became critical for the Germans, whisked to Berlin with other members of his family as mandatory labour, making boots and living on meagre, irregular rations. Earlier in the war, his own father had been bashed so severely by Germans that he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

One of my favourite books, The Polish House, tells of similar dichotomies, with Germans using Poles as virtual slave labour and even guinea pigs for medical experiments, in an effort to find a cure for malaria and other diseases afflicting the Wehrmacht in the latter half of the war. Yet the diaries upon which much of the book is based mention a young Belgian slave laborer as well, treated as brutally as anyone and with eventually fatal consequences. All in all, the Nazi treatment of its Polish subjects was barely any different to the non-racialist Soviets. In the west as in the east, high socio-economic status in an ideologically different society was what made you a target for execution or deliberate degradation – in Bydgoszcz, even the director of the local botanical gardens was singled out and shot as an ‘intellectual’.

Yet for all their Draconian measures against Poland’s cultural heritage and social elites, Nazi propaganda tended to portray the Poles as strikingly similar to Germans – Aryan in appearance, dressed in prim military uniforms, even quite facially handsome. One propaganda poster, distributed in Slovakia, depicts a blonde Polish officer being shot in the back by dark, savagely grinning, ape-like Bolsheviks – a clear reference to the horror of Katyn, and illustrating the lack of logic in speaking of a single Nazi perspective on ‘Slavs’ (see here). A large amount of Nazi propaganda in eastern Europe was addressed to Slavic citizens and written in the local language, designed to foster a common hatred of Jews and Communism, and therefore a common goal of aiding, or at least not hindering, the Nazis’ military and ethnic cleansing efforts (examples here). In late 1944, as the Soviets advanced towards Warsaw, Nazi propaganda even implored the Poles to join the German fighting forces, going so far as to spread false news that the Armia Krajowa had allied with the Wehrmacht to keep the Red tsunami at bay.

There can be no denying the brutality and callousness with which Nazi Germany, as a whole, fought and oppressed its opponents, but just as much has been made of the ‘Righteous among the Nations’ who sheltered Jews, so too there were Germans who assisted Poles – particularly in the later phases of the war, when a German defeat seemed imminent and, as explained by the German officer in The Pianist, a good word from someone over whom they still had power could mean better treatment once the tables turned. Within the German armed forces, as well, there was still an honourable element personified in such men as Rommel, who felt that the barbaric actions of some of their kin tarnished Germany’s proud military tradition. During the Warsaw Uprising, in which certain SS and Russian-collaborator brigades unleashed a nightmare stint of rape and murder against helpless civilians, the German High Command complained all the way to Hitler about these “animals” and called for their withdrawal from the war zone.

The Warsaw Uprising represented the crux of the three-way German-Polish-Soviet conflict in the east, and was interestingly – and accurately – described by one historian as the germinating episode of the Cold War. In less well-rounded history books, it is mentioned in passing as something like Australia’s Gallipoli – a heroic but pointless failure; a final stand by the romantic and incendiary Poles to push out the invaders against the odds and common sense. Looking at it without its proper context, Operation Tempest – as the uprising was formally known – does seem somewhat unnecessary. The Germans already had their backs to the wall, the Russian steamroller was grinding unstoppably westwards, the United States was leading a fresh counter-invasion from the west and pumping out extraordinary quantities of war machinery, all with the sole purpose of crushing Germany. So why not just wait for the inevitable, as many of Europe’s other nations did? After all, the Poles had already done so much – they’d been the first to fight the Reich, and subsequently made huge contributions across a broad range of campaigns – the Battle of Britain, the siege of Tobruk in North Africa (where their Aussie comrades also earned a reputation as resilient defenders), and the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. Back home, the Armia Krajowa – the largest underground army in Europe – caused the Nazis constant pain through sabotage and espionage, and scores of ordinary Polish citizens risked their lives sheltering Jewish neighbours under threat of death.

One reason for the Uprising was that the Poles had been planning for such a moment since Warsaw’s capitulation in 1939. The AK had a saying that it existed “for today, tomorrow and after tomorrow” – today being the training and sabotage, tomorrow the fight, and after tomorrow, the rebuilding of free Poland. After five frightening years of occupation, it was clear that now was the moment to strike. Moscow Radio heartily encouraged this, broadcasting a virtual call to arms with the lure of impending assistance from the mighty Red Army, rolling ever closer to the Warsaw arena. The AK knew that if it didn’t strike, it would not only disappoint its own people and possibly lose standing with the Western Allies, but its inactivity would be slandered by the Soviets as evidence of Fascist collaboration and sympathizing.

Yet as soon as the Uprising was launched, on 15 August 1944, the Red Army abruptly stopped its advance. Through Moscow Radio, which days ago had jostled the Poles to leap into action, Stalin now derided the insurrectionists as a band of criminals and opportunists with whom he wanted no association. When Churchill and Roosevelt requested that Soviet airfields be made available for critical airdrops to the AK, Stalin refused. When Churchill hassled Roosevelt to back him in further, firmer requests, Roosevelt declined, revealing a key change in attitude at this late stage of the war. Polish independence had long ceased to be the point anymore – the war had to be won and however significant the Poles’ contribution, no country had worn down the German war machine more than the Soviet Union, and there was still a lot of wearing down to do. Uncle Joe had to be placated, even if it meant sidelining moral considerations.

But on what grounds did the Soviet Union betray its anti-Nazi compatriots in Warsaw? Why did the Red Army sunbake on the banks of the Vistula, its guns and mortars suddenly silent, as towering flames and black smoke rose from the Polish capital, its fighting men slowly bleeding to death in a horrible battle of attrition? The answer was simple. Stalin knew that the Poles wanted to liberate the city themselves, in order to secure it as the base for a free and democratic postwar Poland. The AK’s allegiance was to the London-based Polish Government-in-Exile, with whom Stalin had cut all ties following the discovery of the Katyn massacre, and whom he wanted supplanted by his own organization of Polish Communists. If the AK succeeded in retaking Warsaw, they would be a major obstacle to imposing Communism on the country, and Stalin would have the same problems on his hands as the Nazi occupiers had – if not another Polish-Soviet War. Now, the Germans were effectively removing the obstacle for him – as in 1939, a military victory by the Germans converted into a political and territorial victory for Stalin.

The evaluation of the Warsaw Uprising as a ‘hot’ prelude to the Cold War is quite apt. A review of the communiques between Churchill and Roosevelt at this time reveal the former’s agitation at Stalin’s determination to block Allied air drops to the insurgents, only about a quarter of whom were armed at the start of the Uprising. One can almost sense his dismay at Roosevelt’s disinterest, whose only concern was maintaining his comfortable illusion that Uncle Joe was an OK guy and the chummier things were with him, the better – an easy stance to take all the way over in distant Washington. One wonders what the outcome would’ve been had Truman, a far less passive character and the first of America’s hardline Cold War presidents, come to a power a year earlier.

This isn’t the time or place to relive the Uprising day by day – the purpose of this piece is to provide a revised geopolitical overview of the World War 2 story – but it stands alongside the Rape of Nanking, the siege of Stalingrad and the firebombing of Dresden as a prime example of the horrors of the Second World War. Though the Poles and some Germans fought honourably, others – particularly a notorious criminal battalion commandered by Otto Dirlewanger, and a group of Russian collaborators under Bronislav Kaminski – were responsible for some of the ugliest crimes imaginable – breaking into hospitals and mowing down the wounded, massacring crowds of innocent families in churches, raping teenagers and pregnant women. Even by those Germans repelled by such conduct, it was hoped that these atrocities would at least drive the Poles to an early surrender – instead, it only cemented their resolve to purge Warsaw of these murderous monsters as soon as possible.

The end of the Uprising encapsulates the apparent contradictions in the German side towards the Poles. On the ground, the Poles were given a dignified surrender as promised – German troops stood solemnly as the AK soldiers filed past to give up their arms. Some even saluted. Nazi radio did not condemn the insurrectionists as bandits or adventurers, as Stalin had, merely declaring  “After weeks of fierce fighting which has led to the almost total destruction of the city, the remaining rebels, deserted by all their Allies, have given up and surrendered.” In his private diary, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels praised the Poles’ inextinguishable fighting spirit, while a common soldier on the German side reflected in his own journal, “In reality, they fought better than we did.”

At least one account states that upon surrender, the German commander even suggested the AK’s remnants join what had, by then, been broadly marketed as a Europe-wide, German-led holy war against Bolshevism. But after all the cruelty and loss they’d endured, the Poles were in no mood for working with the Hitlerowcy they’d been firing at just days earlier. Hitler, incensed that the Poles had cost the Germans so much valuable time and resources at this crucial point in the war, ordered that their capital be destroyed “as an example to the rest of Europe”. And so it was – special demolition squads went from block to block, systematically dynamiting or burning down with flamethrowers centuries of priceless architecture. By the time they were done, Warsaw was more decimated than any other city on the continent, big or small. American military personnel would later suggest, upon surveying the “liberated” landscape, that the Poles relocate their capital elsewhere.

The first line of the Polish anthem goes, “Poland has not perished yet, so long as we still live”. This was the feeling all Poles had towards wartime Warsaw – as long as it stood, with its thousands of brave volunteers running underground printing presses and improvised weapons factories and intelligence-gathering services, as later generations would during the 1980s Solidarity revolution, there was hope for Poland. Hans Frank wrote that Warsaw “was and will be the center of chaos and a place from which opposition spreads throughout the rest of the country”. No matter how hard the Nazi boot pressed down on the city, and perhaps because of it, Warsaw remained a defiant battleground – if not of bullets and grenades, as in those two months in 1944, then at least of words and wills. In nearly every apartment, in every street in every district, families believed with cautious confidence that they would see the red and white flag unfurled from the lamp-posts once again, and hear Chopin’s grand polonaises broadcast over the airwaves, as they had in 1939 before the Germans marched in and took it all away.

The failure of the Uprising, then, crushed the Poles’ spirit in a far more profound way than the capitulation of 1939. The AK had been either wiped out or imprisoned – for all of their incredible ingenuity and courage, deprived of Allied assistance its soldiers were doomed to defeat by an enemy that still had endless reinforcements, ammunition and the latest military technology at its disposal. General Sikorski – a uniquely charismatic and well-connected Polish leader who held impressive sway over the British Government – had perished a year earlier in a suspicious Soviet plane crash, leaving the Polish Government-in-Exile decapitated. Without a strong leader backed by a united military force, the Poles had no bargaining chip left in the critical, highly politicized closing chapters of the war. Their deeds in the skies of England and the deserts of Africa had already been forgotten, overshadowed by the Soviets’ immense effort on the Eastern Front and the American-led counter-invasion in the west. The tempest in Warsaw had not even broken out before Poland had already been sold out at the Tehran conference, where its borders were rearranged behind closed doors at Stalin’s insistence – reverting, in a height of irony, to virtually the same demarcation line he’d arranged with Hitler in 1939.

To wrap up this massive entry, it is fitting to look at some of the ironies that resulted from the Second World War. Launched to guarantee Poland’s territorial integrity, the outcome of the war saw the 1939 Nazi-Soviet border – now referred to as the ‘Curzon Line’ – cemented as Poland’s official eastern frontier. Its genuine representative government was sent to the dustbin of history in 1945, in favour of blatant Stalinist puppets who promised free elections then rigged them to install a Moscow-backed dictatorship. Germany’s holy crusade against Bolshevism gave the Soviets the ideal means to capture and liquidate the cream of Poland’s military and civil society, and not only remove the nation as a regional pillar of liberty and democracy, but march into it as an apparent liberator.

While Communism is gone from Europe – thanks largely, again, to the determination and brilliant organization of a patriotic underground movement in Poland – the vast territorial losses sustained by Germany and Poland remain. The Third Reich not only lost everything it had gained through its conquests, at the cost of millions of lives, but such historic cities as Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) and Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia). But here too, Poland was a loser not a winner: despite having no interest in acquiring German territory, and despite the lessons following the First World War, it was given all of Silesia and Pomerania while robbed of its own thousand-year-old eastern provinces (see map). Even Lwow, perhaps the most purely Polish city of all with its Baroque architecture, Catholic spires and wide bourgeois streets, was to be wrenched from Poland’s bullet-riddled body, now an associate of Kiev and Moscow rather than Krakow and Warsaw. Its residents, including my paternal grandparents, were forcibly uprooted and moved to Wroclaw, itself recently emptied of its former German populace in a vast and pitiless ethnic cleansing operation that rivalled the Nazis’.

The greatest tragedy, however, was not political or territorial but human. Treated as regular POWs and freed from Colditz and other camps in relatively good health, many of the surviving heroes of the Warsaw Uprising were later made to identify themselves on a false pretext, deported to the Soviet Union, put on ridiculous show trials and, in an example of Soviet treachery that defies belief, convicted of collaboration with the Fascist forces and sentenced to up to 10 years imprisonment. Indeed, the entire Armia Krajowa was blasted as a bunch of pathetic, impudent troublemakers, their gallant fight for Poland wiped from official history – but preserved, of course, in the minds and hearts of all those who were there. Even many Poles who fought alongside the Red Army were, as soon as the bear hugs and celebratory dancing was over and political necessities came to the fore, promptly disposed of if they in any way inconvenienced the project of turning Poland into a Soviet satellite. Over in the west, Polish soldiers were treated little better – in a final sad and disgusting move to keep Uncle Joe happy, even the Polish pilots who protected London from Luftwaffe bombs were banned outright from taking part in V-Day parades – they were not part of Stalin’s Red armies, now the only officially recognized Polish force. It is no surprise that at least one veteran, featured in a documentary I watched many years ago, told how his eyes welled up with tears as he stood aside from the festivities, utterly excluded, disillusioned and futureless.

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“The Poles are the nation who really lost the Second World War.

“They fought continuously from the first day to the bitter end and beyond. They put more into the struggle than any other society; they lost over half a million fighting men and women, and six million civilians; they were left with one million war orphans and over half a million invalids.

“According to the Bureau of War Reparations the country had lost 38 per cent of its national assets, compared to the 1.5 % and 0.8% lost by France and Britain respectively. They lost vast tracts of their country and the two great cultural centres of Wilno and Lwow. They also saw the greater part of their heritage destroyed.

“Although they were faithful members of the victorious alliance, they were treated as a vanquished enemy; robbed of much of their territory and their freedom.

“Even worse than the physical wrongs done to them were the humiliations to which they were subjected. Men and women who had risked their lives for 6 years plotting and fighting against the German order in unspeakable conditions were dragged into jail by their Soviet masters, tortured and accused of collaborating with the Nazis.

“In the west their sacrifices were belittled and ignored. Their continuing martyrdom aroused no sympathy, and their appeals only irritation. Not only had they been consigned to Hell – they were supposed to enjoy it.”

– Adam Zamoyski

“Particularly in relation to Poland, the immorality of the Soviet Union tainted the actions of the Western leaders. The Western Allies’ treatment of the Poles was unworthy: from the cover-up over Katyn to the secret deal at Tehran that eventually shifted Polish borders without the consent of the Poles; from the meeting in Moscow when Churchill accused members of the Polish government in exile of being ‘callous people who want to wreck Europe’, to the exclusion of Polish troops in the Victory Parade in London in 1946. It is a sad catalogue—and one I certainly wasn’t taught in school when I was told that we should all only ‘feel good’ about the conduct of the Western Allies in the Second World War. … The central popular myth that surrounds the war, a kind of Hollywood version of the history, is that it is a simple story of an alliance of good people who fought an alliance of bad people. It’s an immensely consoling way of looking at the past, and it’s sad to let it go. But let it go we must.”

– Laurence Rees

More on the Warsaw Uprising:





6 thoughts on “1940-45

    • It’s about the Polish experience of WW2, but also using that as a platform to revise general misconceptions regarding Slavic Untermenschen, Soviet ‘liberators’ etc. And no, none of my family’s Jewish.

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