Eurotrip 2015 – Part 5


Currently sitting on a bus on the way from Wroclaw to Krakow. While the crimson-coloured PKP (Polish National Railways) trains of old had their charm, this bus is a reminder of how things have changed – zooming along an autobahn on cushy red leather seats, with free wifi, everything so clean it looks like it came off the factory line just this morning. Outside, blanketed in fog under a low grey sky, is the Polish landscape: utterly flat; the only landscape I’ve seen in Europe reminiscent of rural Victoria, with its similarly flat, relatively featureless fields stretching out to the horizon. This is unsurprising given that Poland comes from the word Polanie, meaning ‘people of the fields’… A fantastic piece of territory for farming; not so great for defending against invasions.

I guess I should go back to where I last finished, which, speaking of invasions, was Germany. We had just one more stop to go – Cologne – which I had high hopes for, as a big city with a famously impressive cathedral. Actually it was the most underwhelming destination of the entire cruise. The cathedral is undoubtedly impressive – Gothic on steroids – but the rest is pretty mediocre, like the crappiest parts of Melbourne’s CBD cobbled together. That’s all I gotta say about it really.

At around dawn the next day we got to Amsterdam, world capital of sex and weed. In this way Amsterdam’s very different to your typical European city: it’s gritty, grimy, chaotic, noisy, freakish. Grandiose structures from the glory days of the Dutch Empire are surrounded by American junk food chains, novelty shops selling shishas and sex toys, and of course the infamous ‘coffee houses’ which are far more about cannabis than caffeine. Through the windows you can see ’em packed to the rafters with backpackers, idly sitting around, staring back not so much at you as through you with pink glazed eyes… And as you pass the door you get a strong, sharp whiff of the herb responsible for their vacant expressions.

Both me and Josh were here for the second time, and Josh hated it all over again from the outset. While I can’t say I loved it myself – and Amsterdam’s definitely a culture shock after several days of quaint, quiet little German townships – I was still interested enough to want to walk around and explore. With its endless waves of hobos, freaks and tourists flowing down the city’s main drag and in and out of its ghetto-ish laneways, it’s probably not a place I’d want to live in, but it’s a fascinating urban jungle to get lost for a while– especially in a hemp daze. Unfortunately we didn’t sample any as Josh wasn’t up for it, but I did treat myself to a cannabis ice-cream – basically a vanilla Choc Top infused with ganja – which disappointingly didn’t have much of an effect, if any.

It’s like the 70s never quite died in Amsterdam… Though really, I guess, it’s just a city that famously panders to the weed culture – not just in making cannabis readily available (though contrary to common belief, it’s not actually legal – just tolerated), but in all the associated paraphernalia of that lifestyle, from tie-dyed shirts to iron-on peace signs… Basically everything you’d pack for Rainbow Serpent. And if you’ve ever experienced the munchies after a few joints or cookies, you’d understand why the place is so totally inundated with junk food outlets – from ‘kabab’ (as it’s spelled in Europe) to pizza by the slice, and of course the city’s famous vlaamse frites – thick-cut chips served in a cone with a dollop of delicious yellow mayonnaise.

The next day, Saturday, was a hell of a day. We were up at 6:30am, bags hauled off the ship by 7, then breakfast and farewelling the various people Josh and I had befriended over our two weeks on board. Then it was off to Schiphol Airport by bus, then on to a plane to Frankfurt after a 45-minute delay, then on to another plane to Wroclaw (which I had to run for like a crazy person), then, finally, a drive home to the residential outskirts of the city. It wasn’t even 3 o’clock yet when I stepped through the Machalowskis’ gate and up to the front door, but this was not the time to retreat to a soft private place and crash. It was family reunion time, on for one and all – Uncle Jurek, Aunt Ewa, my cousins Kasia and Milena and their partners Adam and Michael. As luck would have it, Michael was celebrating his 40th in town that night so after some tomato soup, bigos and two shots of wodka, off we went – me still dressed in the stale flanny and jeans I’d been wearing for two days straight now, as my luggage was sitting somewhere back in Frankfurt thanks to a strike at Lufthansa.

There’s not a great deal to write about my two nights in Wroclaw: it was, like I said, one big long family reunion; a whole lot of sitting around and talking and eating and drinking. It was the typical Polish experience – conversations fueled by shots of ice-cold spirits and an endless procession of hearty meals, cakes and coffee. I reunited not only with relatives but met the next generation of my family – suddenly coming to terms with the fact I’m an uncle – as well as people I’d met on my trip 11 years ago… One of these being Jeremy, an old Brit who lives with his Polish wife (Michael’s mum) in Duszniki, a mountain town near Wroclaw, with whom Paul and I had spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve back in 2004-5.

KRAKOW / WARSZAWA – 22 November

“Krakow is one of my favorite places on earth. It is a medieval city full of young people. A wonderful, striking combination.” – Jonathan Carroll

Our two final destinations were Krakow and Warszawa – the former and current capitals of Poland. Where to begin? To be back in Krakow made my heart soar. It’s a beautiful city full of beautiful young women, as one of its many cultural treasures is the 800-year-old Jagellion University which attracts young people from all over Poland and the world. As a happy result, this immaculately preserved medieval city is also full of bars: reportedly the 800m x 800m market square in the centre of the Old Town has the highest density of bars in Europe. Yet it doesn’t seem that way at first glance; you have to explore a bit… Step curiously through an arched entry-way off the street and walk along until you come across an open wooden door, with the sound of conversation and laughter faintly emanating from below… Step through, down the staircase and suddenly you’re in a gorgeous old subterranean space, a centuries-old brick cellar that’s been converted into a funky bar.

Krakow is the site of what is probably Poland’s single most important monument: the Wawel, a collective term for the old royal castle and cathedral, set atop a hill near the heart of the city. Sadly we didn’t get to go inside – tickets had already sold out the day we went, even though we’d got there around midday – but we did walk around and take in everything from the outside, including the barracks that the Austrians built during Poland’s 19th-century partition, and where Hans Frank later stationed himself as Governor of Nazi-occupied Poland… The building adding to Wawel’s significance, in a way, as a reminder of Poland’s troubled history.

In Warszawa you get even more of a taste of this history, at least the tumultuous last 100 years. It’s a markedly different city to Krakow – the moment you step out into the open from the Metro, you’re immediately struck by this: Warszawa is a modern, bustling city. You emerge into a square full of people and noise and see a skyline of shimmering glass skyscrapers rather than Gothic spires or Baroque towers … Then you turn around and there it is, looming over you: the Palace of Culture and Science, a brooding, majestic building constructed, originally, as an expression of Communist power. The building is therefore as controversial as it is iconic of the city – it used to be derisively called the ‘Russian wedding cake’ – and in the 90s, I believe there was even debate about whether it should be torn down. But like the initially maligned Eiffel Tower, most Varsovians these days no longer see the Palace as a blight on the city’s skyline, and have embraced it as an emblematic landmark which adds to Warszawa’s unique historical tapestry. I took this picture on our way to the Palace because it summed up Warszawa for me (and innumerable shots like this can be taken from various parts of the city): the old, the new and the Soviet Realist, all co-existing in a city that’s still rebuilding.


(That’s a temporary Christmas installation in the foreground, by the way.)

Warszawa was completely destroyed in World War 2 – systematically dynamited and flame-throwered to the ground by German forces in 1944, following the ill-fated Uprising to liberate the city – and when US forces inspected the rubble in 1945, they suggested the Poles move their capital back to Krakow. But this would have meant Hitler won, in a sense: the Nazis demolished the city on his orders so that it could no longer function as a ferocious, unrelenting bull-ant’s nest of Polish nationalism and defiance. And so the laborious task of postwar reconstruction began, under Soviet watch, without any of the monetary aid Germany and other European countries enjoyed from America… Domino-style mass housing; utilitarian office buildings; everything made of beige stone and grey concrete – colourless, devoid of the decoration that once defined this ‘Paris of eastern Europe’. For better or worse, these Communist-era buildings still form the bulk of Warszawa’s infrastructure, interspersed with the odd reminder of the city’s former beauty… And now, increasingly, shiny glass testaments to its status as the capital of one of Europe’s fastest-growing and most promising economies.

So anyway. There’s probably not much point in a day-by-day narrative of what we did – essentially it was sight-seeing, eating, drinking and acting like retards to amuse ourselves. Josh fell in love with pierogi so we ingested plenty of these hearty ravioli-style dumplings, at the expense of our waistline – perfect for the cold temperatures that had kicked in by this time. On our last night we went out with Piotr – a family friend of mine, a few years younger than us and a Warsaw local – which perfectly wrapped up our boozy bachelors’ tour of Europe.

(ALMOST) MELBOURNE – 22 November

That night and indeed our whole stay in Poland made me realise that while I’m Polish and love hearing the Polish language around me, and seeing the red-and-white flag everywhere and being in these places with their incredible history which I’ve read so much about… At the end of the day, I’m a foreigner in Poland. People pick up on my accent straightaway and sometimes even switch over to English, assuming (not incorrectly, I guess) that I’d be more comfortable conversing in that. I may have a name few can spell and even fewer can pronounce; I may have the hair and cheekbones of someone who’s clearly from the north of Europe; and several of my closest friends are Polish, our shared heritage an important catalyst for our friendship. But I’m Aussie before I am Polish; Australian English is my primary language; and the Australian way of life is the one I live – the only one I know, in fact, having lived my whole life in Melbourne bar a half-year in Poland when I was 5. And while I have friends from all backgrounds – Serbian to Swedish, Chinese to Peruvian – they are all, at the end of the day, Aussies too. And so it’s great to be coming back. Just a few minutes ago, Josh interrupted me to point out the Martian red landscape outside the plane window: that surefire sign we’re flying over ‘Straya, the great rust-coloured continent so very, very far from the ornate lamp-posts and cobbled squares of Krakow. And as deeply as I miss those things already, I’m also happy to be coming home.

EPILOGUE – 3 December

So it’s been over a week since we’ve got back, and I wanted to add this before publishing the above coz I feel reflecting back is perhaps what’s most important in a journal.

The final week, in Poland, definitely cranked up the emotion-meter: catching up with relatives, seeing nephews for the first time, seeing my grandma for possibly the last time, and then finishing off the trip with five nights in the two great cities of my ancestral homeland – the cultural treasure chest of Krakow and the hero city with myriad faces, Warszawa. I still recall the feeling of joy I got when I opened up the windows of our flat in Krakow, smelling the crisp icy air and looking out over Dietla (the main drag we were on) with its rows of oak trees, shedding the last of their yellow leaves onto the footpath and tram tracks below. I got the same feeling three days later, when we’d lugged our luggage up the stairs to the top floor of an apartment building on Warszawa’s Old Town Market Square, and looked out: over the square (at that point a construction zone as preparations were underway for the Christmas market) to the red-tiled roofs and fresco-painted facades of the Old Town; and beyond that, a series of lit-up skyscrapers and the ever-present Palace of Culture and Science. It seriously tripped me out to wake up at 5am on Monday and remember I’m now back in little ol’ Elsternwick on the eastern side of sunny, suburban Melbourne, half a planet and an entire reality away.

I feel, therefore I am.

It’s an artist’s take on Descarte’s famous statement, and it vaguely encapsulates what travel does to me. Because undoubtedly there was emotion, in fact as soon as I went for my first walk around Budapest I was almost moved to tears, swept up in the staggering beauty and history all around me. It felt almost surreal, like being sucked into a movie you love but haven’t seen in ages.

This was not a relaxing trip, by any means. It raised questions rather than answered them; put gaps and issues in my life that I’d swept under the carpet back to centre stage. Burned into my mind’s eye is my grandma’s face when she asked me, a mere minute into seeing me for the first time in 11 years… “Mateusz, when are you going to get married? Why haven’t you got a girl? It’s such a shame for you not to have a girl.”

We’ve heard it before, ol’ gran’ma telling you to eat more and hurry up and get married. It’s a cliche we like to chuckle at. But the way she said it to me, face scrunched up with worry and slight disapproval, was like the way you’d ask someone when they’re going to straighten the fuck out and give up heroin. She looked pained by the situation. And the more I reflected on it, the more I realised maybe she’s got a point. Maybe our Australian culture of hooking up and going out and dating endlessly through your teens, 20s and well into your 30s is bullshit. Maybe our Tinder/Snapchat generation is heading for a middle age of hollowness and loneliness, having never committed ourselves to true love when we had the chance – playing the grasshopper when we should’ve started playing the ant, setting the foundations for a supportive family life. This is going down a totally different path – and there’s a reason why I’ve personally missed the marriage bus so far – but it’s the question this trip raised perhaps above all: Why aren’t I married? Why aren’t I taking that more seriously? As I sat beside my grandma – now a fragile shell of her former self, ravaged by old age and Parkinson’s – I realised the clock is always ticking, slowly but relentlessly… That life is passing all of us by, and it’s dangerous to forget this as you go about the same old shit back home day after day, week after week, very slowly progressing towards… Well, what? Not much at all, if you don’t bother to stop, examine your life and consciously set it on course for love, fulfillment and meaning.

The answer doesn’t necessarily in a new place – as tempted as I am to spend 6-12 months back in Krakow and see how that life goes. But absolutely, at least as a start, it demands a deep, fresh, charged, big-picture outlook… And that, I believe, is the real purpose of travel: to reset your mind and soul and put you back in tune with yourself and your destiny. In which case, I can happily say that this trip was a great success 🙂

Rising ’44, And How Lucky We Are

It’s been a long time since I’ve sunk my teeth into a good history book, and as it turns out, Rising ’44 – which I’m just over halfway through reading – is one of the saddest, most fascinating, most inspiring and most disturbing that I’ve ever read.

I’ve already covered the story of the Warsaw Uprising here, so don’t want to use this entry to revisit the history and politics of it. What’s driven me to write this is, quite simply, how damn lucky we are today. It’s a theme commonly served up at military commemorations – in Australia on Anzac Day, for example, we’re always reminded how grateful we should be to the Diggers for the freedom that we enjoy today. The problem is, even a reasonably ‘historically conscious’ person like me tends to find the media’s predictable Anzac Day platitudes a tad tiresome year after year, and unfortunately – but almost unavoidably – you tune out to the rhetoric, ceasing to reflect on the message behind the memorials. Only when you leave the present and go back in time to revisit the hell that people lived through in World War 2, do you gratefully and humbly rush to accept its truth again, tinged with guilt for ever having rolled your eyes at the phrase “Lest We Forget”. Every night I’ve put Rising ’44 down – usually only because my eyes have blurred to the point that I can no longer read – there’s a part of me that does so with a tangible feeling of relief – relief in knowing that there will not be a Gestapo or NKVD agent bursting through my door; that I will not be kept up all night by the roar of burning and collapsing buildings; that I will not have to leap over barricades into torrents of gunfire at the freezing crack of dawn the next day. Above all – and this is perhaps the most important yet most easily forgotten point – I have ready access to food, water and medical care whenever I need it.

The food situation was deteriorating. Even black bread was meagrely rationed. Our hearts ached at the thought that the sick, and particularly the boys, were hungry, at a time when they needed intensive care. We carried dinner for the sick from the main building through a huge clearing in the wall dividing the villa from the hospital garden. But ever more frequently we had to wait a long time for the firing to calm down…

The passage above is typical of civilian recollections of Warsaw, 1944. Today, we whinge about food that’s high in saturated fat, isn’t produced organically or costs a few dollars more than we’d like. During the Warsaw Uprising, people eked out a living by tearing flesh off dead horses and boiling water from puddles over candles. A loaf of bread was a prized treasure, worth its weight in gold. Today, we complain when we have to wait at the doctors’ clinic for quarter of an hour… in wartime Warsaw, the feverishly sick and wounded had to anguish for hours if not days before being attended to by medical staff, who operated with the barest essentials while mortar shells and bullets tore up the street outside. During the Uprising, the Poles marked these hopelessly overcrowded facilities with giant red crosses, in the hope enemy combatants would have the decency to leave them alone and let the doctors and nurses carry on with their work. As usual, they gave their adversaries too much credit – the Germans targeted the red crosses specifically, dive-bombing the hospitals from the air and often finishing off with flame-throwers, grenades and bayonets what the Stukas failed to kill and destroy. Earlier this month, the evening news was dominated by flashbacks to the events of September 11 a decade ago, universally regarded as a tragedy of monumental proportions with its 3,000 people dead – and rightly so. Yet on a single day in a single district in Warsaw (Wola, 5 August), 40,000 people were ruthlessly massacred by the SS and Ukrainian/Russian collaborators. Nobody outside of Warsaw even knew, and it was just one of many blood-soaked days in the month of August 1944.

In spite of bearing witness to horrors that would send most of us into days of shock and months of counselling, the insurgents of Warsaw did not mope around and wallow in self-pity. What struck me when I got the photo gallery section of the book – having just read about the brutality, indignations and deprivations suffered by the Varsovians – is how completely normal they look in spite of their circumstances. Teenage girl scouts, who risked their lives every day crawling through filthy, claustrophobic sewers to relay messages, smile cheerfully for the camera. Young men wearing red-and-white armbands, though gaunt from lack of food and sometimes bandaged from wounds, calmly sit back, converse and share cigarettes in between skirmishes with SS battalions armed to the teeth. At worst, the Home Army and their helpers look only tense or sombre, crouched behind barricades or street corners; no-one looks miserable. It’s one of the most inspiring facets of the book.

Of course Rising ’44 does become deeply disturbing at parts, even for a ‘hardened’ student of WW2 like myself. What triggered me to write this in the first place was a single paragraph from a letter (published in full in the book) by the wife of a Polish Home Army soldier:

We then returned to my parents, who were sharing an apartment very close to the Ghetto where famine was raging. Every day, two tiny starving urchins would visit our house to receive a bowl of hot soup and a bit of food. One day I saw something that has been burned into my memory. Walking across the square, I saw two Gestapo agents standing over a couple of emaciated boys who could hardly stand up on their little legs. One of the agents grabbed the first by the ankles and smashed his head against the wall. Then he grabbed the other and did the same. That event affected my later life very deeply… From then on, our two urchins did not visit us.

I had to put the book down and call it a night at that point. It’s genuinely heartbreaking to consider for even a second the sad, short and suffering-filled lives of those two innocent, probably parentless Ghetto children – and the pure evil of that Gestapo agent. I was reminded of a similarly shocking scene in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, where a Nazi guard kicks a Jewish youngster to death for clambering out from under the Ghetto wall. What’s disturbing is that there were hundreds of these agents in wartime Europe – cramming unarmed civilians into cellars and setting them ablaze, burying prisoners alive in dirt pits. Fictitious World War 1 propaganda of priests being crucified to barn doors became gruesome reality in World War 2, courtesy of rabid Ukrainian nationalists. Without a doubt many of these perpetrators are still alive today – vicious thugs too low-ranking and obscure to be identified and brought to justice after the war.

Yet this behaviour is hardly unique to the WW2 generation – the war merely turned Europe into fertile ground for these weeds to prosper and strangle the delicate flowerbed of civilization. I hate to sound pessimistic about humanity but I’d say in every generation, there lie dormant three basic categories of people – 1) the indifferent; 2) those like the soldier’s wife, who no doubt risked her life giving food to the two “urchins” (helping Jews was a capital offence in Poland); and 3) those like the Gestapo agent, only too willing to maim and kill on whatever flimsy justification they can devise. In everyday life, the latter types are more or less indiscernable from the majority who’d mind their own business regardless, but at times when law and order breaks down, they respectively shine in their humanity or degenerate into monsters. We see it today in places like Africa, where wartime conditions still rage, or in those brainwashed by the similar ‘might is right’ ideology of fundamentalist Islam, who think nothing of bashing, stoning and burying alive their own daughters because of some perceived ‘insult’ committed against the family. Whether it’s to gain the Fuhrer’s, Allah’s or some other higher authority’s favour, there are many only too willing to carry out great evil in the name of some perceived “greater good”. Fulfilling the commandment conveniently justifies the means.

But it must be said that for all the dark side of humanity that it portrays, Rising ’44 is above all a story of transcending despair, oppression and betrayal to retain one’s human dignity, values and wits. The Armia Krajowa (Home Army) were exemplars of Jozef Pilsudski’s concept of triumphing even in defeat, by not succumbing to the degradation Poland’s overlords tried to wreak upon its people in order to break their spirit. AK units continued to subvert, sabotage and outsmart at every turn, with admirable cunning, bravado and even cheek:

Both sides were only too aware of the other’s activities; they we working the same patch; and, on occasion, they were obliged to cut a deal. In the autumn of 1943, for example, two men from the Home Army’s security corps brazenly stole an armour-plated Super-Mercedes belonging to a Nazi dignitary from the RSHA in Berlin, who had just arrived in Warsaw. The luckless car owner’s subordinates were more than eager to get it back, if only to save their own skins, so the AK decided that a suitable price would be the release of fifteen prisoners from the Paviak [prison]. As reported, the telephone rang on the Sipo’s duty desk:

Did you receive our letter?
Do your superiors accept our proposal?
Yes, but…

Alright, tomorrow at 3pm, all on the list must be freed.
And the car? We’ll release the prisoners when we have the car. On my word as a German officer.

You release the prisoners…and after three days, we tell you where the car is.
What’s the guarantee?
The word of a Polish officer.

The exchange took place as agreed.

While I promised myself I wouldn’t go into the geopolitical aspects of the Uprising, the book does go into unprecedented detail to shatter the Good United Allies vs Bad Nazis picturebook version of history, more than anything I’ve read before. For all of the Germans’ much-publicized barbarity (and there’s no shortage of it in Rising ’44 either), there are moments that go some way to restoring your faith in humanity, such as the recollection by an insurgent (disguised as a civilian) of a Wehrmacht soldier eagerly obliging his request for a shave, apologizing profusely for the slightest cut made by his dull blade. At the very same time, Poland’s ‘allies’ the Soviets kept themselves busy by rounding up and arresting everyone with red-and-white armbands as “fascists” and “bandits”, even having the gall to fire at RAF planes attempting to drop supplies over the burning capital (all the way from Italy, since Stalin would not permit Soviet airfields to be used to assist the Poles). Ukrainian collaborators crop up regularly as perpetrators, alongside the SS, of some of the most horrific atrocities against civilians. On the other hand, Hungary – officially an Axis combatant, but historically Poland’s friendly neighbour – quietly issued a statement to its soldiers not to fight the insurgents. A Slovak who found himself in Warsaw as part of the Nazis’ reinforcements even yelled from the darkness across no-man’s-land, “Long live Poland!” Sandwiched from the east and west by massive and hostile forces, it is heartening to know that the Polish Home Army did not stand completely alone, and that just as its ‘allies’ were anything but allies, not all of its ‘enemies’ were enemies.

World War 2 will always be one of the saddest and most damning chapters of European history – and possibly nowhere is this more concentrated or evident than in the Polish theatre, which bore witness to not only the Warsaw Uprising but the Ghetto Uprising, the Katyn massacre and, most notoriously, Auschwitz-Birkenau and related death camps. The entire Eastern Front of World War 2 serves as an almost unbelievable and seemingly endless montage of how cruel man can be to man, when he foregoes his humanity in favour of blind adherence to an ideology or “orders from above”. It is incredible, for example, to read about the little-known but exceedingly grisly massacres of Polish villagers by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (and subsequent anti-Ukrainian retaliations by the AK), then remember the final line from the 17th-century epic With Fire and Sword, set in a time of war between the Polish Commonwealth and its Ukrainian borderlands: “Hatred poisoned the hearts of two brother nations.” Fast-forward 400 years and this line rings as true as ever; a sad example of history needlessly repeating itself. Yet contemporary multicultural Australia – a world away from the divisive festering grievances of the Old World – serves as a testament that camaraderie is the natural state between Europeans. A middle-aged key-cutter I went to recently, overhearing that I was talking in Polish on my mobile, jovially spoke to me in accented Polish as he handed me back the key. He was a Ukrainian from Lwow (now L’viv), and while his parents may well have been mortal enemies of my Polish grandparents who also lived in that city, today, free of the hatred fostered by hypernationalism (and happily encouraged during WW2 by the Nazis, who thrived in driving wedges between the nationalities they occupied), we were simply fellow Slavs, our ancestral home being common ground rather than ground to fight over.

To get back to the original point, Rising ’44 is more than just a compelling read and a ground-breaking revision of the Hollywood version of World War 2. It’s a veritable Bible for appreciating what you’ve got, and realizing how very, very lucky you are that you have only the problems you have. Even as I write this, I’ve got an ear infection and didn’t eat a proper dinner, since the earache’s too painful to go shopping or get takeaway… but while it’d be easy to feel a little sorry for myself, I have my antibiotics and a coffee plunger full of tea and a bed of my own with clean sheets – luxuries which the sick and hungry civilians of Warsaw could only dream of. May no ideology – whether Communism or neo-Nazism or shariah law or Christian fundamentalism – ever be allowed to rob us of our humanity, and lead us to deprive each other when there is so much to go round. Only by using our innate human faculties of common sense, honour and compassion as our guiding forces, can we live worthy lives and go forward rather than backward as a civilization. I’m glad to have found, in the Polish Armia Krajowa, a sturdy example of not giving up – not merely in the struggle against external oppression but, just as importantly, against the internal temptation to act like a beast when hurled into beastly circumstances. Their story – Rising ’44 – is simultaneously an uplifting and appalling and mind-boggling read, but above all, it is a potent reminder to never forget… not so that we can re-erect old demarcations and hate each other anew, but exactly the opposite – so that we can be thankful that we made it to such a better place, and to heed the stark and harrowing call from those who had to endure the mistakes of the past – to tell ourselves, in the words of a French slogan after World War 1, “Never Again!”

And he, when the city was just a raw, red mass,
Said: “I do not surrender.” Let the houses burn!
Let my proud achievements be bombed into dust,
So what, if a graveyard grows from my dreams?
For you, who may come here, someday recall
That some things are dearer than the finest city wall.

Warsaw – The City You’ll Never See

In my blog post 1940-45 I covered the tragic story of Warsaw’s wartime occupation, its conversion into an urban battleground and, finally, its complete and systematic annihilation. No city in the world suffered as much damage during the Second World War, and with the Soviets in control of Poland at war’s end, the city was rebuilt along predominantly Soviet Realist lines that paid little heed to aesthetics, instead adhering to the plain, utilitaritan ‘political correctness’ of Communist ideology.

Yet Warsaw was, once upon a time, heralded as ‘the Paris of the east’; a vibrant, visually gorgeous city that, with its crossroads position between the east and west of Europe, reflected in its architecture the entire spectrum of European civilization – from the onion domes of St Mary Magdalene’s Cathedral to the intricate Baroque flourishes of St Anne’s Church, from the medieval red brick of the Barbikan to the chalk-white neoclassical columns of the Saxon Palace. Historical treasures dating back centuries, such as the 700-year-old Royal Castle, stood side-by-side with the latest architectural trends, including the ultra-modern (at the time) Hotel Warszawa, one of the earliest skyscrapers in Europe. Its leafy cobbled boulevards, ringing with the clatter of electric trams, horse-carts, bicycles and shiny black motor-cars, gave Warsaw a cosmopolitan ambience comparable to neighbouring Prague and Vienna, with perhaps just a smattering of Paris, the makeshift capital of Poland’s emigre community during the 120-year-long Partitions period. It buzzed with the confidence of a city that, having endured a prolonged and harrowing period of oppression, was now restored its rightful place among the great capitals of Europe, the future full of political, artistic and cultural opportunities that it had been denied for so long.

Tragically, this Warsaw – charming and elegant, buzzing with confidence and the dreams of a proud and progressive people – did not get to enjoy its newfound freedom for long. Between 1939 and 1944 it was shelled, bombed and dynamited to oblivion, and while the Communist puppets installed in 1945 did agree to rebuild some isolated elements (such as the Royal Castle and Old Town Market Square), they erected an essentially new city on top of the rubble – the elegant, cream-coloured facades of old replaced by bland concrete blocks, the city skyline now dominated by the sombre, harshly rectangular Palace of Culture and Science, the familiar panorama of Gothic spires and ornate clock towers gone forever.

Thankfully, with the advent of photography in the early 20th century, the city’s former splendour has been preserved in images now easily accessible on the net (at least if you know Polish!). Although many proved too small, grainy or faded to merit inclusion here, others – with the help of a little digital remastering – provide an immensely absorbing and rewarding insight into what Warsaw was once like. Some of the below photographs were taken mere months before the outbreak of war, while others (predominantly the paintings) go back as far as the 19th century – though I’ve tended to focus on the city during its tenure as capital of the Second Republic.

In addition to the above, I’ve also uploaded some footage of Warsaw (specifically, the Saxon Gardens) from pre-war 1939, which was used in the opening scene of Roman Polanski’s film ‘The Pianist’. The music’s my addition, incidentally – a Jean Michel-Jarre track appropriately titled ‘Chopin Memories’ :

For those after something a little longer, this heart-tugging pictorial journey is 10 minutes in duration and comprised of a much vaster treasury of images than I could muster:

If you’ve got some old-school 3D glasses lying around this clip caters for a more immersive viewing experience, and finally, I can’t not mention this truly stunning animation condensing Polish history (including the interwar period) into an action-packed 8.5 minutes.

It’s worth footnoting that today, Warsaw is an exciting and attractive metropolis once more, much of the Communist-built ugliness still standing but now part of a unique juxtaposition of Old World, Eastern bloc and modern-Western styles, reminding one of the city’s dynamic history at every corner (as celebrated by this American travel writer in her blog). With Poland’s economy on the rise, Warsaw is now not only full of new and dazzling construction projects, but has seen a revitalized interest in restoring more of the iconic landmarks destroyed by the war. Of course, unlike Poland’s relatively unscathed former capital Krakow, the vast majority of Warsaw’s antiquity has gone and will never return. But it’s been a genuine pleasure to collect, remaster and look back on these vintage images over the past few days, as they sum up, for me, the innately sophisticated and western spirit of the Polish nation at a critical point in its history – and reveal why so many Varsovians were willing to fight to the bitter death for their beloved city.


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.

*          *          *          *          *

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.

*          *          *          *          *

“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:


Quick note: This blog was originally meant to be a single entry, indulging my passion for 20th-century history by revising some of the misconceptions and oversimplifications surrounding the Second World War in Poland. However, having ignited this long-dormant interest of mine, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to stop writing… so to make this entry more palatable, I’ve decided to split it into two: ‘1918-39’, covering the lead-up to the war as well as the long-term historical and geopolitical factors involved; and ‘1940-5’, covering the Nazi occupation, the largely unknown but hugely significant Warsaw Uprising, and the tragic and treacherous outcome forced upon the Poles at war’s end.

*     *     *     *     *

1939. Those four figures immediately conjure up, in my mind, tanks rolling over hills at the crack of dawn; Stuka bombers diving from the sky to the terrifying wail of sirens; and before long, columns of Wehrmacht troops goose-stepping down the boulevards of Warsaw. Most people know that 1939 is the year Nazi Germany invaded Poland, thus triggering the Second World War, but few know much beyond that. The basic what, where and when might be familiar enough to those who studied history at school or uni, but there’s generally very little knowledge as to why – why it happened, and why it happened the way that it did. Myths such as Hitler’s mass hypnotic powers, or foolhardy Poles charging tanks on horseback, are probably more prevalent than the fascinating and, at times, equally bizarre and unlikely facts. This is what I want to blog about today.

As someone who developed an intense interest in World War II from an early age, the first thing that strikes me about it – when I step back and look at it from a detached, ‘big picture’ perspective – is the unlikeliness of it unfolding the way that it did. A second world war was almost inevitable considering the outcomes of the first – the humiliating and ill-willed reparations clauses, the controversial territorial arrangements, and above all the October Revolution, transforming the vast expanse of Russia into a zealous Communist behemoth. Interwar Europe was full of grand plans and political  intrigue, engineered by the extreme Left and Right, and most of the cards in play prophesized a ‘hot’ expression of the Cold War – much like the scenario that drove the hit computer game series Red Alert.

It very nearly happened too, almost as soon as the Great War and Russian Civil War ended. In 1921, following heated skirmishes in the Ukraine, the Soviet Union invaded Poland, with the express intent of marching all the way to Berlin and setting up a Moscow-backed republic in the heart of Europe – the natural end goal of Lenin’s internationalist vision of Communism. But this time, history did not favour Lenin or his Red Army, still buzzing with revolutionary fervour and their success against the White armies in Russia. The resurrected state of Poland was not about to roll over and disappear into oblivion again, and through some daring military strategy and characteristic fighting spirit, the Poles splintered the Soviet spearhead at the gates of Warsaw. Had the city fallen, and the Red Army trampled on to Berlin – as was to happen some two decades later – Germany, its social fabric in chaos and on the brink of anarchy, would’ve almost certainly become a socialist republic as Bavaria did for some time. And considering France and England were willing to send battalions to Russia to extinguish the Bolshevik fire there, there’s no doubt they would’ve done the same had it spread to their own neck of the woods.

It therefore seemed only a matter of time before the White armies of Europe once again either attacked the Soviet Union in an effort to stomp out Communism, as happened in 1919, or the Red Army attacked the West in an attempt to disseminate Communism, as happened in 1921. Yet what ended up happening in 1939 was that Nazi Germany – a hostile reaction to the Communist-fuelled instability of Weimar Germany; a self-styled pan-European crusader against so-called ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’; and the Slavic world’s age-old chief antagonist – hooked up with that bastion of Communism and Orthodox Slavdom to take out the state that had, less than two decades earlier, protected central Europe from the incoming Reds and still represented, for many at that time, the outpost and bulwark of Western Latin civilization. Of course, as most people know, the Nazi-Soviet honeymoon wasn’t to last, but that the next war even began with such a configuration is remarkable.

It can’t be denied that despite being at opposite ends of the political spectrum, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had a lot in common. Both were totalitarian, militaristic with imperialist ambitions, and utterly convinced of their own self-righteousness and ideological superiority – which justified taking any means to achieve their ends. Both had also lost vast swaths of territory with the collapse of their empires in 1918 – virtually all of it in Poland. Historically Polish or not, this land was valuable if not vital to their future plans – as Lebensraum for the German Volk, or as the key artery through which to forment revolution in the West.

Early members of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – the NSDAP or ‘Nazi Party’ – tended to sympathize with the Soviets, a workers’ state that, like Germany, was treated like a second-class citizen of Europe by the spiteful, arrogant and power-hungry elites of France and England, as represented by the harsh and damning Treaty signed in the opulent Versailles Palace. In the many street brawls and protests that wracked Germany in the 1920s, the Nazis and Communists even teamed up on occasion, contemptuous of a common enemy represented by the stagnant and ineffectual Weimar Government, overtly installed and backed by the Western Powers.

However, Hitler’s rise to prominence in the Nazi Party saw this attitude promptly switched around. Although France continued to be vilified as a pompous sore winner that needed to be cut down to size, the Anglo-Saxons were, in Hitler’s view, a brilliant if currently stagnant and mismanaged group of people – ancient kin and natural allies of the Germans. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, became the embodiment of all the Nazis disapproved of: a hulking, devious Frankstein state, stitched together from a mish-mash of Mongoloids and dreg Slavs and lorded over by a Jewish ruling class – a waste of space and human resources that would be put to better use under the efficient and visionary administration of a new German Reich. Dull and meandering as it is, anyone who’s read certain chapters of Mein Kampf would undoubtedly recognize that Hitler dreamed of seizing “the fertile lands of the East” since his early days in politics. What nobody could’ve predicted, from the time of Mein Kampf’s dictation all the way up to mid-1939, is that the Soviet Union would become a willing partner in Hitler’s first move eastwards. But the truth, as they say, can stranger than fiction.

Interwar Poland – the victim of Hitler’s first swift, knock-out blow against free Europe – was, in fact, probably the best-suited partner for Nazi geopolitical and ethnic cleansing on the continent. Unlike Hitler’s buddies in Fascist Italy, the Poles appreciated and shared Germany’s ‘problem’ of huge Jewish minorities. Poland was in fact the first nation to come up with a ‘Jewish solution’, of deporting Jews to a newly-established homeland in Madagascar – a plan the Nazis themselves initially adopted then replaced with their own ‘Final Solution’, following obvious logistical difficulties and an increasingly war-hardened attitude. Poland was also fiercely anti-Communist – probably even more so than Nazi Germany – and, like the Nazis, the Poles were deeply suspicious of the Godless Red dragon that lurked beyond their Christian parishes.

At Poland’s helm throughout most of the interwar period was Marshal Pilsudski – a national-socialist World War I hero whose strategic brilliance won the Polish-Soviet War, and whose no-bullshit attitude to politics saw him take over Poland’s Parliament by force of arms – something Hitler had tried himself in the 1920s, and failed. Hitler held Pilsudski in the same sort of esteem as Mussolini, and tried – albeit unsuccessfully – to meet him several times. Even after the merciless 1939 invasion, he took the time to pay his respects at the late Marshal’s tomb in Krakow – perhaps wondering what might’ve been had the old trooper stayed around for a few more years.

Essentially, Pilsudski was Poland’s Otto von Bismarck. Of Polonized Lithuanian heritage, with socialist leanings counter-weighted by an aversion to Soviet Communism, Pilsudski was above all a pragmatist who wanted to see a return to the old Polish Commonwealth – and was happy to conduct his foreign affairs according to whatever might help bring about that reality. Pilsudski made Poland the first country to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler – in 1935, just two years after Hitler became Chancellor and the rest of Europe still didn’t know what to do about it. In subsequent speeches up to 1939, Hitler referred glowingly to his friendship with Poland as “one of the most reassuring factors in the life of Europe”.

And indeed it was. Pilsudski was a canny man, finely tuned into his times – he recognized that Germany was a volatile force, rapidly on its way up again, that either had to be patted on the back as a mate or punched in the face before it got too strong. With France, Poland’s traditional ally, positively phobic of any military action after its 1914-18 experience, Pilsudski realized that it was in Poland’s best interest to engage rather than snub this new face across the fence. And while Pilsudski still strived for equilibrium in Poland’s regional relations, also signing treaties with the Soviet Union, Jozef Beck – Poland’s Foreign Minister right up until the outbreak of war – grimly stated that while the Germans might deprive Poles of their freedom, a Russian occupation would rob them of their very souls.

So how did 1939 come to be the year that these friends turned into such bitter enemies, whilst two bitter enemies became best of friends? Why, in spite of these common factors with Poland, did Hitler ruthlessly wipe it off the map in collaboration with Stalin, condemning more than half the country to Soviet obscurity and plunging Europe into continental war? The answer can be summed up in one word: Danzig.

‘Danzig’ was (and still is) the German name for Gdansk, a city on Poland’s Baltic coast. Part of the Polish Commonwealth for some 800 years of its history, it became heavily Germanized during the 19th century as part of Bismarck’s attempt to integrate that part of Poland into Prussia. At the time, Poland had ceased to exist on official maps, having been jointly invaded and partitioned by its neighbours Prussia, Russia and Austro-Hungary – the latter, ironically, having been saved from certain extinction by Polish forces some 100 years earlier, during the Ottoman siege of Vienna. When Bismarck’s Second Reich, like Europe’s other continental empires, collapsed under the four-year barrage of mortars and mud known as the Great War, Gdansk emerged as a politically autonomous ‘Free City’ – but the German population remained, now a clear majority, and abruptly finding itself residing within foreign borders.

More so than liquidating Jews, conquering Europe or banishing Communism from the face of the earth, Hitler’s number-one goal was to unite the German people into one state under his leadership – ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Fuhrer. As most people know, he began by annexing his homeland Austria (the ‘Anschluss’), then moved onto the Sudetenland (a German-heavy portion of Czechoslovakia), promptly followed by the rest of the country, with a small portion left for the Slovaks to enjoy as a German satellite (see map). Despite the myth of Czechs putting out welcome mats for the Germans, the Munich Crisis could have actually been the beginning of World War II, had the British and French leaders of 1938 shown more metal and respected the population’s wishes.

Emboldened by an endless stream of daring gambles paying off since their ascent to power, the Nazis had boldly threatened to send in tanks and bomb Prague from the air should their demands not be met – their threats so morbid and vivid that the ageing Czech President reportedly had a minor heart attack. But the Western Powers, unwilling to take up arms again over a small strip of central Europe, sold the Czechs out – a situation they would experience again soon enough, together with the Poles and other Europeans of the region, in 1945. In doing so, England’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain – who declared it “peace for our time” – merely succeeded in forestalling war rather than preventing it. If anything, the whole experience convinced Hitler that he was dealing with “little worms” – to use his own description – who hadn’t the spines to face up to a bold and ambitious new Germany.

Though Hitler declared the Munich Crisis “his last territorial concession in Europe”, he couldn’t ignore the thorn in Germany’s right shoulder. Having Danzig within Polish territory (see map) was particularly aggravating because it actually divided Germany from East Prussia, a Teutonic enclave below the Baltic States which formed part of what is now known as Kaliningrad. Although the ‘Polish Corridor’ that cut through the province of Pomerania had hundreds of years of precedence, forming the north-western frontier of the old Polish Commonwealth (map), in this new age of more logical, ethnic-based borders it seemed out of place – and represented a final and unignorable obstacle to Hitler’s dream of a unified Reich.

It’s worth noting at this point that Hitler was, all things considered, comparatively amicable and open-minded vis a vis Poland. Hatred of Poland was, after all, a staple of most Right-wing Germans’ diets at the time. After a long 120 years of partition, occupation and Kulturkampf (systematic imposition of German culture over Polish culture), Germany had come to see all of Silesia and Pomerania as its rightful backyard. An important but little-known fact is that, barely had the guns gone quiet on the Western Front, than they began blazing in these hotly contested territories as tensions between the two ethnic groups came to a head.

Back from the trenches in France, psyched on nationalist propaganda and with no clear purpose in peacetime society, many demobilized German soldiers formed Right-wing paramilitary units called Freikorps, which set about terrorizing these peripheral areas and attempting to rid them of Poles. The Poles, true to their historical record, promptly responded by forming their own armed bands and fighting back. The issue became so difficult and heated that even a League of Nations peacekeeping force, sent to settle the issue, ended up fracturing and fighting each other – the British contingent supporting the Germans, the French adamantly backing the Poles. The spilt blood led to a great deal of animosity between the two nationalities, and while the Poles prevailed in asserting these areas as their own, the Germans moved out looking back, muttering darkly that they’ll be back soon enough.

In this context, then, Hitler was more open to Poland than some old-school German conservatives, who wanted a straight, uncompromising return to the glory days of Prussia – and to hell with those upstart Poles. For Hitler, these upstarts ticked two very important boxes – firstly they were anti-Communist, and secondly, though not ingrained with the same rabid anti-Semitism as the Germans, they were not enthusiastic about their Jewish minorities either.  While these traits might not be relevant to a bygone world composed solely of bloated monarchies, they were certainly important to him in this daunting new world of crumbling values, radical ideologies and racial defilement. Moreover, Hitler recognized in the Poles a yearning to create permanent security in eastern Europe – i.e. multilateral containment if not removal of the Communist menace – and, more importantly to an “actions first, words later” man of the National Socialist movement, the Poles had the grit to back it up.

Nevertheless, the Danzig issue needed resolving. Over the summer of 1938, as the Reich digested its Czech meal, the Nazi and Polish leaders flirted. In Warsaw, Hermann Goring was repeatedly treated to his two favourite things – lavish banquets and hunting trips. With everything cosy and buttery, Hitler took the opportunity to make his first move in the delicate diplomatic chess game that was to follow – Danzig, he suggested around the start of 1939, should “revert” to Germany. Of course there would be token concessions, and juicy hints were dropped of possible joint action against the Soviets, with territorial prizes in it for Poland should they agree to take part.

But the Poles, despite their daydreams of Commonwealth glory, did not really have an appetite for war, and unlike the Nazis had not modernized or significantly expanded their military. More to the point, Poland needed an outlet to the sea for economic reasons – and having endured 120 miserable years of partition, was unwilling to relinquish one of its key urban centres in exchange for some hollow benefits and promises. It soon became clear that there was very little scope for compromise – either Gdansk remained Poland’s one and only access point to maritime trade, or it reprised its 19th-century role as a Hanseatic link between Stettin and Konigsberg. And while Hitler took the first rebuttal with surprising calm, before long, the hunting trips stopped, diplomatic exchanges went from cool to tense, and finally to threatening – with the Poles counter-warning the Germans that they were not Czechs. A coup was plotted to take over the Free City “in a lightning strike”, but when it became clear that the Poles would smash any interference in the bud, the senior Nazi leadership made the decision to start work on a much bigger and bolder project – ‘Operation White’, a full-scale military invasion of Poland.

As the first plans were drawn up for the 1939 offensive, things took a very strange turn, though the sequence was logical enough. Finally realizing that Hitler’s appetite for land was insatiable, and knowing that he would resort to brute force if necessary, England and France abandoned their appeasement policies and suggested – then pleaded – for Poland to join a Franco-Anglo-Soviet alliance, against which even this overgrown and extensively remilitarized Germany stood no chance. Poland refused. Though relations with Germany had deteriorated – and perhaps because of this – it did not want to antagonize its neighbour any further. Just as importantly, such an alliance would mean allowing Soviet troops onto Polish soil – and as was confirmed less than six years later, the Poles knew such ‘allies’ would arrive with their own agenda and not leave once they did so.

In the meantime, Hitler became determined to complete the final piece in his new Reich by any means possible. Though he held England and France’s resolve to fight in contempt, he knew he’d exhausted their goodwill. Poland, meanwhile, had proved itself just as determined to stand by the territorial status quo as Hitler was in reshaping it. His ally Italy was of no use to him in this northern European affair, leaving one other major player – the Soviet Union. Sweeping 20 years of anti-Bolshevik rhetoric under the Reichstag’s carpets, Hitler sent out tentative feelers to the Kremlin, knowing that Poland had to be isolated in its upcoming battle with the Reich. Stalin’s acute hyena instinct smelt meat, slowly but surely took the bait, and within weeks Hitler’s English-loathing Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was sitting in the Kremlin with a drunk and jolly Stalin, the two assuring each other of much cooperation and friendliness going forward – over Poland’s dead body.

As incredulous as the European community was when the news broke, it made perfect sense to Stalin. A young and ambitious general in the Polish-Soviet War, Stalin harboured a particular spitefulness towards the Poles for foiling his record as the man brought Communism to Europe (something he finally did, of course, in 1945). He was also wary of the powerful and hungry new Reich Hitler had created. This was a perfect way to kill two birds with one stone – take revenge on the Poles, and form an unexpected but formidable friendship with a potential predator. And so when the time came to clink shotglasses with Ribbentrop, not only was a Non-Aggression Pact signed between the two nations, but a secret protocol added – a death warrant for Poland, relegating it back to the history books with a new and permanent partition (see map).

Around the same time as Nazi Germany hooked up with Soviet Russia, England and France signed a treaty with Poland guaranteeing its independence. This move infuriated Hitler so much that in hindsight, it probably only strengthened his resolve to go to war – though interestingly, his venom was reserved more for the Brits than for the Poles, whom he regarded as meddling in regional affairs in which they had no relevance. Once the war was underway, pamphlets were even dropped over Poland (see here) showing a Polish soldier desperately crying out to Chamberlain, as rubble and dead bodies fill the background, “Anglio! Twoje Dzielo!” (“Englander! This is your doing!”)

When it came to the crunch, the Western Powers’ guarantee proved worthless. From day one, the Poles fought according to a strategy that assumed help would come from the West – holding on to difficult-to-defend areas instead of falling back to more secure, long-term defensive positions. Hitler, on the other hand, hoped if not assumed that the West would resort to haggling rather than fighting for peace again – so an integral part of the blitzkreig rationale was to take over as much Polish land as possible in as short a time frame as possible, so that if the armistice siren were called again, Germany would be in the most advantageous bargaining position possible. Of course, both sides were proved wrong: on 3 September, Britain and France did declare war – much to Hitler’s fury – but subsequently did nothing to assist the Poles.

As everyone knows, the blitzkreig itself was a roaring success – possibly the most well-planned and executed campaign of the Second World War, further aided by an abnormally dry and clear summer as well as bonus Slovak contingents on the German side. Although the Poles resisted fiercely – a tiny outpost on the Hel Peninsula delayed Hitler’s victory speech in Gdansk by eight days, and 720 men in Wizna held at bay a mechanized juggernaut of 42,200 – by 25 September, it was all over. Poland’s fate had already been sealed on the 14th, when, to the surprise and dismay of the rest of Europe, the Soviets – now confident they’d allied with the victors-to-be – moved in to take their share of Poland (see map), meeting almost no resistance in the ensuing confusion, and tricking thousands of Polish military personnel into imprisonment and, eventually, execution.

It’s rarely considered but had France and England acted on their treaty with Poland, World War II could have been wrapped up there and then, sparing Europe five long years of grief and devastation. Hitler threw virtually everything he had at the Poles, leaving Germany’s western border (and skies) wide open to attack. Yet not a single French foot soldier stepped forward, and during the so-called ‘Phoney War’ that followed, Germany had more than enough time to absorb and exploit its new acquisitions in the east, re-group and revitalize the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, and lay fresh plans for the tense but inactive west. Luckily for these subsequent victims, many Poles managed to escape to the west through Hungary, where they would re-emerge as some of the most resilient soldiers in the North African campaign and most talented pilots in the Battle of Britain. Those who stayed back wasted no time in forming Europe’s biggest and most well-organized underground army – the Armia Krajowa or Home Army – whose exploits and significance to the war’s big picture I’ll examine in the second entry.

An interesting postscript to Part One is that Hitler initially intended to keep a Polish ‘rump state’ following the September invasion – what later became the General-Government zone of the Nazi sector. It was Stalin who insisted that no trace of Poland or Polishness survive the Fourth Partition, immediately outlawing the very expression “Poland”, and ensuring that wholesale elimination of Polish culture and leadership become the norm once again. And while much has been made of the suffering and atrocities that took place in Nazi concentration camps and the Warsaw Ghetto, the Poles’ own saddest chapter took place deep in Soviet territory, in a fog-shrouded forest called Katyn where some 22,000 officers were shot in cold blood and hurled into pits. Ironically, it was the Germans who brought this to the world’s attention, having stumbled across the graves during their invasion of Russia, and who were declared by the Western press to be the perpetrators – a charge quietly dropped from the Nuremberg trials due to glaring evidence to the contrary.

Clearly, the Second World War was no simple matter of Allied good versus Nazi evil… and that’s a myth I’ll deconstruct more closely in Part Two, 1940-45.