Seventy years since V-E Day – a précis of the role of Poland and the Poles in World War II (Part Three)
By Mark Wegierski
The Warsaw Uprising
On July 22, 1944, the Communist-led Polish National Liberation Committee was created, calling for the establishment of a Polish People's Republic -- in opposition to the Polish Government-in-Exile in London. Although the Communists later claimed that the Committee assembled in Lublin (and that it had been “unveiled” in Chelm Lubelski), in fact, the PNLC was created in Moscow, and operated largely in Moscow for much of its earlier existence.
At about the same time, beginning on August 1, 1944, the tragic Warsaw Uprising was launched.
There had also been a doomed uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. It should be remembered that the Soviet front was several hundred miles away at that time, so the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising could never have been successful. The Polish underground tried to assist the heroic Jewish fighters, but had very drastically limited means under the crushing German occupation. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising can only be understood as an existential gesture of defiance, doomed from the outset.
By August 1944, however, Soviet armies had reached the east side of the Vistula River (the main city of Warsaw is on the west side), and it was widely expected that the Germans would soon crumble.
Although there is some suggestion that the Soviets had outrun their logistical tether at this point, most historians think that Stalin simply suspended Soviet offensive operations, in order to allow the Germans to crush the Uprising without outside impediment. The Polish resistance, nevertheless, continued over more than two, increasingly nightmarish months. The partisan fighters of the Polish Home Army, who mostly had only small arms, could not overcome the heavily armed and supported (tanks, artillery, flame-throwers, etc.) German forces. Furthermore, Hitler had given explicit orders to utterly destroy Warsaw, so the Polish civilian population was almost continually massacred.
Stalin was also culpable in that he refused landing rights to Western Allied planes that could have airdropped weapons, munitions, and other supplies to the insurgents. The Allied airdrops to Warsaw were therefore virtually suicide missions, for which there were nevertheless considerable pilot volunteers.
Over 240,000 Poles (most of them civilians, including massive numbers of women, children, and the elderly) perished in the Uprising, often being killed in the cruelest of ways (such as being burned alive when the Germans deliberately set fire to the Poles’ makeshift hospitals). The Germans exacted a ferocious retribution against the Poles, levelling the entire city, systematically blowing up buildings and monuments in their perceived order of importance to Polish culture, destroying or looting whatever art-works could be found, and deporting the remaining population to concentration camps.
Poland Was Betrayed By Allies
At the Conferences of the "Big Three" (USA, Britain, USSR) at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam, it was decided that Poland would be reconstituted in the boundaries of the Polish Piast state of the early Middle Ages, that is, the frontiers would be shifted by about 200 miles westward. While Poland would receive lands it had lost some 600 years ago, and would be forced to expel the German population living there, it would also lose lands that had been under its influence for over 600 years, and such Polish population there which had survived the various depredations of the war would simply be brutally transferred into the lands vacated by the Germans. The net loss of territory between the gains in the west, and the losses in the east, was almost one-fifth! In Stalin's conception, the Polish gains in the west would bind Poland forever to a pro-Russian orientation, because of Poles’ fear of German revanchism, while Poland’s eastern frontiers would now roughly coincide with what had been the Nazi-Soviet demarcation line of 1939.
Polish soldiers took part in the final battles against Nazi Germany, including the Battle of Berlin. But they did not obtain the real fruits of victory. The adjustment into the new boundaries would have been difficult enough, without Stalin's further goal of imposing hardline Communism on Poland. Stalin could have chosen to allow for considerable internal autonomy while Poland remained under Soviet influence – along the lines of Finland. But that was not Stalin’s way. A civil war between the remnants of the nationalist underground, and the emerging Communist security apparatus, supported by huge Soviet forces, raged until 1949. Over 100,000 Poles died resisting Soviet Communism. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were severely and/or permanently injured as a result of heavy beatings, systematic torture, and brutal conditions of incarceration. Stalin sardonically commented, in his typically crude fashion, that "imposing Communism on Poland was like trying to saddle a cow."
Churchill and Roosevelt did not treat the Poles in the West, who were seen as "unusually recalcitrant towards Stalin," fairly. The Polish gold reserves, which had been spirited out of Poland in 1939, and had indeed paid for most of the expenses of the Polish armies under Western Allied command, were unaccountably returned to the Communist government in Poland, with the result that many Polish veterans were left without any means of future sustenance. The general commanding the First Polish Parachute Brigade, for example, ended up working as a common labourer in Britain. Polish soldiers in the West were not even allowed to officially participate in the great postwar victory marches in London and other cities.
World War II Victory March In 1992
It could therefore be argued that the real World War II victory march for the Polish military took place on Polish Soldiers’ Day, August 15, 1992, when Polish veterans from all over the world gathered to celebrate the beginning of a new, free Poland, and the end of Soviet Communism.
(Partially based on an article co-authored with Apolonja Kojder that appeared in Polish American Journal, August 2004.)
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.