Poles question Warsaw legend

WARSAW, Poland — “Not only idiotic but a crime,” read the cover the Przeglad weekly on Aug. 1, the anniversary of the Warsaw uprising. 

Such an overt negative assessment of the uprising against the German occupiers that ultimately failed after 63 bloody days, leaving the capital a sea of ruins and more than 200,000 dead, was once unthinkable.

Sixty-six years later, closer scrutiny of events surrounding the uprising has emboldened critics.

Controversy has surrounded the uprising from the beginning: Tadeusz “Bor” Komorowski, the commander of the Home Army, the largest resistance force in occupied Europe, launched it with 50,000 poorly armed fighters on the mistaken belief that the Soviets were about to attack the German forces controlling the Polish capital. The Poles wanted to seize back control of Warsaw so that they would be masters of the capital before the Soviets came in, part of their doomed hope of retaining some measure of independence after the war.

Picture taken in July 1944 shows insurgents fighting in the streets of Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising. (Getty Images)

But the Soviets paused on the other side of the Vistula River while the Germans threw heavy armor at the partisans and proceeded to execute tens of thousands of civilians.

The Americans and British were unwilling to exert pressure on the Soviets to help, and in the end the Polish capital fell. The Germans then evacuated the half-million surviving people and proceeded to methodically blow up almost every building in the capital. Poland was liberated by the Red Army, and spent the next 45 years as a Soviet satellite.

As a mark of the scale of the mismatch between the Poles and the Germans, the Germans only suffered about 9,000 dead and missing, while the Poles lost about 16,000 fighters and almost 200,000 civilians.

During the years of communist rule, the uprising was portrayed in the official media as an anti-Soviet action by the underground Home Army, which was true, and condemned the rebellion as an irresponsible act. No official commemorations of the uprising were held, and many of the leaders were imprisoned by the communists and some were executed.

“I walked through the ruins of Warsaw in 1945 and I saw that it had been a disaster,” said Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last leader of communist Poland.

While the communists denounced the uprising, the memory of the doomed battle was kept alive by Polish exiles in the west. After the end of communism in 1989, the uprising became a central part of democratic Poland's identity. Lech Kaczynski became Poland's president in 2005 in large part because of his success in building a museum to the uprising — arguably the most innovative and most modern museum in the country. 

The uprising has also been embraced in modern pop culture.

Souvenir stands sell plastic German helmets for children adorned with red-and-white bands, similar to the captured helmets worn by the partisans. Despite protests from the director of the museum, Jan Oldakowski, war re-enactors have taken to staging public battles, often using enthusiastic children as soldiers, something that was a rarity during the actual uprising. Sabaton, a Swedish power metal band, recently released a song “Uprising” extolling the bravery of the revolt.

On Aug. 1, sirens and church bells rang out across the capital to remember the hour the uprising began and the city came to a halt for one minute of silence.

Grzegorz Schetyna, the speaker of parliament, said: “Today, historians often ask the question of whether this offering of Warsaw, of the best sons and daughters of this city, was a waste ... We have to answer that it was not a waste. The offering of 63 days, the offering of the night of occupation, the uprising, they are all symbols which have been an inspiration to subsequent generations.”

But as the uprising has become ingrained in Polish national life, questions over whether it should have ever happened — something that had once been seen as the preserve of the old communist government — are becoming increasingly accepted.

“Almost every Pole is captivated and impressed by the rare courage of the partisans and the civilian population of the city, which for 63 days fought a lonely and unequal battle with the Germans, while also being terrified by the enormity of the human and material costs that resulted from the uprising,” writes Jan Ciechanowski, a historian and a fighter in the uprising, in the Przeglad magazine.

In a survey conducted last year, almost 90 percent of Poles felt that the uprising was important, 68 percent of all Poles felt that the uprising was justified, but only 48 percent of Varsovians, who live in a city where the scars of the uprising are still visible, agree with that sentiment.

“I can see why the uprising took place, but I wish it had never happened,” said Tadeusz Danielewski, buying fruit in a south Warsaw market just a couple of blocks away from an apartment building still bearing unrepaired bullet holes from the fighting in 1944.