Monday, August 01, 2005

Something I should have learned more about in history class

Sixty-one years ago today, 40,000 Poles, poorly equipped and with little training, rose up against 15,000 Wehrmacht soldiers in the city of Warsaw in what was supposed to be a week-long "mopping-up" operation to liberate the capital ahead of the Soviet advance. The Polish government in exile had been assured that the underground Home Army would receive assistance from the allies. That help never came.

Though Russian radio had been urging the uprising for weeks, once it commenced, Stalin called it a "fascist adventure". His armies stopped on the eastern bank of the Vistula and watched, as the German forces, now reinforced to double their original size, routed the Poles. Polish soldiers formerly imprisoned in Siberia and conscripted into the Russian army attempted to swim across the river to fight with their brothers. Most were shot in the water by their captors. Some equipment and ammunition was dropped by the allies, but this was largely ineffective. Since British and American planes weren’t allowed to land at Soviet air bases a few kilometers away, they were forced to fly from Italy and back, carrying only half their potential load, and dropping it largely into enemy hands. The airlifts were quickly abandoned, and the Poles were left alone to defend their capital.

Despite having enough weapons for just 2,500 soldiers, against German tanks, planes and artillery, the Uprising, though planned to last only a week, lasted 63 days. In that time, the insurgents managed to kill 16,000 Germans, capture 2,000, take down three aircraft, and incapacitate 310 tanks. In the last hours, Hitler gave the order to completely raze the city - 10,455 buildings were destroyed, 943 of them historical (94 percent of the total), Along with: 14 libraries including the National Library, 81 elementary schools, 64 high schools, Warsaw University and Polytechnic buildings, and most of the monuments. A million inhabitants lost all of their possessions.

When it was finished, between 15,000 and 20,000 Polish soldiers were killed, 5,000 were wounded and 200,000 Polish civilians (conservatively) were dead. Eighty-five percent of city was completely obliterated, 93 percent was uninhabitable. Varsovians who survived the battle were either gathered up and shot, or sent off to prison camps (55,000). Some 700,000 were expelled from the city. Shortly thereafter, the Soviets moved in and installed a communist-backed leadership.

The more research I do on this particular episode in history, the more convinced I am of its significance, though I hardly learned anything about it in school. The Cold War, in my opinion, can trace its beginnings to this very battle, as Churchill urged Stalin desperately to let British and American planes use those Soviet airfields. That Stalin refused allowed him to take Warsaw - and Poland with it - without a whisper in January. Since Britain had entered the war as an ally of Poland, the country was the stickiest issue at Yalta, but by then little could be done to wrest Poland away from Soviet influence. Thereafter, Poland became the clearest example of the Soviets betraying their promises to the allies.

The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 is a stunning example of men and women willing to die, not just for their freedom, but for the principle of announcing their freedom to the world. They were certain to perish without aid, and without that aid they fought on regardless. Their deaths were their Declaration of Independence.

When we think of August 1944, our thoughts usually turn to those heroic Americans fighting to break out of Normandy. If you are familiar with the Warsaw Uprising, then I ask you to reflect a moment on these Poles, heroic too, whose fight for freedom began at 5:00 pm Central European Daylight Time (11 am EDT, 10 am CDT, etc.), this day in 1944.

If you are unfamiliar with the Uprising, then I urge you to click on one or more of the links below. The lessons the battle has to teach are worth learning.

And please, at least for today, think twice before you tell a Polish joke.

The Warsaw Uprising - an excellent resource. Start here.

Wikipedia: The Warsaw Uprising (for a detailed summary)

Communications between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin in August 1944

Norman Davies (the foremost expert on Polish history in English): Britain and the Warsaw Rising

The Churchill Centre: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Eastern Europe

Conversation between Roosevelt and Stalin, Tehran, December 1943

Interview with Sir Frank Roberts – advisor to Churchill at Yalta, and British minister to Moscow - Long, but well worth the read.

SUNY at Buffalo - Warsaw Uprising resource page