THE controversial drama of the Warsaw Uprising and the unbridled brutality of the Nazi response keep alive memories of this tragic event during the Second World War. In August 1944 the Polish Home Army (the AK) rose in revolt against the Nazi occupation of Poland’s capital. In two months of ferocious fighting, 200,000 citizens of Warsaw were killed and a quarter of the city was destroyed. Not since Stalingrad had the Germans experienced urban warfare of this intensity and they would not do so again until the Red Army stormed Berlin in April 1945.
When the AK finally surrendered on October 2, the Germans razed the Polish capital to the ground and expelled 800,000 civilian survivors. Many were to end up in Auschwitz, while others were shipped to Germany as slave labourers. The epic battle was immortalised by Polish director Andrzej Waida’s award-winning 1956 film Kanal, which memorably depicted an AK’s unit’s attempt to escape from the German onslaught through the city’s sewers.
In the 70 years since, this chapter of the war has been a cause of much controversy. Was the timing of the AK’s insurrection wrong? What did the revolt achieve apart from civilian deaths on a mass scale? Was it a misjudged political manoeuvre that could only end in military disaster? Could more support for the rebels from Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union have ensured the uprising would succeed? As Poland was the first country invaded by Hitler in 1939, the uprising had a long gestation.
The nationalist AK, allied to the Polish government-in-exile in London, was one of the largest resistance movements in Nazi-occupied Europe. The AK conducted a campaign of sabotage and assassination against the Nazi occupation of Poland. In Warsaw alone, it had 40,000 operational underground soldiers. It had planned to stage a national insurrection when the time was ripe, but not in Warsaw because of well-founded fears German retaliation would destroy Poland’s capital city.
The precedent for an insurrection in Warsaw was not a happy one. In April 1943, citizens in the German-created Jewish ghetto revolted in a last desperate act of resistance to the mass deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps. The small but determined Jewish revolt held out for a month, but it became clear an uprising in Warsaw was likely doomed to fail without significant outside support.
The AK’s decision at the end of July 1944 to change tack and to stage an uprising in Warsaw was prompted by the success of Operation Bagration — the Soviet offensive to liberate Belorussia from German occupation. During the course of this hugely successful operation, the Red Army advanced into Poland, to the outskirts of Warsaw.
Soviet attacks on Warsaw that summer were spearheaded by the pro-communist Polish First Army, led by General Zygmunt Berling. The First recruited from among Poles who’d been deported to the USSR during 1939-1940 when Stalin was allied with Hitler in the Nazi-Soviet pact.
Stalin and his generals planned to seize Warsaw; indeed, they expected to capture the Polish capital by early August. However, German forces rallied their defences on the eastern banks of the Vistula — the river which transects Poland and its capital — and halted the Red Army’s advance. While the Soviets continued their efforts to establish bridgeheads on the western side of the Vistula, the main offensive was called off. The Red Army would not capture Warsaw until January 1945.
But the leaders of the AK within Warsaw calculated that the Red Army would soon arrive in the city. The decision was taken to stage an insurrection to finish off the Germans and seize control of the city before the Soviets arrived. The nationalist AK feared that if they did not take the initiative, their communist rivals in the Polish resistance would link up with the Soviet-commanded Polish First for the liberation of Poland’s capital.
An uprising in Warsaw represented the AK’s last chance to organise a major insurrection.
Poland was being liberated by the Red Army — which was overshadowing the resistance efforts of the AK.
When the AK moved to seize key buildings, occupy strategic locations and to engage the Germans in fighting, it expected the battle of Warsaw to last no more than a few days.
Their soldiers were equipped with small firearms and hand grenades but had few machine guns or anti-tank weapons.
The lesson of Stalingrad was that urban fighters could hold out for weeks in the rubble of a city battlefield but only with artillery and air support and constant resupply. The insurrection could only succeed if the Germans were forced by the Red Army to withdraw from Warsaw.
The German success in preventing the Red Army from capturing Warsaw in early August upset everyone’s calculations. While the AK faced a prolonged battle that it could not win, the Soviet problem was how to respond to the uprising while regrouping for another assault on Warsaw. The Germans unexpectedly found themselves with the time and capacity to crush the uprising. Indeed, the Nazis had an opportunity to implement a final solution to the Polish problem. Warsaw was at the heart of Polish nationalism, so destroying the city and its people would effectively wipe out the nation of Poland for centuries to come, or so the Nazis believed.
GERMAN forces of 50,000 troops ranged against the AK were backed by aircraft, tanks and heavy artillery. It was a multi-national force, ironically including in its ranks many Russian collaborators with the Germans.
Because the urban battlefield was so large, the insurgents were saved from immediate defeat at the hands of superior forces. The Germans had to engage in a relatively long war of attrition to flush the insurgents out of their strongholds. However, the final result was never in doubt as long as the insurrection was cut off from the Red Army.
Stalin was in no hurry to help the AK. He knew the uprising had been staged against the Soviet Union as well as Hitler. He had no doubt that the Red Army would soon capture Warsaw and believed aid to the insurgents was wasted. He was enraged by suggestions the Red Army had paused deliberately in its offensive to allow the Germans time to destroy the AK. To Stalin, the Warsaw Uprising was a madcap adventure and he placed responsibility for the tragedy directly with the AK and its political masters in London.
Stalin’s hostility to the AK underpinned the Soviet refusal to facilitate British and American air supplies to the insurgents. However, in September, Stalin’s policy changed and the Soviets began their own air drops to the insurgents, a change of heart prompted by the realisation the Red Army would not be able to launch another major assault on Warsaw any time soon. But the supplies came too little too late. The efforts of the Polish First faltered, the Red Army went onto the defensive and the AK’s insurrection collapsed.
In the aftermath of the uprising, recriminations as to who was responsible for the tragedy continued. The ideological polemics of the Cold War added piquancy as Polish nationalists blamed the Soviets for the failure of the insurrection and complained about British and American appeasement of Stalin.
The Soviets blamed the AK, while the Anglo-Americans used the tragic outcome as yet another stick with which to beat the communists.
The main culprits, of course, were the Germans but the Nazis had massacred millions during the war and Warsaw’s sufferings faded into the background. Yet the city and its people survived those efforts to destroy it. After the Second World War much of the old town was reconstructed in defiance of Hitler’s determination when the uprising began to wipe the city off the face of the earth.