Accessibility links

Poland: Aftershocks Still Being Felt As Warsaw Remembers Failed Uprising

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising take place in the Polish capital on 1 August. The revolt of the Polish Home Army against the Nazi German occupation cost the lives of as many as 20,000 Polish underground fighters, and tens of thousands of civilians. Among those in Warsaw for the commemoration will be German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Despite the passage of time, wounds are still raw in Poland, and the occasion will provide another opportunity to advance German-Polish reconciliation.

Prague, 29 July 2004 -- During and after a 63-day uprising by Polish resistance fighters in 1944, the Polish capital was destroyed by Nazi German forces. Hardly a stone remained standing upon a stone, and several hundred thousand Poles were killed or deported to labor camps.

Memories of the catastrophe remain fresh in the minds of many Poles, and time has not softened the pain.

Miraslava Grabowska, today a sociologist, is one of those who cannot forget. She said all the men in her family of her father's generation fought in the uprising. One was killed. The rest were sent to concentration camps: "All houses and apartments, all of them belonging to my family, were destroyed after the uprising. The family was expelled from Warsaw and were reunited only in 1947. The family lost literally everything. Let me give you an example. I have not even one photo of my grandfather on my father's side because the apartment was destroyed. Everything was burned, [and] my grandfather was killed in the uprising."

The Warsaw Uprising is described by noted British historian Norman Davies as "one of the great tragedies of the 20th century." He has written a new book about the event called "Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw."

Davies, who is in Warsaw for this weekend's ceremonies, spoke to RFE/RL today: "There is no equivalent in European history of a capital city being completely destroyed, and all its inhabitants either killed or deported. To give some idea of the destruction in Warsaw, the same number of people were killed every day for 60 days as died in the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001."

The 1944 uprising by Polish resistance forces is sometimes confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which occurred in 1943, and is a separate tragedy.

By the summer of 1944, Soviet forces under Marshal Konstantin Rokossovskii had reached the Vistula River outside Warsaw. The Polish uprising began on 1 August, in the belief that the Soviets would support them in the fight. But Rokossovskii's soldiers were still on the other side of the river, watching, when the uprising collapsed on 5 October.
"What we are bringing into [the EU] is not only a very tragic and emotional historic background, but also a large input of our experience in a Europe which has been divided." -- Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Boguslav Majewski

The conventional thinking is that Soviet leader Josef Stalin held back his forces on purpose, and was pleased to see the Polish Home Army -- the essence of Polish national resistance -- destroyed by the Germans. The Soviets completed that destruction once they took Warsaw, detaining or executing surviving Home Army leaders.

However, Davies said he is not so sure of Soviet intentions: "I'm not certain that this was a deliberate [Soviet] ploy. We have not yet seen the key documents from Moscow, about what Stalin may or may not have been thinking, so we are guessing. But my impression is that the Red Army intended to take Warsaw in the first place. In fact, we have a military plan which says they were going to take it on 2 August. But they were then very confused over what was going on, and held back."

Davies said his main question is why, during the nine weeks of the uprising, the allied coalition -- which included the Soviet Union, as well as the Western powers and Poland -- could not coordinate their activities to come to the assistance of the resistance fighters.

What was it, asked Davies, that prevented them from saving an allied capital from total destruction?

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will be among the foreign dignitaries present when the anniversary ceremonies take place in Warsaw on 1 August. Sociologist Miraslava Grabowska said that, for the older Polish generation, Schroeder's presence will be difficult to accept: "The reconciliation between France and Germany after the Second World War was a process, a gradual process. In the case of Germany and Poland, it has been more rapid, more unexpected, in a sense less prepared for. That's why it is much more difficult."

Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Boguslav Majewski sets a more optimistic tone, saying Poles are hoping the commemoration will give major impetus to already solid German-Polish relations: "The presence of Chancellor Schroeder is yet another proof of how close German-Polish relations have become. It is very symbolic. We all do vividly remember how [then West German Chancellor] Willy Brandt knelt in front of the [Warsaw] Ghetto Uprising heroes [monument in 1970]. We are hoping this will be another major historical step forward in providing our relations with additional incentives of a positive magnitude."

The expansion in May of the European Union into Eastern Europe, including Poland, at last ended the half-century division at the heart of the continent. Poland's strongest supporter through years of sometimes acrimonious entry negotiations was Germany.

Despite that, Poland's arrival at the EU table coincided with a sharp dispute involving Warsaw and Berlin over an EU constitution. That led many commentators to label Poland as likely to be a difficult partner, one not attuned to the art of compromise.

However, spokesman Boguslav Majewski denied Poland is obsessed with the past: "What we are bringing into [the EU] is not only a very tragic and emotional historic background, but also a large input of our experience in a Europe which has been divided. And that experience only makes us stronger in making Europe more unified and a better place to live. We bring a moral dimension, so to say, a very fresh one, with a keen remembrance of where divisions can lead, and a feeling that who else if not those who are left behind should be the ones to make Europe a stronger entity?"

Undeniably, there is still some anti-German feeling among Poles, just as there is antipathy in some circles in Germany toward Poland, especially in view of the exile of ethnic Germans at war's end.

Peter Zervakis is a senior analyst at Bonn University's European Integration Research Center. He said Poles at least broadly appreciated what democratic West Germany achieved: "It has been recognized in Poland that West Germany had accepted its guilt from the Nazi era, and that since the 1960s, it has consciously worked through historical commissions -- and also through continuing financial compensation and stipends, and through [various] institutions -- to disperse the climate of mistrust."

Zervakis said every German from every generation must confront the crimes committed in the name of the German people -- through schools, universities and in life generally. But he said a simplistic picture of recent European history is no longer possible. Without diminishing Germany's role, he pointed out that Poland has had its own specters to confront, such as anti-Semitism.

"This immediate European past can no longer be presented in black and white -- a bipolarity of good and evil -- because in the end, every country in its different way carries some guilt, [every country] has perpetrators, as well as victims," Zervakis said.

And he said he believes Poland has not yet faced the shadows in its past, as a Nazi-occupied country and later as a communist state.