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Warsaw 44 – an uprising betrayed

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Tens of thousands of people in Warsaw rose up against Nazi rule 75 years ago this month. The heroic action was abandoned by the Allies, writes Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2665
Fighters in the Warsaw Uprising
Fighters in the Warsaw Uprising (Pic: Juliusz Bogdan Deczkowski)

The resistance and uprisings against Nazi rule towards the end of the Second World War is a story that’s not often told. But from Italy and Greece to Slovakia and Poland, people fought to liberate themselves from Nazi occupation and build a society without the squalor of the 1930s.

One of those uprisings—in the Polish capital of Warsaw—happened 75 years ago this month. It’s a story of brave ­heroism by ordinary people—and betrayal by the rulers of countries credited with winning the war.

The rising drew in tens of thousands of women and men who wanted to free Warsaw from the German forces that had occupied the country in 1939.

At “W Hour”—5pm on 1 August—50,000 members of the underground Home Army rose up across the city. One Home Army soldier remembered, “The 2 August was the second day of the rising and we marched from the Umschlagplatz to Vola, a nearby district of Warsaw.

“The distance of one or two kilometres was free of Germans, and thousands of people lined the streets, throwing flowers and crying.”

Krystyna Fundalinska, a ­factory worker, remembered, “A group of young men ran in. One of them spoke in a loud voice, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the uprising has started’. Everyone started running, who knows where. But I stood still. I could not move, it was as if my feet had grown roots. ‘Oh my God, an uprising,’ I kept repeating to myself, ‘an ­uprising, The Uprising’.”

People knew the stakes were high. They had seen how brutally the Nazis put down the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto Uprising the previous year.

Witold, a 16 year old ­resistance member, remembers, “A series of shots smashed both of my brother’s knees. Though he was no longer able to stand on his own, we got him to a nearby hospital.

“Later the Germans units entered the hospital, ordered all the wounded who could walk into the courtyard and shot them, the doctors and nurses also. Then they set the building on fire.”

The people of Warsaw fought bravely. But two and half months later their fight ended in disastrous defeat. Over 200,000 were killed and the city levelled to the ground.

The Uprising had fallen victim to another battle that was raging in the background. In the Allied camp the “Big Three”—the US, Russia and Britain—were fighting over who would control Europe and the world after the war. And, for all the rhetoric of liberation, ordinary people’s aspirations in the occupied countries weren’t their concern.

Wrangling, competition, horse trading and manoeuvring between the rulers of these countries left those resisting the Nazis to their fate.

Germany invaded Poland War in September 1939. The invasion was part of an imperialist carve up between Adolf Hitler and Russian ­dictator Joseph Stalin. The German invasion forced Britain to declare war because it too had signed a treaty with Poland in August.

The press dubbed it a “phoney war”, but the British ruling class had already proved itself to be a phoney ally. Poland wasn’t its first choice of ally against Germany. 

Soldiers in the home army

Soldiers in the home army (Pic: Jerzy Tomaszewski)

In the 1930s Britain’s rulers didn’t view Hitler as a major threat. He posed no immediate danger to their empire in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Many admired how ­fascism had crushed the labour movement. In fact, in the previous decade Britain had focused on a naval arms race with the US.

But the situation began to shift when Hitler’s imperial designs looked like they could upset the balance of power among European states. Germany became a bigger rival to Britain. While Britain’s rulers didn’t think war was necessary, they hoped to contain Hitler. In this, they already had France as an ally in western Europe, but also wanted an ally in eastern Europe.

Some sections of the British ruling class had contemplated the idea of an alliance with Russia if it would help defend the British Empire.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact in August 1939 made this impossible. But the situation was spiralling quickly, as Hitler had already annexed Austria and then the whole of Czechoslovakia.

Poland seemed to be the only option of an ally in ­eastern Europe, and a treaty was signed hastily in response to the pact. But Britain’s rulers let slip that their concern was ­safeguarding their imperial interests, not ­defending national ­independence or ­fighting fascism.

The last despatch from the British Ambassador Sir Howard Kennard said, “The whole Polish people should at the end of the war have the right to an independent life”.

One Foreign Office official wrote in the margin, “I see little prospect of those sections of the Polish people included in the areas taken over by Russia ever being given such an opportunity.”

When Russia joined the Allies after the Nazi invasion in 1941, Winston Churchill was keen to make sure Poland wouldn’t become a sticking point.

The imperialist rivalries among the Allies would have disastrous consequences for their fight for liberation, and the politics of the ­leadership of the resistance ­limited the struggle.

There was a Polish ­government-in-exile based in London which represented Poland’s old ruling class. Their aim was to become the ruling class again through British support.

The resistance forces in Poland—known as the “Polish Underground State”—came from a much broader base than the old ruling class.

The political leadership included socialists, not aligned with Russia, who were for a different sort of society after the war. The majority of the ­resistance united to form the Home Army, which would lead the Warsaw Uprising.

This structure gave great power to the Polish generals and officers who had launched resistance organisations after army’s surrender in 1939.

Stanislaw Tabor was a ­particularly influential general. He represented a section of Poland’s resistance leaders that looked to Russia, against the wishes of the government in exile. “The Soviet Union is going to become the decisive power in all of our territories,” he wrote.

“In that situation, we ought to enter agreements with Moscow, make the necessary concessions, and change our orientation from pro-Western to pro-Soviet.”

But faith in Russian ­imperialism was to prove fatal for the uprising. After the first four days of the uprising, Nazi reinforcements moved on the city’s Wola ­district on 4 August. SS troops murdered up to 50,000 civilians, street by street, house by house. It was a brutal taste of what was the come.

The Home Army still had successes afterwards, but was fighting a defensive and losing battle to keep hold of the ­territory it had liberated.

Russian forces waited, amassed on the banks of Vistula river in the east of Warsaw. Stalin had branded the Polish resistance a “handful of criminals”. He had set up a Political Committee of National Liberation, a puppet ­organisation that would rule Polish territories. He wanted the uprising to be defeated to make sure there wasn’t a force that would ­challenge future rule by Russia.

The Home Army was forced to sign a capitulation agreement on 3 October. The Nazis cleared the whole population of Warsaw—­sending many to concentration camps. They totally destroyed the city through bombardment.

After Russian troops entered the destroyed city, Russian secret police rounded up members of the Home Army and those who opposed the new rulers.

Stalin’s ruthless ­treatment of a resistance ­movement wasn’t unique among the Allies. The British did the same in Greece in 1944. With Stalin’s agreement, they crushed the left wing resistance movement that had liberated the country from Nazi rule.

A few days after the Warsaw Uprising, the Allies met at the Fourth Moscow Conference to discuss the fate of the rest of Europe. Churchill drew up an ­agreement dividing the continent into Western and Russian spheres of influence. What the Allies had done to Poland, they now resolved to do to the other “liberated” countries.

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