Warsaw Feature

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The Warsaw Rising of 1944

Although the Warsaw Rising of 1944 is one of the key events to understanding modern Polish history, for a long time it received insufficient attention, particularly from the Western world. It was a common misconception to confuse the event with the 1943 Ghetto Uprising, a mistake infamously committed by both German Chancellor Herzog and the French newspaper Le Figaro.

The Warsaw Rising was an armed struggle by the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), the Polish resistance group, in an attempt to liberate Warsaw from German occupation and Nazi rule. It started on August 1, 1944. The date was not chosen at random: at the time, Allied troops were breaking through the Normandy defenses and the Red Army was approaching Warsaw.

Although the Rising failed, the Polish troops resisted the German-led forces for 63 days, until October 2. Losses on the Polish side amounted to 18,000 soldiers killed and 25,000 wounded; in addition, approximately 200,000 civilians were killed, mostly in mass executions conducted by advancing German troops. The German orders were to kill all the inhabitants of Warsaw and take no prisoners. More than 17,000 German soldiers were killed and 9,000 wounded.

During and after the Warsaw Rising—on Hitler's orders—the city was systematically bombed with as many as 123 sorties daily. The bombings were followed by a massive and organized looting campaign. Block after block, Poland's capital was burned to ruins, until 85% of it was destroyed. The fate of Warsaw was to be a grim "example" for Europe.

It all could have turned out differently. Warsaw could have been one of the first European capitals liberated but, as many argue, political miscalculations by its leaders—and even more so by global leaders Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt—turned the tide against the Polish capital. Airdrops from the Allies were too little and too late, and the Soviet army stood before the city only a few hundred meters away, watching Warsaw burning from the other bank of the Vistula River.

Stalin did not want the Polish Home Army to have a victory over the German occupiers. His plans for Poland were different: he wanted to liberate it himself and make it into a Communist state. Although a tragic irony, it is perhaps not surprising that 1944 insurgents faced persecution from the Communists in postwar Poland.

Updated: 2014-01-28

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