|Caption: Old Town Market Place, January 1945. German forces deliberately destroyed 85% of Warsaw.
Attribution: M.Świerczyński, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Destroyed_Warsaw,_capital_of_Poland,_January_1945_-_version_2.jpg
Setting the Scene
A publication on the Department of State, Office of the Historian website, “Milestones in the History of US Foreign Relations,” may have been retired, but the text remains online for reference purposes, although it is no longer being maintained or expanded. Particularly interesting is the section on the US-Soviet Alliance, 1941–1945:
“As late as 1939, it seemed highly improbable that the US and the Soviet Union would forge an alliance. US-Soviet relations had soured significantly following Stalin’s decision to sign a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in August of 1939. The Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in September and the “Winter War” against Finland in December led [the US] President Franklin Roosevelt to condemn the Soviet Union publicly as a “dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world,” and to impose a “moral embargo” on the export of certain products to the Soviets. Nevertheless, despite intense pressure to sever relations with the Soviet Union, Roosevelt never lost sight of the fact that Nazi Germany, not the Soviet Union, posed the greatest threat to world peace. Roosevelt confided that he “would hold hands with the devil” if necessary to overcome that threat. Following the Nazi defeat of France in June of 1940, Roosevelt grew wary of the increasing aggression of the Germans and made some diplomatic moves to improve relations with the Soviets. Beginning in July of 1940, several negotiations took place in Washington between the [US] Under-Secretary of State (Sumner Welles) and Soviet Ambassador Constantine Oumansky. Welles refused to accede to Soviet demands that the United States recognize the changed borders of the Soviet Union after the Soviet seizure of territory in Finland, Poland, and Romania and the reincorporation of the Baltic Republics in August 1940, but the US Government did lift the embargo in January 1941. Furthermore, in March of 1941, Welles warned Oumansky of a future Nazi attack against the Soviet Union. Finally, during the Congressional debate concerning the passage of the Lend-Lease bill in early 1941, Roosevelt blocked attempts to exclude the Soviet Union from receiving US assistance.”
The Warsaw Uprising was a major World War II operation by the Polish underground resistance to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. It took place in the mid to late summer of 1944, and it was led by the Polish resistance Home Army (Polish: Armia Krajowa). The uprising was timed to coincide with and take advantage of the retreat of the German forces from Poland ahead of the anticipated Soviet advance into Warsaw.
While approaching the eastern suburbs of the city, the Red Army temporarily (and deliberately) halted combat operations, enabling the Germans to regroup and defeat the Polish resistance and destroy the city in retaliation. The Uprising was fought for 63 days, from 1st August to 2nd October 1944, with little outside support. It was the single largest military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II.
The Uprising began on 1st August 1944 as part of a nationwide Operation Tempest, launched at the time of the Soviet Lublin–Brest Offensive. The main Polish objectives were to drive the Germans out of Warsaw while helping the Allies defeat Germany. An additional and political goal of the Polish Underground State was to liberate Poland’s capital city and assert Polish sovereignty before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation could assume control. Other immediate causes included:
- a threat of mass German round-ups of able-bodied Poles for “evacuation”
- calls by Radio Moscow‘s Polish Service for the uprising
- an emotional Polish desire for justice and revenge against the enemy after five years of German occupation.
As it turned out, the belief that the Soviets would push forward and help the Poles drive the Germans from Warsaw was intentionally false, and the promises made were empty, as you will see later in this paper.
Initially, the Poles established control over most of central Warsaw, but the Soviets ignored Polish attempts to make radio contact with them and did not advance beyond the city limits. Intense street fighting between the Germans and Poles continued. By 14th September 1944, the eastern bank of the Vistula River opposite the Polish resistance positions was taken over by the Polish troops fighting under the Soviet command; 1,200 men made it across the river, but they were not reinforced by the Red Army. Together with the lack of air support from the Soviet air base five minutes flying time away, this led to allegations that Joseph Stalin tactically halted his forces to let the operation fail and allow the Polish resistance to be crushed. Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born author and journalist, called the Soviet attitude “one of the major infamies of this war which will rank for the future historian on the same ethical level with Lidice.” &. On the other hand, David Glantz, the American military historian known for his books on the Red Army during World War II and as the chief editor of The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, has argued that the uprising started too early and the Red Army could not realistically have aided it, regardless of Soviet intentions.
Winston Churchill pleaded with Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt to help Britain’s Polish allies, to no avail. Then, without Soviet air clearance, Churchill sent over 200 low-level supply drops by the Royal Air Force, the South African Air Force, and the Polish Air Force under British High Command in an operation known as the Warsaw Airlift. Later, after gaining Soviet air clearance, the US Army Air Force sent one high-level mass airdrop as part of Operation Frantic, although 80% of these supplies landed in German-controlled territory.
Although the exact number of casualties is unknown, it is estimated that about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed, and about 6,000 were badly wounded. In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 or more Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions. Jews being harboured by Poles were exposed by German house-to-house clearances and mass evictions of entire neighbourhoods. German casualties were light in comparison – totalling over 2,000 to 17,000 soldiers killed and missing.
During the urban combat, approximately 25% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed. Following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically levelled another 35% of the city block by block. Together with earlier damage suffered in the 1939 invasion of Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, over 85% of the city was destroyed by January 1945 when adverse events in the Eastern Front forced the Germans to abandon the city altogether.
The Destruction of Warsaw
The German razing of the city had long been planned. Warsaw had been selected for destruction and major reconstruction as part of the Nazis’ planned Germanisation of Central Europe under the Nazi Generalplan Ost. However, by late 1944, with the war nearly lost, the Germans had abandoned their plans of colonising the East. Thus, the destruction of Warsaw did not serve any military or colonial purpose; it was carried out as an act of reprisal or perhaps sheer bloody-mindedness. However, it was probably neither of these reasons.
To find the answer, you have to go back to Tuesday, 20th June 1939, when Adolf Hitler was in Bavaria visiting an architectural bureau in Würzburg am Main, he noticed a project of a future new German town – Neue Deutsche Stadt Warschau. The project was called the Pabst Plan – a Nazi German urban plan to reconstruct the city of Warsaw as a Nazi model city. Named after its creator Friedrich Pabst, the Nazis’ “Chief Architect for Warsaw”, the plan assumed that Warsaw, the historical capital of Poland and a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, would be completely destroyed and rebuilt as a small German town of not more than 130,000 inhabitants.
Third Reich planners drafted precise drawings outlining a historic “Germanic” core where only a few landmarks would be saved – such as the Royal Castle as it was intended to serve as Hitler’s state residence. The Pabst Plan was composed of 15 drawings and a miniature architectural model, redefining the concept of destroying a nation’s morale and culture by destroying its physical and architectural manifestations. The design of the actual new German city over the site of Warsaw was devised by Hubert Gross, a German architect.
During the Warsaw Uprising, the Soviets and their Allies watched from the sidelines, German forces dedicated an unprecedented effort to raze the city, destroying 80–90% of Warsaw’s buildings, including the vast majority of museums, art galleries, theatres, churches, parks, and historical buildings such as castles and palaces. They deliberately demolished, burned, or stole a large part of Warsaw’s cultural heritage. Special groups of German combat engineers were dispatched throughout Warsaw to burn (Brandkommandos) and demolish (Sprengkommandos) any remaining buildings.
The aftermath of the Nazi’s success in quelling the Warsaw Uprising presented an opportunity for Hitler to begin to realise his pre-war conception, albeit without preserving many landmarks. After the war, extensive work was put into rebuilding the city according to the Nazi’s pre-war plans and historical documents, but, of course, in a peaceful non-Nazi environment.
Another consequence of the Warsaw Uprising was that it created a rift between Stalin and his Western Allies, which some historians argue anticipated the Cold War.
In her article, “The Diplomatic Background of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944: The Players and the Stakes,” Anna M. Cienciala argues that the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 “was not only the culmination of Polish resistance against the Germans but also the climax of the Polish-Soviet dispute over the Polish eastern frontier.” The National WWII Museum, New Orleans records:
“Joseph Stalin’s desire to decide Poland’s postwar borders and government, however, also played an important role since it guided his decision not to provide sufficient aid to the Polish Home Army. As historian Norman Davies argues, Stalin’s decisions seem to have followed a certain sequence: wait and see what would happen, dissociate himself from the exiled government’s political leadership, and finally, refuse to assist his allies’ attempts to provide support to the insurgents and civilians trapped in Warsaw. Stalin’s misrepresentation of the Soviet Army’s situation, and his prohibitions on Allied planes landing on Soviet-occupied airfields, created conflict within the Allied alliance and marked one of the first major disagreements between Stalin and his Western allies.”
The Yalta Conference (codenamed Argonaut), also known as the Crimea Conference, was held from the fourth to the 11th of February 1945. It was a meeting of the heads of government of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union to discuss the postwar reorganisation of Germany and Europe. The three states were represented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and General Secretary Joseph Stalin, respectively. The conference was held near Yalta in Crimea, Soviet Union, within the Livadia, Yusupov, and Vorontsov palaces.
The aim of the Yalta Conference was to ‘shape a postwar peace’ that represented not only a collective security order but also a plan to give self-determination to the liberated peoples of Europe. Intended mainly to discuss the re-establishment of the nations of war-torn Europe, within only a short time, with the Cold War dividing the continent, the conference became a subject of intense controversy.
By March 1945, it was crystal clear that Stalin had no intention of keeping his word regarding political freedom in Poland. Instead, Soviet troops helped squash any opposition to the provisional government based in Lublin, Poland. When elections were finally held in 1947, predictably, they solidified Poland as one of the first Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe. The uprising’s failure allowed the pro-Soviet Polish administration, rather than the Polish government-in-exile in London, to gain control of Poland.
The New World Encyclopaedia put it like this:
“Simply put, the Soviets had no interest in assisting the Home Army to liberate Warsaw. The Soviets were planning to annex the eastern half of Poland, first occupied in 1939 under the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, and to exercise control over the rest. The Western Allies had secretly agreed to these points at the conference in Teheran in December 1943. The Poles suspected the worst from Stalin, but they had confidence that their British and American allies would keep Soviet ambitions in check. This turned out to be a complete miscalculation.”
Why did the Warsaw Uprising fail?
It wasn’t the numbers: numerically, the Poles roughly matched the Germans. But the Germans were better armed and had tanks and other heavy artillery, which gave them an advantage. Martin Stankiewicz may have the best answer to this question in his 1996 paper (The Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Why Did it Fail?), submitted to the Committee on Undergraduate Honors at Baruch College of the City University of New York as part of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts in History with Honors. He wrote:
“The Warsaw Uprising is a story of several thousand Poles who, once again, refused to accept the fate of Poland under occupation. It was ultimately their first and last military effort for independence. Those who have studied the factors surrounding the Uprising of 1944 have established their own theories explaining the occurrence. Joanna Hanson, who wrote The Civilian Population and the Warsaw Uprising, says that the rising was bound to occur as a result of living conditions. Norman Davies, who has written God’s Playground: A History of Poland, says that the Warsaw Uprising was heroic but a mistake; that it was premature. Some, on the other hand, claim that the Poles would have won if they were provided with Allied reinforcements and that the uprising was not only heroic but also reasonable and sustainable. Zawodny, who has written Nothing but Honour: The Story of the Warsaw Uprising, a comprehensive study on the subject, strongly believes this. In the years following the war, many historians tried to analyze what happened in Warsaw and why, yet none of them seem [sic] to agree. Each one comes to their own conclusion. None [were] able to agree on one analysis of the interpretation. In order to understand the uprising, one must first know the events that led up to it.”
The brutality of the German occupation of Poland continued unabated, with thousands dying daily in camps, summary executions and street round-ups. Polish resistance forces were unified under the aegis of the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army. The only exceptions were the small Communist movement and a small group on the right (ONR). The underground force was large and well-organised, but it sorely lacked sufficient weapons: only 10% of fighters had a firearm of any sort, and heavy weapons were almost non-existent. Yet the insurgents prepared for an uprising that would strike back at the hated occupiers of their country.
The decision of the Polish government-in-exile to launch the Warsaw Uprising remains controversial, with some contemporary historians and commentators regarding it as a catastrophic strategic and moral mistake. In an exclusive excerpt from his autobiography (published in Polish by Znak), well-respected Norman Davies, the author of Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw (2003), defends the decision in its historical context by suggesting the following factors:
- The Polish leaders did not know what we know today.
- The decision to launch the Uprising was not taken lightly.
- Events unfolded differently than military experts had predicted.
- The Uprising should be judged on its own initial objectives.
- The Polish leadership seriously considered the fate of civilians.
- The terms of surrender reflected the determination of the insurgents.
- The potential postwar consequences of the Uprising were unclear.
- The tragedy of the Uprising sprang from failures of the whole allied coalition.
There is no evidence that the Polish Home Army coordinated its struggle with the Soviet army. According to Russian memoirs (for example, Konstantin Rokossovsky, who led the Warsaw liberation), the Home Army tried to liberate the city before (and without) the Soviet army.
Trump and Warsaw
The US President at the time, Donald Trump, was right to embrace the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, says Marc A. Thiessen in an article in The Washington Post on 8th July 2017. In holding the insurgents up as an example of the courage we need to confront the totalitarian threats of our time, Trump was not only right — he righted a historical wrong. Before Trump, no American president had honoured the brave sacrifice of over 200,000 insurgents – the reason, says Thiessen, is that the failure to stand with the insurgents is a stain on the history of the West.
In 1944, Winston Churchill had tried to enlist President Franklin D Roosevelt in pressing Joseph Stalin to allow Allied planes, carrying arms for the insurgents, to refuel on Soviet air bases. After Stalin rejected their first appeal, Churchill told Roosevelt they should try again and send the planes anyway if Stalin refused and “see what happens.” But Roosevelt replied, “I do not consider it advantageous to the long-range general war prospect for me to join you in the proposed message to Uncle Joe.” Churchill decided to send planes anyway, and an estimated 360 British, Polish and South African airmen, died in the skies over Warsaw. Eventually, the US sent only one air mission, but it was too little, too late. When the Poles finally surrendered, Hitler ordered Warsaw to be razed.
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Sources and Further Reading
- Book: A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, by Gerhard Weinberg, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1994), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/World-Arms-Global-History-War/dp/0521618266
- Book: God’s Playground – A History of Poland, by Norman Davies(New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gods-Playground-History-Poland-Origins/dp/0199253390/
- Book: Nothing but Honour: The Story of the Warsaw Uprising, by Janusz Kazimierz Zawodny, (California: Hoover Institution Press, 1978), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nothing-but-Honour-Institution-Publication/dp/0817968318
- Book: The Civilian Population and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, by Joanna KM Hanson,(London: Cambridge University Press, 1982), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Civilian-Population-Warsaw-Uprising-1944/dp/0521234212
- Book: Warsaw Rising, by Gunther Deschner, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972), available at: https://www.abebooks.com/book-search/title/warsaw-rising/author/deschner-gunther/
- Book: Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw, by Norman Davies, Paperback, (published by Pan, 26th July 2018) available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rising-44-Battle-Norman-Davies/dp/1509868305/
- Book: Kaia, Heroine of the 1944 Warsaw Rising, by Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm, (Lexington Books, 4th May 2012), ISBN: 9780739172704, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kaia-Heroine-1944-Warsaw-Rising/dp/0739172700/
- Book for Free Download: The Fighting Republic of Poland 1939–1945, by Dr Maciej Korkuć, available at: https://ipn.gov.pl/download/2/17838/14162019WalczacaRzeczpospolitaENm.pdf
 Sources: (1) Davies, Norman (2008) . “Outbreak”. Rising ’44. The Battle for Warsaw. London: Pan Books. ISBN 978-0330475747 pp. 268, 271, and (2) Warsaw Uprising 1944. www.warsawuprising.com, referenced at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising
 Source: Koestler, letter in Tribune magazine 15th September 1944, reprinted in Orwell, Collected Works, I Have Tried to Tell the Truth, p.374, referenced at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising
 Explanation: The Associated Press, quoting German radio transmissions which it received in New York, said: “All male grownups of the town were shot, while the women were placed in a concentration camp, and the children were entrusted to appropriate educational institutions.” Approximately 340 people from Lidice were murdered in the German reprisal (192 men, 60 women and 88 children) for the assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich in the late spring of 1942.
 Source: David M. Glantz (2001). The Soviet-German War 1941–1945: Myths and Realities: A Survey Essay, referenced at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising
 Source: Stalin’s Private Airfields; The diplomacy surrounding the AAF mission to aid the Poles and the mission itself is extensively covered in Richard C. Lukas’s The Strange Allies: The United States and Poland, 1941–1945, pp. 61–85. Warsaw Rising Museum, referenced at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising
 Source: Ilu Niemców naprawdę zginęło w Powstaniu Warszawskim? Paweł Stachnik, ciekawostkihistoryczne.pl 31.07.2017, referenced at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising
 Explanation: Würzburg is a city in Germany’s Bavaria region, known for lavish baroque and rococo architecture, particularly the 18th century Residenz palace, with ornate rooms, a huge fresco by Venetian artist Tiepolo and an elaborate staircase. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W%C3%BCrzburg
 Sources: (1) Getter, Marek (August–September 2004). “Straty ludzkie i materialne w Powstaniu Warszawskim” (PDF). Biuletyn IPN. 8–9: 71, and (2) Mix, Andreas (26th September 2009). “Eine Germanisierungsphantasie”. Berliner Zeitung. Referenced at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destruction_of_Warsaw
 Source and Acknowledgement: The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, at: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/allied-responses-warsaw-uprising-1944
 Source and Acknowledgement: https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/yalta-conference
 Reference/Source: Weinberg, G.L., A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (London: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 709-712.
 Source: Notes from Poland at: https://notesfrompoland.com/2020/08/01/norman-davies-a-defence-of-the-warsaw-uprising-in-eight-theses/