They were young, desperate, and had seen enough of German savagery. They wanted to be free and wanted to avenge unspeakable brutality of the invaders. They knew they could die, but also knew there are worse things than death.
But the youths of Warsaw weren’t the only players in this crucial moment of the Polish history.
There were their superiors, the commanders of the Polish Home Army. They were the ones who gave the orders to start the fighting.
There was Polish government in exile, in London.
Then there were three powers fighting war in Europe––Britain, the United States and Russia.
Unbeknownst to most Poles, the fate of their country was decided already at the end of November 1943, in Tehran. There, Roosevelt and Churchill didn’t resist Stalin’s takeover of the Polish land and gave up any fight for our freedom. Churchill initially fought for Polish independence, but without support from the American president, couldn’t do much. By the time of the next meeting, in February 1945, in Yalta, the Russians were on the outskirts of Berlin, and no negotiations would change the ironclad Stalin’s will to dominate Eastern Europe.
The decisions from Tehran were withheld from the Polish government in exile, and of course weren’t known in Warsaw. The Russians had already been guaranteed Polish Eastern lands, in exchange giving back German Eastern territory to Poland, and with a sly smile on their faces promised a free election after the war. Historic, massive resettlement of the population in Eastern Europe had been already in the works. The plans included repatriation of the Poles exiled by the Soviets to Siberia.
Meanwhile, in Warsaw, the Home Army was getting ready to rise. Poles wanted to participate in the liberation of their country. Little did they knew their fate was doomed from the start. Roosevelt gave in to Stalin’s demands, but wanted to keep it secret. The American elections were approaching, and he didn’t want to lose votes of the large Polish population in the United States. Churchill and de Gaulle, more or less openly washed their hands of the controversy. Gen Sikorski, Prime minister of the government in exile, was convinced neither the Unites States nor Britain would do anything without consulting him. He soon died in a mysterious plane crash near Gibraltar. In Warsaw, everybody was convinced this time in history our allies will help. Neither Britain, nor France did at the start of WW ll. Churchill was aware of the tragic miscommunication, and sent his confidante, Retinger, to get the first-hand information about situation in Warsaw.
Józef Retinger was quite a unique figure in the world around the turn of the century. Born in Cracow, after a short stint with Jesuits, at the age of 20 got a doctor of literature degree from Sorbonne. While in France, he helped to organize Polish army to fight Soviet invaders in 1920. On Russians demand, France expelled Retinger, who left for Spain, and eventually ended in Mexico, where he advised its President during the Mexican Revolution. From there he moved to the United States, where he was awarded citizenship of recently reborn Poland. After WW ll broke out, and the fall of his native country, Józef Retinger landed in London, where he became a part of Polish government in exile. Later, he cooperated with Soviet Russia on forming the Polish armed forces in that country, and was part of Polish diplomatic team working on reestablishing Polish-Soviet relations, broken off after Soviet invasion coordinated with German attack in 1939.
So, it was of no surprise when Churchill, wanting to find out the sentiments in Warsaw before anticipated Uprising, sent Retinger there. He found out that the mood there was upbeat, people were ready to fight, but his warnings about the British position of non-intervention were dismissed. To complicate Retinger’s position, his previous cooperation with the Russians brought the suspicion Retinger was a spy for Moscow. The emissary was almost poisoned and barely survived. Later, he worked on creating united Europe, got nominated for a Nobel Prize, and died in London.
Polish government in London, not being able to effectively communicate with Warsaw, left the final decision to start fighting to the command of Home Army in Warsaw. So, as it had happened many times in the history of wars, once put in motion, a massive train loaded with hatred towards the Germans couldn’t be stopped. The barrel with gun powder had to explode. The decision to start Uprising was made in Warsaw independently of London on the erroneous assumptions: that Soviets tanks entered the right-bank of Warsaw, that Soviets would help based on a deceiving broadcast from a Polish language section of Radio Moscow promising support, on the conviction that Allies will help, and that the Germans are demoralized in face of war nearing its end. Polish prime minister in London wanted to fight. His commander of Polish Armed Forces in exile disagreed, and as a result was demoted. He soon after left for Canada.
After the fighting broke out, the Soviets didn’t move a finger. Desperate action by the Polish division didn’t receive any support by the Soviet command. The fights, which the Polish commander expected to last three days, took sixty-three days. Sixty-three days of systematic slaughter. All this time the Soviets watched from the right bank of Vistula. Resting.
Warsaw Uprising was the single largest military effort of resistance during WW ll in Europe. The street battles were compared to fights in Stalingrad. It was also the biggest miscalculation. The price paid by the city was mind boggling.
The victory in Warsaw was seen by Himmler as a revenge for Poles beating Germans in the battle of Tannenberg in 1410. On his order Warsaw had to be erased from the surface of Earth.
So, during WW ll our allies betrayed us twice. But the hardest felt slap in Polish faces was however their absence in the victory parade in London. This ‘honor’ was given to the Polish armed forces under Soviet command during the parade in Moscow.
But there was another group of the participants in Warsaw Uprising. They didn’t have any voice. They were the ordinary citizens of our capital city. They suffered the biggest blow of German reprisals.
More about it in the next post.