By Norman Davies
The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 against the Nazi German occupiers led to the deaths of up to 200,000 civilians and the almost total destruction of the Polish capital. The decision of the Polish government-in-exile to launch the Uprising remains controversial, with some contemporary historians and commentators regarding it as a catastrophic strategic and moral mistake. In an exclusive excerpt from his recent autobiography (published in Polish by Znak), Norman Davies – author of Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw (2003) – defends the decision in its historical context.
1. The Polish leaders did not know what we know today
It is unjust and ahistorical to condemn the participants of the Warsaw Uprising on the basis of materials revealed after the fact, but unknown at the time. For instance, we now know that the Red Army delayed its entry to Warsaw, probably on Stalin’s orders (though his reasons remain unclear), leaving the insurgents without significant support. Yet in late July and early August of 1944, both the Polish leaders and Soviet commanding officers believed that the Red Army would move into the city. On 8 August, Soviet marshals Georgy Zhukov and Konstantin Rokossovsky even sketched out a plan of the offensive into Warsaw and beyond. In this context, it is impossible to demand of the Poles that they should have known what Stalin was thinking. At the time, nobody knew what Stalin’s intentions were – perhaps not even Stalin himself.
2. The decision to launch the Uprising was not taken lightly
The decision to commence the Uprising was taken on 25 July by the Polish government-in-exile in London after long consultations with the western allies. It was not taken lightly or carelessly. The decision was passed after a series of heated debates in the cabinet. The government-in-exile conveyed subsequent decisions regarding the date and details of the operation to the Home Army (AK) officers under its command in Warsaw. Both politicians and military commanders acted responsibly. On the advice of American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, prime minister Stanisław Mikołajczyk immediately flew to Moscow to coordinate the plan with Stalin. It was the fault of allied diplomacy, and not just the Polish prime minister, that his mission did not succeed. As for the Home Army leaders, they simply followed orders. In accordance with the available information, they appointed the “W hour” when the Uprising would begin – 5pm, on Tuesday, 1 August 1944.
3. Events unfolded differently than military experts had predicted
At the outset of the Uprising, all the military specialists – German, Soviet, Polish, British and American – agreed that it could not last longer than six or seven days. The experts believed that within a week the Home Army would have to surrender either to the Germans or to the advancing Soviets. Home Army general Tadeusz “Bór” Komorowski told his wife on 31 July that if he didn’t die he would end up in a Soviet cell within a week. Nobody predicted what would eventually unfold: (a) that the German Wehrmacht would launch a successful counteroffensive, pushing the Soviets back from the line of the Vistula River; and (b) that the SS would be unable to immediately crush the Home Army. The protracted struggle that ensued would have tragic consequences for the inhabitants of Warsaw.
4. The Uprising should be judged on its own initial objectives
Armies can only be judged on the basis of their own objectives. They cannot be condemned for failing to win victories they never set out to achieve. For example, the Home Army was under no illusions that it would “defeat the Wehrmacht” or “liberate and hold Warsaw indefinitely.” Their assumptions were much more modest and realistic. They intended to occupy a significant part of the city for a period of five to seven days in such a way as to weaken the German line of defence. They also wanted the world to hear that Warsaw was a Polish city, and that patriotic Polish soldiers inside the city were ready to make their presence felt. All these objectives were achieved. In fact, they exceeded their own expectations by a considerable margin. From a purely military point of view, the operation was a success.
5. The Polish leadership seriously considered the fate of civilians
It is not true that the Home Army command was indifferent to the fate of civilians. The Polish leaders were aware that some civilians were opposed to the Uprising. However, they also had strong reasons to believe that NOT launching the Uprising would bring catastrophic consequences. The worst scenario for civilians would have been a long frontal battle between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought inside the city. (Tens of thousands of inhabitants of Minsk in Belarus had died in these circumstances only a month earlier). The Home Army leaders were in no doubt that the SS were capable of murderous reprisals, like those later perpetrated in the district of Wola, where tens of thousands of Warsaw civilians were killed. Yet the clear expectation was that within a week the Soviets would enter the city. Nobody considered what actions the Germans might undertake if the Soviets did not enter. Only at the beginning of September, a month after the Uprising began, did SS leader Heinrich Himmler tell Hitler that the opportunity had arisen to totally destroy the city, which “for seven hundred years had blocked the German path to the east.”
6. The terms of surrender reflected the determination of the insurgents
The final surrender of the Home Army on 2 October, after 63 days, was the result of great determination and successful negotiation in the most difficult circumstances. The specific conditions of capitulation were established because the SS had been unable to put an end to the Uprising in their own preferred way – with an unconditional surrender followed by a general massacre. The Poles forced the German negotiators, against their usual practice, to recognise the Home Army as legal combatants. Accordingly, the fighters were sent to POW camps, and not to concentration camps, while civilians were evacuated in a calm and orderly manner.
7. The potential postwar consequences of the Uprising were unclear
Neither the Polish government nor the western allies believed that the outcome of the Warsaw Uprising would be the main determinant of Poland’s political future. In 1944, the western powers were still operating under the assumption that any disagreements among the allies could be resolved at a grand international peace conference similar to the Versailles Conference of 1919 after the First World War. They considered the decisions on future borders taken at the Tehran Conference of late 1943 to be temporary. Nobody yet had any notion of the Yalta Conference, which would eventually consolidate these decisions in February 1945. However, the Polish government-in-exile was constantly told in the strongest terms that Poland’s future would be under threat if the Home Army did NOT fight.
8. The tragedy of the Uprising sprang from failures of the whole allied coalition
To discover the fundamental reasons why the Warsaw Uprising ended so tragically, one must look beyond Polish decisions or Polish actions. Poland was part of a broad international coalition, and the main reason for the tragedy was the lamentable failure of this coalition to coordinate its joint operations in occupied Warsaw. The Poles certainly played their part in this failure. It was their capital city that was under threat, and they could have presented a more united front in order to draw the attention of their allies to the dramatic situation in the country. On the other hand, the Polish government was a significantly weakened partner in allied meetings by 1944. Poland should not be viewed as the main culprit in the terrible outcome of the Uprising. The two powerful leaders who perhaps could have prevented the tragedy were Roosevelt, who held the key to the supplies of the Red Army, and Stalin.
Norman Davies is the founder of the Project for Polish Studies Abroad, which aims to assist the development of Poland-centred studies at university level in countries outside Poland through the Fundacja Normana Daviesa.
Published with the kind permission of Wydawnictwo Znak.
Main image credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).