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How Hitler and Stalin Made Modern Poland


The neglected history of the Warsaw uprising helps explain the country’s nationalist politics today.

By Sean McMeekin
July 31, 2019

 

Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of the heroic yet doomed Warsaw Uprising against German occupation forces in Poland.

Every Aug. 1 at 5 p.m., Poles mark the bitter occasion with a moment of silence for the fallen. Alarm sirens wail in a would-be call to arms that captures the defiant spirit of this proud, pugnacious nation.


Warsaw’s stupendous Uprising Museum, one of the city’s few tourist attractions, illustrates the painful side of this defiance. For the battle of 1944 left behind almost nothing of old Warsaw for visitors to admire. The martyrs of the Polish Home Army lost not only their lives but also the city they loved. The fate of Warsaw—reduced to rubble by the vengeful cruelty of one dictator, Hitler, in unspoken connivance with his enemy doppelgänger, Stalin—epitomizes the catastrophe of World War II better than any other single event.

 

Destruction of Warsaw

Destruction of Warsaw

Why, then, is this shattering episode in European history almost forgotten in the West? Perhaps because the battle for Warsaw does not have a happy ending. Germany’s eventual defeat did not mark the liberation of Poles but the beginning of another brutal occupation by the Communists.

This unsettles the narrative of World War II as a “good war” and looms large over Polish and European politics to this day.
If the war that broke out in September 1939 was about anything, it was about Poland. Germany’s blitzkrieg against its eastern neighbor was the casus belli for Britain and France. Yet Germany wasn’t the only country to attack Poland that month. Only after Soviet troops invaded Poland on Sept. 17 did the Polish government give up the ghost and flee to Romania. The Allies did virtually nothing to check Stalin’s aggression. He invaded five more countries over the next year while somehow remaining “neutral” in the war—a credit to Allied hypocrisy.
Hitler’s invasion of the U.S.S.R. in June 1941 then wrought a public-relations miracle, turning Stalin from totalitarian butcher and swallower of small nations into plucky “Uncle Joe,” worthy of full Allied support. The Roosevelt administration showered the Red Army with Lend-Lease largess, from Spam, Studebakers and warplanes to steel and aluminum.
So desperate were Churchill and Roosevelt to keep Stalin happy they endorsed his lies about the Katyn Forest massacre of 1940, in which Soviet secret policemen carried out the premeditated mass execution of 21,892 Polish war prisoners. Roosevelt even apologized to Stalin when the exiled Polish government in London demanded a Red Cross investigation of the crime after Germans discovered a mass grave in February 1943.
Paying no price for the Katyn Massacre, Stalin saw no need to change course in Warsaw. Despite broadcasting messages in late July 1944 encouraging Warsaw residents to rise up against the German occupiers, Soviet forces did not stir to help them. Though the Red Army was positioned right across the Vistula River outside Warsaw and could have intervened, Stalin was happy to let the Germans slaughter the Polish Home Army. He saw the Polish forces as a rival to postwar Communist rule. The Germans killed as many as 16,000 insurgents alongside nearly 200,000 civilians and put Warsaw to the torch, saving Stalin the trouble.
During the uprising, Polish, American, British and Commonwealth pilots ferried aid packets—ammunition, medicine, food, cigarettes—to the Warsaw insurgents, but Stalin did not allow them to land on Soviet air bases until mid-September. Some were even fired on by Russian antiaircraft guns. Hundreds of Allied pilots were killed. They are heroes in Poland today.
As for the few Polish warriors who survived the battle of Warsaw—its downgrade to an “uprising” came later, to excuse Soviet inaction and soothe Western consciences—they were rounded up by the Soviets, deported to labor camps or shot. Sixteen Polish resistance leaders, invited to Moscow for “talks” in March 1945, were put on trial for the absurd charge of collaborating with the Nazis, despite ineffectual protests from Washington and London.
Americans and Britons have forgotten this sordid story. Poles have not. Without knowing this history, Westerners will never understand how Poles, like other Eastern Europeans who endured 45 years of Soviet occupation, view the world today. For Poland, World War II did not end in 1945 with a parade and a Paris kiss, but in the ruins of Warsaw ruled over by hostile conquerors who had stood by as the city burned. Poles can perhaps be forgiven for failing to share today’s Western predilections—born of decades of peace and prosperity taken for granted—for postcolonial guilt and ennui, or the fashionable denigration of the nation-state.
The rise of Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice Party in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis should not surprise anyone who knows 20th-century history. The Polish people know in their bones the horrors that can follow the collapse of a nation’s borders and sovereignty, and they are reminded every Aug. 1. They are in no hurry to risk such a nightmare again.
—Mr. McMeekin is a professor of European history at Bard College. His book on World War II, due out in 2020, is tentatively titled “Stalin’s War.”

*********

 

Soldier of Warsaw Uprising

 

================

Related:

Germany expresses ‘deep shame’ for Nazi destruction of Poland

At an event marking the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, Germany has recognized its moral responsibility for Nazi wartime atrocities in Poland. But Foreign Minister Heiko Maas ruled out financial reparations.

Read more here:

https://www.dw.com/en/germany-expresses-deep-shame-for-nazi-destruction-of-poland/a-49838740

 

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2 comments on “How Hitler and Stalin Made Modern Poland

  1. Rob Veggett
    August 2, 2019

    You, Westerners, please remember to NEVER EVER confuse the Jewish Ghetto Warsaw Uprising in 1943 with the Polish Warsaw Uprising in 1944!!!

  2. Rob Veggett
    August 2, 2019

    Warsaw used to be called “Paris of the North” and “Paris of Eastern Europe”, but in 1945 she was virtually a wasteland, 80-85% of the city razed to the ground by the Hitlerite Nazi German and other Nazi European forces!!!

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