Maciej Siekierski. Remembering the Warsaw Uprising.
Hoover Digest. 2004, No. 4, Fall Issue.
by Maciej Siekierski
Maciej Siekierski is the curator of the East European Collection at the Hoover
Institution Archives. A member of the Hoover Library staff since 1984, he has
principal responsibility for the acquisition of East European library and
archival materials. From 1991 to 1993, he directed the Ho over Institution’s
Warsaw Office, overseeing the collection and shipment to Hoover of tons of
documents released by the revolutions and transitions to democracy in Eastern
Europe. The holder of a Ph.D. in history from the University of California,
Berkeley, he has written articles on Hoover archival collections and a variety
of historical topics. In June 2001, the prime minister of Poland honored him
with the Laur Award for his work on behalf of the preservation of Polish
A City under Siege
In the first half of the twentieth century, no European capital had a more
eventful and tragic history than Warsaw. It was occupied by the German army
during World War I, and its eastern suburbs were scorched during the Bolshevik
onslaught in 1920. The city succumbed to the Nazi invasion in 1939 after a
month of indiscriminate artillery shelling and aerial bombing. German
occupation was particularly brutal and deadly. The Jewish population of more
than 350,000 was confined to a walled ghetto and systematically exterminated by
deportations to death camps, hunger, disease, and executions. The process was
completed in the spring of 1943, despite the heroic resistance of several
hundred Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Poland was the first country in Europe to resist Hitler: World War II started in
Poland with a coordinated Nazi and Soviet invasion in September 1939. Poland’s
five-week struggle against overwhelming forces ended in defeat and the
country’s being partioned between Germany and the Soviet Union. Almost
simultaneously a government in exile was set up, first in France and then in
London. Polish units made up of refugees in Western Europe fought with
distinction in defense of France and later in the Battle of Britain. By the
summer of 1944, with the release of tens of thousands of prisoners and
deportees from the Soviet Union, the Polish government in exile commanded an
army of some 150,000 soldiers. Free Polish divisions were a significant
component of the Allied effort. In Italy, the Polish Second Corps under General
Wladyslaw Anders succeeded where the British and Americans had failed,
capturing the German-fortified abbey of Monte Cassino. In France, after the
Normandy invasion, the Polish First Armored Division helped to inflict a
crushing defeat on the Germans at Falaise.
Inside occupied Poland, anti-Nazi resistance was consolidated around the Home
Army (Armia Krajowa, in Polish), an underground military organization loyal to
the Free Polish government in London, which at its peak in mid-1944 included
more than 300,000 soldiers. The Home Army was involved in sabotage,
self-defense, and retaliation activities against the Germans. It also provided
a great service to the Allies in the area of intelligence, obtaining
information on German forces in the east and on the development of Germany’s
secret V-1 and V-2 rockets. But the primary purpose of the Home Army was to
prepare for the anticipated German military collapse and the liberation of the
country. That moment seemed to be at hand in the summer of 1944.
The war in Europe was going well for the Allies in late July 1944. After a
successful invasion of Normandy, American and British forces were moving
through northern France toward Paris. In Italy, they were already well past
Rome. On the Eastern Front, the Germans had suffered a series of devastating
losses and seemed to be withdrawing hastily to the west. Soviet tanks had
reached the eastern suburbs of Warsaw. It appeared that Warsaw would be the
first Allied capital to be liberated from the Nazis. Broadcasts from Moscow
called on the Polish people to rise up against the Germans. The Battle for
Warsaw was about to begin.
Battle and Betrayal
The Home Army offensive began in the afternoon of August 1, 1944. The uprising
was expected to last about a week and was seen largely as a "mopping-up"
operation. This turned out to be a miscalculation. The Germans decided to make
a stand and defend "fortress" Warsaw as the Soviets halted their offensive. The
uprising lasted not one but nine weeks, turning into the longest and bloodiest
urban insurgency of the Second World War. Despite an initial success in
liberating most of the city from the Germans, the tide soon turned against the
Home Army. The strength of the two sides was disproportionately in favor of the
Germans. The Home Army had at its disposal about 40,000 fighters—including
4,000 women—but no more than 10 percent of them were armed, mostly with light
weapons. The Germans had roughly the same number of soldiers, but they were
heavily armed, with tanks, artillery, and planes.
The civilian population suffered the most. On August 5–6 alone more than 40,000
inhabitants of the district of Wola—men, women, and children—were slaughtered.
The mass killing was the work of the SS, police, penal battalions, and units of
the Russian People’s Liberation Army, made up mostly of Russian collaborators.
Altogether, the Polish losses during the uprising included 150,000 civilian
dead and about 20,000 Home Army casualties. The German forces lost about
10,000. Fighting ceased on October 2 with the formal capitulation of the Home
Army forces. The remaining civilian population of 650,000 was deported to a
camp south of Warsaw. During the next three months, the Germans proceeded to
demolish much of what was left of the city; when the Soviet troops "liberated"
Warsaw in January 1945, Poland’s capital was a vast desert of hollow-shelled
buildings and rubble.
The Warsaw Uprising failed because of lack of support from the Soviets and
British and American unwillingness to demand that Stalin extend assistance to
their Polish ally. The Soviet advance in Poland stopped on the Vistula River,
within sight of fighting Warsaw. Stalin had broken off diplomatic relations
with the Polish government in exile when, in the spring of 1943, it asked the
International Red Cross to investigate the killing of thousands of Polish
officers at Katyn. The Polish officers were prisoners of the Soviets following
its 1939 invasion of Poland in collaboration with Hitler. The Soviets tried to
pin the blame on the Germans and did not admit the April 1940 summary
executions of at least 21,000 Polish prisoners until some 50 years after the
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. When the Home Army requested airdrops of arms and supplies into
Warsaw, the Soviets refused permission for Allied planes to land and refuel on
airfields under their control. In the end, the Allies did virtually nothing.
FDR even turned down Winston Churchill’s suggestion for a strongly worded joint
request to Stalin for help. Not until the second half of September did massive
airdrops become possible, but by that time it was already too late to save
The Price of Freedom
The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 is one of the decisive episodes in the history of
Poland. Its defeat was a great national tragedy. The death and destruction that
accompanied it were on an apocalyptic scale. Yet for the survivors, for those
who had to live through the decades of communist oppression that followed
Stalin’s victory over Hitler, the uprising was a source of pride and
inspiration. Poles knew that freedom has a price, that great sacrifices have to
be made to achieve it, and that the struggle does not always bring immediate
and lasting results. The memories of the Home Army and of the uprising, of the
63 days of national solidarity, of dignity and freedom, became an important
component of Polish historical consciousness, which helped the nation survive
in the difficult years that followed. Indeed, it was this moral legacy of mass
wartime resistance that blossomed again in the Solidarity movement of the 1980s
and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet system.
Written by Maciej Siekierski
© Copyright 2004 Hoover Digest. All rights reserved.
Reprinted in cooperation with
For an in-depth study of the Warsaw Uprising, please visit