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The historical significance of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising

Note: Professor Walter Jajko discusses the consequences and meaning of the 1944 uprising against the Nazis in Warsaw, Poland. He gave the following remarks at the pre-screening of a CNN documentary, Warsaw Rising, at the Institute of World Politics on June 3, 2004. The remarks were published by the Polish Academy of Sciences in its quarterly journal, Dialogue and Universalism.

On 1 August 1944, the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), the fighting forces of the Polish Underground State, buoyed by the invasion of Normandy by British, American, and Canadian forces and the arrival of the Red Army on the east bank of the Vistula River, began the Warsaw Rising against the occupying German Army (Wehrmacht).  Fighting Poland (Polska walczaca) concentrated its conflict with the German aggressors on fighting Warsaw (Warszawa walczy). 

Sixty years remove many historians would say is a sufficient duration to examine dispassionately the Warsaw Rising of 1944.  To seek its meaning, I think that we must look not only at the event itself but also backward and forward from it.  Was it just another heroic, sad, tragic, and bloody event among so many such events in European history? 

It may be such for most peoples.  It is not so for Poles.  It should not be so for Americans. 

For Poles, it is one of the several exceptionally painful tragedies that indelibly stamp Poland’s struggle for survival from its extinction from Europe’s political map in the Third Partition of 1795 to its independence in 1989.  For Americans, it should be the understanding that, to be a successful Great Power, intentions, wealth, strength, courage, determination, and skill are necessary but insufficient.  It is essential to know one’s enemy and to know the ways of the world.

After the defeat of the Bolshevik invasion of Poland (and what was to be the invasion of Europe) by Jozef Pilsudski, the Polish Army’s commander, in 1920, a long lasting and bitter argument over military strategy ensued among the Soviet Union’s leaders.  Some accused Stalin, who had been political commissar to Budyonny’s First Horse Army on the southern front against Lwow, of losing the war by using inappropriate Cossack and partisan tactics and failing to coordinate and keep contact with and to assist Tukhachevskiy, the overall commander of the Russian invasion. 

Others held Tukhachevskiy responsible for blowing the opportunity to bring the Revolution to Germany, and, therefore, Europe.  The argument was resolved when Stalin murdered Tukhachevskiy during the Great Purge of the Thirties. 

Two decades sfter the Red Army’s defeat, when Stalin took Poland, many surviving Bolsheviks believed that he saw this as his vindication for 1920.  And so, Bierut entered Poland on Russian bayonets as Marchlewski had not a quarter century earlier. When Stalin and Hitler allied in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (not only against Poland but also Great Britain and France) and the Soviet Union invaded, partitioned, occupied, and began the Sovietization of Poland, it was clear to statesmen, except the British and Americans who continued to willfully and deceitfully misinterpret international politics and to be informed by Soviet spies and agents of influence, that Stalin intended to annex almost half of Poland, to capture the remainder, and to do to it what he had done in Poland’s former borderlands, Ukraine and Belarus. 

Yet, the United Kingdom and the United States in their diplomacy continued to operate past the Potsdam Conference of 1945 as if the empty words of their mild rebukes, pleas, and protests would cause Stalin to tolerate an i