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On the 1st of September, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. 16 days later, on the 17th of September, Red Army soldiers of the Soviet Union entered Poland from the East. Poland was occupied, and its occupiers had a pre-agreed plan: to crush and destroy Polish culture, and subjugate its people to either German or Soviet rule.

For a further two years, the Germans and Soviets remained allies. Poland remained occupied by the respective armies of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. This changed in June of 1941, when Adolf Hitler instigated a massive attack on the Soviets in eastern Poland, violating the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact that had overseen the joint occupation of Poland and had divided Eastern Europe up into German and Soviet spheres of influence.

Germany, in search of Lebensraum, had launched Operation Barbarossa and had pushed the Red Army back out of Poland. They made their way deep into Russia, reaching as far east as Moscow and Stalingrad, which was where they would eventually come unstuck. By 1943, the tide had turned. The Red Army pushed the Wehrmacht backwards, back out of Russia, through Belorussia and into Poland. Their intention was to keep going, all the way to Berlin.

In Warsaw, the Polish resistance Home Army were waiting, binding their time. They could see the Soviet troops rapidly approaching Warsaw. The Polish resistance had planned an uprising, an uprising against the Germans. They would lend their support to the Soviets, and help drive the Nazis out of Warsaw and Poland. They hoped by doing so they would underscore Polish sovereignty in any post war settlement. But they couldn’t defeat the Nazis alone, not a guerrilla resistance movement. They would need the help of the Soviet troops.

The Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw, and on the 1st of August, 1944, soldiers of the Home Army resistance took up arms against the Nazi occupiers. The Warsaw Uprising had begun. Any moment, the Polish resistance thought, the Red Army would join them on the streets of Warsaw, and help them overthrow the Nazi occupiers. But that didn’t happen. Inexplicably, the Soviets refused to cross the Vistula River into Warsaw. They wouldn’t even establish radio contact with the resistance. Instead, they waited, waited until the Nazis had had their way with the Polish Home Army and Varsovian civilians.

With the Soviets looking on, the Nazis proceeded to crush the resistance. The SS stormed into apartment buildings and indiscriminately shot and murdered civilians; women, children, it didn’t matter, they were shot.  And shot purely as a tactic of destroying the moral and fortitude of the Varsovians. Between 30,000 – 100,000 civilians were murdered, but it didn’t have the consequence that the Germans intended it to. Quite the opposite: the resistance was strengthened.

Women and children, appalled at the way the Nazis were committing mass executions against the civilians of Warsaw, also took up arms and joined the uprising. But as time wore on, it became clear both to the resistance and the Germans that the Soviets were not going to intervene. This emboldened the Nazis and left the Home Army disconsolate. On the 2nd of October they surrendered, having lost 16,000 soldiers.

For two months and one day the uprising had raged on. Much of Warsaw lay in ruins, but that didn’t stop the victorious Nazis from ruining that which remained. SS chief Heinrich Himmler declared that, ‘The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station for the Wehrmacht. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation.’ Buildings – schools, hospitals, libraries and apartments – were deliberately destroyed. Important historical artefacts and art pieces were looted, ordinary private property was stolen. Despite the brave men, women and children of the resistance, Warsaw was now in the hands of the Nazis and was being systematically and cruelly destroyed. A capital city was wantonly and deliberately demolished.   


By January of 1945, the Nazis had left Warsaw and were being pushed back towards Berlin by the Red Army. Their victory over the resistance had ultimately been hollow, although they had achieved their despicable aim of destroying Warsaw. In May of the same year, the Nazi regime surrendered and the Third Reich collapsed. Those who had organised and executed the crushing of Warsaw soon found themselves in prison, a place where they would thankfully and justly spend the rest of their lives.  

For the next half century, with Poland an effective puppet state of the Soviet Union, official acknowledgment of the Warsaw Uprising was hushed and non-existent. The Soviets didn’t want it talked about, and the communist leaders of People's Republic of Poland had always hated the Home Army.

It was only with the fall of communism in 1989, 45 years after the Warsaw Uprising was brought to its end, that those who had fought for Poland’s freedom were recognised for their service. Amongst other things, a large Warsaw Uprising Monument was built, constructed on the edge of Krasiński Square. Large, at ten metres tall, and dramatic in that it shows soldiers of the resistance charging, and actively engaging in combat. It is now one of Poland’s most visited landmarks, and with hope it should bring greater awareness of the uprising and the suffering that Warsaw and its civilians endured during the Nazi and Soviet occupation.


Waterloo Bicentenary
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