Remembering the Warsaw Uprising: August 1, 1944

As the world looks back at World War I, another anniversary looms large.

Much like the lead up to that previous paroxysm of European violence whose centenary we mark on August 4, the lead up to the Second World War saw a proliferation of alliances in anticipation of a revisionist German challenge. The French sealed a military alliance with Poland as early as 1921; this was strengthened by a commitment of mutual assistance in the Treaty of Locarno in 1925, which also committed France to the protection of Czechoslovakia in the event of a German attack and bound Britain to France. In the aftermath of the Munich Crisis of 1938, the British and Polish governments signed reciprocal guarantees in the spring of 1939, and they undertook to sign the Anglo-Polish Treaty of Mutual Assistance just two days after the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 23. A secret protocol contained within the former named Germany as its object.

The agreements proved to be of nugatory deterrent value and within a month, both Germany and the USSR had invaded the Second Polish Republic, which was, in the words of a British historian, “foully murdered by two assailants acting in collusion.” Indeed, even while the fighting was going on (the Poles did not capitulate until October 6), the two invaders held a joint victory parade at Brest-Litovsk and by September 28, had signed a German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Demarcation and Cooperation—“cooperation” being the operative word, because the Treaty had provisions that provided for the two countries to work together to undermine the Polish resistance, which would grow to become the largest in all of Nazi-occupied Europe. By September 30, the Underground Polish government-in-exile had been formed under the leadership General Władysław Sikorski.

And while just shy of two years later the Soviets would be compelled to switch sides, it would not be the last time the two totalitarian states, aptly described by Evelyn Waugh as “huge and hateful”, would act in concert. Five years into the war, the ancient Polish capital of Warsaw would meet a tragic fate, only this time with the Germans and Soviets acting in tacit, rather than overt, cooperation.

The launch of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941 put an end to what can only be described as a fruitful period of Nazi-Soviet cooperation, during which both sides traded political prisoners, dealt in commerce and built on what they began by splitting Poland; the Soviets took control of the Baltics, attacked Finland and Romania, while Hitler moved to conquer Western Europe with rather more ease than perhaps even he had expected.

Into the summer of 1944, as the Soviet advance on Berlin accelerated (they crossed the River Bug into German-held Polish territory on July 19), the time for the long-awaited Rising (or Operation Tempest)—to be led by the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) in Warsaw—seemed to its commander Bor-Komorowski, to be at hand. The primary dilemma Bor-Komorowski faced was one of timing; according to the eminent historian of Poland, Norman Davies “the only moment for a successful Rising would lie in a short interval of two or three days,” during which the Germans had begun their retreat, but before the Soviets could arrive in the city.

The assumption was that (though Stalin had opportunistically and cynically broken off relations with the Polish government-in-exile in April 1943 over the Katyn revelations) once the Rising had begun, the Soviets would come to the aid of the Home Army and help them drive the Germans from the capital. This was assumed with good reason: Soviet tanks had been spotted in Warsaw’s Praga district, on the eastern bank of the Vistula. On July 30, the Stalinist Lublin Committee broadcast the following:

Soviet troops are attacking fiercely. People of Warsaw! To arms! Help the Red Army in the crossing of the Vistula!

A further assumption, that the Rising would receive material support from its principal allies, Great Britain and the United States, was not without basis. That June, Sikorski’s successor (Sikorski had died the previous summer in a plane crash off of Gibraltar), Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, traveled to Washington to seek support for—and appeared to receive—substantial moral and material support for the Rising; FDR met with Premier Mikolajczyk multiple times and approved an $8.5 million grant to support the effort. Mikolajczyk also recalled FDR’s encouraging him “not to worry” about Stalin “because he knows the United States government stands solidly behind you.” Churchill also signaled his enthusiasm for the operation. Nevertheless, even in the absence of monetary aid and words of support from London and Washington, the Rising probably would have happened regardless, because, as the chief delegate of the Underground government in Warsaw explained later, “we wanted to be free and to owe this freedom to nobody but ourselves.”

The evening the Rising commenced, August 1, a mid-level State Department diplomat then serving as an assistant to the Ambassador in Moscow reflected on a dinner he had had the night before with the by-now-peripatetic Mikolajczyk. The experience left him in a (familiar) state of despair:

I wished that instead of mumbling words of official optimism we had had the judgment and the good taste to bow our heads in silence before the tragedy of a people who have been our allies, who we have saved from our enemies, and whom we cannot save from our friends.