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What was the Warsaw Uprising?

On the afternoon of August 1, Varsovians stop to remember the city's 1944 uprising against its Nazi occupiers. The failed insurrection was either tragic folly or a symbol of an indefatigable spirit.

What happened?

The Warsaw Uprising was an armed insurrection during the Second World War organized by the Polish underground resistance, or Home Army (AK), which had been fighting against the Nazi occupation since the invasion of Poland in September 1939.

As it became clear during the summer of 1944 that the Germans were almost certain to lose the war, the Soviet (Red) Army started to advance on Berlin, arriving on the eastern banks of the Vistula river in Warsaw in July.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave signals to the Polish government in exile in London - nominally an ally of the USSR - that if the AK were to rise up against the Nazis, the Red Army would cross the river and join in.

The Rising was part of Operation Tempest, a series of uprisings across eastern Poland.

Its leaders believed an independent Warsaw would have more political leverage with the new, Soviet, occupier after the war.

"The Poles needed a victory to keep themselves on the world stage and this may have spurred the thinking," Jan Darasz, a Polish-British historian of Warsaw, told DW.

The Nazis – who had been occupying the city for over four years - had also retreated in the last days of July, suggesting they might de disinclined to fight and would withdraw closer to Berlin.

The then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (R), shakes hands with Warsaw Uprising veteran Tadeusz Pospiech at the Warsaw Uprising Museum, 2004

The then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (R), shakes hands with Warsaw Uprising veteran Tadeusz Pospiech at the Warsaw Uprising Museum, 2004

The city – which still had a million or so inhabitants and on 1 August 1944, 25,000 fighters, only about 10 percent of whom were armed - rose up across the city in street battles. 

However, after their initial shock, the Germans rallied, assembled a force made up mainly of criminals especially released from jail and set to work, Darasz explains. "For the Poles it was a national trauma, but for the Germans a pretty routine victory," he says.

The AK fought for 63 days – without assistance from the Soviets – before finally succumbing.

It is estimated that about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded. In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions.

During the fighting about 25 percent of Warsaw's buildings were destroyed.

A young Polish boy returns to what was his home during a pause in the German air raids on Warsaw

A young Polish boy returns to what was his home during a pause in the German air raids on Warsaw

The Soviets then marched in after the retreating German army had razed most of what remained of the city to the ground.

Poland thus fell into the Soviet sphere of influence. The AK was wound up, its members fled or were imprisoned. Soviet domination lasted until 1989, when a democratic transition was negotiated with the Solidarity movement.

Why is it important?

The Polish version, broadly, is that brave Polish combatants were betrayed by the Russians and the West during the Rising, which became the first episode in the Cold War, an era in which the AK's contribution was ignored.

"The problem is that Poland may want the world to care about the Uprising as much as it does. The truth is that it probably has sympathy, but not that much," Darasz says.

"For the Germans, the Stalingrad and Kursk defeats loom larger in the overall Eastern Front picture. The disaster in the East and the hundreds of thousands lost overshadow a relatively run of the mill victory in Warsaw," he adds.

A woman holds a candle as she reads names of insurgents on a memorial wall at the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw

A woman holds a candle as she reads names of insurgents on a memorial wall at the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw

A call to remember

The story is not widely known outside of Poland and the Polish government wants to put this straight. Many non-Poles confuse it with the April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in which the city's remaining Jews rose up in a desperate attempt to stop the deportations to the concentration camps.

The Law and Justice (PiS) government, elected in September 2015, has placed 'History policy' – changing how both Poles and the rest of the world perceive Poland's place in the world - high on its political agenda.

In 2016, for example, it called for criminalizing the use of the term of "Polish concentration or death camps."

In February 2016, it also set up the Institute for Research into Totalitarianism (OBnT), its brief being to translate and make accessible in English the testimonies of witnesses to German Nazi and Soviet crimes. "We want to demonstrate to the Western European public the extent of genocide in occupied Poland,” Wojciech Kozlowski, director of the institute, told DW.

 

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