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Published:August 3rd, 2008 09:28 EST
History Cafe  - Episode 3: The Warsaw Uprising of 1944

History Cafe - Episode 3: The Warsaw Uprising of 1944

By Krzys Wasilewski

The summer of 1944 is remembered in Europe as the time when the continent`s great capitals - Paris and Brussels - were finally freed of the Nazi occupation. Warsaw, however, was left to bleed to death while the Allied armies watched it being razed to the ground by Hitler`s forces. The first capital to be occupied by the Germans became the last to be liberated.


Divided by the Vistula River, Warsaw lies in the very heart of Poland. Today, home to almost two million, it scarcely resembles the city from over sixty years ago. Skyscrapers and monumental shopping galleries dominate the landscape. What is little left of Warsaw`s famous Renaissance architecture is squeezed in one miniature district called the Old Town. But even those magnificent churches and bold buildings that comprise this area are the creation of the last half of a century. They were built on the ashes of the old Warsaw, obliterated by the Nazis in 1944.


At exactly 5 pm, on August 1, 1944, a group of some 40,000 Polish patriots - among them teenagers as young as 12 - started an uprising against the brutal occupation. Barely trained and scarcely equipped, the insurgents stood against thousands of experienced German soldiers who had successfully quelled another rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto a year earlier. Unlike the Jews, however, the Poles expected their fight to give them freedom. The Soviet Army was approaching the left bank of the Vistula while the western Allies were firmly marching towards Berlin. The odds were on the Polish side.


The uprising lasted two months. Despite their proximity, neither the Soviets nor the British and Americans decided to help their official ally. Stalin personally insisted on halting his army in order to let the Polish and Germans butcher each other. When Luftwaffe was bombarding Warsaw day and night, the Soviet troops - among them many Poles - admired this morbid festival of flames from just several miles away. During the 63 days of the uprising, only a handful of British airplanes with supplies manned by volunteer pilots made it to the Polish capital. The flights were quickly scraped as the British feared losing their valuable machines.


Some 15,000 insurgents were killed. The German loses were even bigger despite their overwhelming superiority in equipment and air force. But the greatest burden of the uprising carried the civilian population of Warsaw, some one million people. When the main warfare ended in the first days of October, up to 200,000 men, women, and children had been killed by bullet, bomb, fire, typhoid, or hunger. Every garden, every park was turned into a graveyard as the city`s cemeteries had not escaped carpet bombings. One could mistake Warsaw for a fantastical land with hundreds of corpses decaying everywhere and exotic animals roaming the streets after the zoo`s gates were destroyed in the fighting.


When the curtain of ashes fell, the city limits of 200,000 square miles had not a single building left in one piece. "The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station.... No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundations," read the official order issued by Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler`s right hand. It is approximated that nine out of every ten buildings were destroyed by the end of 1944. The 800,000 citizens who had survived through the uprising were given several hours to leave their homes and seek refuge in the nearby villages. Warsaw was no more.


On August 25, 1944, Paris was finally free. Two weeks later, the Allied forces liberated the Belgium capital of Brussels. It would be eight more months until the Germans fled Amsterdam and the Netherlands, sealing the end of the Second World War in Europe. Throughout all this time, struggling Warsaw was denied any help. Instead, Great Britain and the United States gave their Soviet partner the green light to plunder and rape the Polish capital and the entire country. On January 17, 1945, the Red Army finally rolled into the battered city, installing a communist regime in Poland and arresting the former insurgents.


When peoples of Western Europe were celebrating freedom, Warsaw and other capitals east of Berlin faced another occupation. The communist forces were stationed in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Hungary - not to mention the Baltic Republics that had become part of the Soviet Union in the early days of the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of freight trains packed full with people from Warsaw and other cities steamed tirelessly to the eastern frontiers of the USSR. Some one million Poles were forcefully expelled from their homeland, most never to return.


The Warsaw Uprising had no precedent in history. Neither Paris nor any other European city organized such a powerful opposition to the Nazi oppression. The 250,000 people who died during the 63 days of the fighting, with no exaggeration, could be called the best generation Poland had had in decades. They might not have saved their beloved capital, but they did save their country`s soul.


If you would like to learn more about the Warsaw Uprising, we recommend you read Rising `44, a wonderful book by British historian Norman Davies. Known for his unconditional love for Poland, Davis presents a balanced account of those memorable two months when Warsaw and its citizens were finally free. Apart from meticulously researched material, Rising `44 includes personal stories of the insurgents - individuals that, for the first time, speak about their lives so openly.


Please also visit the website of the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising:, available in English, German, French, and Russian. You will find tons of fascinating pictures and information that tell the story of this amazing fight for freedom and democracy.


That`s all for this week`s episode of History Cafe. Please don`t forget to send your comments or suggestions. And starting today, you can even chat with us on GoogleTalk. Just add us as:


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