by Wanda Sławińska
To understand the reasons for the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 it is necessary to review the events in the wider European theater. In pursuit of Lebensraum (living space), Hitler in 1938 consolidated his power in Germany by annexing Austria under the guise of a policy of self-determination. In October of that year, he added what the Germans called the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia inhabited by large numbers of ethnic Germans. Great Britain, France and Italy gave their stamp of approval for this action by signing a pact with Hitler at Munich, after extracting a promise from him that there would be no further German expansion. In March of 1939, undeterred, Hitler helped himself to all of Czechoslovakia. When he also threatened Poland, however, Britain and France signed a pact with Poland guaranteeing its territorial integrity. Thereupon Hitler signed a nonaggression pact with Russia on August 23, 1939 and proceeded to attack Poland on September 1, 1939.
Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Although Poland fought valiantly, it was no match for Hitler's Blitzkrieg, especially since Britain and France, who under the terms of the pact were to begin a massive attack on Germany's western frontier withing two weeks, provided no effective assistance, staying west of the Maginot line.
Despite the heroism of the Polish Army, its resistance was soon crushed and by the end of September Poland was once again partitioned between Germany and Russia. The Poles, however never gave up. Though the Polish government was interned in Rumania, a provision of the 1935 constitution permitted the formation of a legitimate Polish government-in-exile in France. Later, when in June 1940 France also collapsed to a Blitzkrieg, the government-in-exile moved to London. Under its aegis, a Polish Anny was formed on allied soil from among those who managed to leave Poland. It fought the German enemy at the side of the allies. Those who remained in Poland, formed a 300,000-strong "Home Army' (AK or Armia Krajowa) under the command of Gen. Bór-Komorowski, and fought to the last.
The concept of an "open struggle" originated before the capitulation of Warsaw in 1939 and evolved over the next several years under Gen. Tokarzewski, who organized the armed resistance behind German lines. Originally it was envisaged that the regular Polish Armed Forces organized on allied soil would return to fight in Poland under the allied umbrella and in coordination with the military operations of the Soviets. Though this did not come to pass, when the German eastern front was collapsing, it was decided that Warsaw had to be liberated by the Poles themselves. It had been the capital of Poland before the war. Although the Germans had chosen Kraków as the location from which to administer the General Gouvernement, that is that part of Poland they had not incorporated into their Reich, Warsaw continued to serve as the capital of underground Poland and underground ministries and even an underground parliament existed there. Here also was located the High Command and principal concentration of the Home Army numbering some 40,000 men. Furthermore, the rest of the country looked to Warsaw for leadership in the struggle against the invaders. As the time the front was approaching Warsaw in 1944, it was known that the Soviets had set up a "Committee of National Liberation" and that a puppet regime would be installed. Moscow radio was already calling for people to rally around the "People's Army. Further, the Germans had posted notices for 100,000 Polish men to report for work on Warsaw's fortifications which indicated that they were about to turn the city into "Fortress Warsaw" whereby it would likely be destroyed and its young men killed, After the Soviet forces approached the eastern suburb of Praga, the Polish government-in-exile gave its consent and the order was given to start the Uprising on August 1, 1944.
The Germans knew that the uprising was going to be launched. They were ready for it and used mass terror and inhuman methods to fight it. The Soviets refused, except on one occasion in mid to late September, to allow airfields under their control to be used for refuelling of allied planes. This rendered the supplying of Warsaw from the air very difficult and the allies, despite their promises, made only a few air drops. When eventually, the Poles capitulated in October, Hitler ordered the civilian population evacuated and the city systematically destroyed. The Soviets "liberated" the empty ruins in January.
The decision to launch the Uprising was not undertaken lightly, and though the struggle was unequal it did not look hopeless at the time. The Poles knew what was in the offing, but the West would not believe them. They were fighting against the order later imposed upon them and the rest of Central Europe by the agreement the Western Allies reached with the Soviets at Yalta in February 1945. The Poles were struggling against totalitarianism, for democracy, for independence and for the right of self-determination. It was a struggle against extermination by one enemy and against domination by Soviet imperialism. The Poles fought "for your freedom arid ours" on many fronts, but freedom came only to the West. Poland had to wait nearly fifty years before it regained its freedom, but once again it was Poland which spearheaded the struggle for democracy and for self-determination among the nations of the former Soviet empire.