The city that saw war – Warsaw

If you happen to be out and about in Warsaw at 17.00hrs on 1st August don’t be alarmed if you hear the sirens and people stopping in their tracks – they are honouring the 200,000 dead who perished in Powstanie Warszawskie the Warsaw Uprising 1944, one of the most dramatic and probably the least known episodes of World War II.  Watch here

In September 1939, Poland was attacked by Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east. World War II broke out and Poland ceased to exist as an independent state.  However, Poles did not give up the fight. Those who managed to escape from Poland joined the allied forces in the West, whilst those who were left behind created the largest and the best organised underground state in any of the occupied countries known as Polskie Państwo Podziemne with the head of the government in London.

By July 1944, Poland had been under brutal German occupation for five years.  The advances made by the Red Army from the east created a sense of urgency to liberate Warsaw from the German forces, to move the Government in Exile from London to Poland and stop Stalin in his plans to make Poland a part of the USSR. 

On 1st August 1944, the Uprising began.  After initial successes, the insurgents started to suffer heavy losses. They hoped for support from the allies, the USA, Britain and the Soviet Union.  It never came.  The Russians were standing idle on the other side of the Vistula river watching the city being crushed. The RAF tried to assist, but the Soviets refused to allow the planes to refuel on Polish territory seized by the Red Army. A few daring and extremely dangerous missions were flown by the South African Air Force from Italy but it was not enough to prevent the defeat. 

During the Uprising, the soldiers and civilians alike were slaughtered. One of the worst atrocities took place on the 5th August 1944 in the district of Wola where 20,000 men, women and children were killed by the Germans in one day.

Find out more here

After 63 days, the Polish Command signed the Act of Capitulation.  What followed was the annihilation of Warsaw and its inhabitants. In the aftermath, the remaining population of Warsaw was removed to camps and the systematic destruction of the city began. House by house; street by street. You can find out more here

In January 1945, the Red Army entered the sea of rubble previously known as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.  The political fate of Poland was sealed at the Yalta Conference allowing Stalin to take control of Poland and thus replacing the German occupation with the Soviet one.

In post-war communist Poland, the Warsaw insurgents, along with other Home Army (AK) soldiers were accused of collaboration with the Germans. The commanders were arrested. The regime did not allow for anniversaries to be celebrated or monuments to be erected.  Although after 1956 the direct persecutions seized, nevertheless, the question of the Warsaw Uprising posed a problem for the regime – the memory of the bravery was still fresh and denying the sacrifice of the ordinary soldiers appeared to be counterproductive.  Hence a new narrative about the Uprising, its reasons and the tragic outcome was created – it was the military command of the Home Army that was reckless by starting the Uprising instead of patiently waiting for the liberation by the Soviets.  The Uprising was portrayed as a foolish enterprise, which was the direct cause of the incredible loss of life, suffering and total material destruction. The Communists reinforced that view through books and films produced in post-war Poland.

So, what was the point of the Uprising? Why did the Poles start the doomed fight? The military and political reasons are complex but essentially, they did not have a choice. Trapped between two evil totalitarian systems it was not in the Polish national character to simply give up on the dream of independent Poland. This was the generation for whom the ideal of freedom stood above everything else and the fight for their country came instinctively. Did they fail? Not entirely.  They failed militarily and politically – Poland had to endure nearly 50 years of a brutal communist regime. However, it is acknowledged that thanks to the Uprising Poland had not become another republic within the USSR. The memory of the Rising ’44 kept the spirit of the fight for freedom alive and the Solidarity movement tapped into these sentiments in 1980. Today, there is a whole new generation of youngsters in Poland who truly begin to understand and appreciate what their counterparts did during the Warsaw Uprising 1944. They don’t ask why and how and what for. They are simply in awe of the heroism and sacrifice. The Warsaw Uprising remains a powerful symbol of hope against all the odds and the endurance of the human spirit amongst unimaginable horror.

When in Warsaw, a visit to Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising is a must. It is also worth seeing the Warsaw Uprising monument in Plac Krasińskich Krasiński Square in Warsaw.


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Polish tutor tips:

Find out what is the significance of sewers in the Uprising

Research the origin and the meaning of the symbol of “anchor”

The Polish word for uprising is powstanie [pof-sta-nie]– study other related words:warsaw uprising collage




To learn more about the Warsaw Uprising follow the links below:


Rising ’44 by Norman Davies


Miasto ’44 (Warsaw 44)

watch the trailer here


The men who flew to Warsaw

The Warsaw Uprising (watch trailer here)

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