When Warsaw Died Again

October 07, 1994

Warsaw lay inert under Nazi German occupation in the early summer of 1944. Further east, German armies collapsed and Soviet forces rolled forward. The first Russian tanks reached Polish soil in January. The underground Polish Home Army lay low, awaiting the moment to rise. While the Allies jointly fought Adolf Hitler's Germany, they tugged over Poland's fate.

The half-century anniversary of joy at the liberation of Paris on Aug. 25 was inextricably a reminder of the simultaneous agony of Warsaw, and the heroic rising that was willfully let fail.

There were several Polands. One was the regime which in 1939 fled to London, recognized as the government-in-exile. For it, Britain had declared war in 1939. To it, the underground Polish Home Army was loyal. That Polish army was fighting the Allies' war in Italy and Normandy. Another group, Communists, had fled to the Soviet Union and been prepared to return and rule. A third, doomed Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, had risen in the spring of 1943 and been destroyed.

By the end of July 1944, Soviet artillery fire was heard in Warsaw. On July 29, Polish Communists on Radio Moscow urged the Poles to rise. General Bor Komorowski of the Polish Home Army had authority to do it. At 5 p.m. on July 31, thousands of windows in Warsaw were flung open. German troops were shot. Poles rushed out to attack. By 5:15, the city was a battleground.

Nearby, the Soviet Red army halted, its guns silent. On Aug. 4, the Germans counter-attacked, undisturbed by Russians. For 60 days, the Red army lay still while a few miles away Poles fought and died. Moscow since July had recognized the Polish Communist Committee of National Liberation as the future government, and declared Soviet-occupied Lublin the provisional capital.

In London, Prime Minister Churchill begged Stalin to help the Poles and was rebuffed. The Polish prime minister from London went to Moscow to seek cooperation but was stiff-armed. Churchill wanted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to join a tough ultimatum. FDR refused, giving greater priority to Stalin's cooperation against Japan. Some U.S. aid got through, but the Anglo-American command refused to drop a Polish parachute brigade on Warsaw, and dropped it on Holland.

In September, Stalin relented and American planes supplying Poles refueled in Russia. Too late. At the start of October -- half a century ago this week -- the last free Poles surrendered. Some 15,000 Polish soldiers, 10,000 German soldiers and 200,000 Warsaw civilians were dead. Thanks to Soviet treachery, the Warsaw rising destroyed the forces that would have restored legitimate Poland. What was left was a vacuum for Stalin's puppets to fill.

The Red Army entered Warsaw in the third week of January 1945. It wasn't really there.

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