On the Front Lines
September 1, 2004
, former minister for foreign affairs, participant and historian of the Warsaw Uprising, talks to Marcin Mierzejewski
During the Warsaw Uprising, you operated under the alias "Teofil", at the Division of Information and Propaganda (BIP) of the Central Command of the Home Army (AK). What were your responsibilities?
My position coincided with my youth and lack of experience at the time. Even though today I am a recognized historian and often speak about issues connected with the Uprising in public, in a way I do this on behalf of the many people who are no longer alive and who played a major role in those events. From 1942, I was an AK soldier under oath and was directed to operate at the BIP Division of Information at the AK command (in the military terminology that we used at the time, the BIP was referred to as the 6th Division of the Staff). At the age of 20, I was privileged to join a very elite unit and a community of people who were older than me. My colleagues and subsequently commanders included Aleksander Gieysztor, Wacław Szubert, Witold Kula, Stefan Kieniewicz and Kazimierz Moczarski, who later became eminent professors and writers. This was an unusual school of life for me.
Of course, my responsibilities were of a different nature than those of soldiers in combat units. Those responsibilities were defined in the mobilization plan for Warsaw, which called for the establishment of territorial information/radio posts guaranteeing radio communications between AK units. We used UKF field radio stations, trying to guarantee communications among individual districts of the city separated from one another. Despite a range of only a few kilometers, the radio stations largely relieved the personal communications service, 95 percent of which was handled by a female liaison staff who distributed orders and documents in the city.
Second, my Division was allotted specific research and documentation responsibilities. The former were based on examining the mood of the population, which we did by sending patrols through the city. We also collected material on the basis of testimonies made by those who escaped from districts captured by the Germans and facing annihilation. These people-many of whom escaped street executions-were questioned by professional lawyers and minutes were taken. These were difficult and unpredictable activities because it was difficult to predict before the start of the Uprising that we would have to collect data on war crimes and transmit them along with the names of the criminals by radio to London.
Moreover, from Aug. 3 we issued a bulletin copied on a duplicator with a circulation of 1,500 copies. The bulletin became one of the official mouthpieces of the AK in ¦ródmie¶cie-South and was issued twice a day, offering the latest news from Warsaw and global fronts.
What was your rank?
I started in the Uprising as a platoon leader and finished as a second lieutenant. After the Uprising, I was promoted to full lieutenant and at that point my military career ended.
The 60th anniversary of the Uprising was commemorated on an unprecedented scale in Warsaw and even overshadowed the 50th anniversary.
The 50th anniversary was dignified and a respectful commemoration of historic events, which were attended by two important visitors: U.S. Vice President Gore and German President Roman Herzog. At the time-as the first [German statesman] speaking on behalf of his nation-Herzog referred to German shame and responsibility for the crimes committed in Warsaw. Chancellor Schröder, during the 60th anniversary commemorations, only repeated those words. Poles were morally satisfied with the words of Herzog. However, we should reflect on what this means for the further coexistence of nations, and what will change in textbooks and the media as a result.
The victims of those crimes cannot be brought back to life, but we can try to offset the consequences by paying special attention and respect to the victims and their families. This is the only thing we expect from successors of the perpetrators of the tragedy in Warsaw-and the Federal Republic of Germany is the legal successor to the previous German state. So, while appreciating the words of Chancellor Schröder, I ask: what next? Will anything change? As it turns out, some people still cannot distinguish between the 1944 Warsaw Uprising-which engulfed a city of several hundred thousand-from the 1943 Ghetto Uprising, which is an example of an unusual heroism on the part of about 200 people defending themselves against certain death in the gas chambers. Until now, the Warsaw Uprising did not generate wider interest in the West in the media nor among historians.
How should this be explained? Could this be because the subject is inconvenient to our Western allies?
Undoubtedly, the Uprising was an inconvenient subject. As inconvenient as the Katyń massacre-in the latter case, we only recently learned that the British intelligence service had information about the true perpetrator of the crime from the very start. This information was concealed for political reasons. In my opinion, the Warsaw Uprising belongs to a collection of painful wartime experiences, which resulted from a lack of awareness of the intentions of the Soviet Union.
I would like to mention the gesture made by British Marshal John Slessor, commander of allied air forces in Europe, who permitted flights from Italian bases to bring aid to Warsaw. Originally, he prohibited further flights after huge losses sustained in the first missions. Then, under pressure from Poland, he permitted flights by Poles and volunteers. All British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander and South African pilots available at the base in Bari volunteered to fly over Warsaw, in solidarity with their Polish colleagues. We will not forget that. These are excellent examples of solidarity of Commonwealth and American soldiers with Poles, solidarity among soldiers, for whom it was natural to fly alongside a Polish colleague in the common fight against Hitler.
Another reason for the lack of interest in the Uprising abroad was undoubtedly the policy of the Polish communist government, which by no means wanted to publicize the issue considering how Poland's eastern "allies" behaved. During more than 40 years, Aug. 1 was commemorated domestically at best. In contrast, the Jewish Diaspora was capable of spreading knowledge about the tragic plight of the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto globally so that it became encyclopedic knowledge and was made into books and films.
Significantly, the first monument unveiled after the war in Warsaw was a monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, while the Warsaw insurgents of 1944 were not commemorated for many years.
Nobody questions that this monument was erected for good reason on the rubble of the ghetto. No one argued against this because that monument was respected from the start among Varsovians. However, at the same time, there was no mention of the tragedy at a city-wide level and the massacre of hundreds of thousands. This was abnormal thing and also helped sour relations between the Polish and Jewish nations.
Do you think knowledge of the 1944 Uprising is now more common in the West? Despite political statements, don't young Germans and French people remain completely unaware of what happened in occupied Poland and what exactly Poles are so concerned about?
For seven years, I was a lecturer at several German universities, so I have a personal experience in this matter. I believe that there is always hope that something will change for the better. Those who do not do anything do not achieve anything. One example is the current Mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczyński, who-while organizing the commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the Uprising-managed to effectively concentrate media activities, which magnified the effect of the ceremonies. Media coverage is just as important as educational campaigns. This year's 60th anniversary commemorations yielded a modern Museum of the Uprising, whose opening is also due to the mayor of Warsaw. Anniversary ceremonies attracted a fine group of top-level foreign guests-the German chancellor was accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott-leading to reports in the foreign media. This is an example of positive action that will certainly bear fruit if continued in the future.
Poles do not dispute the heroism of the 1944 insurgents, but there is still debate concerning whether the decision to start the Uprising was the right one. Do you think the Uprising could have been avoided?
Let me start by saying that, in my opinion, the horrible losses in the population and the destruction of Warsaw could not have been avoided one way or the other. The destruction of Warsaw was actually prepared by the Germans from 1940 to mark the end of the war in victory-they did not doubt that they would win. It is known that a group of architects from Würzburg created a plan for the demolition of Warsaw and its replacement with a 120,000 garden city for Germans. The project was not adopted, yet was kept on file for further consideration after the war.
Shortly before the start of the Uprising, Germans called on 100,000 [Polish] men aged 16 to 60 to show up at 10 a.m. on July 28 to build fortifications. The call was boycotted; only 450 people showed up, most of them disabled. Do you think the Germans would have ignored this Polish arrogance at a time when the front was approaching Warsaw? Would they have tolerated a city of several hundred thousand enraged activists behind their lines? To me the answer is obviously no. If the Uprising had not been started, the Germans would have taken residents to kacets [concentration camps] and Warsaw, as a front city, would have been demolished anyway. As far as I know, during World War II not a single front city survived. Poles were particularly hated by the occupants and Governor Hans Frank wrote in his journals that most problems in the General Governor's District were created by Warsaw.
The Red Army also appealed to Polish communist units in July to seize Warsaw-overestimating their forces greatly. One could theoretically ponder what would have happened if the Uprising had taken place after the entry of the Soviets. In 1944-45, about 50,000 young Poles were deported to Gulags from the Lublin, Białystok and Rzeszów regions alone. The Soviets could've easily deported 200,000 or 300,000 people from Warsaw to the East, considering the hatred that Stalin displayed toward Polish intellectuals and the AK.
On the other hand, what Warsaw demonstrated must have been food for thought for Stalin. As a pragmatist, after the start of the Uprising, he may have reached the conclusion that a potential incorporation of Poland into the Soviet Union was pointless because this would have created too many problems.
Did the Uprising pay off for Poles?
It is never clear whether this kind of campaign is worthwhile morally and historically. In Poland there is a rich tradition of uprisings against partitioning powers, most of which ended in failure. I know one thing-both myself and my friends who joined the Uprising would have done the same thing if we could turn back time.
The Uprising was not the work of madmen, contrary to how it is sometimes presented. It was an independent campaign, an act of the Polish raison d'etat, as it was understood at the time. The AK was not led by partisans, but by thoroughly educated and experienced generals. Both Gen. Tadeusz Komorowski "Bór," commander-in-chief of the AK, and Gen. Antoni Chru¶ciel "Monter," commander of the Warsaw District of AK, were officers in regular service in the Austrian army prior to 1918 and graduates of renowned military schools. The decision to start the Uprising was made jointly by representatives of all political parties represented in the secret Polish Underground State, which had its own political and civilian structures. The Council of National Unity, the underground substitute for parliament, included prewar Polish deputies and ministers. At the same time, the prime minister of the Polish government-in-exile in London stated that he was taking on the responsibility for the decision to start the Uprising. Thus it was neither an act of people's revolution nor guerrilla warfare. This was an act motivated by a certain political decision made by legal Polish authorities at home and abroad.
Even though the exceptional bravery of AK soldiers is widely acknowledged, the Uprising is often presented as a poorly prepared and executed operation. Could you comment on the military dimension of the event?
The Uprising, which lasted 63 days, was originally intended to last no more than two to three days. Its duration-a surprise for both military experts and German officers-should be attributed to the exceptional patriotic fervor and dedication of both soldiers and the Varsovians.
Interestingly, the military dimension of the Uprising was most appreciated by the Germans themselves, which is best demonstrated in a statement made to German generals by Heinrich Himmler [creator of the SS and the Gestapo and one of the leading figures of the Third Reich-ed.] on Sept. 21, 1944, seven weeks into the Uprising: "The fighting in Warsaw is the fiercest of all since the start of the war, as tough as street fights for Stalingrad." For the Germans Stalingrad was a powerful symbol of failure. On Sept. 30 German radio aired the following report: "If, in the fight in Warsaw, German soldiers did not employ absolutely all means at their disposal-the fight would be hopeless." Mind you: "hopeless." Not "difficult" or "complicated and long-lasting," but "hopeless."
Couldn't Western allies have given more aid?
They could have, primarily by exerting a strong political pressure on Stalin. Historian Norman Davies puts it in this way: If only had they told him that "from now on we are putting all deliveries on hold; if you can make your own decisions, without consulting us, then you must cope on your own." After all, Soviet soldiers fought with American weapons, using American shoes, eating American food. Probably only their Katyusha rockets were Soviet-made. American aid made it possible for Stalin to stage the great summer offensive in 1944 and the winter offensive in 1945.
Stalin was very pragmatic, he would have had to consider such an argument and would probably have had to give in the end. In reality, he did not allow American and British airplanes to land on German airfields seized by the Russians east of Warsaw. He made allied planes executing air drops over Warsaw turn back without landing, which-as is known-caused huge losses. What kind of ally is that? I would even say that the Cold War began in earnest at that time.
So, there was a lack of decided, political and military pressure from the West. We might wonder how the situation would have looked if pressure had been exerted. Stalin would have permitted allied aircraft to land and an air bridge would have been built to aid the insurgents fighting in Warsaw. Then AK soldiers would have been able to defend themselves even more successfully, and the Germans would have had to change their calculations and accept some kind of indirect arrangement much earlier. Please remember that as late as Sept. 30, shortly before the capitulation of the Uprising, the Germans were still saying that fighting in Warsaw was a nearly hopeless cause.
This issue is very painful politically and very instructive historically. German General Heinz Guderian clearly wrote in his memoirs that the halt of the Red Army beyond the Vistula, which waited for the Uprising to collapse, was a blessing for the Germans from an operational point of view. He writes: "I will not get involved in disputes between the former allies, the Soviets and the Poles. We do not care about this. What matters is that they [the Soviets] stopped and allowed us to regroup."
Insurgents fought and perished in Warsaw in the name of the ideals of freedom, actively opposing two totalitarian powers that threatened Poland. Is the Warsaw Uprising a symbol for Europe?
As a symbol-yes. And also as a manifestation of an absolute allied loyalty. The kind of loyalty that was exemplified by Polish soldiers fighting on several fronts under allied command-in Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. Some allied forces, of which the AK was a part, decided to conduct certain operations in their areas, taking the risk that had to be taken by many commanders in different parts of Europe. It's just that the dilemmas of commanders such as American General George S. Patton became a part of a wider awareness in the world-for example, thanks to the fact that filmmakers have taken an interest in this subject-while the dilemmas of the commanders of the Uprising, just as the Uprising itself, remain a blank card for many Europeans.