Response to the Warsaw Uprising
During World War II, few countries suffered to the extent that Poland and its citizen’s did at the hands of the German Wermacht. The suffering that occurred, however, did not come as a result of passive acquiescence to the Nazi forces; it came as a result of a struggle to prevent the further destruction of Poland and its people. The Polish resistance movement is considered to be one of the most successful among occupied East-Central European nations. Through their efforts during the war, the Poles elicited the use of 500,000 German troops to maintain the occupation, while the Nazi front advanced toward Soviet Russia. One of every eight transports destined for this front never arrived due to the interference of the resistance. All of these efforts against the German occupiers continued throughout the war, but the zenith of Polish resistance was embodied in the Warsaw Uprising, which began on August 1, 1944, and concluded with the Polish Home Army’s surrender on October 2, 1944.
The focus of this paper will examine the American response to the insurrection, as chronicled in the press, as well as the American perception of Polish-Soviet relations throughout the 63-day period. While the battle raged against the Nazi occupiers, the internal conflict between Poland and the Soviets soon surfaced as a major element in determining the success of the Uprising. This conflict was reflected upon and interpreted in American media. The general tone of American, and indeed, world response to the Warsaw Uprising began as that of hopeful optimism, but soon turned to that of unfortunate loss and tragedy.
On August 3, 1944, the New York Times reported that warfare had begun within Warsaw. The article chronicles the surfacing of the underground Polish army, the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army, in an attempt to join the Red Army of the Soviet Union in expelling the German’s from Polish soil: “The Polish underground army in Warsaw has come into the open to wage bitter warfare in the rear of the German forces attempting to halt the Red Army’s frontal assault,….” The tone of these opening lines already begins to hint at the sentiment that Soviet and Polish forces were engaged in a common effort against the Nazis. Indeed, the article goes on to note that, according to Polish sources in London, the cooperation between the two was “‘quite satisfactory.’” The level of perceived satisfaction, at least on the part of the Polish, would soon change, and it would be echoed in the American news media.
As the insurrection progressed, the hope for success quickly began to dissipate among those observing from without. By August 17, newspapers published lines such as “No city on earth is more tragic than Warsaw today.” Questions about the Soviet commitment to push through Warsaw, in an effort to aid the Home Army in finally dislodging the Germans, began to arise. In a New York Times editorial, the author remarks that the expectation of the leader of the Home Army, General Bor, probably included this push from the Soviets. In an uncommitted statement, the editor also describes the possibilities for the lack of Soviet aid:
…Rokossovsky’s troops either ran into strong opposition or the attack on Warsaw, in the early days of August, did not fit into the grand strategic conception of the Russian advance.
The author goes on to argue that American observers should reserve their judgment on the issue because they do not fully understand Soviet motivations in this regard. The author then, however, goes on to indict the uprising, inexplicably stating that the Poles should not have risen without coordinating their efforts with the Soviets. The first plea to reserve judgment, coupled with this latter condemnation of the supposedly premature rise of the Poles, creates a critical mood toward the patriots of Warsaw. The author seems to request a pardon for the Soviets, since the Poles efforts, while noble, were mistimed and misguided. Others around the United States, and around the world, did not agree with this interpretation of the events in East-Central Europe.
On September 11, after receiving a plea from the Mayor of Warsaw, mayor La Guardia of New York broadcast his support for the Poles, and criticized the lack of aid in the struggle from outside sources: “Mr. La Guardia declared that he had been ‘informed that the ammunition is ready, the weapons are ready, the material and supplies are ready, the planes are ready.’ He expressed disbelief ‘that the delay is due to military reasons.’” Throughout his broadcast the mayor made only one reference to the Soviets, in that the Poles and the Soviets were both fighting a common enemy. It seems that the question left unasked was that of why the Soviets did not do more to further the Uprising’s cause. “‘They are only asking that cooperation to which, as an ally, they are entitled, and what I believe they have every right to expect.’”
Outside the United States, on September 11, Pope Pius XII sent a message of compassion for the struggling Poles over Vatican radio: “the Pope gave his apostolic blessing to President Raczkiewicz and the Polish nation and uttered a prayer for the deliverance of Warsaw, whose struggle against its German oppressors had been made an adventitious issue in the Polish-Soviet dispute.” The message came at a crucial point in Polish-Soviet relations, since the Soviets were weighing the potential for more intense future collaborations. Together with Mayor La Guardia’s remarks, the Pope’s public prayers in favor of aid for Poland clearly indicate the presence a pro-Warsaw voice in public opinion.
Despite the pro-Warsaw voice, however, the prevailing attitude of tragedy still existed. In another New York Times editorial, the rift between the Polish Committee of National Liberation, supported by the Soviets, and the Polish Government-in-Exile serves as the focal point for criticism of Soviet hesitancy during the Warsaw Uprising. Written on October 3, the editorial coincides with the surrender of overmatched and starving Polish forces. The tone of the editorial is one of criticism toward the Soviets and, again, sympathy for the tragedy suffered through by the Poles. The discussion indicts the Soviet claims that Polish efforts were not coordinated with the plans of the Red Army:
There is unimpeachable evidence that a radio station using the frequency employed by the Lublin committee called upon the Poles in Warsaw to rise. There is some supporting evidence that the Warsaw Poles believed they had not only the committee but the Soviet Government behind them in their heroic venture.
The author goes on to praise the Poles for their heroism, noting that they have earned consideration and respect. The conclusion of the editorial, however, involves an interesting shift in tone, similar to the editorial of August 17: the editor again asks that the American people reserve judgment against the Soviet Union. The conclusion hints at the necessity of the Soviets as allies, and tries to stem any alienation of what could become a powerful nation after the war: “[a]s a military ally, the Soviet Union has rendered the western world a service beyond price. …in the world organization for peace…cannot possibly succeed if Russia is not a full partner.” In the end, the editor takes a moderate position, stressing the importance of Polish self-determination, a result not likely in the shadow of the emerging Soviet Empire. The editor, however, quite accurately predicts the future in his closing remark: “This is not merely the Polish problem. It is the problem of all central and eastern Europe.”
“After sixty-three days of bitter resistance, the patriots of Warsaw have been forced to surrender and the Germans again are in control of the shattered Polish capital.” This quote appeared on the front page of the New York Times on October 4, 1944, marking the end of the Warsaw Uprising. The results of the insurrection were devastating in both casualties and destruction. Prime Minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk noted that the main reason for surrender was “‘all hopes of relief from outside had vanished.’” Without supplies, the citizens of Warsaw were starved into submission. An editorial that appeared that same day reflects the common perceptions of the insurrection throughout the war; it represents a synthesis of both arguments for and against the Poles by putting aside the issues of the wisdom of and the blame for the Uprising, and concentrating on venerating those who fought for their freedom. The editor put the Poles’ heroism in historical perspective, and claimed that this struggle represented the most hopeless, yet most heroic effort against insurmountable odds. The editorial ironically mentions that “[a]t no time was there hope that the Polish soldiers and civilians in Warsaw could by their unaided efforts drive the Germans out” [my emphasis], but he ignores the roots for the lack of aid. This final editorial serves as a stark contrast to the hopeful commentary offered at the beginning of the Uprising; what had begun as hope and optimism had turned to tragedy and loss.
“‘Warsaw’s fighting throughout August and September of 1944 is the only instance in the history of this war in which a great city has conducted such a long and isolated defense with their own means, without heavy equipment or considerable help from outside against a superior enemy having at his disposal the whole destructive might of modern warfare.’”