What Warsaw Remembers
Wall Street Journal Europe
WARSAW -- Each August, Warsaw
remembers the hot month in 1944 when the Polish underground
army rose up against the Germans.
Mounds of flowers and candles adorn thousands of graves
at Powazki cemetery of the young men and women of the
Polish Home Army (AK) who at "W" hour -- 17:00
on Tuesday Aug. 1 -- launched the largest insurgency
in German-occupied Europe.
The Home Army, answering to the government in exile
in London, launched the uprising, in part, to liberate
Warsaw before or concurrently with the Red Army so as
to not leave Poland's postwar fate to Stalin's mercies.
Its tragic failure, after 63 days of fighting the Germans
while the Red Army looked on impassively just across
the River Vistula, did just that.
I was in Powazki on Aug. 1, 1989, amazed by waves of
people streaming in, singing war songs and chanting
Solidarity slogans. Polish patriotism was, at that time,
an intense national longing. Few people had any inkling
that the goal of the original uprising would be realized
just a few weeks later with the fall of communism.
Then, the anniversary was a solemn anti-government protest.
Fourteen years on, the atmosphere isn't as politically
charged. The reminiscences of the remaining survivors
are splashed in the papers, the country's former Communists
now in power lay wreaths at memorials and buses fly
the Polish flags. It's less immediate -- at last, just
history. But it's history people aren't letting go of.
A Polish friend, late for dinner, had just taken his
two young daughters, both born well after the end of
communism, to Powazki -- so they'd know. My uncle notes
the dates on the tombstones: These young people would've
built a different Poland after the war. "This was
the future," he says.
Stalin encouraged the uprising ("Poles, to arms:
Freedom awaits," a Moscow-backed radio implored
in late July) and then refused to let his troops or
the Western Allies give any aid. The Allies, wanting
to keep Uncle Joe happy, obliged him.
Polish soldiers in Western Europe had fought valiantly
in the air battles over London as well as to liberate
Paris and Italy, Home Army commander-in-chief, Gen.
Kazimierz Sosnokowski, bitterly reminded the allies
on Sept. 1, 1944, looking on helplessly from London
while far better armed German reinforcements went into
Warsaw. "Warsaw abandoned to wage the common fight
against the Germans alone -- this is the tragic and
vile mystery that we Poles cannot comprehend,"
he wrote. "We cannot do this, since we have not
yet lost faith that a moral law rules the world."
Neither morality nor the Allies saved the Poles that
year. By the end of the uprising in early October, as
survivor Barbara Siedler wrote in Rzeczpospolita last
week, "there was no city. There was no more strength,
there was no ammunition, no water, medicine, food. There
was nothing." Hitler personally ordered Warsaw
razed, leaving Stalin to rebuild it. The Home Army was
The Poles could be bitter, but they've drawn a different
lesson from the war -- a war that, in reality, didn't
end until 1989. Freedom can't be taken for granted;
it must be defended. Hence Poland's unfashionable, in
much of today's Europe, belief in a close alliance with
America. Hence, its equally unfashionable commitment
to NATO, not least since its neighborhood isn't yet
stable. And hence its decision to take the lead this
month of a large peacekeeping contingent in Iraq.
In Germany and France, the sudden high profile of Poland
alongside the Yanks brings snickers and insults. "Mercenaries,"
a German ambassador told this page in spring. "Trojan
Donkeys," added a German magazine.
"The French Army would feel humiliated to go to
Iraq and be put in the same category as the Poles or
the Uruguayans as part of the cleanup team," a
senior French official, anonymously and pompously, told
the New York Times last month. Excuse me, the French
army would feel "humiliated"?
The French and Germans should know better. But memories
of last century's horrors in Europe are fading or, rather,
This year in Germany, Jorg Friedrich's "The Fire:
Germany and the Bombardment 1940-1945," has topped
the best-seller lists and forced a re-evaluation of
the war. It is a study of the Allied bombing of German
cities that conveniently paints over most other aspects
of the war and the German depredations that brought
it about. Under the rain of Allied bombs, German civilians
died as in "crematoriums," subject to "mass
extermination": Mr. Friedrich's book repeatedly
employs phrases previously reserved for the Holocaust.
At the same time, a nationalist group wants to build
a center to commemorate the millions of people displaced
by the war -- only this center would be in Berlin, and
only to memorialize the German expellees.
Germany went through several phases after the war's
end, denial, then guilt, and now, remarkably, "we
were victims, too!" Germany's Nazi past seemingly
never taught all Germans to view liberty as worth fighting
France's own wartime past (Vichy, American GIs in Paris)
remains a sore subject. When French friends scoff at
Polish loyalties to America -- as at many things American
-- I merely respond, "You're lucky you weren't
liberated by the Red Army." Lucky too, in a perverse
way, that Paris never had the courage to rise up against
the Nazis, only to be forsaken and destroyed.
The hot and cold wars of the 20th century may seem remote
in Paris and Berlin. Not so in Warsaw.
Mr. Kaminski is an editorial
page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe