Polish resistance, first against the German occupiers and later also against the Soviets, was so vast and complex as to defy a satisfactory accounting in so short a tale as ours. Fortunately, the topic boasts a substantial literature; at least in English, however, this literature is rather one-sided and uniformly patriotic. The Poles, if one can generalize about such a large nation, are so steeped in their long history of heroic struggle against foreign invaders, and have such a penchant for painting a romantic, even a messianic, image of themselves, that it is sometimes difficult to detect what actually happened there. If we are to believe the former resisters and the majority of Polish historians, the nation as a whole resisted the Germans from the first day of the war until the last German soldier left the country in the spring of 1945. These historians point out that in order to show their devotion to freedom and to the Western Allies-who in 1939 had failed to help-Poles concentrated on fighting the German oppressors while neglecting the struggle against the Soviet invaders. Only toward the end of the war did some Poles take up arms against the Soviet occupiers and their Polish Communist stooges, for which, again, they received no help from the West.
There is much truth in the above historical interpretation, but it tends to ignore the fact that the majority of the population in Poland, as elsewhere in Europe, were, or at least tried to be, uninvolved bystanders. Poles suffered enormously from being treated as slaves and subhumans, yet many individuals and groups profited from the needs of the German war industry. There were also those who drew benefits from the confiscation of Jewish property and the absence of Jewish businessmen and professionals.
Poles disagree among themselves on the precise nature of the German occupation and on the extent and usefulness of the resistance movement. It is also an open question as to who the true motors of the resistance were: the traditional Polish social elite-descendants of the great landowning aristocrats and of the szlachta (landed gentry)-or educated people in general and the urban workers. There is also disagreement regarding the respective dedication, popularity, and true role of the main resistance groups: the nationalist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic but anti-Nazi National Armed Forces, known as the NSZ; the great conservative-liberal, Western-oriented patriotic resistance organization whose political leadership resided in London, claiming to be the Polish government in exile and whose military arm was the Home Army (Armia Krajowa); the peasant-socialist leftist resistance movements; and, finally, the Communist resistance, whose military arm was called the People’s Army (Armia Ludowa). The latter’s leadership was in Moscow, a tool in the hands of Stalin. Polish historiography said little, until recently, on the Polish resistance movements’ strained relations with the ethnic minorities and the latter’s underground organizations and not much either on how the Poles in general viewed the Holocaust and what the true relations were between the Polish and the Jewish resistance.
At least until recently, Poles liked to cultivate the self-image of an innocent and fiercely independent nation feloniously attacked by two totalitarian monsters: first, Nazi Germany, which had invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and, second, the Soviet Union, whose troops entered Polish territory on September 17. The limitless suffering the German occupiers inflicted on the Polish people was symbolized by the German destruction of Warsaw, first in September 1939 and then during and after the great Warsaw uprising between August and October 1944. Thousands upon thousands of Poles were tortured and killed at such places as Pawiak Prison in Warsaw and the Auschwitz I concentration camp. Polish suffering under Soviet rule was most horribly symbolized by the NKVD massacre of some twenty-two thousand Polish reserve officers and officials, in 1940, at Katyñ and similar places in the Soviet Union, and also by the trial and execution of Polish non-Communist anti-Nazi resisters toward the end of and right after the war.
Poles are correct in saying that there were no important quislings in their country, yet they add only rarely that Poland was the only country in Europe in which the German occupiers never invited collaboration. And although it is absolutely true that Poland was feloniously assaulted by the two superpowers and that the Poles, instead of surrendering, stubbornly resisted the aggressors, only recently did Polish politicians and historians begin to draw a more balanced picture of these events. There was, for instance, the less than fair treatment that interwar Poland had meted out to its ethnic minorities, which at least partly explains the violent hostility of many Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Volksdeutsche (members of the German minority), and Jews toward the Polish state and population. And it is only recently that leading Polish writers have begun to address the issue of popular anti-Semitism during the Holocaust years. Yet it happened all too often that Polish villagers and townspeople grabbed and handed over fugitive Jews to the Polish or the German police. It was a young Polish historian who recently demonstrated in his microhistory of a specific county in southeastern Poland that the majority of Jews in hiding perished as a consequence of betrayal by their Polish neighbors. The common Polish nationalist excuse according to which desperate Polish villagers associated Soviet Communist oppression with Jews, many of whom had joined the Soviet occupation forces, could not possibly apply to a region in central Poland that did not see the Red Army until 1944. The beatings, torture, and lynching of Jews were not a rarity, either; nor was the infamous massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by their fellow villagers a unique incident. Polish historical memory has only begun to deal with the nefarious activity of the szmalcownicy, mostly young men in Warsaw and elsewhere who had made a profession of terrorizing and blackmailing Jews in hiding. When the Jew had nothing left to give, he was denounced to the German authorities for a new reward. It is true, however, that Polish underground courts sometimes tried and executed the szmalcownicy.
Steadfast opposition to the German occupation was the official policy of the Polish government in exile. Political and military leaders, who had avoided German or Soviet capture, fled to Romania at the end of September 1939, together with a substantial part of the Polish army. Others escaped to Hungary, where they were also warmly received and treated as honored guests. Subsequently, thousands were allowed to leave through the Balkans for the West. The exile Polish government moved to Paris and then to London, followed by an ever-increasing number of able-bodied refugees from whose ranks the British formed entire infantry and armored brigades. Polish refugees also provided the Royal Air Force with some of its best fighter squadrons, and the British navy profited from a fully manned fleet of Polish cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and transports.
The exile government established its Delegatura in Warsaw, complete with military, political, educational, cultural, judicial, and intelligence departments. When and how resolutely to attack the German occupiers was one of the main dilemmas of the resistance. The difficulties were marked by the customary disagreements between cautious commanders and often reckless local leaders. Fortunately for members of the Polish resistance, they could move relatively easily in the country, where they were protected by the traditional prestige of the Polish freedom fighter. What also helped was the noble origin of many resisters, the unpopularity of the German- and Soviet-occupations, and the efficiency of the underground courts in pursuing traitors. Indeed, Poland was one of the few countries in Hitler’s Europe where it was just as dangerous to serve the Germans as it was to join the resistance. The Polish resister was the legendary “fish in the water,” in the words of Mao Tse-tung regarding the fundamental requirement for a successful resistance. The Polish resister served as a role model for high school students and scouts, both boys and girls, who then served and died as couriers, spies, and nurses in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
Perhaps more than any other country, Poland produced some fabled resistance fighters. We will examine only three here in order to illustrate their bravery and dilemmas, and the tragedies of the resistance, in this case especially of the Polish national resistance.
Władysław Bartoszewski, a Catholic journalist and writer, was an early political prisoner at Auschwitz, from which he was released in 1941. He became the most famous member of the Council for Aid to the Jews (Žegota), founded by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka within the Polish Delegatura in Warsaw as Europe’s only underground organization solely dedicated to assisting Jews. Following his participation in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Bartoszewski-like so many of his fellow resisters-almost automatically continued his resistance activity once under Soviet rule. Accused of being a spy, he spent several months in prison, but the charges were dropped against him. Meanwhile, he continued his feverish political, journalistic, and cultural activity, traveling around the world and receiving innumerable honors and decorations, among them the recognition by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as a “Righteous Among the Nations.” The Israeli government made him an honorary citizen. Arrested again by the Polish government in early 1981, he was subsequently rehabilitated and, following the fall of communism, served as foreign minister of the so-called Solidarity government. The author of some of the most important books on the Polish resistance movement, Bartoszewski was still serving in a high diplomatic position in 2013, at the age of ninety-one.
A well-known figure in the West for, among other things, having given crucial interviews in Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 French documentary film Shoah, Jan Karski served during the war as a courier of the Armia Krajowa, the main Polish resistance group. He made several secret trips to France and Great Britain and was once arrested and tortured by the Germans. In 1942 he engaged in his most important clandestine travel, which brought him to Great Britain and from there to the United States. He was carrying documents on German atrocities and on the Jewish death camps, one of which he had visited in disguise. He got as far as the Oval Office in Washington, DC, but neither President Roosevelt nor the latter’s advisers wanted to believe him, or if they did, they still could not or would not do anything to help. Karski ended up as a professor of political science at Georgetown University and the author of, among other books, Story of a Secret State, a wartime report on the Polish underground, which became a near best seller in the West.
Witold Pilecki, a tragic figure, seemed to have united in him all the major characteristics of the “typical” Polish freedom fighter. As so many other Polish resisters, he was of noble origin. In fact, traditionally, Polish society consisted almost uniquely of noble landowners and serfs-those in the cities were mainly non-Polish speakers-and the numerous nobles considered themselves the only true bearers of Polish nationhood. A landowner by occupation, Pilecki served in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920 and became a reserve army officer. Following the German attack in August 1939, he fought at the head of his unit until complete defeat and then immediately joined the first armed underground organization. In 1940 he persuaded his superiors to let him be arrested with the aim of being imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp, which at that time held mainly Polish political prisoners. While there, he set up an underground resistance organization and escaped, in April 1943, carrying documents stolen from the Germans. He then served in the Home Army, distinguishing himself especially during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. By then, however, he had already made preparations for resisting the Soviet occupation. Arrested in 1947 for sending intelligence reports to the West on Soviet atrocities, he was tried, sentenced, and in May 1948 executed when he was forty-seven. A nonperson in Communist times, he was “rehabilitated” by the post-Communist government and has become a legendary hero in Poland.
It is nearly impossible to calculate the damage the European resistance movements caused to the enemy. Western historians, especially of the career military type, like to believe that the resistance did not seriously weaken the German war machine. Judging by the World War II experiences of Poland, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia as well as by the later deadly efficiency of the anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan and the Vietcong fighting the Americans in Vietnam, such arguments are no longer completely satisfactory. According to official Polish statistics, between January 1941 and June 1944, the non-Communist, non-right-wing Polish resistance damaged 6,930 locomotives, derailed 732 German transports, damaged 19,058 railway wagons, built faults into 92,000 artillery missiles, and more. Even if such precise figures are debatable, there can be no doubt that the German war industry had to spend millions of man-hours to replace machinery destroyed by Polish guerrillas. Nor should we forget the thousands of German soldiers in partisan-infected areas of Poland and the Soviet Union who had to guard transports instead of joining those on the front line.
Three major events defined the fate and the memory of the Polish resistance: the Warsaw ghetto uprising of April-May 1943 and the purported failure of the Polish resistance to aid the doomed Jewish fighters; the great Warsaw Uprising between August and October 1944 and the related questions as to whether the uprising was premature and whether the Red Army had deliberately refrained from helping the Polish fighters; and the Soviet mistreatment of the members of the Home Army at the end of the war and the continued fight of the “Brothers,” also called the “Cursed Soldiers,” against the Soviets and the Polish Communist regime. The fight ended only in 1952, when the group disbanded.