Sunday, 7 August 2011

Rhetorical question: Why the fuss?

I picked Moni up from W-wa Centralna this morning just before seven - she's back from the seaside on the night train. Driving home, she remarked "What are all the flags up for?" "Warsaw Uprising," I reminded her. "But that was on the first of August," she said. "Yes, but it lasted 63 days," I replied.

Later, in Park Dreszera in Mokotów, I came across this monument to the Home Army (AK) units that fought in this Warsaw district, still full of floral tributes, votive candles, flags and ribbons.

Behind us, two elderly ladies - old enough to have lived through the Uprising - were sitting on a bench facing this memorial and arguing about... Smolensk. One - dressed in black - was getting increasingly agitated. She wanted the truth. "It's a plot! A conspiracy!" The other - dressed in light blue, was smiling, shaking her head at her friend.

Najważniejsza jest prawda. Prawda zawsze zwycięża ("The truth is the most important. The truth will always triumph") said the one in black. The one in light blue said Trzeba modlić się po cichu, nie należy obnosić się ze swoją wiarą ("One should pray in silence; one oughtn't to display one's faith"), to which the woman in black said nie powinniśmy się wstydzić naszej wiary, nie powinniśmy jej ukrywać ("we shouldn't be ashamed of our faith, we shouldn't hide it"). The woman in light blue said "I can't agree with you," and pulling herself up on her crutch, got ready to hobble off.

The contrast between the two ladies put me immediately in mind of the debate going on just one post lower down on my blog. The tragedy has indeed divided the nation.

Meanwhile, the debate rages about the Uprising. There's increasing clarity emerging from the arguments for and against. In military terms, the losses suffered by both sides - considering this was a battle for a capital city that raged for over two months - were not huge in absolute terms. The civilian losses were. The German strategy of wholesale slaughter of uninvolved civilians (around 180,000, mainly in mass executions) was something the Uprising's leadership should have come to expect from a totally dehumanised foe - yet they didn't. This issue deserves greater attention from historians. Did the Government-in-Exile and the AK leadership knowingly condemn hundreds of thousands of civilians to barbarous slaughter - or did they overlook the Nazi's capacity for such utter barbarism?

Either way, the jury is still out; emotional voices can be heard extolling both points of view - a) the Uprising was inevitable - driven by furious rage at what had happened over the past five years in the Nazi-occupied capital - or b) that it was a foolish waste of life and property that could have been avoided.

Incidentally, my assertion that the Uprising - by halting Stalin's tanks on the Vistula for five months - spared much of Western Europe from 45 years of communism - is echoed in no less hallowed a title than Gnash Dziennik. Prof. Witold Kiezuń wrote there "How deep into Europe would the Red Army have penetrated, had it not been held up by the Warsaw Uprising? Poles paid an enormous price in terms of the destruction by the Germans of the Home Army in Warsaw and the centre of independent, political, patriotic action in Poland... In answer to the outbreak of the Uprising, Stalin halted the Red Army's offensive on the Vistula. The Uprising thus halted for over five months the dynamic 'thrust for Berlin'."

After 67 years, historians are still debating the sense of the Warsaw Uprising. Will the Smolensk debate still be raging in 2077? Maybe not. But in 2017, certainly.

This time last year:
The wonder of a quarterly karta miejska

This time two years ago:
Nerds - mankind's avantgarde

This time three years ago:
Into the fading light

This time four years ago:
A little bit of Poland in Wales


Sylwia said...

This poor boys-evil commanders rhetoric isn't new. It was the official line of the Communist propaganda. It's how we were taught at school about the uprising.

The opposite voices say we couldn't have known. It's not so much about how bad the Germans were, only that the Home Army have waited with the uprising for the Soviets to come. They were supposed to help, and they kept calling to the AK soldiers via radio that the time had come.

I don't think anyone had planned that the Soviets wouldn't move a finger while the Nazis would be so resentful that they'd stay to kill people and burn empty buildings rather than run to defend Berlin.

Surely they must have expected heavy losses, but nothing approaching the numbers that we know from history. They didn't know what we do.

Paddy said...

Very interesting question which serves to underline just how important the past is to Poland's present. Although very complex I would like to present one argument based on being an outsider to the passion of this debate.

One thing that struck me reading Anthony Beevor's Berlin last week was in the differing response of civilians in Berlin and Warsaw to the immense destruction visited on both those cities. In Warsaw the people fought because they had something to believe in. In Berlin the people did not - even though they were exhorted to by Goebbels - because the majority of them realised they were defeated and didn't belive in the bankrupt ideology and propaganda of their leaders.

To fight for something, even an idea, seems to be to me to be a good thing in of itself. What would have happened to Warsaw's population if they had docilely complied with the German High Command's request for all men to "report for the building of fortifications"? What would have happened if a German-controlled "Fortress Warsaw" had been destroyed by the Red Army, with no evacuation of civilians during the fighting?

This is all speculation, but the spirit in which the Uprising took place is not.

toyah said...

You're a real poet, Mike. I am impressed. One - dressed in black, the other - light blue. One getting increasingly agitated, the other - smiling sadly. One: "Conspiracy!", while the other: "I can't agree with you". One, finally, shaking her head at her friend, the other - I presume - gnashing her teeth at her enemy.
And the picture of the "light blue" one "pulling herself up on her crutch and ready to hobble off" is so sweet that I can bet that when she spoke it stopped raining.

jan said...

It's interesting that so far you didn't explore any links between two recurring themes in your blog: the uprising (or Poland's turbulent history in general) and Poland's mediocre risk culture. Don't you think that a decision to put at risk the lifes of hundreds of thousands of Warsovians, made by the commanders of the Home Army and the London government has the same roots as many today's decisions that threaten other people. As demonstrated for instance by alarming lack of workplace safety and horrendous driving habits ?

Paddy said...

I seem to remember the London government gave full control to the Warsaw AK as to whether to begin the Uprising.

jan said...

@Paddy it did that knowing the spirits among AK's leaders and (to put it bluntly) the intellectual sophistication of some of them. Sometimes the decision not to make the decision is actually quite a decision.