Thursday, 1 March 2012

Remembering the Accursed Soldiers

Plac Piłsudskiego, midday. President Bronisław Komorowski pays tribute to the so-called 'Accursed Soldiers' (żółnierze wyklęci), those resistance fighters who did not put down their guns when the Red Army chased the Nazis out of Poland, but fought on against communism.

This is a new public holiday (though not a day off work), instituted last year to mark the 60th anniversary in 1951 of the execution of seven anti-communist leaders. This is why the national flags were out today - although hardly anyone I spoke to knew the significance of 1 March.

The story of the accursed soldiers is not straightforward. As well as patriotic Poles who felt their duty was to fight on against the Soviets and their Polish communist henchmen, there were also hiding out in the forest bandits and criminals on the run. Killing Nazi occupiers was morally acceptable, but killing Poles who'd joined the communist party - some for ideological reasons - was more questionable. The scene in Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds in which a young man is mistakenly killed by two former Home Army men makes that point.

Knowing what repression was being meted out against former Home Army soldiers by the communist security apparatus, many of them hid out in the forests out of self-preservation.

I wrote a short story (Part I here) last year to encapsulate the dilemma that many of the accursed soldiers faced while hiding out in the forests. Rather simplistic, the aim was to bring this episode of Polish history to the non-Polish reader to highlight the strange situation these soldiers were in. The war was over - the war was lost. Many's the time I've wondered to myself what I'd have done in 1945 had I been a Home Army soldier. There were really only three choices for those who'd spent the past five years fighting the Nazi occupant - keep your head down and hope for the best in a society that was being forced into the straightjacket of communism, hold out in the forest and fight, or break for the West. The majority took the first option.

The issue of anti-Semitism among the accursed soldiers is a thorny one. There were many Jews in the communist security apparatus. This was, across the whole of Soviet-occupied central and eastern Europe, part of Stalin's strategy to divide and rule; many Jews who had felt discriminated against in pre-war Poland initially saw communism as a chance for a new beginning. This tended to exacerbate anti-Semitic sentiment that may have already existed among the officers and men hiding out in the forests.

Having said that, the moral issues facing the accursed soldiers were complex and hard to appreciate through the prism of today's society and values. We must remember them and what they stood for; their story is all the more poignant by the fact that very few of them lived to see a free Poland.


adthelad said...

Just to supplement your note today I thought it would be worth mentioning that 'Ashes and Diamonds (Polish: Popiół i diament) is a 1958 Polish film directed by Andrzej Wajda, based on the 1948 novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski.' - Wiki. I would also suggest that a link to the Polish Wiki page is in order, if only to highlight how this National Day of Remembrance became established.ń_Pamięci_"Żołnierzy_Wyklętych"

Michael Dembinski said...

The link would be in order were it working!

adthelad said...

Only requires highlighting and right clicking 'Go to', at least in Chrome, or a simple cut and paste :)

Michael Dembinski said...

Adam - the link's working now; it led to a blank page with no info on it.

Anthony Casey said...

Great stuff. There's a row blowing up in Zielona Góra about this issue too - the old heroes or villains argument...