"Trzeba nam teraz umierać, by Polska umiała znów żyć" - “We have to die now, so that Poland can live again”
Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński
Today it is exactly seventy years ago the Warsaw Uprising [in Polish Powstanie Warszawskie] began on Godzina W at 17.00 hours. It was part of a greater resistance operation Akcja Burza meaning Operation Tempest but often referred to in English as Operation Storm. The idea of national armed rising was there from the moment the Armia Krajowa the largest organisation in the Polish Resistance, formed after the German Occupation of Poland in 1939. The Polish resistance movement, consisting of the Armia Krajowa and affiliated organisations even became the largest underground resistance movement in Europe.
The official framework for Akcja Burza was already created in 1942 by the Polish Government in Exile in London, and was aimed at ending the German occupation of by a series of uprisings in large Polish cities, they counted on the Soviet Army to aid them, since there was a Polish Division incorporated in the Soviet Army. When the Soviets were approaching Warsaw from the East in the end of July 1944, the Polish Government in Exile waited for the the right moment to act and instructed General Bór-Komorowski to prepare the armed uprisings of Poland’s capital Warsaw. The idea behind this plan was the assumption that if Warsaw would be liberated first by the Poles themselves it would give Poland a greater leverage in negotiations after the war. Poland’s ultimate aim was to prevent the Communist occupation of Poland after the war. At the same time similar uprisings took place around Kielce, Radom, Krakow, Lwów and Vilnius.
On Godzina W, the first of August 1944 the Armia Krajowa seized control of almost whole central Warsaw. The Polish Government in Exile was told by Churchill and Roosevelt that Stalin and the Soviet Army, stationed on the other side of the river Wisła a mere 20km away when the uprising started, would act justly and assist the Poles in liberating Warsaw. Bór-Komorowski trusted the Soviets to enter Warsaw in the first days of August. Unfortunately Stalin did not want to assists the insurgents that could later pose a threat to his rule in Poland, and ordered his troops to give no assistance. Although many Polish soldiers fighting in the Soviet Army ignored this order and crossed the Wisła in boats by night. Due to the lack of Allied assistance Akcja Burza turned out to be disastrous.
After 63 days of devastation, Warsaw was in ruins and the General Bór-Komorowski had to surrender to the Germans on the second of October, on the condition that the members of the Armia Krajowa would be treated under the Geneva conventions, compromised out of 3 treaties and additional protocols that founded the basic rights concerning the protection and humanitarian treatment of Prisoners of War (POW's), civilians and wounded within the warzone. Most Polish soldiers that became POW’s in Germany were deprived of their POW status and were forced to do forced labour or were sent to concentration camps. This treatment defied the Geneva convention relative to the treatment of Prisoners of War.
After Bór-Komorowski surrendered, Hitler longed for Warsaw to disappear from the face of the earth. He ordered that Warsaw should be ‘Razed without a trace’ and the systematic demolition of Warsaw by German soldiers began. Warsaw which was once the cultural capital city in the heart of Poland counting 1.289.000 inhabitants, hardly contained a living soul when the Soviets arrived after the harm had already been done and 93% of Warsaw had been destroyed. Cultural heritage was purposely destroyed, and many invaluable objects were stolen. The main international treaty protecting Cultural heritage at the time was the Roerich Pact but was only signed and ratified by the USA and all the members of the Pan-American Union. The mass scale destruction of cultural property in WOII led to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to be signed in 1954 and was later adopted by UNESCO.
The Warsaw Uprising had honourable motives but its underlying strategy proofed to be unrealised because it was based on the assumption of Allied solidarity, that remained absent. Only the British Commonwealth Forces containing the Polish Air Force managed to drop some supplies occasionally. Many historians agree that the lack of outside support was the main reason for the Warsaw Uprising to fail. The Warsaw Uprising and other atrocities committed in WOII unveiled the need for a better framework of international law to protect in times of war. The Geneva Conventions were enforced with a fourth convention and additional protocols and the UN immediately revised its legal framework to counter crimes against the peace and security of mankind.
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Blumenthal, D. and T. McCormack, The Legacy of Nuremberg: Civilising Influence of Institutionalised Vengeance, Leiden, Nijhoff, 2008.
- Klafkowski, A., Sprawa o traktatu pokoju z Niemcami, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo Prawnicze, 1953.
Not in our collection
- Davies, N., Gods Playground: A History of Poland, Volume II: 1795 to the Present, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Morawiecki, W., Walka o definicje agresji w prawie miedzynarodowym, Warszawa, Państwowe wydawnictwo naukowe, 1956.