Poland Is Not Yet Lost
“Poland has not yet perished, So long as we still live.
What the foreign force has taken from us, We shall with sabre retrieve.”
Polish National Anthem – “Poland is Not Yet Lost”
On September 1, 1939, the German invasion of Poland began. In response, the allied nations of Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. Yet between Poland and her allies lay Hitler’s new German Reich, and the policies of appeasement practiced throughout the previous decade had allowed it to become an almost insurmountable barrier. As a result, the French and British armies would never end up setting foot on Polish soil. On September 17, the Soviet Union also invaded Poland. No one declared war on the Soviet Union.
Utterly alone and hopelessly outnumbered, the Polish forces were doomed. Now forced to fight on two fronts, the Polish Army’s strategies for stopping the German advance were made irrelevant. Yet the government refused to surrender to either Hitler or Stalin and gave the order for Polish units to retreat to neutral nations in order to make their way to France and Britain to continue the fight. These units would eventually find themselves upon some of the greatest battlefields of a war that stretched far beyond their home. From the Fall of France, to the Battle of Britain, and the Invasion of Italy, these troops would to continue to break and bleed in the hope that Poland would one day be liberated.
While the war continued abroad, in Poland, the initial occupation was bad enough. Warsaw, a city once famed for its music, fell silent. Both the Nazis and the Soviets rounded up political opponents and executed prisoners of war. However, it would soon get worse with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. As the regular Wehrmacht units moved out, the killing squads of the SS moved in. Soon, the ghettos that had been created all across Poland and filled with Jews and other “undesirables” began to empty. The occupants were taken to camps whose names still cast a pall of fear over all the world today: Bełżec. Sobibór. Treblinka. Auschwitz.
But throughout it all, the Polish people were not still. In secret, a resistance formed. The Polish Home Army stockpiled food, weapons, and ammunitions. Documents were forged to allow spies and saboteurs to travel through the occupied country, and underground schools and newspapers reminded children and adults alike of their Polish way of life. Not only in Warsaw, but across all the nation, a haunting silence reigned, broken only by the explosions when the saboteurs and guerillas found their mark. The Poles were content to bide their time, waiting until the opportune moment to strike and liberate their home.
Their time came in the middle of 1944. The Soviet Union was beginning to drive the German forces back through Poland, and the Allied invasions of Italy and Normandy buoyed Polish spirits. Although the Soviets promised no aid, Radio Moscow was broadcasting messages, calling for the Polish people to rise up against the German occupation. The Red Army had stopped advancing, yet it lay just across the Vistula River from the Polish capital. If the Poles could dislodge the garrison at Warsaw, they could greet the Soviet forces not as liberators but as co-equals in their war against Nazi tyranny.
And so, on August 1, 1944, 60,000 Poles rose up against their oppressors. Warsaw, the silent city, once again erupted into noise. Men, women, and even children waged war in the streets of their home. Poorly equipped and barely trained, they fought with a strength known only to the desperate. For the first few days, it was enough. By August 4, the majority of the city was in their hands. In the city center, a little bastion of hope was created, and the violent noise of war turned into melodic strains of music once again.
But the music would not last long. The Polish Home Army had expected that they would only have to hold out for a few days before the Red Army arrived. Yet on the other side of the Vistula, the Soviets were silent. They had their orders, and they would not cross the river. Instead, agents of the Polish Home Army in Eastern Poland were being rounded up, arrested on charges of terrorism. Now locked into a battle far beyond what they had anticipated, the desperate Poles looked to the West.
Churchill immediately attempted to give aid to the beleaguered partisans. From newly captured airfields in Italy, the bombers of the Royal Air Force were scrambled for a mission of mercy. Instead of bombs, they would be dropping much-needed supplies in Warsaw. The pilots of the RAF once again proved their courage. But the Germans had dug in and set up defenses around the city, and bravery proved to be a poor defense against flak cannons. The losses sustained during the mission were too high, and the RAF could not afford further missions.
Churchill then turned to Roosevelt. The B-52s of the American Air Force could fly high enough to avoid anti-air fire, yet there was a catch. The bombers didn’t have enough fuel to make the return trip, and would need to land in Soviet air bases. At Churchill’s urging, Roosevelt wrote a letter to Stalin, asking for permission to land on Soviet ground. Stalin denied the request. Again, Churchill pleaded with Roosevelt to pressure Stalin. But Roosevelt did not want to “upset Uncle Joe,” and refused to even send a second letter.
And so the world again watched as the Poles fought the Germans alone. Himmler soon gave orders to make Warsaw “an example to the world.” When German reinforcements arrived, the battle turned sharply against the Poles. Through every block the Wehrmacht advanced, the SS followed. Partisan, civilian, adult, or child; it didn’t matter to the death squads. More than 100,000 civilians were slaughtered. The Polish Home Army lasted until October, but without supplies, they had resorted to throwing rocks at the Germans. When the Poles finally surrendered on October 2, the German troops leveled another third of the city, block by block, as a punishment for rebellion.
After another humiliating defeat, the Poles had even more reasons to despair. The Wehrmacht moved out, retreating to Germany. But then the Soviets moved in. There was to be no liberation for Poland. They had merely changed hands, from one dictator to another. For another 45 years, the Polish endured abuse and oppression. Yet even the Soviets could not understand, much less break, the Polish spirit. In early 1989, after more than two decades of mass strikes and occasional violent protests, the Soviet-backed government was forced to concede to hold parliamentary elections. Despite the fact that one-third of the seats were specifically reserved for members of the Communist party, they lost in a landslide. By September, Poland’s government was led by neither fascists or communists for the first time in 50 years.
Every year now, on November 11, the Polish celebrate their independence. Like that of any nation, this celebration is filled with flags and songs and food. They celebrate not only what it means to be free, but what it means to be Polish. Of course, some radical on the internet is bound to blog about the “horrifying displays of nationalism.” The Poles remain unbothered. They understood what “resistance” and “anti-fascism” meant long before they were muttered on internet forums in the Western world. No matter the outcomes of elections in the United States, or the boasting of tyrants in the East, the Poles know where they stand. Poland has not been lost.