A Shameful August Anniversary

Last month, in Poland, a friend said that his 75-year-old mother “always cries in August.” Why? Because August makes her remember the Warsaw Uprising, which took place exactly sixty years ago.

Epic Heroism

As Pope John Paul II put it in Warsaw in 1979, “We cannot forget the heroism of the Polish soldier who fought on all the world's fronts `for our freedom and yours.' We [remember] with respect and gratitude…all those who extended us their assistance. And we think with bitterness on all those occasions when we were let down.”

The Warsaw Uprising — sixty-three days of epic heroism, Christian self-sacrifice, brutality, and suffering between August 1 and October 2, 1944 — was one of those occasions. It was, arguably, the worst of those occasions.

When the underground Polish Home Army rose up against the German Occupation on August 1, the Red Army of Marshall Konstantin Rokossovsky was just across the Vistula River, in the Warsaw suburb of Praga. It did virtually nothing for the next two months to help the Poles; “Uncle Joe” Stalin evidently preferred to have the Nazis finish off fighting Poland for him, so that he could help himself to the country in a more leisurely fashion after the war. Indeed, the Soviets were far worse than negligent and passive: while the SS and the Gestapo were shooting Varsovians by the tens of thousands in Warsaw, the NKVD, predecessor to the KGB, was executing Poles en masse in Praga, lest they turn out to be anti-communists. Warsaw was not crushed by one totalitarian power while another looked on; Warsaw was crushed between the two worst regimes in human history.

Poland: Ally of Unsurpassed Gallantry

Poland was Great Britain's “First Ally” in the war against Nazi Germany. Dismembered by the Nazis and Stalin's backstabbing Soviet regime in September 1939, “Poland” once again disappeared from the map of Europe, as it had from 1795 to 1918. But Poland fought on.

The Polish government never formally surrendered, after resisting the German onslaught far longer than the French managed in June 1940. Polish intelligence gave Britain Germany's supposedly unbreakable “Enigma” coding machine, probably the greatest intelligence coup of the war. Polish pilots flew with the Royal Air Force and helped save England during the Battle of Britain; as RAF fighter chief Sir Hugh Dowding later said, with typical British understatement, “Had it not been for the … [Polish] squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of the battle would have been the same.” The 1st Polish Armored Division led the Allied breakout from the Falaise Pocket in Normandy, making it possible for LeClerc's Free French to liberate Paris and Patton's U.S. Third Army to roar across France toward the Reich. General Wladyslaw Anders' Polish II Corps won the fourth and decisive Battle of Monte Cassino, clearing the way for the Allied liberation of Rome.

The Betrayal of Warsaw

Great Britain and America stood by while Warsaw suffered the equivalent in civilian casualties of one 9/11 every day for two months. There were a few supply drops from the RAF and the U.S. Army Air Force — most of the latter ended up in German hands. There was no serious Anglo-American political pressure on Stalin to do his duty by the Grand Alliance's Polish ally. The Polish Parachute Brigade, stationed in England, was not sent to Warsaw. The London-based Polish government-in-exile was treated like a fractious child rather than the legitimate representative of a stalwart ally that had bled, profusely, in the Allied cause.

The aftermath was Carthaginian: Home Army veterans escaping through the city's sewers, chest-deep in vile sludge; prisoners, the sick, and the elderly murdered by the Nazis; the city razed to a moonscape. Under the rubble lay the great cross that stood outside the Church of the Holy Cross on Krakowskie Przedmiescie, Warsaw's Pennsylvania Avenue. Thanks to its faith in the truth embodied in the Cross, Poland would rise again — and give a new birth of freedom to east central Europe.

But on this sixtieth anniversary, we should remember that Warsaw was betrayed by Britain and the United States in 1944, for crude Realpolitik reasons. My Polish friend's mother will cry this month from memory; Britons and Americans should cry from shame.

George Weigel is author of the bestselling book The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. His latest book is Letters to a Young Catholic.

This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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