How the Red Army Captured Warsaw

History Hit

4 mins

17 Jan 2018

In 1945 – in theory – Soviet forces “liberated” the city of Warsaw. In reality they marched into a huge pile of rubble where an ancient and historic capital had once stood. Few countries in the war suffered as much as Poland, and Russian occupation would bring the survivors of Warsaw little relief.

Brutal occupation

Poland payed a pivotal role in World War 2 right from its opening moments. On 1 September 1939 Germany launched a brutal air raid on Warsaw which devastated much of its ancient architecture, before an equally heavy-handed siege which left a quarter of the city in ruins.

The eastern part of the country was signed off to Stalin – then an ally of Hitler – as part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact – and Poland was divided and occupied – a common theme in the history of the country sandwiched between rival empires.

The country then remained under German control for over five years, and it became the centre of Hitler’s final solution and the home of many of the most notorious concentration camps – including Auschwitz. Poland’s Jews were among the first to be taken away and murdered in their millions as the country suffered.

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That is not to say that Poles did not help the Allied war effort. Thousands made their way west to join the British in their ongoing struggle against Hitler, despite their empty promises to protect Poland in the event of a German invasion.

Expert fighter pilots, astute code-breakers and brave soldiers, they were a pivotal part of Churchill’s war effort until 1945. Even then, they could not return home to a free country.

Warsaw before the Second World War. (Creative Commons).

Stalin’s ambition

Further east, meanwhile, Hitler’s lightning attack in June 1941 lead his armies to the gates of Moscow, but from 1942 onwards they were slowly and inexorably pushed back, with battles like Kursk the following year sapping their manpower and will to resist.

The front moved on a few miles west every day for the next few years, as Stalin’s reinvigorated armies gradually took back the territory they had lost to the enemy. By the dawn of 1945, the Russian motherland had been decisively retaken, the now the Red troops were advancing into Hitler’s eastern empire.

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Just as the British Prime Minister secretly feared, Stalin had little intention of letting these newly liberated countries stay liberated for long, and with the western Allies still bogged down in France there was a genuine opportunity for Stalin to create a Communist Bloc in eastern Europe out of the lands his men were conquering off the Nazis.

Poland was no exception. It had been part of the Russian Empire in the days of the Tsars, and the “red Tsar” Stalin saw it as a ripe prize for the taking. Luckily, events in Warsaw had played right into his hands just as his men approached the Polish border.

Resistance

Under occupation the Poles had not been idle. Now that the Nazis were on the verge of defeat the underground Polish Home Army in Warsaw decided that it was time to overthrow their hated conquerors.

Liberated Jewish prisoners of the Warsaw Concentration Camp after being freed by members of the Polish Home Army (1944).

Their reason was simple – they had to take control of their country and therefore secure recognition from the western allies before they were occupied by the Soviets and met the same fate as other areas such as Ukraine. In August 1944 they began their desperate struggle for freedom, which continued over the next few months.

The Polish partisans were incredibly brave and determined, but their struggle was in vain. Weakened though the Wehrmacht or German army was, it was still a formidable fighting force and far better equipped than their mainly civilian enemy, who enjoyed only limited air support from the British.

As the year slid into Autumn their struggle weakened and eventually capitulated. The captured and survivors were shipped off to concentration camps, which were desperate to dispose of as many people as possible before they were liberated by the Russians.

The Soviets, meanwhile, halted their armies outside Warsaw, encouraged and promised to support the uprisings, and did nothing.

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‘Liberation’

Though the Warsaw uprising ended on 2 October 1944, the Soviets made no attempt to move until 14 January. Taking the city from their previous position, which they had held for months while the fighting was going on, took just three days.

On 17 January their troops crunched their boots of the rubble of this once-lovely city – and, incidentally – liberated Auschwitz, though far too late for the thousands who had been massacred in one final desperate rush despite the desperate need for German manpower elsewhere.

Warsaw’s pre-war population of 1.3 million was now down to just 153,000. Poland would remain communist until 1989. The suffering Poles who fought so bravely only to be thrown once more into tyranny deserve as much recognition as their more celebrated counterparts elsewhere.

Liberated at long last in 1989. (Creative Commons).

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