August 1, 1944. Warsaw, subject to five years of fascist hegemony, rose up in popular rebellion in what would go on to be recorded as the largest ever uprising in the German occupied territories. With German morale in ribbons, a retreat from Warsaw in full swing, and the Red Army already on the east bank of the Wisła, no time seemed better than the present. Following close contact with the Polish government-in-exile, and assurances of Allied aid, the Home Army (Poland’s wartime military movement a.k.a the Armii Krajowy or AK) launched a military strike with the aim of liberating Warsaw and installing an independent government.
During the event the Red Army made no concerted attempt to help the Poles, while promises of Allied support proved largely empty. As for the Nazi hierarchy, they reacted with blind rage to this stroke of Polish insolence, and what ensued was an epic 63 day struggle during which the Home Army faced the full wrath of Hitler. The most notorious chapter of Warsaw’s history was about to be written.
Outbreak of WarAt 4:45am on September 1, 1939, shots were fired from German gun emplacements positioned inside the lighthouse at Danzig Neufahrwasser, found in what was then known as the Free City of Danzig (today Gdansk). The object of the aggression was the military garrison stationed on the Polish controlled Westerplatte Peninsula, and within minutes the German battleship Schleswig Holstein joined the bombardment, inadvertently kicking off a conflict that would last six years and cost 55 million lives.
Approximately an hour after Westerplatte the capital itself came under aerial bombardment; waves of Stuka dive bombers swooped on the capital in what can only be described as one of the world’s first ever terror bombings – hospitals, schools and market places were all deemed legitimate targets, while columns of fleeing refugees were strafed from the air. Within a week German land forces had reached the city limits, though any thoughts of a swift lightning victory were quickly rebuffed. An opening tank assault on Ochota was fended off, with the German’s losing 80 tanks from an attacking force of 220. Spurred on by the stirring broadcasts of Warsaw Mayor Stefan Starzynski the defenders dug in for siege, fighting street by street and inch for inch. A German demand for surrender on September 14th was rejected, and in spite of claims of triumph in the German press the city fought on, civilians and military alike joining together in a desperate attempt to ward off the invaders.
Warsaw’s fate, and indeed Poland’s, was sealed days later on the 17th of September when the Soviets invaded from the east thereby fulfilling their part in the Nazi/Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Even so, with the odds stacked against them, the Poles continued the fight on two fronts, with segments of Chopin aired every 30 seconds by radio to let the outside world know that Warsaw was still Polish. However the human cost was starting to mount; the merciless bombardment had claimed the lives of over 50,000 Varsovians, the Royal Castle lay in ruins, and supplies of food, power and water had reached critical levels. With Allied aid not forthcoming, and a humanitarian disaster looming large, the capital finally raised the white flag on September 28th. To bring the Polish heroics into perspective, Paris, defended by the largest standing army in the world, took just nine days to fall.
OccupationHitler arrived in Warsaw for his one and only visit to the Polish capital on October 5th, inspecting a victory parade on Al. Ujazdowskie before scuttling off for a reception at the Belvedere Palace. If his pre-war rants hadn’t been ominous enough, the Polish public were about to learn just what a nutcase this man really was. "The Fuhrer’s verdict on the Poles is damning," wrote Goebbels shortly after Hitler’s stopover. "More like animals than human beings, completely primitive, stupid and amorphous."
Hitler carved Poland into pieces – parts were annexed into the Reich, other areas – Warsaw included – found themselves under the General Government of Hans Frank, an expert chess player and fanatical Nazi: "If I had to put up a poster for every seven Poles I shot, the forests of Poland would not be sufficient to manufacture the paper," he is said to have bragged. His rule was textbook despot, both brutal and bloody, and it was under his suggestion that Ludwig Fischer was appointed governor of Warsaw, a post he would hold right until 1945. Fischer was more bureaucrat than butcher, yet nonetheless it was under his authority that Warsaw became a city of blood.