The Warsaw Uprising Was a Fight to Define Poland’s Future

Today, Poland's hard-right government uses the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 for generic nationalist pageantry. But the real insurrectionaries against the Nazis were sharply divided between those who worked to restore the old elite and those who sought real social change.

The Polish Home Army fights to liberate Warsaw from German occupation in 1944. (Universal History Archive via Getty Images)

Today’s commemorations marking the seventy-seventh anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising will follow a well-worn script. Dignitaries from the major parties will pay their tributes. The remaining living Home Army (AK) veterans will be paraded around by scouts. There will be historical reenactments. Come the “W” hour at 5 pm, when the uprising began, crowds filled with far-right soccer hooligans will flood onto Parade Square to chant and set off flares. These rituals, repeated each year, have become so ingrained in public life as to seem almost natural — though this spectacle only dates back about a decade and a half.

The present cult of the uprising is closely bound up with the 2000s rise of the Law and Justice Party (PiS). It especially owes to late president Lech Kaczyński, a leading figure in the hard-right party; as mayor of the capital in the buildup to the sixtieth anniversary in 2004, he was the central force behind the construction of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Together with his twin brother, Jarosław, he invoked the insurgents as paragons of the patriotism they claimed to be restoring in Poland.

After Lech’s death in 2005, the living Kaczyński — PiS chairman and Poland’s de facto leader — maintained this stance. He insists that anyone who views the decision to stage an insurrection in Warsaw in August 1944 as a misadventure “serves a narrative pushed by the enemies of Polish independence.” Everywhere it can, PiS appropriates the symbolism of the Polish Underground for its own political projects. We saw this last year during the Women’s Strike defending reproductive rights: when Jarosław Kaczyński mobilized his supporters against the protestors, he wore a pin of the Home Army emblem, a P with an anchor at the bottom.

Western “philo-Poles” of a conservative bent similarly bend the uprising to their own political fixations. Upon the seventy-fifth anniversary in 2019, right-wing historian Sean McMeekin took to the Wall Street Journal to write of “the defiant spirit of this proud, pugnacious nation” — dubiously tying the experience of Poland’s wartime occupation to its contemporary anti-immigrant chauvinism. Not to be outdone, former George W. Bush speechwriter and columnist Marc Thiessen decided that the best way to honor the hundreds of thousands killed by Adolf Hitler’s forces during the doomed insurrection would be to invoke American culture-war idiocy, writing a ludicrously titled column: “There were no ‘safe spaces’ or ‘trigger warnings’ for young people fighting in the Warsaw Uprising.”

For liberal Poles, PiS has excessively “politicized” the Uprising. But these complaints are untenable: the whole event was obviously highly political. To demand a depoliticized view of the Warsaw Uprising is only to play into hands of the hard-right in seeking to erect an anti-political national myth rising above interests, parties, and class struggle.

Patriotic Myths

PiS’s unreserved embrace of the uprising is rooted in the emotional attachment to it among postwar émigrés and members of the anti-communist opposition. Yet intellectuals associated with the major currents of the Polish right were always critical toward it. The Piłsudskites, supporters of Poland’s prewar Sanacja governing camp, thought it did nothing to serve the interests of the Polish state. The National Democrats, or Endeks, were even more hostile. The traditional Endek complaint about the nineteenth-century insurrectionary tradition — claiming that it jeopardized the more important aim of preserving Polish-Catholic blood and soil — was reflected in negative assessments of the 1944 uprising. The exiled military establishment also saw the uprising as needlessly sacrificing AK fighters. Władysław Anders, commander of the Polish armed forces fighting on the Western front, put it bluntly: “The uprising not only made no sense, but it was even a crime.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, positive views of the Warsaw Uprising could be found on the noncommunist left. One of the first accounts of the uprising was written by leading socialist Zygmunt Zaremba, entitled The Warsaw Commune. It painted the uprising as a revolution of the Warsaw intelligentsia and working class. In 1945, Julian Hochfeld, a key figure in postwar Polish Marxist sociology, wrote an article expounding a similar argument, “The Social Aspects of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.” Polish socialist writers saw the uprising as a justified struggle for national liberation with a progressive social character.

Contrary to the commonly peddled view, that memory of the uprising was “suppressed” during the postwar Polish People’s Republic (PRL), the Warsaw Uprising was not erased nor officially viewed as unilaterally bad. This was only true for the Stalinist period. After the post-Stalinist thaw of 1956, AK members who joined to the fight the Germans were differentiated from the “reactionary” leadership, seen as a continuation of the Sanacja regime. This presented the uprising as the understandable stirring of the Warsaw masses egged on by reckless “Piłsudskite” officers, while the Red Army and the Polish Army under Zygmunt Berling were tragically unable to break through the German defenses.

This was, however, misleading. It above all served the opportunistic nationalism of the ruling party’s first secretary from 1956 to 1971, Władysław Gomułka, with its disgusting climax in the 1968 antisemitic purge. In reality, the AK was not divided between “good” followers and “bad” leaders, but rather between the divergent and often clashing political and social forces within the Underground State. Far from a force for national unity standing above political divisions, as PiS claims, AK was a contradictory amalgamation of prewar opposition parties from both left and right, their military sections, and the remnants of a politicized officer corps.


Socialists had an early start in forming an underground resistance after Germany invaded in September 1939. The majority of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), which organized worker brigades to defend Gdynia and Warsaw, formed an underground organization, Freedom, Equality, Independence (WRN), and a military section, the People’s Guard WRN (GL-WRN). Left-socialists, who favored cooperation with Communists, formed their own separate organization.

Socialists could draw upon a long conspiratorial tradition dating back to the czarist partition of Poland. During the interwar period, the PPS had repeatedly mobilized its fighters against a perceived fascist threat. Its base was the working-class and progressive intelligentsia of major cities like Warsaw and Krakow, and industrial centers like the heavy industry areas of Upper Silesia and the Dąbrowa Basin and the textile city of Łódź. Socialists were thus in a good position to begin underground work — and already had a network of worker militias to call upon. Its members were also especially involved in the urgent task of helping Jews. Socialists played a key role on the Żegota, a committee which the Underground State formed to save Jews. Irena Sendler, a left-socialist active in the committee, smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The AK (until 1942, the Union of Armed Struggle, ZWZ) officer corps was built upon the prewar military establishment, the bulwark of the Sanacja regime. A conservative institution, it nonetheless looked back to an insurrectionary tradition which Marshal Piłsudski, a former socialist leader, continued to uphold. During the nineteenth century, the almost always aristocratic insurrectionary leaders would call upon the people with a progressive program. Hochfeld called this the “Jacobinism” of the “military intelligentsia.”

A certain a revival of this “Jacobin” tradition among ZWZ/AK officers could be detected. Its commander in chief until June 1943, Stefan “Grot”-Rowecki was known by his close comrades to be sympathetic to broad social reforms. Jan Rzepecki, the head of the Bureau for Information and Propaganda (BIP), openly espoused left-wing views. But “Jacobinism” was driven not just by revolutionary sentiment but by anti-communism. That the Underground State would have to compete for the loyalty of Polish workers and peasants became clear when the Polish Communist Party, dissolved during the Stalinist Great Purge in 1938, reformed in 1942 as the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR).

In his dispatches to the government-in-exile in London, “Grot”-Rowecki was alarmed at the growing popularity of the PPR among the lower classes, attracted to its social radicalism, and the young, who, impatient with the ZWZ/AK’s policy preparing for an ever-postponed uprising, wanted to fight the Germans immediately. The Communist armed unit, the People’s Guard (GL) (renamed the People’s Army [AL] in 1944) undertook partisan raids and sabotage activity. This forced “Grot”-Rowecki to loosen the AK policy of holding off engagement until the general uprising.

Far-Right Forces

After “Grot”-Rowecki’s arrest by the Gestapo in June 1943, he was succeeded by Tadeusz “Bor”-Komorowski. He was the archetypical image of a reactionary Polish aristocrat: a cavalry officer with known Endek sympathies. The first victim of “Bor”-Komorowski’s leadership was the AK’s Jewish policy. Though his predecessor had never properly responded to the urgent drama of the expropriation, enslavement, and extermination of the Jews, he did begin a policy of arming Jewish resistance units. This was always less than necessary, and there could have been a greater effort to aid the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to which the AK sent some arms and attacked guard posts on the Ghetto walls. But even this minimal policy was scrapped by “Bor”-Komorowski. He forbade arming Jews until a general uprising could be launched. He approved the decisions of local AK commanders who excluded Jews. Relations between the AK and the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) deteriorated to the point of outright collapse.

“Bor”-Komorowski made numerous concessions to the the Endeks’ preferred policy of ethnic war against Jews and Eastern Slavs in the borderlands of prewar Eastern Poland. His orders emphasizing the combating of “banditry” gave license to fascist National Armed Forces (NSZ) and allied AK units, especially those constructed from the Endek National Party’s military section, to attack Jews hiding in the woods and marshes. “Bor”-Komorowski also backed the merger of NSZ into the AK structure in March 1944.

Both the AK establishment and the NSZ continued to attack — both rhetorically and violently — the Underground left and especially Rzepecki and the BIP. The AK’s counterintelligence unit continuously spied on BIP members, producing fantastic conspiracies about Jews, Masons, and Communists. When Irena Sendler escaped near execution in late 1943, she had to hide out not only from the Gestapo but also from the NSZ. In April 1944, there emerged a document produced by the NSZ intelligence section entitled Jews in the ZWZ. The list featured Underground State and AK members of known left-wing sympathies, including Sendler and Rzepecki, neither of whom were of Jewish origin. Two people named on the list, Ludwik Widerszal and Jerzy Makowiecki, intellectuals who worked for the BIP, were murdered by gunmen, who it was assumed were members of NSZ, but — historians have shown — were sent by a conspiratorial group within the AK.

If the AK saw its primary military task as fighting the Germans, it also coddled a NSZ which instead prioritized killing Jews and left-wing Poles. The NSZ not only attacked Polish Communists and Soviet partisans but also units of the Peasant Battalions and units aligned with the PPS-WRN; it even actively collaborated with Germans in some regions.


The discrediting of the AK’s Endek turn coincided with the growing realization that political appeals to the laboring masses’ social interests were becoming increasingly more important than pure patriotism. The Underground State’s March 1944 program, What is the Polish Nation Fighting For?, called for land reform and economic planning, but only proclaimed the state’s right to socialize industry rather than the intention to do so and deferred the question of compensating ex-owners. Top priority was on a nonsocialist, populist demand — the “universalization of ownership,” amenable to both the peasant leaders and the petit bourgeois base of the National Party.

A move to the left, at least in rhetoric, was gaining momentum. In a report to “Bor”-Komorowski, Rzepecki pointed to the growing radicalization among the lower classes, who expected the forces loyal to the government-in-exile to act. If the AK leadership continued stalling, the masses would reject them and turn to “the more energetic and better leadership” of the Communists. The need to address the masses’ desire for social change was accentuated by the advancing Soviet front. In July 1944, “Bor”-Komorowski emphasized that forces loyal to London should “take away from the Soviets the initiative to implement social reforms in Poland and undertake immediate legal measures which would inspire trust in the broad masses of town and country.”

Both growing radicalization and the mounting Soviet advance pushed the AK leadership toward an insurrection in Warsaw. This intersected with the particular “Jacobinism” of the military intelligentsia: to prevent the social revolution coming in from the east, they were to stage a revolution of their own. It would call upon the working class and peasantry but depend upon the same officer stratum which had blocked progress in interwar Poland.


On August 1, the uprising finally broke out in Warsaw. Fighting first broke out in the Żoliborz district, where there had been socialist housing cooperatives before the war. PPS-WRN-aligned military units, renamed the Military Branches of the Socialist Insurrectionary Aid, joined from the first firefights, and fought across all the major districts of the city. They were joined by the PPS-aligned Worker Militias, which participated in the fierce defense of the Old Town. PPS members who could not join a socialist unit were instructed to report to the nearest AK unit. According to Zaremba, during the uprising the AK in Warsaw had a high percentage of PPS members — indeed, this party was strong in both the city’s working-class districts and among its progressive intelligentsia, with over one quarter of municipal council seats before 1939. PPS members and the Worker Militias also worked behind the lines, keeping order, extinguishing fires, clearing rubble, and engaging in search-and-rescue missions.

The left-socialist Polish People’s Army (PAL) and the syndicalist Security Corpus (KB) also took up arms. Against the orders of the PPR leadership — which wanted them to wait until the Red Army reached the Vistula — the AL commanders in Warsaw decided to join in the uprising. The AL, PAL, and KB formed a rival left-wing center to the AK, the Joint Armed Forces. Its forces played a consequential role in the defense of the Old Town, where the AL commander Bolesław “Ryszard” Kowalski and his staff died in combat. After the fall of the Old Town, they retreated to the city center, attacking the German tanks on Third of May Street.

The insurgents freed Jews of all nationalities who had been taken captive by the Germans. Naturally, many wanted to fight against those who brutalized them, but this also depended on the prejudices of the insurgent commanders. There were cases of the AK turning them away, and given the presence of NSZ soldiers in some AK units, Jews could be in danger even after they were freed. There are fifty known cases of Jews killed by ethnic Poles during the Warsaw Uprising. In numerous other cases, however, Jews were allowed to fight or, if there were no arms available, given assignments behind the lines. Several AK units already had Jews, including the elite Kedyw Kollegium “A”, which liberated prisoners in the Umschlagplatz — the waypoint before reaching the concentration camps. Jews were welcome in the left-wing dominated units, especially those affiliated with the Joint Armed Forces, where ŻOB members including the Ghetto Uprising hero Marek Edelman fought. Many AL officers were of Jewish origin and one of them, Jan Szelubski, was personally awarded the Virtuti Militari Cross by “Bor”-Komorowski for his valor.

The political work of the uprising proceeded as the battle raged around it. A new council of ministers, chaired by the PPS-WRN leaders Kazimierz Pużak — who himself was hesitant about the decision to call the uprising — released a manifesto promising a democratic constitution, expropriation of land holdings over fifty hectares, the socialization of key industries, and workers’ control of production. To show their seriousness, the insurrectionary government’s most significant legislative act was a set of statutes for worker’s control, which was to be applied to Polish industry after the war. On August 26, the PPS-WRN newspaper Robotnik appealed to the people of Warsaw to support workers councils that had been formed in conspiracy or after the outbreak of the uprising.

The left-socialists of the Workers Party of Polish Socialists and the PPR had a competing project of forming factory committees in anticipation of the advancing Soviet forces as well as in those areas already liberating. The first meeting of the Warsaw Council of Factory Committees was slated for 5 PM on August 1 — but it was interrupted by the outbreak of the uprising. In fact, communists and left-socialists had little faith in the radicalism of the PPS-WRN. They accused its councils of keeping Polish factories safe for their owners.


The fate of the insurrection would now be tied to the advancing Soviet forces. While the AK leadership was triangulating left and putting on a revolutionary aura to win the masses, the Soviet-aligned Poles were doing the opposite — increasingly appealing to nationalist sentiments. Before the Soviet liberation of Poland, the PPR had clashed with the Bureau of Polish Communists in the USSR, who believed in a strict “Popular-Front” patriotism, often lacking any strong radical content. They had the backing of Joseph Stalin, influenced by his experience as a political officer in Semyon Budyonny’s cavalry during the Polish-Soviet War, when hopes of a Polish proletarian revolution to greet the Red Army had been disappointed. In mid-1944, the AK commanders understood what Stalin and his Polish supporters did not — that desire for a Polish nation-state was becoming less of a motivating factor among the broad masses than freedom from German oppression combined with radical social change.

When the Red Army reached Warsaw, they encountered a revolutionary uprising with a strong proletarian component. They had a chance to increase the legitimacy of the Soviet-aligned camp by doing whatever they could to aid the uprising — potentially pulling the left wing of the Underground State away from the AK officer corps. While there were objective operational obstacles to the rapid seizure of the city that both Stalin and the AK expected, arms could have been supplied and Soviet artillery and air power could have provided cover to the insurgents. Ultimately, whatever help was provided was woefully insufficient. The efforts of Zygmunt Berling’s Polish Army to establish a bridgehead on the Vistula were not given the support that their success would have required. Some 5,660 soldiers in Berling’s army lost their lives trying to reach the city.

The Uprising met with a tragic end. Adolph Hitler and Heinrich Himmler decided upon savage reprisals. In line with their long-standing policy of killing numerous civilians in reprisal for each German killed by partisans, massacres began almost as soon as the uprising broke out. From August 5 to 12, Wehrmacht and SS units, alongside Cossack collaborators of the Russian National Liberation Army, indiscriminately murdered seventy to ninety thousand residents of Warsaw’s Wola district. When the Germans wrested control of the city after sixty-three days of fighting, fifteen thousand insurgents and one hundred to one hundred and fifty thousand civilians lay dead. The entire city was purposefully destroyed using explosives and combustibles; the rest of the population was expelled.

Even giving due recognition to its social ambitions, the Warsaw Uprising cannot be uncritically celebrated as a proletarian “revolution from below.” It was birthed by the extremely contradictory tendencies that pervaded Polish society under occupation and, while it had a progressive program, it was called forth by prewar officers who would surely have resisted this program’s actual implementation. Yet, this takes nothing away from the heroism of those who fought and died, not just for a Polish state but for social emancipation and freedom from fascist terror. Their martyrdom is truly worth commemorating.