Why did the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 fail?

On August 1, 1944, an uprising began in Warsaw by the Polish underground army Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army) against the German occupiers who had invaded the country in 1939. The Germans put down the Warsaw Uprising with extreme brutality. They systematically destroyed entire quarters of the Polish capital, and women and children were brutally murdered. After 63 days, the attempt by the Poles to drive out the troops of Hitler's Germany had failed. Up to a quarter of a million people were dead.

The rest of the population was driven out of the city by the Germans - including Krzysztof Ruchniewicz's grandmother and mother. Born in 1967 in Wrocław, the former Breslau, the historian has studied German-Polish history in detail. He has been teaching at the university in his hometown since the early 1990s. Ruchniewicz is now professor of contemporary history and director of the Willy Brandt Center for German and European Studies there.

SZ: Mr. Ruchniewicz, the memory of the "Warsaw Uprising" plays a major role in Poland. How did you find out about it?

Krzysztof Ruchniewicz: Through my grandmother, a contemporary witness. Together with her daughters, including my mother, she lived in Warsaw during the German occupation and witnessed and suffered the uprising there. My mother couldn't talk about the experiences, she was too traumatized. After the end of the Second World War, the family moved to Lower Silesia, which was until then Germany. Because in the capital the apartment was destroyed, like almost everything.

Back then, the Germans laid large parts of Warsaw to rubble and ashes.

You could say so! At the beginning of the world war there was already destruction, during the ghetto uprising in 1943 even more, and during the great Warsaw uprising in 1944 whole parts of the city were destroyed. What was left, especially on important buildings for culture such as libraries, were then blown up and burned by the Germans. The Germans literally wiped out Warsaw, and most of the residents were subsequently driven out in all directions or made work slaves.

What effects did this time have on the Polish self-image?

Many Poles were emotionally shaken by the death of their neighbors. In addition, the loss of important cultural and art treasures, the structural substance of the capital, the terrible years of German occupation with countless deaths, all of this has become deeply engraved in the collective memory. That which had accumulated over centuries ceased to exist then.

How did the memory of the "Warsaw Uprising" shape the view of the Germans after the Second World War?

At first it didn't play a big role because you looked at yourself and weeping for the dead. However, in Poland it was registered very precisely how the main responsible persons were dealt with on the German side. SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who ordered the suppression of the uprising, was not charged for this after the war. Heinz Reinefarth, another SS commander who gave the order to murder tens of thousands of civilians in Warsaw's Wola district, later made a political career in the Federal Republic.

Was there talk of the 63 days of the uprising in communist times, in which up to a quarter of a million women, men and children were killed?

Officially hardly, the commemoration was more private. When I was at school, this chapter was only mentioned in passing, which is hardly surprising: Moscow deliberately did not support the Polish resistance fighters in 1944 - they waited at the gates of Warsaw until the uprising bleed out. After the war, the Polish communists ensured that the Warsaw Uprising veterans were persecuted and executed. It was only with the emergence of the opposition Solidarność movement in 1980 that I had access to "forbidden literature", which dealt in detail with the Warsaw uprising. In this way we got to know the other side of history - the one that was not manipulated and censored by the communist regime. Most of it was new to me and my friends, we literally devoured the books.

And how was the subject of the Warsaw Uprising dealt with in the GDR and the Federal Republic?

It received little attention, even after the end of the Cold War. When dealing with Poland in World War II, the focus was mostly on the 1939 attack and of course on the German extermination camps like Auschwitz. Apart from a small group of specialists, hardly anyone knew their way around. The appearance of the then Federal President Roman Herzog in 1994 illustrated how little attention had been paid to our history in Germany. Because in a speech, Herzog confused the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.

Do you see a need for further processing?

Yes, but not just because of the uprising. The entire history of Poland from the outbreak of war in 1939 to the attack by the German Reich on the Soviet Union in 1941 should be researched in more detail: the persecution of the Polish intelligentsia by the German and Soviet occupiers, as well as the deportations of Polish citizens to the interior of the Soviet Union. There is still a lot of catching up to do.

What role does the memory of the uprising play in Polish domestic politics today?

There is one important point: the debate as to whether Germany is obliged to pay compensation for the material and personal losses it suffered back then. There are various studies on the amount of reparations, the result of a Sejm commission on the subject is to be published in the coming weeks. Some want to use the topic politically.

Above all, the nationalists use the issue, which worries not a few in Germany.

Domestic political debates related to the past are sometimes very emotional in our country. But in Germany that shouldn't be dismissed as some domestic Polish phenomenon. One can better understand the sentiments if one takes a closer look at the fate of the Polish people during World War II and after.

Is that what you want us Germans to do?

Let's put it this way: I would be very happy if Germans were more interested in Polish contemporary history. Without feeling guilty, of course, but with the awareness: It is our common history and it is also a bit about our common future.