The history, hardship, and significance of the Warsaw Uprising is one of the most important and moving pieces of history for Warsaw and Poland. While I was on study abroad in Warsaw, one of the things I picked up on quite quickly was how important locals feel about the Warsaw Uprising. Within my first week of classes I met Polish students who explained its significance and how important it is to them personally.
I saw how Independence Day (November 11) is marked in Warsaw, which includes commemorating the uprising with small red candles lit up at key sites of the uprising. In addition, the symbol of the uprising is displayed on buildings, walls, and flags, and individuals wear pins and arm bands.
I made it a priority to learn as much as possible about the Warsaw Uprising while abroad in Poland. In this article I will walk through the history of the Warsaw Uprising, what a visit to the Uprising Museum in Warsaw is like, and explain the significance of the uprising today.
The history of the Warsaw Uprising is one of suffering and sacrifice; one that is too often overlooked in history courses covering the Second World War.
Warsaw first fell under Nazi control when, in 1939, the Nazis and Soviet Union invaded Poland and split it under the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact, a secret non-aggression pact that took Poland off the map during World War II and divided it in half between Nazi and Soviet occupation.
In secret, an underground Polish army based in Warsaw amassed supplies, arms, and resistance fighters. They carried out various acts of sabotage against the Germans throughout the war, but managed to stay undercover. The time for a final push against the Nazis, the leaders felt, came with the landing of allied forces in France and a massive push by the Soviets that brought the eastern front line to the Vistula River, which divides Warsaw in two. The Polish resistance, by then about 400,000 strong, strategized that with their uprising, the Soviets would cross the river and aid in pushing the Nazis out of the city.
The Warsaw Uprising began on August 1, 1944. However, fewer than 50,000 members had proper weapons, and, it seems there was some confusion as to when the uprising should start that day. The resistance did take several important targets, including some weapons depots and the power station. However, the resistance units were not able to take enough territory to link up and take the most important Nazi-held strongholds like the city’s airport, railyard, and police station. Worse, the Soviet army never received the order to cross the river. The Soviets were concentrating forces elsewhere and argued that it was not yet the strategically right time to move to the other side of the river. However, to this day, many Poles believe that that Soviets held back to let the Germans be maximally weakened, the resistance crushed, and then to take over Warsaw and take full credit for the liberation so as to not feel compelled to share power with the independent resistance.
After a month or so of intense street fighting, Hitler declared that the city of Warsaw would be wiped from the map. The Nazis went door to door and executed anyone inside: men, women, and children in what would be known as the Wola Massacre, it is one of the many atrocities committed by the Nazis in Poland during World War II. In the face of this psychological warfare, the Polish resistance army surrendered. Most members were sent to POW camps or executed. The remaining Polish citizens in Warsaw (about 500,000 out of the 1.3 million that the city had begun the war with) were forcibly removed to the countryside. The Nazis then systematically went building by building burning, blowing up, and otherwise carrying out Hitler’s order to end the city’s existence.
In the end, 85% of the city of Warsaw, including nearly everything on the Western bank of the Vistula, was left in rubble. Further, 40,000 Polish resistance fighters were either killed or wounded, and 150,000 Polish civilians were killed in the Warsaw Uprising. The city remained essentially abandoned for four months until, in January, 1944, the Soviets finally invaded what was left of Warsaw. While the Soviets would rebuild Warsaw, restoring it beautifully and practically brick-by-brick as part of their efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Poles, the fact that it had taken the Soviets so long to make their advance has remained a historical sore point in the relations between the two nations.
Warsaw Uprising Museum
That the Uprising can still be felt strongly in Poland as part of Polish identity can be seen at The Warsaw Uprising Museum.
Walking through Warsaw’s central business district, after passing rows of modern glass-and-steel structures, you’ll come across the perfectly restored and preserved former Tram Power Plant. A piece of classic turn-of-the-century industrial architecture, the plant was a hold out during the initial Nazi invasion. Eventually, however, the Nazis stormed the building and killed the workers who had protected the plant. It was again an important battle point during the Warsaw Uprising and taken by the resistance. Thus, it is a fitting location for the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
Admission is only 25 PLN ($6.36) and just 20 PLN ($5) with a student discount. Further, on Sundays, admission is free. Despite the low cost, the museum is not only in a beautifully restored and maintained building, but also offers audio guides (10 PLN, $2.50) developed in a long list of languages, and is full of ambitious, immersive displays including full-size replicas of the sewers famously used by the resistance fighters. This is made possible by the fact that the museum receives funding from the city of Warsaw as an important cultural institution. It is also made possible by its strikingly high attendance rates. The Uprising Museum is the second most visited museum in Warsaw, behind only the Copernicus Science Center, drawing people from all over Poland, Europe, and beyond. On Sundays, one can easily stand in line to enter for 45 minutes.
Upon entering the museum, the exhibits begin just after the coat check area and are led by easy-to-follow signs. All the exhibits in the museum include descriptions in both Polish and English. The museum has three display floors and, although showing a large collection of thousands of artifacts ranging from weapons, to furniture, to love letters, the museum does a great job telling its story in a narrative, interactive fashion. The artifacts are used to create memorable scenes and interactive displays, making sure that the focus is on the Uprising as a movement and event, rather than scattered over thousands of potentially forgettable details.
Going through the museum takes about two hours going at about an average pace, but you could easily spend double that time if you read and watched everything they have to offer. It is important to note, the Warsaw Uprising Museum is not exactly an uplifting place to visit. It depicts a brutal time in the history of Warsaw – one that was marked by death, oppression, and destruction. So when coming to the museum keep that in mind. Bring an empathetic mindset and be fully aware that the Polish museum goer next to you may have lost friends and family members in the Warsaw Uprising.
Significance of the Warsaw Uprising Today
The Warsaw Uprising remains very prominent in Polish cultural memory. One of my close friends in Warsaw who studies at Collegium Civitas explained his personal connection to the uprising. His grandfather lived, suffered, and miraculously made it through the Second World War while living in Warsaw. He saw and experienced it all: the initial invasion, the terror bombing, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (a separate Jewish revolt in Spring of 1943), the Warsaw Uprising, and finally liberation. I was speechless hearing him retell his grandfather’s stories.
The Warsaw Uprising and also resistance against the Nazis in WWII also continues to be prominent in media and culture. For example, the uprising features prominently in the modern Polish films Warsaw 1944 (2014), Warsaw Uprising (2014), Baczynski (2013), and Uprising (2001). The international film The Pianist (2002) was also shot with Polish support and shows what happened to Warsaw at that time, although it focuses much more on the earlier Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
There is also a Polish-produced video game, released in October 2019, called WARSAW that lets the player control a band of resistance fighters starting on August 1, 1944, the exact date of the uprising. It incorporates accurate maps, historical documents, and resistance missions that actually occurred to paint a picture of what the uprising was like and to immerse modern players in the history, making them feel like they are a part of it.
Finally, there are many highly visible monuments around Warsaw that commemorate the heroic actions of resistance fighters and everyday Poles during the uprising. One is the massive Warsaw Uprising monument located in Krasinski Square near Old Town. Completed in 1989 by Wincenty Kucma and Jacek Budyn, it depicts two scenes from the Warsaw Uprising. The first is the initial attack showing resistance fighters using anything they have to attack the Nazis, and the other scene shows the resistance defeated and retreating through the sewer system. The sheer size of this monument speaks volume to the viewer, with the height of the soldiers being around ten meters (33 feet). The message that was conveyed to me from these large figures and this monument is the actions of individuals are far greater than the outcome. The Warsaw Uprising was not a success, but that does not diminish the heroic actions taken by the Polish civilians and resistance fighters in the Uprising.
Another monument is the statue of the Little Insurrectionist located just outside the Old Town wall. This statue of a small boy wearing oversized military fatigues, military helmet, and holding a submachine gun is to honor and remember the children of Warsaw who fought in the uprising. Both monuments are very moving and definitely worth visiting while in Warsaw.
As a student from the United States, I had very little knowledge about the Warsaw Uprising. In learning about it though, through interactions with Poles and by seeing the highly visible cultural memory of the events in modern Warsaw, my understanding has deepened and my respect grown. Although I had studied World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War, before these had only been events I studied in history classes. I knew they happened, but actually being in the places where these events took place and learning from the local culture and individuals in Warsaw has added a whole new level to my understanding. I can see these things more clearly as human events that affected and still affect real people. It has increased my empathy for those that lived through these times; the effects of which are still seen today.