When the Wehrmacht crossed the Polish border before dawn on September 1, 1939, a mere 200 miles of open countryside separated Warsaw from its enemy’s advance guard. Varsovians had hours before the German Luftwaffe appeared in the sky and little knowledge of what lay ahead. In the fight that month, the intelligentsia joined their neighbors, trapped in the besieged capital: Luftwaffe bombers and Wehrmacht artillery did not distinguish targets based on their national-cultural role. Unlike future persecutions in which the intelligentsia would be singled out, the 1939 siege – and the 1944 uprising – obliged the intelligentsia to share others’ fate. This shared experience was vitally important for elite behavior.
Despite scant consideration by military historians, the siege framed the war and occupation.Footnote 1 Varsovians discovered many things before capitulation. Most important was that their Nazi German enemy was fighting a total war for Lebensraum from which civilians would not be spared.Footnote 2 Poles also learned that their allies were feeble and their eastern neighbor hostile. Britain and France declared war but stayed outside the conflict, while the Soviet Union joined the German invasion from the east, complicating defense. Warsaw was politically isolated and physically surrounded, with weak-willed friends and aggressive neighbors.
Seismic shifts occurred in Warsaw and within Polish society. Prewar political parties, social classes, and ethnic groups cooperated under siege, blurring old divisions and creating new relationships; some of these were fleeting and others durable. Boundaries between “civilian” and “military” roles eroded: Varsovians did not have the privilege of observing their army’s successful defense or the luxury of following a war elsewhere. Instead, city defense was hastily planned, required civilian contributions, and caused significant loss of life.
The national government evacuation on September 4–5, 1939 and of army and religious leadership shortly thereafter made a devastating impression. Public “servants” and soldiers escaped eastward. Those who remained, like Mayor Stefan Starzyński and his deputy Julian Kulski, or leaders like Wacław Lipiński (1896–1949) and Janusz Regulski (1887–1983), who organized defenses, were vital. Starzyński was of oversized importance against the backdrop of a state in flight. After evacuation, the Second Polish Republic was not the object of straightforward nostalgia: independence was mourned but not the “colonels’ regime” that took flight.Footnote 3 In the absence of government and army leadership, Warsaw held out against the Wehrmacht for weeks. The stand failed, but it forged an intense Varsovian camaraderie, imbuing in them a sense of heroic – and unique – struggle. The intelligentsia shared siege-time suffering and recorded it for posterity, often tinging it with pathos. A post-1939 identity crystallized: Varsovians were people who defended themselves. The siege of Warsaw became the benchmark of suffering and violence against which its inhabitants measured later experience.Footnote 4
1.1 Best-Laid Plans
In order to understand what Warsaw endured in 1939, one must understand the military campaign in which it was entangled. The campaign’s speed exacerbated its effects and revealed crucial Polish weaknesses. Poland had two interrelated problems on which Nazi Germany capitalized in 1939: indefensible borders and weak diplomacy.Footnote 5 Interwar diplomacy under Foreign Minister Józef Beck (1894–1944) attempted to play Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union off one another while courting allies, mainly France and Great Britain.Footnote 6 The Second Polish Republic anticipated attack from the east or west. Few anticipated 1939, which involved both. In August 1939, the Nazi and Soviet foreign ministers surprised Europe with a “defensive” agreement, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, dividing Poland between them.Footnote 7 At the last moment Poland secured formal guarantees from Britain and promises from France in case of German aggression.Footnote 8
Poland’s allies-dependent strategy fell apart before war began. The Polish Army (Wojsko Polskie, WP) paused mobilization at western insistence in late August, hoping to avoid “antagonizing” a volatile Hitler. This last appeasement was as effective as the previous ones and emboldened the Führer, indicating his opponents lacked nerve. Mobilization schedules are always sensitive, but the summer timing and underdeveloped Polish road and rail system snarled highways and train stations with soldiers. Crucial units were “secretly” mobilized (secret from the British and French) and moved to their billets.Footnote 9 Britain and France did declare war on Nazi Germany on September 3, 1939, two days after the German invasion, to wild celebration across the capital.Footnote 10 Unfortunately, these declarations devolved into a “phony war” without the aggression against Germany that Polish planning required.Footnote 11
Geographically, Poland had difficult borders. The Treaty of Versailles drew the long western border, and 1939 was the first time it was contested.Footnote 12 International compromise gave Poland an arm of land extending to the Baltic Sea at Gdańsk, surrounded by German territory. This “Polish Corridor” was contentious and Gdańsk (“Danzig” to Germans) a “free” city owned by neither state. The splitting of Germany allowed the Wehrmacht to invade Poland from two sides without leaving its own territory in 1939.Footnote 13 Polish military planners opted for a “long border” defense with WP positions as far west as possible, extending understaffed units beyond their capacities. This decision was based on “two decades of shortsightedness” and a misunderstanding of how German combat mobility was developing.Footnote 14
Nazi Germany understood these circumstances and had a hand in creating them. The German invasion, Case White (Fall Weiss), exploited Polish vulnerabilities. Walther von Brauchitsch (1881–1948) commanded the Wehrmacht in 1939, and he and Chief of the General Staff Franz Halder (1884–1972) enthusiastically carried out Hitler’s orders. They eagerly reclaimed territory “lost” to Poland by Versailles.Footnote 15 Brauchitsch’s army groups moved with unprecedented speed through WP defenses and swallowed western Poland, meeting across the Vistula River behind Warsaw.Footnote 16 Army Group North, commanded by General Fedor von Bock (1880–1945), sent Georg von Küchler’s Third Army to Warsaw. Army Group South, commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt (1875–1953), sent Colonel General Johannes Blaskowitz’s Eighth Army to Warsaw.Footnote 17 The Tenth Army under Artillery General Walther von Reichenau marched through Łódź to meet the Third Army in Warsaw.
These armies were well commanded, mobile, and supplemented with Luftwaffe support. Their internal communication was remarkably sophisticated. Aircraft and fast-moving light tanks reinforced each other to overwhelm Polish units, scattering them and advancing before they regrouped.Footnote 18 The commanders – von Bock, von Rundstedt, Blaskowitz, von Reichenau – were First World War veterans and went on to spectacular field victories in France and the Soviet Union. Their fast-paced, coordinated air-armor assaults were later dubbed Blitzkrieg or “lightning war,” though military historians fret over whether 1939 was the genuine phenomenon.Footnote 19 Terminology aside, Wehrmacht speed was vital to victory: Polish defensive planning relied on its allies’ intervention and desperately needed time.
Polish defenses were directed by the WP’s commander in chief, Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz (1886–1941). Śmigły-Rydz had fought in Piłsudski’s Legions and risen through the WP, becoming its commander and one of the country’s leaders after Piłsudski’s death in 1935. He ruled in uniform in the quasi-democratic, quasi-authoritarian twilight of the interwar alongside Ignacy Mościcki, the last president. Śmigły-Rydz’s headquarters were in Warsaw, and he lost contact with border units once the invasion began.Footnote 20
The Polish defensive plan, Plan Z (Plan Zachód), spread five armies along the western border with slim interior reserves.Footnote 21 The plan was to stall the enemy and then counterattack – a “hold-win-win” strategy against what turned out to be two opponents. (Counteroffensives never materialized.)Footnote 22 For the “hold” portion, Modlin Army protected Warsaw from the north. Below it, General Tadeusz Kutrzeba’s (1886–1947) Poznań Army defended western Poznania and General Juliusz Rómmel’s (1881–1967) Łódź Army, central Poland. Two new armies – Lublin Army and Warsaw Army – were formed on September 8, 1939 to shield the capital but were not part of the original vision; the WP had not anticipated defending Warsaw itself.Footnote 23 Rómmel received charge of Warsaw Army after his Łódź Army collapsed.Footnote 24
Warsaw had anticipated war for years (Figure 1.1). Mayor Stefan Starzyński was cautious and his Legion days never far behind him; he was always preparing for conflict. A mandatory national reserve system cycled all the country’s able-bodied men through the army, and its intelligentsia through the reserve officer corps, and paramilitaries, shooting clubs, and women’s auxiliaries were popular.Footnote 25 In the late 1930s the WP emplaced new anti-aircraft batteries in Warsaw.Footnote 26 In 1937 the Defense Ministry offered air defense courses (obrona przeciwlotnicza, OPL), and 150,000 people had completed them nationally by 1938. Deputy Mayor Julian Kulski, also a Legionnaire, led civilian preparations.Footnote 27 Women were encouraged to shop carefully and not hoard food; men in trench coats put down their briefcases and dug anti-tank ditches alongside those in uniform.Footnote 28 Schoolchildren performed air raid drills and apartment blocks designated a komendant – the custodian or an enthusiastic veteran volunteered – to report to municipal authorities.
1.2 War Arrives
Case White unfolded dramatically. The Luftwaffe targeted military infrastructure and civilians, especially on highways into and out of Warsaw along which Poles fled before the Wehrmacht.Footnote 29 Motorized German units made for the interior, while Polish defenders struggled to communicate among themselves as forces retreated, frustrating counterattacks.Footnote 30 Jan Karski, a second lieutenant in the cavalry, remembered the collapse with bitterness: “we were now no longer an army, a detachment, or a battery, but individuals wandering collectively toward some wholly indefinite goal. We found the highways jammed …Footnote 31” His war had only lasted “about twenty minutes.”Footnote 32 Polish soldiers like Karski congregated east of the Vistula where they were caught by Soviet forces, sometimes before engaging the Germans. The Soviet invasion on September 17 “engraved itself indelibly into Polish memory:” the country’s enemies cooperated better than its allies, paving the way for a fourth partition of Poland. The public mood darkened, though the army fought on.Footnote 33
Varsovians held out, nervously following campaigning. Polish soldiers fought ferociously, surprising Germans, and providing a rallying-cry for their countrymen. German soldiers committed atrocities against Poles they had been primed to hate, seeing “bandits” and “irregulars” everywhere. Pockets of resistance lingered, despite the pace of the German advance. On the Baltic Sea’s Hel Peninsula fighting continued through the month, with 180 men enduring continuous bombardment before finally surrendering on October 2.Footnote 34 On September 9, 1939 Polish forces counterattacked at the Battle of the Bzura for ten days, costing the Wehrmacht 8,000 dead. Polish units seemed everywhere in retreat; still the Germans were not victorious.Footnote 35 Warsaw became the campaign’s main contest, despite Case White’s and Plan Z’s neglect of it. Attacking it cost more time than Wehrmacht leadership planned. Nazi propaganda disguised delays, but Dresden diarist and German-Jewish intellectual Victor Klemperer realized that “the war [wa]s being covered up … flags are not being put out.”Footnote 36 Something had gone awry, and Warsaw was at the heart of it.
The capital was the largest city in Poland with 1.5 million inhabitants. It was WP headquarters, an air force base, the seat of government and the Catholic Church, and the country’s transportation hub.Footnote 37 The motorized Wehrmacht needed its transit links to operate. Polish soldiers gathered there and German units moved around the city, trapping them inside.Footnote 38 The Wehrmacht, like every army before it, was squeamish about besieging a fortified city: a siege risked squandering Case White’s speed and giving Poland’s allies time to rally.Footnote 39 It also required heavy gunnery, which took time to arrive. The Luftwaffe “softened” the city from the air, hoping it would surrender. It did not. By September 7, “a third of the city [was] already a shambles” and “the situation was far more serious than the meager censored news reports … indicated.”Footnote 40 On September 8, the newly created Warsaw Army erected defenses.Footnote 41 On September 13, the Luftwaffe targeted fortifications and public utilities, killing civilians. From mid-month Warsaw was continuously bombarded, increasingly with incendiaries.Footnote 42 Warsaw Army’s soldiers launched raids, looking to break out. Tentative German assaults on the Modlin fortress and the western Mokotów neighborhood were pushed back by Polish defenders; Poles emplaced guns and tank traps as the Wehrmacht dallied.Footnote 43 When the Battle of the Bzura collapsed, however, German forces refocused on encircling the capital and launched a multi-day bombardment culminating on September 25, 1939: “horrible Monday.”Footnote 44 A Wehrmacht lieutenant across the Vistula in Praga watched assembling artillery, sure that “the destruction of Warsaw is in preparation.”Footnote 45 German artillery reduced the city to rubble and was followed by infantry advance into the western suburbs of Ochota and Czyste. By late September Polish soldiers were low on ammunition and civilians out of food and water. The WP knew a ceasefire was necessary, but Starzyński delayed as long as he could; on September 28, 1939 Tadeusz Kutrzeba, Warsaw Army’s deputy commander, capitulated to Johannes Blaskowitz of the German Eighth Army.Footnote 46 Remaining Polish defenders – around 150,000 men – reluctantly assembled as prisoners of war (POWs), and the triumphant Wehrmacht marched into Warsaw on September 30, 1939.Footnote 47 Germans took the city’s capitulation as a de facto Polish surrender.Footnote 48
Inside the city Case White’s precise operational goals dissolved into horror. Warsaw felt German bombs weeks before anyone in Wehrmacht uniform appeared on its streets: modern war was faceless. The Luftwaffe hit the outskirts the first day, with Polish fighters contesting the attack.Footnote 49 Reporting for duty on September 1, Colonel Julian Janowski (1886–1970) persuaded a taxi driver to drive him to border guard headquarters. He and the cabby bailed out as bombers passed overhead.Footnote 50 Varsovians gawked from balconies and rooftops, but air attack put tremendous strain on civilians.Footnote 51 Strategists of aerial bombardment had warned about what the Luftwaffe achieved in Warsaw, the first time the technique was implemented widely in Europe.Footnote 52 Though preparations were ready – bunkers, antitank ditches, antiaircraft stations, a nighttime blackout – Luftwaffe superiority disturbed civilians and soldiers alike.Footnote 53 The war that arrived was not precisely the war anticipated: Poland’s allies failed to arrive, its armies could not keep the Wehrmacht from the capital; families ran out of food after being told it was unpatriotic to hoard it, and civilians hesitated to buy gas masks when they appeared for sale in shops.Footnote 54 September was full of unhappy surprises.
Overcrowding created pernicious problems. Refugees accumulated even as some native Varsovians fled eastward. University students arrived for the fall semester, unsure if classes were going forward. (They would, but underground). Those hoping to fight and those hoping to be defended assumed Warsaw would hold out.Footnote 55 Because of the poor state of Poland’s road and rail, anyone going anywhere in September 1939 went through Warsaw. Gasoline couldn’t be had after a week, and abandoned vehicles and goods accumulated, stuffing black markets.Footnote 56 The poet Aleksander Wat, his wife, Ola, and their baby, Andrzej, escaped to Lwów (L’viv).Footnote 57 Socialist activist and novelist Wanda Wasilewska (1905–64), who had lived in the capital since the mid-1930s, headed east, eventually to Moscow where she helped Stalin build a postwar Polish communist government, a role made possible precisely by her absence from Warsaw during the war.Footnote 58 There was a distinctly leftwing aspect to the intelligentsia refugee wave, aware as they were of Hitler’s intense persecution of communists and socialists. Many Polish Jews took the same route, willing to take their chances further east rather than face Nazi antisemitism.
Provincial government employees and local leadership from western Poland abandoned homes and arrived in the capital with what they could carry. Their flight reduced government function, preventing the coordination of civilian and military traffic.Footnote 59 They claimed they were pursued by murderous police gangs – an outlandish story that turned out to be true. Halina “Halszka” Donimirska (1918–2008) worked for the National Forestry Bureau. Her office in an uproar, she went to Warsaw to find out what was going on, joining a crowd on foot. Donimirska and her family, who held German and Polish citizenships, were thrown into the war’s racialized violence: her brothers refused to serve in the Wehrmacht and were labelled deserters, and her surname appeared on detention lists that Nazi police carried. Warsaw’s elite would soon learn more about these lists. Donimirska stayed in Warsaw and joined the underground as a nurse.Footnote 60 Aleksander Kamiński (“Hubert,” 1903–78), a thirty-six-year-old teacher and scoutmaster, left his family outside Katowice and made for Warsaw by bicycle.Footnote 61 He was organizing boy scout relief efforts before the surrender.
Donimirska and Kamiński joined the capital intelligentsia: observing, recording, and organizing responses to the siege. Crowding bred unrest, violence, and disease. Government ministries, grammar schools, and parks became makeshift campsites for frightened mobs. Priests said Mass, heard confessions, and administered last rites. Spontaneous religiosity welled up from a culturally Catholic society, and diarists remembered hymns sung in darkness.Footnote 62 Frightened people thronged to sturdier buildings, the wealthy cheek-by-jowl with their neighbors in cellars and stairwells “alongside the coal and potatoes.”Footnote 63 Bombardment set everything alight. Food shortages required queuing endlessly in the streets outside shops that still had anything for sale. According to Jadwiga Krawczyńska, a journalist holed up in a friend’s apartment:
The streets became a massive throng of crowds … the inhabitants of Warsaw made every effort to stock up their houses and apartments with foodstuffs and various provisions. This hoarding of supplies became a downright mania … The better part of these supplies burned in the September fires … At the same time, an unexpected wave of refugees from the western and northern regions of the country fell on Warsaw … It was a massive wave of panic: despairing castaways from the countryside and the little towns, fleeing ahead of the Germans. Disoriented, unhappy, helpless people wandering around, looking for any sort of shelter, they camped out in public squares and city parks. Saxon Square looked like a garbage pit … It was not just a hideous sight, but a gigantic difficulty for the city … With each passing day securing food became more difficult, and sanitary conditions got worse. The hospitals were filled to capacity, the doctors working around the clock. A genuine state of starvation quickly dominated the besieged city, visiting its residents and the newcomers alike …Footnote 64
Halina Maciejowska Regulska, wife of the prominent businessman Janusz Regulski and avid diarist, agreed, calling the September streets a “scene out of Dante.” (Figure 1.2) Footnote 65 When government foundered, elites filled the gaps.Footnote 66 Civic efforts flourished: ministers’ wives, sewing circles, students, scouts, and seminarians darted outside between air raids, “pitching in” to tend the wounded, bury bodies, fight fires, gather horse carcasses to be butchered, prevent looting, mend blockades, or keep roads passable.Footnote 67 Regulska’s family dove into defense initiatives. Socialist leaders and working-class loyalists supplied defenders, digging anti-dank ditches, and building barricades.Footnote 68 Other political parties rallied volunteers, sometimes with members of parliament and politicians at their head. The mayor formalized party efforts, appointing colleagues to lead critical initiatives.
1.3 Government and Army Evacuation
Warsaw was the seat of the national government, which might have been the key decision maker during the siege and occupation. But, on the night of September 4–5, 1939, it evacuated Warsaw eastward toward Lublin and then into Romania, an unbridgeable caesura in the legitimacy of the Second Polish Republic. Curiously, the Wehrmacht assumed the Polish government lay in their clutches, despite its escape.Footnote 69 A parade of private cars (denied to ordinary Poles since September 1) and state limousines crept across the Vistula bridges in the predawn darkness, scandalizing observers.Footnote 70 Panic ensued on the morning of September 5: offices stood empty; paper fluttered about; phones rang and rang. The evacuees were a who’s who of the Second Polish Republic: bureaucrats and ambassadorial staffs, not-yet-mobilized officers, policemen, firefighters and, from September 6 on, all able-bodied men. The plan was to regroup and fight on, but it went unrealized.Footnote 71
Defense Ministry higher-ups were not informed about evacuation: the terrible news was at first only rumor. Wacław Lipiński (1896–1949) found out from his sister, Dioniza “Dyzia” Wyszyńska, a teacher, whose husband, Antoni “Tosiek” Wyszyński, was an active-duty colonel at the Defense Ministry. Lipiński’s circle was typical of the intelligentsia: he was a civil servant, historian, retired officer, and Legionnaire, and his brother-in-law was an officer. Dyzia called her brother in hysterics:
The night from Monday to Tuesday was quite simply macabre. As usual, I went to bed late after the last of the radio programs aired, when my telephone rang at 3am. Dyzia was calling to ask if I knew what was happening. Her voice sounded different. I answered that I didn’t know and asked her what had happened. She couldn’t tell me over the phone, and asked that I come over immediately. Ola [his wife Aleksandra] and I got dressed and left. She was standing in her courtyard, crying that everyone in the whole house was leaving, and she didn’t know why … visibly shaken, Dyzia told us that the whole Interior and Defense Ministries and in general the whole government was evacuating. It’s recommended that everyone take their families with them. Tosiek just got home and he’s exhausted and sleeping and I don’t want to wake him. What should I do? Do I leave with him and bring the children – or stay?Footnote 72
Colonel Wyszyński slept as his subordinates packed, destroyed files, and fled town.
Lipiński clarified what orders had gone out to the Defense and Interior Ministries but it took all night. Selected personnel were relocating to Lublin. Many families were unwilling to be abandoned, though, and household goods, crying children, and pets joined the exodus. Lipiński learned that the Józef Piłsudski Institute for the Study of Modern Polish History had been evacuated with the Military Historical Bureau. He was the institute’s director. His staff and files were en route to Lublin.
Lipiński’s diary conveys the rage and frustration of Warsaw’s intelligentsia during evacuation. His government gone, Lipiński mobilized himself. Before Polish High Command created the Warsaw Army, Lipiński got ahold of the situation, calmed his wife and sister, and briefed his brother-in-law – and what remained of the Defense Ministry. Together with Julian Janowski, the colonel who barely got a taxi, Lipiński came to the aid of General Walerian Czuma (1890–1962), who refused to evacuate. Commander-in-Chief Śmigły-Rydz created a Warsaw Defense Command and gave Czuma control, evacuating days later. At the head of Warsaw Army, Czuma and Rómmel directed urban defenses. Cardinal August Hlond (1881–1948), primate of Poland, and head of the Roman Catholic Church, also evacuated mid-month and headed for Vatican City.Footnote 73 Warsaw was now missing its government, army command, and the head of its main religious denomination. Thousands more took the official evacuation as warning and left themselves, some trickling back under occupation or replaced by enthusiastic newcomers. The remainder carried on. Janowski became Czuma’s deputy. Lipiński put his old uniform back on and became Czuma’s propaganda chief, moving information across the city, keeping the mayor on the airwaves, preventing panic.Footnote 74
Crisis management may have come naturally to Lipiński, but his initiative drew from the fact that he was a well-connected member of the Warsaw intelligentsia with colleagues in government, the military, and industry. He – while the phones worked – made calls, knocked on doors, and figured out what was happening. This was how Warsaw worked during the siege and afterward: intelligentsia social networks, professional contacts, and leadership experience kept them afloat. Of course, the elitist nature of government meant that “making a few calls” to solve problems hardly began in 1939; Lipiński had always functioned this way. However, in September this was the only way to get things done: the city functioned or collapsed according to intelligentsia initiative. As the Germans advanced, the Second Polish Republic gave way. Intelligentsia bonds preserved civil society under siege and occupation.
Civilian elites had their hands full. Halina Regulska stayed downtown with her children. She and her daughter, Hanka, volunteered at a Red Cross field hospital.Footnote 75 On September 6, Mayor Starzyński appointed Regulska’s husband Janusz Regulski (1887–1983) commander of the Citizen Militia (Główna Straż Obywatelska, SO). Starzyński chose Regulski because he was not political, a prosperous, happily married father who ran an electrical conglomerate.Footnote 76 Regulski issued orders about air raid shelters, night patrols, the Red Cross, militia recruitment, human movement, shops and pharmacies, charity efforts, requisitioning private cars, and public safety, but he stole home occasionally.Footnote 77 His wife was thus well informed, and kept friends abreast of developments. On September 6, she noted in her diary that “the official order for all men to evacuate the city has come … from the mouth of Lt. Col. Umiastowski himself. Just women, children, and old people are to remain here alone.”Footnote 78 The national police “quickly abandoned the city” alongside “whole units of the fire department.”Footnote 79 Warsaw awaited the largest incendiary bombing campaign the world had yet seen, and blocks and blocks would burn before capitulation. Umiastowski’s order provoked “the most monumental traffic jam yet known in Warsaw,” paralyzing evacuees in a deadlock of trucks and government limousines on the Vistula bridges.Footnote 80 Regulska was terrified, her husband not less so.
Starzyński remained at his desk, turning his relationship with Warsaw’s press to good effect.Footnote 81 Radio messages emphasized civic unity and discouraged defeatism, and Lipiński kept them on the air. They also summoned volunteers and kept the city informed.Footnote 82 Starzyński used radio while the senders were in Polish hands, and then turned to newspapers and loudspeakers.Footnote 83 His familiar voice reassured the populace they were still being governed.Footnote 84 He appealed to Varsovians to “hold fast and we will be victorious,” anticipating Winston Churchill’s famous rallying of Londoners under bombardment the next year.Footnote 85 While German artillery blasted Warsaw into rubble, Starzyński was in city hall, trying to do something.Footnote 86
A sense of betrayal at the government’s flight united those who remained. That the Socialist Left condemned the evacuation – “the rats,” prominent socialist parliamentarian Zygmunt Zaremba (1895–1967) wrote, “are escaping” – was unsurprising. In Zaremba’s eyes, aristocrats were keen to flee, leaving workers and the poor to face German wrath: “The capital must be defended,” he insisted, “it can’t be any other way. Every worker thinks this way, every industrial laborer, every ordinary citizen of the capital. What is the government thinking?”Footnote 87 Zaremba was too hasty; the remaining intelligentsia shared his fury. Officers hid their irritation from subordinates. Watching a colleague pack, Lipiński called high-ranking evacuees a “cowardly horde” and noted that a “nasty, unpleasant atmosphere of retreat and escape wafted about.” His family stayed.Footnote 88 Even Starzyński, who refrained from criticizing his government to maintain fragile unity, referred openly to the “tragic mistake of the evacuation.”Footnote 89
Śmigły-Rydz evacuated command to Brest forty-eight hours after the government, “focused on saving the army” above all, and from Brześć he retreated to Młynów and then the Romanian border.Footnote 90 Evacuees followed Polish constitutional provisions in creating an exile government, but this was cold comfort to Varsovians. No governmental structure existed as an intermediary between them and the Wehrmacht like those that protected Prague, Belgrade, or Paris.Footnote 91 Men like Lipiński and Regulski stepped into the breach; Starzyński and Czuma rallied the city. Their wives organized soup kitchens and hospitals; intelligentsia youth rescued property and fought fires. Tales of individual heroism and pluck, however, should not distract from the fact that people took initiative because the institutions of their state had, like a rug, been pulled from beneath them. Elite agency during the siege was premised on a catastrophic failure.
1.4 Total War
Defending Warsaw required civilian participation. Aerial bombardment and artillery fire damaged electrical and sewage systems, cutting off water and electricity, including to hospitals.Footnote 92 Without firefighters or water, neighborhoods burned for days. Regulski’s Citizen Militia fought fires, but injuries, death, and property loss mounted. Rampant looting among the hungry, panicked, and overcrowded population went unchecked due to the absence of policemen. Umiastowski’s evacuations made manpower a precious commodity at a time when defender needs were legion: collecting food and ammunition, digging tank traps, manning anti-aircraft posts, maintaining communications, and controlling civilians.Footnote 93
The evacuation of government and able-bodied men begins the story of Polish scouting (harcerstwo) and the advance of its members into underground resistance.Footnote 94 Scouting was a patriotic activity crowded with the intelligentsia’s children. The siege was their “baptism of fire” and taught youth from privileged families they were crucial to Warsaw’s defenses. Scouting leaders like Stanisław Broniewski (1915–2000) and Aleksander Kamiński, freshly arrived from Katowice, assigned “their” boys to sundry tasks and memorialized their exploits.Footnote 95 Broniewski would go on to lead his scouts – the Szare Szeregi or Grey Ranks – into the London-backed military underground, citing their siege exploits as proof of their usefulness.Footnote 96
Michał Walicki (1904–66), Warsaw University art history professor and National Museum curator, spent September frantic as art and antiques caught fire.Footnote 97 A square red-brick structure sitting at the edge of the Medieval Old Town, the Royal Castle was filled with priceless collections from Poland’s long history. It was also an excellent Luftwaffe target.Footnote 98 As the cupola went up in flames, a dozen scouts turned up at Walicki’s office. Walicki was unsure how word had gotten out, but Broniewski may have sent them. The boys emptied the castle into museum basements for safekeeping:Footnote 99
For a few days, together with the employees of the museum, they packed up the contents of the castle and loaded Canaletto paintings, bronzes, and furniture into trucks and transported it to the museum, where the valuables were hidden in the cellars. They slept and ate on the grounds of the museum the entire time. On the 17th or the 18th one of the museum’s trucks, which the scouts were riding in, was hit by artillery fire or an aerial bomb … Nobody was killed, but a lot of the boys were injured and had to be taken to the hospital.
A handful were later wounded hauling patients and medical equipment from a Piękna Street hospital.Footnote 100 As the occupation unfolded, September’s scouts would join the emerging underground, and some of its youth would become Home Army combatants by 1944. The evacuation of personnel during the siege required that those without experience or equipment – even children – do soldiers’ work. Beyond the practical problems caused by the absence of policemen, firemen, and soldiers, the evacuation triggered panic. Citizens felt abandoned. Poland’s public servants, after four days of war, ceased to serve their public. The sense of betrayal cannot be overstated and deeply affected evacuees’ and exiles’ ability to understand Warsaw’s war.
The defense involved civilian elites in military affairs, and vice versa. Czuma’s forces and Rómmel’s Warsaw Army were inadequate before German attack. After the government evacuation and encirclement, relieving the defenders was impossible. Civilians were recruited (or, like Lipiński and Zaremba, mobilized themselves) to guard weapons depots, direct traffic, do nighttime signaling, maintain fortifications, and requisition supplies, especially vehicles and food. This last, especially, was a source of tension, as people starved, hoarding and stealing food to survive. Mayor Starzyński appealed to the citizenry to aid defenders – or stay out of their way – on September 7. Four days later, Czuma made the same request with teeth: “plunder, robbery, arson, damaging infrastructure, spying, and desertion … would be punished with the death penalty.” The city was under martial law.Footnote 101 Military commanders hesitated to arm civilians.Footnote 102 Starzyński supported civilian involvement, demanding defense be a “whole Warsaw” struggle. Survivors proudly remembered a “spontaneous effort:” “society wanted this fight” and everyone pitched in, enduring “great sacrifices.”Footnote 103 Elites rubbed shoulders with neighbors on barricades and in shop queues; Regulski, Starzyński, and deputy mayor Kulski directed civilian defenses alongside volunteers.
Military officers – leading the still-fighting WP – helped blur boundaries between military and civilian responsibilities. Brigadier-General Michał Karaszewicz-Tokarzewski (“Torwid,” 1893–1964), Rómmel’s second-in-command, made a clandestine plan to fight on regardless of German capitulation terms, and he did so with the knowledge of his superiors, who ended up in captivity or exile.Footnote 104 He and other high-ranking officers remained in Warsaw to keep evacuees informed and organize insurgency in civilian clothes.Footnote 105 Karaszewicz-Tokarzewski called his initiative the Polish Victory Service (Służba Zwycięstwu Polski, SZP).Footnote 106 The Service would have numerous successors and competitors, but it was born during the siege when divisions between military and civilian elites were less important than survival and preparation for resistance to come.
From initial Wehrmacht attacks on western suburbs on September 18–19, continuing through the heaviest bombardment, the Germans were held off by a combined military-civilian effort. Warsaw was not defended: it defended itself.Footnote 107 The wartime cycle of violence began during the siege, which militarized civilians. Civilians carried weapons and did soldiers’ work; soldiers fought desperately and frequently escaped captivity. The Wehrmacht accused Polish soldiers entrenched around Warsaw of violations of the laws of war, which fitted Nazi stereotypes. Though tales of Polish perfidy, false “surrenders,” looting of the dead, and ambushes carried out under Red Cross flags were largely fabricated, they painted a picture of Poles as dangerous and untrustworthy in the minds of German soldiers.Footnote 108 Defending Warsaw thus also radicalized German brutality even before Nazi police arrival, eroding protections for civilian noncombatants and encouraging Germans to see all Poles as enemies.
Siege intermingled Varsovians in ways unimaginable in peacetime (Figure 1.3). Less-damaged portions of the city, like the northwestern intelligentsia Żoliborz neighborhood, were crowded with internal and external refugees, mixing elite locals with working class and gentry newcomers from other cities and peasants from the countryside.Footnote 109 Barricade teams of university students, factory workers, and bureaucrats manning machine guns and “women’s” work in hospitals and soup kitchens made strangers into acquaintances.Footnote 110 Old antagonisms were suspended. Polish antisemitism fluctuated as Christian and Jewish communities cooperated. Emmanuel Ringelblum (1900–44), Warsaw University historian, characterized it as an ethnic truce:
Even the most ardent anti-Semites grasped that at this time Jews and Poles had a common enemy, and that the Jews were excellent allies who would do all they possibly could to bring destruction on the Jews’ greatest enemies. The easing of tension could be felt at every step … The Jew, who before the war felt himself to be a second- or third-class citizen … again became a citizen with equal rights, asked to render help to the common fatherland.Footnote 111
Ringelblum would have the occupation to ponder how this collaboration came unglued and the “common fatherland” forgotten in favor of clannish and self-serving behavior, when Poles often turned on their Jewish neighbors.Footnote 112 The “equal rights” of September were exchanged for segregation under Nazi administration. Other new alliances endured. Friendships formed under siege often persisted, incomprehensible to outsiders and evacuees.
As first the government and then the army abandoned the capital, the mayor remained, working with soldiers, tapping elites to lead projects, keeping things intact. A myth surrounds Starzyński in Poland but he is unknown outside it. Save for Józef Piłsudski, there were few figures more important to Warsaw’s 1930s than the man who rebuilt it into the “Paris of the East.”Footnote 113 Starzyński stayed at his desk with a skeleton crew. He could easily have evacuated; before capitulation a plane landed on the Mokotów Fields (Pole Mokotowskie) to fly him to Bucharest. He refused to get on.Footnote 114 Starzyński was a tangible presence in contrast to the absent state.Footnote 115 By 1940 he was a legend rather than a man: a squat, somber figure behind a stack of paperwork. Starzyński’s career earned him critics, but his 1939 behavior separated him from the Second Polish Republic and showed that those who stayed in Warsaw had set off on their own course.
Though capitulation severed Starzyński’s contact with Varsovians, he never left the city. German terms required the city to furnish twelve elite hostages during the transfer of power to the Wehrmacht, and Starzyński volunteered to be among them.Footnote 116 The incoming military occupation initially left him to his own devices: he and his deputy, Julian Kulski, remained in city hall. When Warsaw was transferred to a civilian Nazi occupation, though, the Gestapo arrested Starzyński. Kulski remained as acting mayor doing a “dual job,” obediently keeping city services functioning for the Germans but also reporting to the exiles and emerging underground. Kulski was trapped and powerless. His own secret Polish-Jewish background and his boss’s violent end were always on his mind if he should antagonize his Nazi masters.Footnote 117
1.5 Effects of Siege and Bombardment
On September 28, 1939, Starzyński announced the capitulation on the pages of the United Gazette (Gazeta Wspólna), the last message some Varsovians ever received from the representative of an independent Poland:
[…] Citizens! I thank you with my whole heart for your trust, which sustained me through the long course of the defense. I thank you for heeding my requests and for your constant, self-sacrificing fulfillment of your daily obligations, in spite of these difficult conditions. You, the people of the capital, have demonstrated boundless heroism and willingness to sacrifice. Your dedication, which required all of us to remain at our posts to the very last, will be judged rightly by history. Much work still awaits you, including the day-to-day difficulties of bringing your lives back to normal and beginning to rebuild our city. Through the combined efforts of the whole population … this rebuilding must and will be accomplished. Long live Poland and her capital – Warsaw.Footnote 118
German artillery quieted and Wehrmacht commanders collected hostages, including Starzyński and Regulski (Figure 1.4). An eerie silence followed. Under bombardment Warsaw was a closed world “without a single drop of water,” “an ocean of fire.”Footnote 119 Starzyński and Czuma had capitulated at the last moment. A lack of water forced them, as firefighting and gun cooling had become impossible. People drank from the Vistula, which washed combat detritus to the sea. Varsovians emerged onto barely recognizable streets: towers and steeples were missing from the skyline and a flatter, smokier panorama confronted them. Downtown transitioned from burning rubble to urban cemetery. Regulska, waiting for her husband among the hostages, observed her once-pristine neighborhood:
Everything is over. People with tragic faces wander aimlessly about the streets. They stare at the destruction of the city, searching through it for their dear ones. […] People burst into sudden sobbing. They go crying through the streets; crying through their homes. […] Could it be that our struggle and suffering had yielded such meager results? Was it all unnecessary?Footnote 120
Everyone searched for family, friends, and neighbors, sometimes for years without word. Death tolls during the final bombardment were high, with many buried alive. A young Polish-Jewish man with the surname of Wojdysławski ignored evacuation orders and wandered downtown to see “streets … filled with rubble, bricks, stone, and everything was just covered with bodies. Everything before my eyes was red. A harsh, bloody red. There was no trace of houses. No houses. Just corpses everywhere. The corpses of houses. Everywhere ran little red rivers of blood … ”Footnote 121
Survivors had to bury strangers’ corpses, rotting in the autumn sun. Starzyński had regulated burials, but by October parks and squares were festooned with makeshift crosses.Footnote 122 The wounded numbered in the tens of thousands. Polish civilian casualties emanated disproportionately from Warsaw: Lipiński calculated 16,000 military and 20,000 civilian wounded and historian Marian Porwit estimated 4,000 military and 20,000 civilian dead – depending on where the line was drawn between the two. The September Campaign cost Poland around 70,000 dead, 130,000 wounded and upwards of 700,000 prisoners to the Germans and 240,000 to the Soviets – a million men. The Wehrmacht lost 16,000 men and took 30,000 wounded, far fewer than the Poles but more than planned.Footnote 123
Wehrmacht victory testified to Case White’s clarity and the superiority of German tactics and equipment, but especially to the wealth of Poland’s neighbor, which built a new army after Hitler took power in 1933. It also highlighted Poland’s disastrous diplomacy, its governmental disunity, and the final failure of the Versailles order. Had the Polish armies been fully mobilized, with better communication, and backed by a government with firmer allies, their defeat might have been less devastating. Their loss was double: a military collapse and a – much greater – political collapse. Poles were also misled by their own propaganda and thought they would win.Footnote 124 The legacy of deceit and defeat made it difficult to romanticize the Second Polish Republic and divided those who tried to do so from those who felt betrayed. The Nazi occupation began in a jumble of patriotism, fear, and disillusionment that humiliated Varsovians, often delaying intelligentsia opposition until occupation violence touched them personally.
The evacuated government was absent during this travail: Warsaw and the prewar Polish state split. New political alliances in occupied Warsaw were unfamiliar to evacuees and exiles who clung to the political landscape of prewar Poland and their new exile circumstances, each of which was complicated enough. The siege differentiated Warsaw from the rest of Poland; the Varsovian endured prolonged German hostility in a way that Poles elsewhere did not. This trauma fostered a perverse pride and unique identity, casting a rosy glow over the quotidian degradations of war. Writer Miron Białoszewski (1922–83) was seventeen in 1939. His family fled with the government, though they returned to Warsaw. Missing the siege made Białoszewski feel like less of a “real” Varsovian:
… in 1939 my parents and I had fled as far away as Zdołbunów [in Ukraine], so that I wasn’t even in Warsaw after September 5 , and throughout September I was disconsolate at not being [t]here. And when people told me what had happened, and wrung their hands, and mentioned September 23, 24, 25, I wanted to know about those days in particular. Throughout the entire occupation I regretted that I hadn’t been there on September 25 during the famous bombardment from eight in the morning until eight at night …
In his eyes those who missed the 1939 siege or 1944 uprising (for which he was present, to his delight) were unworthy of the city. “Every average Varsovian … wanted to return immediately … to this hell” to contribute to the defense.Footnote 125 For him Warsaw was the center of things, the most authentic place in Poland. This was not unique: the same sentiment drew Varsovians who fled in 1939 home despite danger, and it brought other Poles willing to contest the occupation. Just as Warsaw had been the center of politics and culture during the Second Polish Republic it would become the center of civil society and Polish national culture under occupation: the “fight inside Poland” was led from Warsaw.Footnote 126 Some soldiers slated for German captivity “melted” back into the population. This was not regarded as cowardly or unpatriotic, since to “defect” was not to abandon the fight but continue it. The city that fought in 1939 was assumed to be – and became – the center of the fight to come.
Any possibility for a peaceful occupation vanished under siege. Marching into Warsaw, Wehrmacht soldiers were awed by its destruction. Nazi Propaganda Minister Paul Joseph Goebbels considered Poles primitive and Warsaw “repulsive.”Footnote 127 Indoctrinated to think of Warsaw as uncivilized, the brutality of the ten-day bombardment confirmed Nazi propaganda: the most elegant parts were in ruins.Footnote 128 The siege was a horror, driving inhabitants to their limits and forcing them into behavior they would never have contemplated in peacetime. The collection of elite hostages had been at their posts for weeks on end and were exhausted. The population was hungry, thirsty, and filthy. Disease was spreading, especially typhus. Varsovians presented a disgusting sight.
Physical devastation made Warsaw vulnerable to the coming occupation, and provided a standing excuse for Nazi persecution: Varsovians had, after all, held out against the Wehrmacht and stalled Case White. City elites were primed to resist: indignant at their own government, furious at the depredations of an enemy army, and invigorated by participation in city defenses, many were uneasy about life under the German thumb. They would learn that the new “normal” meant devastation. The Nazi military, civilian, and police administrations treated Warsaw as the source of Polish resistance, a role it might have volunteered for had it not been imposed.
In order to understand Warsaw’s occupation and its intelligentsia’s response it is necessary to understand what they endured during the September Campaign. The events of those weeks severed ties with the Second Polish Republic and created new – often unpleasant – possibilities. Among these foundational experiences must be understood: immense loss of life; widespread physical destruction, from housing stock to the transit system; changing loyalties and political ties; the sense of abandonment by and independence from old sources of authority, including the government, army, and Church; the escalation of violence against civilians; the importance of Starzyński and those who remained; and the conviction that Warsaw “defended itself.”
Warsaw rallied in 1939, but at great cost. Historian Joanna Urbanek examines its emotions: fear, dread, surprise – but also pride and excitement.Footnote 129 Varsovians rallied because they had no choice. Before most could comprehend the situation a fast-moving, genocidal army arrived from the west to bomb them to smithereens; a rapacious ideological enemy blocked retreat to the east. Their government and their army – save for a treasured group of defenders – withdrew, leaving them to figure things out. They documented their plight when they could do nothing more; they defended themselves because there was nobody else to defend them and they were in terrible danger. All the work of soldiering, governance, and maintaining civil society was dumped in their laps by the dual invasion and evacuation of their own state. In the coming years they both would not and could not hand over this burden, because there was nobody to hand it over to.
A handful of intelligentsia figures, some young, some old, civilians and military leaders, women and men, endured the siege, watched their state crumble, and turned to and on their neighbors. A month of bombardment invigorated their sense of mission as Polish national leaders, especially after the evacuations: those who stayed took pride in what they saw as the patriotic choice over flight. The ragged banner of patriotism fluttered over horrors and traumas, justifying dramatic and unanticipated behavior. Being in Warsaw under occupation was thus active, premised on staying in Warsaw under siege. The lieutenant, Jan Karski, was taken as a POW but got back to Warsaw as soon as he could. The mayor, Starzyński, never evacuated, nor did his deputy. Starzyński appointed Janusz Regulski to lead the Citizen Militia, and Regulski’s family worked, too. Halina Donimirska and Aleksander Kamiński arrived from the provinces, pitched in with the defense, and never left. Journalist Jadwiga Krawczyńska kept the Common Gazette in print and scribbled a diary; she was not the only one.Footnote 130 Poet Miron Białoszewski evacuated with his parents, but raced back. Wacław Lipiński and Julian Janowski organized military defenses, Lipiński back in uniform after a long time. Zygmunt Zaremba led workers to the barricades himself; Stanisław Broniewski and Aleksander Kamiński organized scouts to help. Michał Walicki spent the next few months re-hiding museum collections as the Nazi occupation began. The German invasion interrupted their careers and changed their lives. When the Wehrmacht entered Warsaw, their prewar lives were over and new lives had begun – but their position as leaders in Polish society, culture, and politics continued. For some this was the resumption of a mantle put aside in 1918; for others this was a new and dizzying responsibility.
The Polish army had been conquered, imprisoned, or evacuated, and two foreign armies occupied Polish soil. The Varsovian nevertheless began the Nazi occupation with a sense of his own specialness: “he [wa]s proud that the fate of Warsaw was different.”Footnote 131 Its future, too, would be marked by Nazi Germany’s special attention, and its intelligentsia would find themselves in the crosshairs of their occupiers.