The War for the Soul of the Nation
When the tide of the Eastern Front turned at Stalingrad and the Red Army rolled over the territory of Poland in pursuit of the rapidly retreating German forces, some Poles saw it as an invasion; others welcomed it as a liberation. The conflicting perceptions of the Soviet incursion were rooted in two rival ideologies vying for the soul of the Nation.
Only five years earlier, just days after Hitler invaded Poland, the USSR had attacked and annexed the country’s eastern confines. Poland was forced to defend herself against two of the mightiest military powers in the world. Defeat was preordained. The Polish Government evacuated to France, then to London. From exile it established the Polish Underground State whose declared objective was to wage an armed struggle against the country’s two occupying forces: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Its military arm became known as the Home Army. A force of reportedly 400,000 soldiers, it was arguably the largest resistance movement in Europe. It engaged in direct combat with the Wehrmacht and in sabotaging the Nazi war machine. It gathered intelligence for the British Secret Services and engaged divisions of the German army intended for the Eastern Front. And yet, when the victorious Red Army entered Poland, the Home Army had to disband. It soldiers were disarmed and interred; their leaders branded as traitors. Their fault was that they had served the wrong master and that master had made some serious strategic mistakes.
The Polish Government in Exile claimed legitimacy as the legal successor of the Sanacja regime. That legacy was tainted. Sanacja had come to power by overthrowing the previous democratically elected government in the 1926 coup d’état led by Marshal Jόzef Piłsudski. Sanacja had been a regressive and authoritarian regime based on a personality cult – a model not uncommon in inter-war Europe. As much as the Government in Exile tried to renounce this regrettable affiliation, it was never able to fully shake it off.
The Polish Government’s short-sightedness and inability to adjust to the fast-changing political landscape post-Stalingrad led to grievous errors of judgment. Its insistence on continuing with armed resistance against both the Nazis and the Soviet “aggressor” proved self-defeating and came at a huge cost. The decision to mount a national uprising in 1944 so that the Home Army would receive the Soviets as a self-proclaimed host in control of the country was ill conceived and doomed to fail. The heroic Warsaw Uprising resulted in a bloodbath and annihilation of the city of Warsaw carried out by the Germans while the Russians halted their offensive on the Vistula River and watched the Poles being taught a lesson in humility.
Having survived six years of the barbaric Nazi occupation, the majority of Poles welcomed the advancing Soviets as genuine liberators. Alongside the freedom from Nazi oppression, the Soviets offered an agreeable alternative to the remote and elitist government in London: a working people’s government promising radical social reforms, nationalization of industries, and redistribution of land and wealth. It was an attractive proposition. The Government in Exile’s attempt to match the communist offer with its own socio-economic reforms was too little, too late.
The Soviets offered all Poles – and notably the Jews and other ethnic minorities – an opportunity to fight the Nazis by establishing the 1st Polish Army which alongside the Red Army pursued the Nazis all the way to Berlin. It was a symbolic gesture but cathartic for the Nation’s morale.
During the Nazi occupation, the People’s Guard (later the People’s Army) was the Polish communists’ answer to the Home Army. It started small but grew in numbers and strength as the Eastern Front drew close. The People’s Army was instrumental in organising Jewish Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto, smuggling weapons and supplies to the fighters and facilitating their escape from the ghetto. A few hundred soldiers of the People’s Army had also joined in the Warsaw Uprising. On the ground, the battle against the Nazis blurred ideological differences. At higher levels however, intelligence about the leaders of the Home Army was being passed to the Gestapo. The war for the soul of the Nation was an ugly business.
At the end of the war, the Polish Government in Exile, still demanding the withdrawal of Soviets from Poland, ceased to enjoy the recognition of France and the UK. It was not invited to the peace conference in Yalta where the future borders of the country and the new, post-war world order were being conceived. Its Western allies had no choice – the USSR was a key partner in defeating Nazi Germany. There was no room for entertaining Polish fantasies of ridding Europe of the communist scourge. The Cold War was years away. The Polish elites in London could not see that. They decried the snub as the Western Betrayal.
Meantime, the Polish communists backed by the USSR formed a new government and established new socio-political structures based on the Soviet model. Their narrative monopolised the political landscape of the country for the next forty years until it was dismantled by the grassroot, unionist movement. Ironically, the working classes, in whose name the People’s Republic had been created, led to its fall. The wheel of history had made a full turn and the ideological narrative was being, once again, revised. The war for the soul of the Nation raged on.
Anna Legat read Political History of Europe when studying for her law degree. She is the author of Buried in the Past, a historical novel set in Nazi-occupied Poland.