Warsaw, Occupied Poland · July 29, 1944

By July 1944 Poland had been occupied by the forces of Nazi Ger­many for close to five years and by those of the Soviet Union for con­sider­ably less. The Polish resis­tance Home Army (Armia Krajowa), which was loyal to the London-based Polish govern­ment-in-exile, had long plan­ned some form of insur­rec­tion against their Ger­man occu­piers. The Home Army’s ini­tial plan was to link up with the in­vading forces of the West­ern demo­cra­cies, which excluded the Soviet Union. How­ever, in 1943, with the inva­sion of West­ern Europe (it would be in Nor­mandy, France) months away, it appeared that the Red Army would reach the prewar borders of Poland first.

On this date in 1944 in War­saw’s suburbs, citi­zens heard the sounds of battle as Ger­man forces counter­attacked the approaching Soviets. Two days later Soviet forces were on the defen­sive. Un­aware of this, the Home Army launched a revolt against their oppres­sors. Ger­man forces, including SS (Schutz­staffel) units, ruth­lessly put down the two-month-long War­saw Up­rising at a cost of 25,000 Ger­man casu­al­ties. By the time the Home Army capit­u­lated on Octo­ber 2, up­wards of 250,000 Poles had been killed—a quar­ter of War­saw’s popu­la­tion at the time—and 15,000 had been cap­tured. The Ger­mans ordered the city’s evacu­a­tion, and 350,000–550,000 civil­ians were passed through a transit camp on their way to death and concentration camps or other locations.

The fero­city of the free­dom fighters enraged Ger­many’s leaders. Adolf Hitler declared, “War­saw has to be paci­fied, that is, razed to the ground,” and SS chief Heinrich Himm­ler issued orders to make the city “com­pletely dis­appear from the sur­face of the earth.” War­saw was to be turned into little more than a military transit station.

The Ger­mans diverted con­sider­able resources to destroying the city. Demo­li­tion squads used flame­throwers and explo­sives to method­i­cally destroy buildings street by street, paying special atten­tion to histori­cal struc­tures, the Polish national archives, and other places of national in­terest—this under the super­vi­sion of Ger­man scholars no less. By Janu­ary 1945, when War­saw was liber­ated at the start of a mas­sive new Soviet offen­sive, roughly 85 per­cent of the city lay in ruins. The Soviet offen­sive would take the Red Army swiftly across Poland to the former borders of the Reich on January 26, 1945, and to the gates of Berlin on April 16.

Poland’s Warsaw Uprising, August 1 to October 2, 1944

Warsaw destroyed, January 1945Prudential building being destroyed, Warsaw, August 28, 1944

Left: An aerial view of Warsaw taken in January 1945. Postwar esti­mates of mate­rial losses were put at 10,455 buildings, 923 his­to­rical buildings (94 per­cent), 25 churches, 14 libra­ries including the National Library, 81 pri­mary schools, 64 high schools, the Uni­ver­sity of War­saw, the War­saw Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, and most of the city’s his­tor­i­cal monu­ments. Almost a million inhabitants lost all their possessions.

Right: On August 28, 1944, the Germans used “Moerser Karl,” a self-pro­pelled siege mor­tar, to fire 2‑ton mortar shells into the Prudential building, Warsaw’s first skyscraper.

German flamethrowing units, Warsaw 1944Routing insurgents using flamethrower, Warsaw 1944

Left: During the German invasion of Poland in Septem­ber 1939, much of War­saw’s Old Town was badly damaged by the Luft­waffe’s cam­paign of ter­ror bombing. After the War­saw Uprising (August 1 to Octo­ber 2, 1944), what had been left standing was sys­tem­at­ically blown up or torched by flame­throwing units of the Ger­man Army, as shown in this photo. The destruc­tion of War­saw’s Old Town was so thorough that city fathers resorted to 18th‑cen­tury oil paintings and prewar archi­tec­tural drawings to guide them in recon­structing the historic district. Warsaw’s New Town, a neighbor­hood dating from the 15th century, was only partially restored to its former state.

Right: A German caption accompanying this photo read: “Each nest of insur­gents must be indi­vid­ually smoked out. The flames of this flame­thrower crushed every instance of resistance that kept popping up from this hard-to-reach cellar.”

Polish Home Army soldiers march into captivity, Warsaw, October 5, 1944Poles emerge from hiding places, October 1944

Left: Soldiers of the underground Polish Home Army sur­ren­der to the Ger­man Wehr­macht (armed forces) at a check­point in War­saw, Octo­ber 5, 1944, two days after their leaders had sur­ren­dered to the Ger­man Army in a for­mal signing cere­mony. According to the agree­ment, the Wehr­macht pro­mised to treat Home Army sol­diers in accor­dance with the Geneva Con­ven­tion, and to treat the civil­ian popu­la­tion humanely. But with­in days the entire civil­ian popu­la­tion of War­saw was expelled from the city. Out of a half million evac­uees, 90,000 were sent to labor camps in the Third Reich and 60,000 were shipped to death and concentration camps.

Right: Sick and starved people emerge from base­ments and sewers in War­saw in Octo­ber 1944, two months after the start of the War­saw Up­rising. Some people con­tinued hiding in the deserted city and were called “Robinson Crusoes” or “cave­men.” The Ger­mans called them “rats” and killed them when found. Among the best-known “Crusoes” was Władysław Szpilman, whose memoir The Pianist was turned in a film of the same name.

CNN Documentary on Warsaw Uprising: The Forgotten Soldiers of World War II