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On this Day, in 1944: the week-long Wola massacre came to an end

On August 12, 1944, in the early days of the Warsaw Uprising, the week-long Wola massacre, during which around 50,000 Polish civilians were murdered by German soldiers, came to an end.

By the summer of 1944, Poland had been occupied by Nazi Germany for almost five years during which the principal Polish authority in the country was the Polish Underground State, a network of organizations loyal to the Polish government-in-exile based in London.

From the very beginning of its existence, the Polish Underground State, and its armed wing, the Home Army, had been planning a national uprising against the German forces. But by 1943, it had become apparent that the allied invasion of Europe would not come in time, and that in all probability, the Red Army would be the ones to reach the pre-war borders of Poland first.

The Warsaw Uprising

As the Red Army approached Warsaw, the Polish Home Army, hoping to liberate the capital before the Soviet-backed Committee of National Liberation could assume control, approved a plan for an uprising in Warsaw, intended both as a political manifestation of Polish sovereignty and as a direct operation against the German occupiers.

At the beginning of August, after the first Soviet armoured units had reached the outskirts of Warsaw, the 50,000-strong Warsaw corps, commanded by General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, attacked the relatively weak German force garrisoned in Warsaw. Within three days, the Warsaw Uprising had liberated most of the Polish capital on the left bank of the Vistula.

Early in the uprising, the “Zośka” battalion of the Home Army’s Radosław Group, led by Ryszard Białous and Eugeniusz Stasiecki, liberated the Gęsiówka concentration camp, which had been built on the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto. Rescued from certain death, the 348 Jewish prisoners joined the ranks of the insurgents. Most of them were killed in the uprising.

But the advancing Red Army temporarily halted combat operations, enabling the Germans to regroup and send in reinforcements and forcing the Poles into a defensive position. This led to allegations that Stalin tactically halted his forces to the Polish Committee of National Liberation, rather than the Polish government-in-exile, to gain control of Poland.

The Wola massacre

Following direct orders from Heinrich Himmler, German battle groups started their advance toward the city centre from the western outskirts of the Wola district, systematically murdering tens of thousands of Polish civilians along with captured resistance fighters. No distinction was made between insurrectionists and civilians as Himmler’s orders explicitly stated that Warsaw was to be destroyed and that the civilian population was to be exterminated. 10,000 civilians were killed in the Wola district on August 5 alone.

The majority of the atrocities were committed by Bronislav Kaminski’s Russian militia and Oskar Dirlewanger’s infamous Black Hunters, an SS penal unit consisting of convicted foreign criminals. In Wola, Kaminski’s and Dirlewanger’s men were given a free hand to rape, loot, torture and butcher, indiscriminately murdering civilian men, women and children, including all hospital patients and staff and a daycare-full of young children. Hundreds of women were raped.

The SS also formed groups of men from the Wola district into the so-called Verbrennungskommando (“burning detachment”), who were forced to hide evidence of the massacre by burning the victims’ bodies and homes. Most of the men put to work were later executed. By August 12, the week-long massacre came to and end when the order was given to stop the indiscriminate killing and to deport all captured civilians from the city.

It is estimated that around 50,000 people were murdered in the Wola district of Warsaw between August 5 and August 12.

The fate of Oskar Dirlewanger

The Germans hoped that the atrocities would crush the insurrectionists’ will to fight and put the uprising to a swift end, but the ruthless violence only stiffened Polish resistance, and it took another two months of heavy fighting for the Germans to regain control of the city.

Bór-Komorowski and his forces were taken prisoner and the Germans destroyed the city in retaliation. The demolition squads used flamethrowers and explosives to methodically destroy house after house. By January 1945, 85% of the buildings were destroyed. Although the exact number of casualties is unknown, it is estimated that about 150,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions.

Several military commanders attempted to remove Dirlewanger from command and to dissolve the unit, but powerful patrons within the Nazi apparatus protected him and intervened on his behalf. He was recommended for the Knight’s Cross and his Black Hunters went on to take part in the brutal suppression of the Slovak National Uprising of October 1944.

Remembered as “the Butcher of Warsaw”, Oskar Dirlewanger was arrested in June 1945 by French occupation troops while hiding under a false name. He died in a French prison camp, probably as a result of ill-treatment by his Polish guards. In May 2008, a list of several former Black Hunters who were still alive was compiled and published by the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

A Monument to the Victims of the Wola Massacre was unveiled in Warsaw in November 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.

Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.

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