Magazine Poland

Who were Poland’s “Cursed Soldiers”?

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Warsaw, Poland – In 2011, the lower house of the Polish Parliament adopted a law honouring “the heroes of the anti-Communist Underground who fought, armed or otherwise, for the independence of the Polish State, its right to self-determination, and the fulfilment of the democratic values of Polish society”.

March 1 was decreed as “Cursed Soldiers Day” in memory of the 1951 execution of seven of its leaders in a Warsaw prison.

To find out why this date is significant – and who these “Cursed Soldiers” really were – we must wind back the clock.

A war against two enemies

Barely had the German and Soviet armies held their joint victory parade at Brest-Litovsk on September 22, 1939, than the Poles – their capital city still defiantly holding out – began organising themselves into clandestine resistance organisations. Most of these eventually united to form the Polish Underground, the biggest and most sophisticated resistance movement of World War II.

Its actions were many: assassination of Nazi officials, providing invaluable intelligence to the Allies and safe harbour for Jews, and perhaps most critically to the war effort, sabotaging German logistics – preventing thousands of trains of supplies and personnel from reaching the Eastern Front.

But the Underground’s number-one goal was always to rise against the occupiers and reclaim Polish sovereignty. By 1944 there was only one occupier, the Germans having attacked their former partner-in-crime. This led to the Soviet Union becoming a member of the Allies, and under the adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, the Home Army – the Polish Underground’s armed forces, or Armia Krajowa (AK) in Polish – were cautiously optimistic that they could make common cause with the Russians.

By late July 1944, the Soviet Army had reached the River Vistula that runs along the east side of Warsaw. Moscow-backed Radio Kościuszko called the city to arms: “No doubt Warsaw already hears the guns of the battle which is soon to bring her liberation!” the broadcaster cried, before declaring: “The hour of action has already arrived!” Many Polish leaders remained sceptical, but on the ground in Warsaw, it seemed like now or never.

As Polish historian Adam Zamoyski describes it, the commander of the Warsaw Home Army, General Tadeusz Komorowski, called a meeting and, “with the advance units of the Red Army […] only 12 kilometres from Warsaw, and the thud of their guns rattling the windows, he gave the order to start the uprising the following day”.

At 5pm on August 1, the Warsaw insurrection began. But just as gunshots and grenades burst like firecrackers throughout the city’s streets, the distant rumble of artillery suddenly stopped. Radio Kościuszko, too, fell silent. A week later, in language parroting that of Hitler, Stalin denounced the Home Army as “bandits and adventurers” and banned Allied aircraft from using Soviet airfields to help the beleaguered city.

For two months, the Polish capital held on in the face of unimaginable horrors and hardship: water cut off, entire hospitals burned to the ground with staff and patients inside, poison gas, rape. Civilians were used as human shields by the Germans, making it even harder for Home Army combatants to fight back.

Hopelessly starved of food, ammunition and medical supplies, the Home Army eventually capitulated. German radio announced in a sombre tone: “After weeks of fierce fighting which has led to the almost total destruction of the city, the remaining rebels, deserted by all their allies, have given up and surrendered.”

A premonition of things to come

The tragedy of Warsaw’s insurrection was an omen of what was to come for the entire country the following year: abandonment by its allies, and occupation dressed up as “liberation” by the Soviet Union.

British historian Norman Davies asserts that, “in the process of cosying up to Stalin, many Westerners assumed a strange state of self-deception, a form of near-mesmerization, where principles could be forgotten, and loyal friends could be deserted. The smouldering ruins of Warsaw illustrated the consequences.”

In fact, the “smouldering ruins of Warsaw” could be regarded as merely a smoking ceremony ushering in a whole new era of brutality. With the Home Army now largely wiped out, and Poland’s once-proud capital demolished block-by-block, the Soviet steamroller proceeded to roll unimpeded into and across Poland. Behind the front, agents of the NKVD secret police busied themselves with identifying and arresting members of the Underground.

In early 1945, sixteen of its leaders were invited to a “conference” only to be arrested, tortured, and forcibly dispatched to Moscow where they were put on a show trial on false accusations. The Western Allies did nothing, and in July 1945, withdrew their recognition of the legitimate Polish government in exile in London.

An empty victory

In Andrzej Wajda’s brilliant Ashes and Diamonds, the main protagonist, an ex-Home Army assassin muses: “The situation today is that we Poles are divided into two groups: those who have betrayed the freedom of Poland and those who do not wish to do so. The first wish to submit to Russia, we do not. They want communism, we do not. They want to destroy us, so we need to destroy them. A battle is going on between us, a battle that has only just begun.”

In May 1945, the guns fell silent across the continent. The wanton murder and destruction were finally, mercifully over; now it was time to bury the masses of dead and rebuild from the piles of rubble. In the West, there was good cause for jubilation, and in June 1946 a huge Allied victory parade marched through London. But the Poles were conspicuously absent. The invite had been sent to the puppet government of Poland’s new occupiers and disregarded.

There, behind what Churchill had recently dubbed the “Iron Curtain”, the Polish soldiers, pilots and seamen who had defended Britain, helped win back North Africa, taken Monte Cassino and spear-headed the drive into the Low Countries now faced a grim future. The future leader of the Polish People’s Republic, Władysław Gomułka, openly declared: “Soldiers of the Home Army are a hostile element that must be removed without mercy.”

A civil war

Officially, the Home Army was disbanded to avoid an all-out war with the Soviets. However, a great many of its members went “underground” all over again – this time to the woods and mountains – to continue the fight for a free Poland.

Altogether, in the immediate post-war era the “cursed soldiers” comprised nearly 200,000 conspirators – 20,000 actual partisans supported by a huge network of civilians who risked their lives, as they had during the war, to provide food, shelter, and transport for the persecuted.

Initially, drawing on the ingenuity and resilience that had been displayed by the wartime Underground, the Cursed Soldiers were remarkably successful. They focused primarily on freeing captured comrades from NKVD torture chambers and producing false papers to get them out of the country.

However, they also fought pitched battles with Communist forces and for several years controlled large swaths of Polish territory. As Tomasz Łabuszewski of Warsaw’s Office of Historical Research put it, “in some counties, Communist power ended out at the turnpike into town.”

Warsaw Uprising

The battle of Kuryłówka

In his excellent revision of the Hollywood version of World War 2 titled No Simple Victory, Norman Davies describes how “in all Soviet-occupied countries the NKVD was hunting down a variety of political opponents and freedom fighters… Stalin and Stalinism were still in place – unregenerate, as murderous as ever, and victorious.”

The Battle of Kuryłówka and its aftermath was a fairly typical example of what was going on in rural and regional areas across Poland in the latter 1940’s. In May 1945, approximately 200 soldiers of the National Military Alliance (NZW) – one of the major anti-Communist resistance groups – assembled in the south-eastern village of Kuryłówka. They were led by Major Franciszek Przysiężniak, a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance and now a sworn enemy of the Communists.

Nearby, two companies of NKVD forces had also gathered to hunt down a group of men who – likely disillusioned and disgusted by the atrocities they were witnessing – had deserted from the Polish People’s Army to join the rebels.

On May 7, the 200 NZW members clashed with around 300 NKVD troops and succeeded in forcing the latter to flee from the area. However, the rebels knew the NKVD would be back in greater numbers to hunt them down, so they, too, left the area.

Heavily reinforced and thirsty for revenge, when the NKVD returned to Kuryłówka and found the rebels had disappeared, they executed six civilians and burned the entire village to the ground, causing several more fatalities and leaving almost 1,000 people homeless.

The next day, Western Europe burst into celebrations for Victory Day, marking Europe’s liberation from tyranny… No simple victory, indeed.

A fight to the end

The NKVD and domestic communist authorities didn’t only wage physical campaigns against the Cursed Soldiers. Equally intensive was the propaganda campaign to cast them as common bandits and even Nazi conspirators.

Their plight was more or less unknown outside of Poland’s borders, as the world was too eager to turn a blind eye. As when agents of the Polish Underground first began reporting on what was going on in places like Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto, it was all too easy to turn away from atrocities taking place in what might as well be, as Edmund Burke put it all the way back in 1795, “a country in the moon”.

Even when the Provisional Government proclaimed an amnesty for all resistance fighters in 1947, it was a mere ruse: thousands of partisans who emerged from the woods and laid down their arms in good faith were promptly arrested, imprisoned, and very often tortured and executed.

This protracted civil war ended up causing huge losses of life on both sides. Around 23,000 communist troops and functionaries, including some 1,000 NKVD agents, were killed, while the patriotic resistance lost 8,000 in direct fighting, 5,000 in post-show trial executions, and 21,000 in prisons and labour camps.

Ultimate victory

“Honour” – steadfastness and sacrifice in the service of a noble cause – is a recurring theme in Polish history, and perhaps no chapter encapsulates it better than the Cursed Soldiers: men and women who had little to hope for but acted nonetheless.

Tomasz Łabuszewski describes the Cursed Soldiers’ mission as a “sacrificial undertaking”. As Poland’s Defence Minister Mariusz Błaszczak put it, they were exemplars of the concept of “service to the very end”. A conscious decision was made to fight for independence – “despite the extremely unfavourable geopolitical situation. Despite there being no chance for an armed conflict between the West and the Soviets, they believed they should bear witness”. This “witnessing” by the remaining soldiers loyal to the Second Republic held great meaning for the people around them then, as it still does today.

In several aspects, the communist system that ended up being imposed on Poland was less austere than anywhere else in the Soviet bloc. Agriculture was never fully collectivised, for example, nor was the Church banned.

It was largely because of the protracted resistance by these soldiers that the communists caved in to these concessions – for as Stalin himself put it, it was abundantly clear that trying to impose Communism on the Poles was “like trying to put a saddle on a bull”.

“History was to be silent about them forever. That’s what the Communists wanted… That’s why they buried them in nameless pits, and often dressed [the bodies] in Nazi uniforms to debase and humiliate them even more. This was also to obliterate all traces of them, so that even if they were found, they would not be recognised as Polish heroes”, President Andrzej Duda said a few years ago.

Through overwhelming force, widespread terror and a series of sham amnesties, the Communists eventually managed to wipe out the once-powerful Polish Underground.

A new and final struggle then began which, thankfully, the Cursed Soldiers won: “a struggle for memory,” as the Polish historian Leszek Zebrowski put it, “a struggle over the past, for those people to be allowed to hold their heads up high, to emerge from the basement into which they were thrown, to no longer be labelled as bandits.”

By Mateusz Buczko

Mateusz is an Australian of Polish descent living in Melbourne. A communications specialist by day, he has a passion for European history outside of work and is currently writing a historical fiction novel about the ‘cursed soldiers’ of post-World War 2 Poland.