Poland’s Home Army finally getting recognition it deserves

Poland’s Home Army finally getting recognition it deserves

Karol Nawrocki

Located near Lichfield, just over two hours’ drive away from London, is the National Memorial Arboretum, a vast site of national remembrance visited by thousands of people each year. The British go there to pay homage to the soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in conflict, including during the two world wars. One of the monuments scattered among the trees — the one with the characteristic eagle on top — is devoted to the Poles.
The bronze figures of an infantryman, navy soldier and pilot symbolize the different formations of the Polish Armed Forces in the West that assisted the Allies in the fight to free Europe of the murderous tyranny imposed by Nazi Germany. The fourth figure, a woman dressed in civilian clothes, seems to be the odd one out. However, she too is a soldier, serving as a courier in the famous Home Army, whose 80th anniversary we are now celebrating.
In September 1939, Poland was stormed by two totalitarian states: First Nazi Germany from the west and then, 16 days later, the Soviet Union from the east. The Polish Army stood no chance against such mighty aggressors. But it never capitulated and, before regular fighting finally stopped, its government in exile was already set up in France under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski. The prime minister soon became commander in chief, standing at the head of an army that was being reconstructed at the side of Western Allies. A fully fledged part of these forces — or their “key part,” according to Sikorski — was the clandestine army organized in occupied Poland. It started to be developed as early as 1939, but it is known today under the name it got on Feb. 14, 1942: The Home Army, or the AK.
The name sent a clear signal that the force was not supposed to be an armed wing of some political party, such as with the communist partisans in Yugoslavia. The AK was conceived as a nationwide army reporting to the authorities in exile, the legal government of the Republic of Poland that had moved to the UK following the defeat of France. Maj. Gen. Stefan Rowecki, the AK’s first commander, consciously restricted himself to vague declarations about postwar Poland being “a country of democracy,” where “the ideal of social justice will be put in practice.” Decisions about the form of the future state were to be made by the citizens themselves after liberation.
Serving “no individual or political group,” the army enjoyed the support of the vast majority of the population. It was open to people from all social classes and who held different political views: Socialists, peasant activists, former adherents of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, Christian Democrats, and many nationalists. Some Home Army soldiers were also Jews who served as both privates and officers, including the highly decorated Stanislaw Aronson.
In spite of the terrors of occupation, the AK’s ranks grew rapidly. In the summer of 1944, it numbered about 380,000 sworn soldiers. Some of them were partisans who had left their family homes to hide in the forests.
Others were conspirators staying in cities under assumed names or people who led double lives, going to work every day but always ready to carry out the orders of their commanders. Many of their number, including brave women and plenty of patriotic youths, reported for duty in August 1944 to fight a 63-day unequal battle with the Germans during the Warsaw Uprising.
Preparing the insurrection against the occupying forces was the fundamental task of the Home Army. But even before that, the Polish underground engaged in large-scale sabotage and diversion activities. Spectacular successes were also achieved by AK intelligence. Its work made it possible to postpone the development of German V1 and V2 missiles. At the same time, underground couriers traveled West with reports of occupation atrocities, including the destruction of the Jews. All that was only one part of the Polish Underground State, which also had its own judiciary, social care system and a network of clandestine schools.
Many Home Army members and their compatriots paid the highest price for serving their country. Several thousand AK soldiers fell in battle or were murdered during the war. Even those who lived to see peace in Europe could not feel safe, as the Gestapo was replaced by the Soviet NKVD and the homegrown communist security service.
In the late spring and summer of 1945, as the world celebrated the Allies’ victory over the Third Reich, war heroes from the anti-Nazi coalition had their moment of glory. Dwight Eisenhower, the American general who commanded the Normandy landings and then led the Western Allies to victory over Adolf Hitler, rode the wave of popularity into the White House. Another person to capitalize politically on his wartime record was Charles de Gaulle, who twice became French prime minister after his country’s liberation.
In the totalitarian Soviet state, Marshal Georgy Zhukov obviously could not step out of Joseph Stalin’s shadow. But even he had his big day on June 24, 1945, when he reviewed the grand victory parade on Moscow’s Red Square. Just three days before, in the same city, Gen. Leopold Okulicki, the last commander of the Home Army, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in a show trial that was a clear mockery of justice. Okulicki never regained his freedom — he died the following year in a Soviet prison. His predecessor, Maj. Gen. Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski, chose the difficult life of an emigrant in the UK, working as an upholsterer and a goldsmith to earn a living.
The Home Army soldiers who stayed in Poland were not feted but subjected to repression in the form of excruciating interrogations, torture, long prison sentences and even execution. The new totalitarian government was right to fear those who had fought tenaciously for several years to free their homeland. As a result, the very people who, in a normal country, would have been decorated and entrusted with positions of responsibility were pushed to the margins of society in a Poland controlled by Stalin. Communist propaganda portrayed them as “bespittled dwarves of reaction” and German collaborators, the latter accusation being particularly painful for those who risked their lives to oppose the Third Reich.
Until 1989, the Home Army could not be commemorated in the way it deserved. Today, in a free Poland, we are rectifying this omission. The Institute of National Remembrance that I have the honor of managing spares no effort to pay tribute to the Home Army and remind the world of its contribution to the victory over Hitler.

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