Death of a city. A scene from the feature film The Pianist, made by a renowned American film maker of the Polish origin Roman Polanski, based on the memoirs of a Polish pianist of Jewish origin Władysław Szpilman.



Historical and political assessments of the decision to start an uprising in Warsaw in August 1944 are so diverse and conflicting, that it is not possible, and unlikely will be possible in the foreseeable future, to reduce them to a common denominator. Despite of the whole absurd of the political predicaments of the uprising, and the horrors of its military defeat, it still remains popular among an army of its enthusiasts. While its critics often use the ominous word "crime". Mounds of radio-dispatches exchanged between Warsaw and London during the time of critical decisions have been examined. Memoirs of the eyewitnesses of the events have been published. Calculations of generals Tadeusz Komorowski (Bór), Antoni Chruściel (Monter), Stanisław Jankowski (Sobol) and objections of Colonel Jerzy Kirchmayer have been known. So are known the facts... In no way do they eliminate diametrically opposite views in their assessment. Arguments are infinite.

Yet, one factor has been consistently missing in the background of these disputes, or at least it is not popular among historians or politicians. Let us then hear the voice of a renown Polish journalist, Stefan Kisielewski (Kisiel):

Gen. Tadeusz Pełczyński (Grzegorz): The actual inspirer and the commander of the uprising, because Bór did not command there too much. It was not until 1957 that I met him in London. He called me and said he wanted to meet. We met, and he, incidentally, was an officer of the "Second Department", that is Intelligence. And right off the bat he started to interrogate me professionally:
Have you served in the army?
I answer: Yes, I have.
In what regiment?
This and that.
Uhm, and who is Turowicz?
An editor.
Has he served in the army?
I say: No, as far as I know.
And why not?
I do not know why.
And Stomma, has he served in the army?
Finally I got tired of this and said: General, now I want to ask you a question.
And he said: Go on.
And I told him: You know... Piano, tuxedo, my father's library...
He said: What?
And I: They have been lost in the Uprising, and I want to know why.
And then he became really angry: Because you're a demagogue! And something else about my ancestry.
We parted without saying goodbye. He was a decent man, but whatever you say, he had Warsaw destroyed. [Kisielewski S. (1990).]

Piano, tuxedo, father's library... Short and to the point. While making decisions about the armed uprising, whether it would be fleeting, as, for some unknown reasons, expected Komorowski (Bór), or - as it turned out - lasting two months, one needed to reckon with the destruction of the urban substance, the civil structure of a major European city. Obviously, it was impossible to anticipate the planned and systematic destruction, which the Germans had perpetrated in revenge after the surrender of the insurgent forces. But huge losses were inevitable. Meanwhile, arguments of the ideologists of the uprising do not show any concern about this question. The prospect of destruction of seven centuries of cultural heritage, achievements of generations of tens of thousands of Polish families, monuments, archives and libraries, did not instill any of them with horror. The value of city blocks was estimated from a purely military point of view: as strongholds, firing emplacements, zones of troops' concentration, etc. Not a single word about cultural treasures, masterpieces of art, about civil achievements created by generations of labourers.

Let us turn to the pages of history: in 1814 the anti-Napoleonic coalition took Paris. The emperor was determined to recapture the French capital:

So resolved was he on a march on Paris (...)

Macdonald admitted that he felt overwhelmed and humiliated by the surrender of Paris but before Napoleon could mistake this as an endorsement of his plans to attack the city, the marshal said bluntly that his troops were unwilling to expose Paris to the fate of Moscow. He then went on to give a detailed picture of the poor state of his troops and suggested what would happen to them if they met colossal enemy forces in the open field. [Delderfield R. F. (2001).]

Ney volunteered as spokesman and the two old veterans, Lefebvre and Moncey, agreed to second him. The three of them went into the palace leaving the others to await the outcome on the terrace. [Delderfield R. F. (2002).]

Napoleon's reaction (...) was (...) to return once again to the subject of a rally of all available arms. There was one concession. Recognizing the hopelessness of carrying these men with him he threatened to appeal directly to the army. At this Ney's uncertain temper boiled over.

"The army," he shouted, "will not march! The army will obey its chiefs!"

In other days this would have produced an explosion that would have emptied the room but today it produced no more than a thoughtful pause. Then Napoleon said, quietly, "What is it you want me to do?"

It was a general question, addressed to them all. They told him, without preamble: "Abdicate". [Delderfield R. F. (2001).]

The people present were all Napoleon's marshals: Jean-Étienne MacDonald, Michel Ney, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, François-Joseph Lefebvre, Adrien Moncey, Charles-Nicolas Oudinot - who would dare to accuse them of cowardice or contempt of Bonaparte? And yet even to them the sacrifice of their capital seemed too high a price.

The following year, when Napoleon finally abdicated, and the Allies occupied Paris again, after Waterloo, the Prussian commandant decided to blow up a symbol of the past defeats - the Iena Bridge. And then Louis XVIII, that fat and blunt Bourbon, to whom alien was any cult of the hated Emperor, rushed to czar Alexander I and tearfully begged him to stop that barbarity. Alexander rode in his carriage at the Iena Bridge:
Blast, but only with me!
It smelled with diplomatic scandal...
Are these the symbols Your Majesty protects?
It's not the symbols! I will not let you to destroy Paris!

Let us go back in August of 1944... Simultaneously with the uprising in Warsaw broke out the uprising in Paris. But its picture was quite different... Parisians waited until the Allied armies were only one day to go to the city, having no serious riverine obstacle between them and Paris. Assault groups in advance received orders to capture only the important strategic points (although the barricades were raised all over the city, most of them quite unnecessarily). Armed Vichy police sided with the insurgents. A quality and constant radio-communication between assault groups, as well as between the headquarters of the uprising and the Allied command, was maintained at all times. The fighting affected 0.02% of urban substance!

Also in August 1944 the Italians had a good reason to wash by force of arms, even symbolically, the stain of fascism and to meet the Allies in Rome as liberators. But no, that did not even come to their minds. Instead, they did everything possible - through back-room negotiations - to have German troops withdrawn without a shot from Rome and declared it an open city.

You say - these examples are incomparable? They come out of diametrically different political and military conditions? It is not about the historical, military or political parallels - it is about the mentality.

Generations of Polish students have their heads crammed with the thesis that the tragedy of the Poles is that they shoot at the enemies with pearls. This pathetic phrase contains the sorrow for the victims of the Warsaw uprising, young and talented poets Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński and Tadeusz Gajcy. But is this not the same thing as digging trenches in the cemeteries, post machine-gun nests in libraries, turn palaces into hospitals, and churches into rubble? This is something much harder to understand to the minds poisoned with patridiotic fumes. To them much clearer speaks the scene from the Ashes by Stefan Żeromski, in which General Michał Sokolnicki orders to demolish the ancient church of St.Jacob in Sandomierz to prevent the Austrians from placing an artillery battery there:

Gintult stopped before him.
"What is it?" cried Sokolnicki.
"Is St. Jacob's to be demolished?"
"Who summoned you to me?"
"No one summoned me."
"What, then?"
"I have come to ask..."
"Fire!" said Sokolnicki, pushing the intruder aside.
Before the command had been repeated, Gintult seized the general by the hand, by the arm... He besought him, crying out:
"Look! It is all aglow."
The first volley fell.
"Stop your command, general! Collect all your forces, attack the position, you can still win it back!"
"I have no forces," the general muttered, dazzed by the assault.
"You have five thousand men!"
"Get you gone, man!"
A second and a third shot rang out.
"You are destroying and trampling holy ashes... Do you not see what these shells will destroy? Look!"
"I see no worse than you. But I raze these holy ashes to save the living city. Do you hear?"
"You shall not raze them!"
New shots rang out. Gintult seized Sokolnicki by the shoulders, shouting to him to order the firing to cease. The attending officers pulled him away by force and pushed him aside. Then in insane torment he leaped to the cannon, snatched the lighted match from the hands of the cannoneer and threw it on the ground. The astounded soldier stood without moving. The Prince rushed up to the next... But at that instant the officer in charge of the section stabbed him with his sword. The soldiers pushed him aside with their malkins. The cannon groaned with continued shots.
"Soldiers!" shouted Gintult, as he lay on the ground, "do not listen to that command! Soldiers, soldiers!"
The din of crashing shots was his answer. [Żeromski S. (1928).]

And just who is prince Jan Gintułt in the Ashes? He is an intellectual aristocrat, gourmet and adventurer, and also a Lithuanian and a free-mason - i.e. the embodiment of all that is alien to the mentality of the society obsessed with provincial principles.

And I, when I travel all over Europe, I admire the splendour of the festival of the architectural ensembles and austere beauty of art galleries, heaps of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches, pristine freshness of untouched by the time Medieval and Renaissance urban quarters that leave an army of screen designers of historical films unemployed, because all that stands and waits ready, and I regret that there are still places where the ambition and daring are valued more than respect for the work and achievements of generations of compatriots.