Happy Anniversary to History’s Second Constitution

On this day in 1791, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe—adopted the first written national constitution in Europe, and only the second in the world, after the U.S. Constitution just two years earlier.

Like its counterpart across the Atlantic, Poland’s constitution—titled the Governance Act and known simply as the Constitution of 9 May 1791—was influenced by the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement that, among other things, pioneered concepts like civil liberty, individual rights, religious and political tolerance, and so on.

The first page of the original 1791 constitution.

Remarkably, despite the vast geographic distance between the two countries, Poland’s constitutional structure was markedly similar to that of America: There were three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—with checks and balances, a bicameral legislature, and a cabinet of ministers. The constitution declared that “all power in civil society [should be] derived from the will of the people” and defined the role of government as ensuring “the integrity of the states, civil liberty, and social order shall always remain in equilibrium. While Roman Catholicism was recognized as the “dominant faith”, freedom of religion was guaranteed—a remarkable proposition in a continent where people regularly killed each other for being the wrong Christian or simply holding the wrong doctrine.

The people of Poland-Lithuania were defined not as “subjects” of a king, but “citizens” with popular sovereignty—which included townspeople and peasants, who in most of Europe had no such recognition. The right to acquire property, hold public office, and join the nobility—whose powers and immunities were restricted—was extended to millions more people, including Jews (who almost everywhere else were denied anything akin to legal recognition, let alone political rights).

The new constitution even introduced a version habeas corpus—the core legal right that prevents abuse of power—known as Neminem captivabimus, summarized as “We shall not arrest anyone without a court verdict”.

The Constitution of 9 May 1791, an idealized portrayal of the constitution’s adoption, by Polish artist Jan Matejko. It was painted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its adoption.

To be clear, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 had its limits, and its radicalism should not be overstated. The monarchy was still retained, with the king serving as head of the executive branch. Religious minorities such as Jews, as well the peasants who made up the vast majority of the population, still had few powers. While constrained, the nobility was not abolished as in the U.S. and later France, and in fact still retained many privileges.

But even in these areas, the Commonwealth went farther than almost any other country in the world at the time. The monarchy was not absolute: The king’s powers were constrained by the constitution and essentially shared with a council of ministers, who could overrule his decrees, forcing him to go to parliament. While peasants and Jews had few rights, they now had official protection from abuse—a step closer to recognizing their political rights, well beyond what was normal at the time. Eligible middle-class people could even join the ranks of nobility, a seemingly paradoxical form of progress that, again, was unusual for the time; nobles certainly couldn’t ride roughshod over commonfolk as they did elsewhere in Europe (which isn’t to say there weren’t abuses—this is still feudal Europe after all).

In any event, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 was a relatively bold and momentous step in the right direction, as evidenced by its rarity at the time—and sadly, by its short existence. In fewer than two years, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would be extinguished by the absolute monarchies of neighboring Prussia and Russia, which felt threatened by the constitution and the dangerous “revolutionary” ideas it introduced and could spread. Poland would cease to exist for well over another century, with its experiment never being fully tested—but also never dying off entirely, as the then-ongoing French Revolution and subsequent political reverberations would prove.

The First Report on the Holocaust

On this day in 1942, the Polish government-in-exile published the first document informing the world about the Holocaust. 

Titled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland,” it was sent to 26 Allied governments (officially known as the United Nations) with the purpose of drawing attention to the Final Solution and thereby discourage Germans from carrying it out.

The most important component in the brochure was a note by Polish Foreign Minister Edward Raczynski authenticating its contents, making it the first official report on the Holocaust and the first time that a country called on other countries to defend *all* Jews persecuted by the Nazis, not just those who were citizens of their country. 

Drawing on extensive reporting by agents of Poland’s underground government, Raczynski discussed the change in execution methods from shootings to gassing, and the increased deportation of Jews from ghettos to locations described as “extermination camps.” He also estimated that up to one third of Poland’s three million Jews had already been killed—which turned out to be an underestimate. 

Much of the information came from a 100-page report by Witold Pilecki, a Polish agent who allowed himself to be captured and sent to a concentration camp so as to ascertain the nature of the Nazi’s campaign. It was the first comprehensive record on a Holocaust death camp, with details about the gas chambers and sterilization experiments. It also states that there were three crematoria in Birkenau able to burn 8000 people daily.

Unfortunately, Poland’s courageous efforts came mostly to nothing. Despite its extensive and detailed information, the document had little effect, largely because people outside German-occupied Europe could not believe Jews were being exterminated on that scale. The concept of genocide, let alone the term, did not exist yet, so no one could comprehend a methodical, systematic, and deliberate elimination of an entire people (though similar campaigns had been undertaken before, and have since been labeled genocides). 

Ultimately, over six million Jews would be killed, along with another five to six million other “undesirables”. Poland would suffer the worst WWII losses proportionally, with nearly one out of four Polish people killed, including nearly all Jews (once the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the world).

The Haunting Paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński

This Halloween, I want to highlight the creepy and captivating works of Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor Zdzisław Beksiński (24 February 1929 – 21 February 2005). Describing his style as ‘Baroque’ or ‘Gothic’, the first and most well-known period of his work — from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s — consisted largely of surreal, post-apocalyptic environments and/or very detailed scenes of death, decay, and deformity.

Beksiński stated, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams”, and was known for his meticulous attention to detail. He claimed music, namely the classical genre, was his main source of inspiration, and that he was not influenced by literature, film, or other artists.

Despite the grimness of his work, he saw them as humorous and even optimistic, though he also noted that even he did not know their meaning. In fact, he was uninterested in possible interpretations and subsequently refused to provide titles for any of his drawings or paintings, going so far to often avoid the openings of his own exhibitions.

Although shy and low-key, Beksiński was known to be a pleasant and gregarious person with a great sense of humor and keen love of conversation.

Labor of Love

In the following photo, Dr. Zbigniew Religa, a Polish cardiac surgeon who was one of the best in the field, monitors his patient after a successful 23-hour successful lung and heart transplant (his assistant is sleeping in the corner). The photo was among National Geographic’s 100 Best Pictures.

The procedure took place in 1987 Communist Poland, with the technology of the time requiring constant monitoring and care — something Religa was willing to do even after nearly 24 hours of difficult surgery. The following is an interview with the photographer, James L. Stanfield:

He’d captured the anxious eyes of Dr. Zbigniew Religa tracking the vital signs of a heart-transplant patient. “I never let him out of my sight, never turned my back on him,” he says. “This was the payoff.”

It was 1987, in an outmoded operating room in post-Soviet Poland. Stanfield was looking for an image that would portray the critical state of the country’s free health-care system—and that’s exactly what he got.

His lens not only focuses on a dedicated surgeon’s eyes, but also on a patient hooked up to technologically outdated equipment. Stanfield also includes a weary staff member (far right) sleeping after assisting Religa with two transplants during an all-night session. “Each of these elements,” says Stanfield, “gives dimension and drama to the photograph, while helping tell a story”.

Here is a touching photo of the patient, no doubt grateful for the doctor’s dedication and skill.

I cannot imagine carrying out even the simplest task after nearly 24 strait hours, much less something as complex as a multi-organ transplant. This is a clear testament to the doctor’s skill and compassion.

Dr. Religa passed away in 2009 aged 70, two years after he finished serving as the Minister of Health of Poland.

Witold Pilecki: Forgotten War Hero

Witold Pilecki

Witold Pilecki (May 13, 1901 – May 25, 1948) was a soldier of the Second Polish Republic who founded Poland’s first resistance groups, the Secret Polish Army, shortly after German occupation of the country in 1939. He was also a prominent member of the underground Polish Home Army, another resistance group that was one of Europe’s largest. He is best known as the author of the vital Witold’s Report, the first intelligence report on the Auschwitz concentration camp, which enabled the Polish government-in-exile to convince the Allies that the Holocaust was taking place.

He volunteered for a Polish resistance operation in order to get imprisoned at Auschwitz, gather intelligence, and escape. While in the camp, Pilecki organized a resistance movement, and as early as 1941, informed the Western Allies of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz atrocities. He escaped from the camp in 1943 after nearly 3 years of horrific imprisonment. Shortly after, Pilecki nonetheless took part in the brave but failed Warsaw Uprising in August 1944.

He remained loyal to the Polish government-in-exile, and for this was executed in 1948 by the Stalinist secret police (who had since taken over Poland) on charges of working for “foreign imperialism.” Until 1989, information on his heroism and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime.

As a result of his deeds, he is considered to be “one of the greatest wartime heroes” of World War II. Prominent British historian Norman wrote that “if there was an Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated, this was a person with few peers.” At the commemoration event of International Holocaust Remembrance Day held in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on 27 January 2013 Ryszard Schnepf, the Polish Ambassador to the US, described Pilecki as a “diamond among Poland’s heroes” and “the highest example of Polish patriotism”

Read more about Poland’s virtuous but underappreciated exploits here.

Poland’s Forgotten Bravery: Part IV

The last part of my series on Poland’s forgotten contributions to World War II. You can find the the others through the search bar.

Poland’s Suffering 

All Polish specialists will be exploited in our military-industrial complex. Later, all Poles will disappear from this world. It is imperative that the great German nation considers the elimination of all Polish people as its chief task – Henrich Himmler, leader of the SS.

Even before the war began, the Nazis had horrific intentions for Poland. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, in his 1926 book Mein Kampf, aimed to turn Eastern Europe into part of Lebensraum (“living space”). Nazi ideology held that Slavs, such as the Poles, were a racially inferior group, barely a step above Jews. They were almost literally held to be like monkeys, at best. During the invasion ofPoland, Hitler gave explicit permission to his commanders:

“…. [kill] without pity or mercy, men, women, and children of Polish descent or language”

There was a systematic genocide perpetrated against the Poles, who more or less faced the same fate as the Jews. Early into the invasion of Poland, one of the Nazi’s top leaders, Reinhard Heydrich, stated that all Polish nobles, clergy and Jews are to be killed; a few days after that, the Polish intelligentsia were added to the list, and by the end of 1940 Hitler demanded liquidation of “all leading elements in Poland” – politicians, artists, intellectuals, professionals, and so on.

So aside from being a battlefield for the bloodier Eastern Front of the war, Poland was a direct target of extermination. Subsequently few participants in World War II suffered as much as the Polish people. Poland was believed to have lost between 4.9 and 6 million citizens at the hands of the Germans, with another 150,000 to 1 million more killed by the Soviets. So in total, anywhere from 5 to 7 million Polish citizens – split almost evenly between Ethnic Poles and Jews – were killed, the vast majority being civilians – that comes down to a horrific 16% of the population.

On average, close to 3,000 Polish nationals died each day of the war, with Poland’s professional, artistic, and intellectual classes suffered suffering particularly higher fatalities: 45% of doctors, 57% of lawyers, 40% of university professors, 30% technicians, and 18% of clergy.

In addition, the Nazis turnedPolandinto a giant extermination center and graveyard for its enemies. All the major death camps were based in occupiedPoland, and so many people were sent there to die that estimates still vary wildly. One figure holds that 2 million people from 29 countries died inPoland, including 1 million Jews moved to the camps and 784,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war.

The Invasion of Poland
In addition to the 66,000 troops killed-in-action against the Germans, another 150,000 to 200,000 Polish civilians died by the end of the month-long campaign, victims of indiscriminate or even deliberate targeting of civilians by both the Nazis and the Soviets.

From the very first day, many Poles were rounded up and summarily executed, as were several thousand Polish POWs. The Soviets operated along the same lines, most infamously in the Katyn Massacre. The Luftwaffe led an explicit operation of terror bombings, most infamously Frampol and Wieluń. These and other towns were subject to large-scale air raids, even though they had no discernible military targets. The brutality was such that even caravans of Polish refugees fleeing the fighting were systematically targeted by fighters and bombers.

During the 1939 German invasion of Poland, “special action squads” of the SS and police, known as the Einsatzgruppen, were deployed behind the front lines to arrest and kill civilians considered potential resisters. This intensified soon after the fall of Poland, in a year-long extermination effort known as Operation Tannenberg, which followed a list of 61,000 Poles (compiled before the war by Germans living in Poland) that were identified as high-value targets: former government officials, military officers, landowners, clergy, intellectuals, and anyone else deemed a threat to German occupation.

All this was in turn an early measure of the Generalplan Ost, which among other things was to prepare Poland for annihilation and annexation into Greater Germany. Poles and Jews were either murdered in the spot by death squads or sent to prisons and concentration camps. These efforts were carried out during the rest of the war according to detailed plans such the AB-Aktion Operation, which included the infamous massacre of Lwów professors.

Campaigns of Terror and Pacification
The Nazis already had intentions to eliminate the Poles, but their insolence would only make things worse. As I mentioned before, the Poles led one of the largest and most sophisticated resistance movements in the war. Unsurprisingly, they suffered particularly harsh retribution by the occupying forces, and endured the harshest laws and penalties of any occupied nation: for example,Poland was the only country in occupied Europe where the penalty for hiding a Jew was death for everyone living in the offending house.

Communities were often subject to collective responsibility for Polish acts of sabotage or attack, and several mass executions were conducted in revenge. For every German killed by Polish partisans, 50 to 100 civilians – often randomly chosen, other times made up of the intelligestia – were executed. In an event known as Bloody Sunday, around t 10,000 non-Jewish Polish civilians were murdered within the first four months for various acts of insurgency and disobedience. About 20,000 villagers, some of whom were burned alive, were killed in large-scale vengeance operations that targeted settlements suspected (note, not proven) of aiding Jews or resisters. A total of 75 villages were completely wiped off the map. Aside from the conventional German armed forces, paramilitary unites composed of ethnic Germans living in Poland also participated in executions of civilians.

Remember that all this was part of official German (and Soviet) doctrine. It didn’t stem from the chaos of war, or from the isolated actions of a few psychopaths. There was the łapanka policy for example, in which German forces would indiscriminately gather civilians from the street to be executed for no reason. In Warsaw alone, between 1942 and 1944, approximately 400 were killed in this way every day. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of people were murdered in random mass executions of this kind, including within the prison system.

Cultural Genocide
Recall that the Nazis aimed for Poland to be completely annihilated. Not only would the Polish people be physically destroyed, but every trace of their culture, language, and intellectual contributions would be liquidated, as if they had never existed.

Thus, the Germans engaged in what could only be called cultural genocide: they destroyed or closed universities, high schools, libraries, museums, national monuments, and scientific institutes. Millions of books were burned, including an estimated 80% of all school libraries and 75% of all scientific libraries. Furthermore, Polish children were forbidden from receiving education beyond the elementary level, in order to prevent the formation of a new intellectual and political leadership.

The Poles responded with a campaign of underground education known as Tajne Nauczanie or “Secret Teaching” that was rather successful, considering the odds. The government-in-exile, as well as members of the Polish Diaspora, lead efforts to keep the culture alive outside of Poland, just in case the Germans couldn’t be vanquished.

Part of this effort also included Germanization, in which the annexed territories ofPoland were to be politically, culturally, socially, and economically assimilated into Greater Germany. This went beyond the mere teaching of German culture and language, since it was in conjunction with the systematically elimination of anything Polish: the Polish language could not be taught, streets and cities were renamed in German, and tens of thousands of businesses were taken over, from corporations to small shops.

There were crimes against Polish children, were often targeted as part of an effort to eliminate the future generation of Poles. At least 20,000 children in occupied Polandwere selected for their “racially valuable traits,” kidnapped, and sent to special homes to be Germanized and indoctrinated. Afterward there were to be adopted by German families so as to eliminate any trace of “Polishness;” many of them remained convinced that they were German long after the war ended.  The children of those forced into labor were placed in compounds called Ausländerkinder-Pflegestätte, where thousands of them died and thousands more were abused.

Finally, there were crimes against the Roman Catholic Church, was a major cultural and political institution within Poland. Churches were systematically closed, and most priests were killed, imprisoned, or deported to the General Government. The Germans also closed seminaries and convents while persecuting monks and nuns throughoutPoland. Between 1939 and 1945, 2,935 members of the Polish clergy – nearly 1 out of 5 – were killed in concentration camps. Some cities, such asWrocław and Chełmno, saw almost half their clergy eliminated.

Sexual Slavery
Mass rapes were committed against both Jews and ethnic Poles since the start of the war. Even during mass executions, many girls and women were raped before being murdered. During the course of the war, Polish women were periodically and explicitly rounded up in mass raids in order to serve as prostitutes for German soldiers, both within and outside of Poland. Girls as young as 15 years old were often slated to serve this role.

The Polish Final Solution
Generalplan Ost included plans for the mass transportation of up to 20 million Poles into massive camps, where they would be penned up like cattle to by periodically conscripted for heavy labor during the length of the German empire. Germany planned to completely remove the indigenous population of Poland, replacing them with military and civilian settlers. During the occupation, more than one million Poles were expelled by German authorities; these expulsions were carried out so quickly that many Polish homes had half-eaten food left on their plates. German children were utilized for this effort as well, as members of the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls were tasked with making sure that deported Poles left behind most of their belongings behind for the settlers to use.

Forced Labor
During the war, at least 1.5 million Polish citizens (if not more) were forced into labor in Germany, including many adolescents. Although the Nazis conscripted laborers from all over Europe, those considered racially inferior, such as Poles and other Eastern Europeans, were subjected to even harsher treatment. Poles were forced to wear tags identifying their “race,” subjected to a strict curfew, and were banned from taking public transportation. Most Polish laborers were compelled to work longer hours for lower wages than their western European counterparts, and in many cities they were forced to live in segregated compounds lined with barbed wire. Social relations with Germans outside work were forbidden, while sexual relations – considered racial defilement – were punishable by death.

Concentration Camps
Aside from hosting all of the death camps (and most of the major labor ones), Poles were themselves direct victims of Nazi extermination. Auschwitz, the largest and most infamous of the concentration camps, ended the lives of 150,000 Polish nationals, many of whom were starved, experimented upon, or worked to death. An estimated 30,000 Poles died at Mauthausen-Gusen, 20,000 each at Sachsenhausen and Gross-Rosen, 20,000 at Stutthof, 17,000 at Neuengamme and 10,000 at Dachau; 17,000 Polish women died at female camp called Ravensbrück. Tens of thousands of Poles were killed in prisons, detention centers, and other facilities that were set up ad hoc specifically to liquidate them. Disturbingly, there was even at least one camp for children, in Potulice. Later in the war, the Germans set up the Warsaw concentration camp, which was to be used to completely depopulate the Polish capital.

Extermination of Psychiatric Patients
In the summer of 1939, just a few months before the invasion of Poland, the Nazis had a secret program called Action T4 , whose purpose was to exterminate people with mental and physical disabilities (though people with chronic and terminal diseases were also targeted). After Poland was conquered, this program was put into practice on a wide-scale. Psychiatric hospitals and mental institutions were raided of their patients (and often their staff) to be systematically murdered. The total number of victims was estimated to be more than 16,000, with additional 10,000 perishing from malnutrition and neglect. Nearly half the members of the Polish Psychiatric Association were killed as well. It was during this time that “gas vans” were first tested and perfected, allowing the Germans to herd undesirables into mobile killing units to be poisoned. After two years of these morbid test runs, these techniques were applied to the extermination camps.

The Destruction of Warsaw
You can read more about the Warsaw Uprising and its consequences in my earlier post., German forces committed many atrocities against Polish civilians in order to suppress the rebellion. The most notorious of these took place in Wola district, where at least 40,000 men, women, and children were methodically rounded-up and executed by the Einsatzkommandos of the Sicherheitspolizei, the German police and intelligence force, and the Dirlewanger, a penal unit made up of German criminals (and formed specifically to terrorize the Polish and Soviet populations).

Similar massacres took place in the Śródmieście (City Centre), Stare Miasto (OldTown) and Marymont districts; when Stare Miasto fell, 7,000 seriously wounded hospital patients and their caregivers were executed or burned alive. Similar atrocities took place in several other sections. Ochota district was subject to a horrific spate of killings, rapes and lootings carried out by the Kaminski Brigade, made up of Russian collaborators..

The suppression cost the lives of 150,000 and 180,000 civilians, not including the thousands of insurgents that were captured and executed, since Polish resistance fighters were not considered combatants (meaning the rules regarding prisoner treatment were discarded). An additional 215,000 civilians were sent to labor camps or concentration camps, while the devastated and once beauty city was systematically demolished brick by brick, along with its ancient monuments, universities, libraries, and other historical centers.

As if Poland didn’t suffer enough during six years of conflict and brutalization, it was made to endure even more hardship. For one thing, Poland has been “liberated” by the Soviet Union, which for all its vital contributions to the Allied war effort was still run by the sociopathic Joseph Stalin. Having endured tremendous losses of their own, the Soviets used their subsequent influence as leverage in post-war plans forEurope (see Yalta Conference).

Among their actions was the imposition of drastic territorial changes on Poland that reduced its size by 20%; in addition, the numerous postwar migrations that followed and the destruction of Poland’s Jewish community drastically changed the country’s demographics and culture: it was no longer the multicultural and multiethnic nation it had been for centuries. To this day, it remains a homogenous rump state.

Furthermore, Polandwas subjected to a communist regime beholden to the USSR, and would remain a satellite state until 1989, when, appropriately enough, it would be the first to lead efforts to freeEastern Europe from Soviet domination (through peaceful means I might add).

Still, the Poles have always had a history of struggle and perseverance, and World War II, for all its unprecedented horror, was just one of a long-line of such calamities. Indeed, attempts to destroy Polish culture – and the Polish people themselves – may have only reinforced their sense of identity. As Norman Davies noted in his excellent book, God’s Playground, the untold sacrifices of surviving Poles made their attachment to nationhood and culture stronger than ever. The experience created what was known as the “Generation of Columbuses,” denoting those who came of age during World War II, and whose cultural output was subsequently based on a drastically changedPoland.

To this day, various polls and surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of Polish people place great importance on World War II to the Polish national identity. Unsurprisingly, many works of art are greatly influenced by the conflict. As Polish historian Tomasz Szarota wrote over a decade ago:

Educational and training programs place special emphasis on the World War II period and on the occupation. Events and individuals connected with the war are ubiquitous on TV, on radio and in the print media. The theme remains an important element in literature and learning, in film, theater and the fine arts. Not to mention that politicians constantly make use of it. Probably no other country marks anniversaries related to the events of World War II so often or so solemnly

Indeed, givenPoland’s tremendous contributions and tribulations, I could see why.

Poland’s Forgotten Bravery Part III

This is the second to last component of my long-running posts on Poland’s contributions to World War II. You can search for the other ones on my blog, since I can’t seem to hyperlink them for some reason.

Vital Intelligence
Though under-appreciated in many cursory studies of military history, intelligence was has always been to turning the tide of the war, as it did during WWII more than once. Even in defeat,Poland helped the Allies learn valuable information about the Nazis. Its role was far larger than its size and military prowess would have suggested, and it was all the more remarkable considering that it was occupied for all but a single month of the war!

Interestingly, Poland’s contribution to intelligence began years before World War II even broke out. From late 1932 to the eve of the September Campaign, three mathematicians and cryptologists – Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Różycki – had developed a number of decryption methods and devices while working for the country’s Cipher Bureau in Warsaw. Rejewski’s cyclometer and card catalog, Zygalski’s perforated sheets, Rejewski’s cryptologic bomb, and still others. Together these could crack Germany’s infamous and once-indecipherable “Enigma” device.

In the summer before the war, Poland shared this development to its French and British counterparts, which were unable to crack the Enigma cipher themselves, and would perhaps never have been able to. The intelligence gained from these advancements, codenamed Ultra, ended up being extremely valuable to the Allied war effort (although the exact importance of this evidence is disputed, most sources agree it helped the course of the war).

Intelligence operations continued throughout the occupation as well. AK, the Polish Home Army, was instrumental in helping the allies locate and destroy a rocket facility located at Peenemünde, in 1943. They supplied intelligence to the Soviets about German troop movements into their territory. Perhaps their most well-known contribution was the provision of information on Germany’s top secret V-1 and V-2 rockets, which AK even managed to collect parts of. The subsequent analysis of these powerful weapons proved vital to developing Allied defenses against the V-2 (see Operation Most III).

In fact, until 1942 most ofBritain’s intelligence concerning Germany came from the AK reports, and until the very end, the Home Army would remainBritain’s main source of intelligence for all of Central and Eastern Europe. As early as 1940, Polish agents such as Witold Pilecki infiltrated German concentration camps, includingAuschwitz, and exposed Nazi atrocities to the world.

In July 1941 Mieczysław Słowikowski, under the codename “Rygor” (Polish for rigor) set up “Agency Africa,” which developed into one of the war’s most successful and prominent intelligence organizations. The information gathered by the Agency helped the Allies execute Operation Torch, the 1942 amphibious landings inNorth Africa that were the first large-scale assaults of their kind thus far. The success of this operation paved the way for the Italian Campaign, in which Polish forces would also serve with distinction (to be discussed later).

Indeed, Polish intelligence agents were present in every European country, whether occupied or neutral. The Poles even managed to run one of the largest intelligence networks within Nazi Germany itself. Subsequently, of all the reports received by the British from continental Europe, 43% came from Polish sources. Many Poles also served with distinction in Allied intelligence services, the most well-known of them being the reputable Krystyna Skarbek (aka “Christine Granville”) of theUK’s Special Operations Executive.

The Free Polish Forces
As I’ve clearly established,Poland continued fighting Nazi Germany in some form or another throughout the remainder of the war. But this wasn’t limited to insurgency, subterfuge, and spying (as vital as all those activities were). Believe it or not,Poland managed to maintain a large and independently operating military from the very moment the nation fell. It came to be one of the largest and more distinguished armed groups in the entire war.

After the country’s defeat in 1939, the Polish Government-in- Exile quickly organized a new army in France that consisted of about 80,000 men who had fled the country to continue the fight. In 1940 a Polish brigade fought in the Battle of Narvik in Norway, two Polish divisions took part in the defense of France, while more Polish forces were being assembled during the course of the French campaign. A Polish brigade was even formed in French-controlledSyria, to which many Polish troops had escaped to. The Polish Air Force had also shifted toFrance comprising 86 aircraft in four squadrons.

Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, Francecapitulated, with 6,000 Poles having been killed and another 13,000 captured. But the stubborn Poles once again tried to keep on fighting. General Władysław Sikorski,Poland’s commander-in-chief and prime minister, was evacuated many Polish troops to theUK. In 1941, Polish government-in-exile convinced the beleaguered Soviets (who had just been invaded) to release Polish citizens, from which emerged an army numbering around 75,000 troops. This force eventually joined the British 8th army, where it became the Polish II Corps.

The Polish armed forces in the western front came under British command and eventually numbered 165,000 towards the end of 1944, including about 20,000 personnel in the Polish Air Force and 3,000 in the Polish Navy. By the very end of the war, Polish forces totaled close to 230,000, not including the other 200,000 or so that served on the Eastern Front.

Polish Air Force
As I noted before, the Polish Air Force put up a pretty decent fight in the Battle for Poland. Despite being outnumbered and outmatched (despite their relatively high standard of pilot training for the time), the air force remained active up to the second week of the campaign, managing to inflict significant damage on the Luftwaffe, which lost 285 aircraft to the Pole’s 333 (with an additional 279 damaged).

Like the most of the remaining Polish military, pilots fled the country after it was defeated to continue the fight elsewhere, namely France. It’s a little-known fact that the Polish Air Force participated in the Battle of France as one independent fighter squadron, GC 1/145, as well as through several small units attached to French squadrons. In total, 133 pilots achieved 53-57 victories at a loss of 8 men, making up nearly 8% of allied victories – not bad given the size and relative lack of training. Polish Air Forces in France and Great Britain

As per their habit, the Poles kept the fight going every time they were pushed back: once Francefell, their air force shifted its operations to the UK, which was to be the final bulwark against Nazi domination of Europe. Polish pilots fought with considerable distinction in the crucial Battle of Britain: for example, the famed Polish 303 Fighter Squadron claimed the highest number of kills of any Allied squadron.

It should be noted that from the very beginning of the war, the Royal Air Force (RAF) had welcomed foreign pilots to shore up the heavy losses of British pilots. In the summer of 1940, the Polish Government in Exile signed an agreement with the British Government to reestablish a Polish Army and Polish Air Force in theUnited Kingdom. The first two (of an eventual ten) Polish fighter squadrons went into action just a couple of months later.

Aside from the 303, three other Polish squadrons eventually took part in the Battle of Britain: the 300 and 301 Bomber Squadrons and the 302 Fighter Squadrons. These groups comprised a total of 89 Polish pilots, in addition to more than 50 Poles that fought under British command, leading to a total of 145 Polish pilots defending theUK. Though originally outmatched in terms of skill, Polish pilots were by then one of the most experienced in the battle, most of them having already fought in the first two major battles of the war.

The 303 Squadron claimed took down 126 enemy air craft, the highest number of any fighter squadron engaged defending theUK – even though it was one of the latest to join the effort. In fact, despite constituting only 5% of the pilots active during the Battle of Britain, Poles were responsible for 12% of the total victories. They punched far above their weight level.

The Polish Air Force continued to fight beyond the UK, fighting in Tunisiain 1943 (look up the Polish Fighting Team, aka “Skalski’s Circus”) and participating in raids onGermany for the duration of the war. In the second half of 1941 and early 1942, around 19,400 pilots were serving with the British, and Polish bomber squadrons comprised a sixth of the RAF’s bombers, though they later suffered heavy losses – being a bomber was one of the riskiest positions in the war, and the Poles lost 929 pilots. Ultimately, Polish fighter claimed 629 kills by the end of the war.

The Polish Navy
I feel that Navies in general get short thrift in the European Theater of the war, and underrated Poland would of course be no exception. Indeed, its navy wasn’t much to look at, given that the country was almost landlocked. Subsequently, the Poles rightly anticipated that the fighting would occur mostly on the ground and in the air, and there was no reason to risk letting the ships get taken over in the event of defeat. So just before the war, three destroyers, the bulk of the Polish Navy’s capital ships, were sent for safety to the British Isles.

Once there, however, they continued the trend of their air and land counterparts, fighting alongside the Royal Navy for the duration of the conflict. The Polish Navy grew considerably, having been given command of several British, cruisers, submarines, and other ships that would otherwise been left in dry dock due to an initial lack of skilled British personnel to operate them. It eventually numbered 27 ships, ranging from destroyers to torpedo boats.

Like the rest of the Polish forces, the navy fought with great distinction and took part in many vital operations, most famously in efforts to sink the great German battleship, Bismarck. It sailed a total of 1.2 million nautical miles, escorted 787 convoys, conducted 1,162 patrols and combat operations, sank 53 Axis ships, damaged 24 more, and shot down 20 aircraft. Of the over 4,000 Poles who served with the navy, 450 lost their lives. Note that none of this includes the important contributions of the Polish Merchant Navy.

Poland’s Forgotten Bravery: Part II

In my previous installment – which you could find here – I gave an introduction to Poland’s performance at the start of the World War II, particularly by dispelling some pervasive myths about their martial ability. This section will explore what happened once the Poles fell. It’s unfortunate that occupied countries are treated as having passively absorbed in the Nazi empire, even though many continued the fight as intensively as any independent nation – with Poland at the forefront.

Protecting the Jews
Jews have a long and rich history in Poland, which until World War II probably hosted the largest Jewish population in the world, at 3 million. While anti-Semitism existed among the Polish people, as it did nearly everywhere, Jews had it comparatively better than elsewhere in the world (indeed, throughout history the Poles were markedly tolerant by European standards, which are why their Jewish population was so large to begin with). But in any case, the Holocaust became a grim test of Polish attitudes towards its Jewry.

Numerous Poles risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. This was despite the fact that Germany imposed uniquely harsh laws against granting any sort of aid to any Jew: an entire family would be killed if just one member was caught doing so much as giving bread or water to a Jew on the street. It’s believed that tens of thousands of Poles lost their lives for this reason.

Indeed, Poland was unique among occupied countries in that it established a formal organization specifically aimed to help the Jewish people: Żegota, or “Council for Aid to Jews”. The group was politically and financially supported by the Government-in-Exile, and among its many activities, it provided shelter, food, medicine, money, and false documents for Jews across the country. The most well-known example is that of Irena Sendler, who allegedly saved around 2,500 Jewish children with the help of Polish families.

Individual Poles also did their part, and there are innumerable stories of their bravery and sacrifice. In fact, most Polish Jews were saved by people unconnected to any formal organization like Zegota; the number of those saved could range from 40,000 to 120,000. Of all those recognized as the Righteous Among the Nations (an award given by the State of Israel to Gentiles who saved Jews from extermination during the Holocaust), Poles made up the largest number by a considerable margin: so far, 6,266 Polish men and women have been given the award, representing 25 percent of all recipients (the number is still high even when adjusting for population).

To be sure, as one helpful Polish commentator  pointed out below, the Polish-Jewish relationship was far less rosy than I may be suggesting. Anti-Semitism may have been less acute than in other parts of the world, but that doesn’t say much, given the pervasiveness of bigotry towards Jews. Many Poles were complicit in the exploitation, arrest, and murder of Polish Jews, and the use of blackmail against hiding Jews was not uncommon. It was a complex and often tragic situation, but that makes it all the more warranted to focus on where humanity excelled.

The Polish Resistance
We have a tendency to see wars as ending the moment a country capitulates or is occupied. Despite centuries of military history giving lie to this seemingly intuitive assumption, it remains a misconception to this day (consider the recent examples of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars).

But many wars are arguably decided by the response of “defeated” states, which often chip away at the manpower, supplies, and political will of their victorious occupiers. Many a successful ruler has swept through nation after nation, only to see their subsequent empire fall apart shortly after. Nazi Germany was no exception.

Most Americans know only of the French Resistance, which has become an iconic example of insurgency against Nazi forces. However, every occupied state had a resistance movement of some kind, and many of the largest and most effective– not only Poland’s, but also Yugoslavia’s and the Soviet Union’s – are forgotten about.

As I discussed before, the Polish Resistance Movement was probably the largest and most sophisticated of it’s time, helped by the fact that it was often led (albeit nonexclusively) by a well-organized underground state. It also included a full-fledged army, the Armia Krajowa (abbreviated AK), which numbered some 400,000 soldiers at its peak, not including many more sympathizers and irregulars. The AK functioned like any military force, AK coordinating its operations with the Polish Government in Exile.

Originally, its main focus was on sabotage, tactical diversion, and intelligence gathering. Even during this time, however, it carried out thousands of raids and bombings, initiated spying rings, and clashed with German police and military. Close to 7,000 supply trains were damaged, over 4,000 army vehicles were damaged or destroyed, and tens of thousands of military equipment being built by Polish laborers were purposefully constructed with defects. In also provided intelligence and advance warning to the Soviets ahead of the Nazi invasion of 1941.

In 1943, it AK lead a nationwide uprising known as Operation Tempest, which included the famous Warsaw Uprising I discussed before. Though it was viciously quelled, the fighting continued until the very end of the war: German losses to the AK and other Polish partisans began to average 850 to 1,750 every month, and even early on the resistance would claim a few hundred occupiers per month.

As a result, the Third Reich had to devote a substantial part of its military forces to keep Poland under control, draining its resources from elsewhere (which was part of the Polish resistance’s objectives). Even at its lowest point, during the first month of occupation, the Nazis maintained a total of 630,000 soldiers, police officers, and SS units in the country; towards the end of the war, this force had grown to over 1 million.

Poland’s Forgotten Bravery: Part I

It’s a shame that Poland gets such short thrift in most studies of World War II. It is chiefly remembered as the first country to fall to Nazi Germany, thereafter remaining a footnote in history, except maybe for some references to the main death camps being based there (including the infamous Auschwitz and Treblinka).Poland was just another conquered state, one whose subsequent defeat, like France’s, has often led to jokes about Polish military prowess.

Not only is this ignorance unfortunate in its own right, but it’s all the more tragic considering that few people were as instrumental and courageous in the fight against the Nazis than the Poles, who consequently suffered the most of almost any other nation. Despite being the first to go down, they managed to keep the fight going for the remainder of the war, remaining a constant and vital drain on Nazi forces. And for all this, they’re given little attention or credit.

I’ve tried to raise awareness of this issue before, such as in my previous post about the Warsaw Uprising. While I’ll be overlapping a little bit with that one, my focus will encompass all ofPoland’s contributions, from their remarkable fighting prowess as the Free Polish Forces, to their exceptional assistance to their Jewish population. I hope I can do justice to the Poles and make at least a few people aware of their untold sacrifice. I’ll begin with the first of four posts:

The Invasion of Poland: Myths and Misconceptions
This event is remembered only for having kicked off World War II. After only a month of fighting,Poland was defeated, and attention immediately shifts toFrance, theUK, and the westward expansion of the Third Reich. Any analysis of this battle or the Polish response thereafter, is pretty much mute.

Yet closer inspection of the campaign revealed that Poles hardly went down easy. They put up a valiant fight, which was all the more remarkable considering that they were only an independent state for two decades. Unfortunately, what little anyone knows about this battle is rife with misconceptions, many of them downright offensive. Here are the most prevalent ones that I’ll debunk:

The famous Blitzkrieg strategy was first used in Poland.
This is the most widespread myth, with almost every introduction to the Battle of Poland claiming the German blitzkrieg tactics are what won the conflict so quickly. As it turns out, though, the Germans were using an older and less innovative strategy throughout the Polish campaign, known as the Vernichtungsgedanke. This doctrine originated in Prussia under Frederick the Great, and was used no differently than in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 or World War I. Tanks, planes, and other armored vehicles were not used to maximum effect, and overall did not partake in the sort of shock and speed maneuvers that are commonly claimed (if anything, it was actually the underestimated German artillery that used to great effect).

The Polish Army fought German tanks with horse-mounted cavalry wielding lances and swords.
I remember actually being taught cruel myth in my high school European History course (needless to say, the entire class thought that the Poles were pretty foolish; no wonder they lost!). Now, it is true that 10% of the Polish army was made up of cavalry units (though many would think it was higher, given the stereotypes). However, other armies at the time, including those ofGermanyand theSoviet Union, also fielded and utilized horse-mounted units. They usually served as mobile infantry and reconnaissance, and charged only in very rare situations against foot soldiers: Polish cavalry never charged German tanks, artillery, or fortified infantry. They were equipped with anti-tank rifles and artillery guns, and were actually more effective than mechanized vehicles when traveling in some forms of terrain (indeed, the Soviets used them to great effect against the Germans when they were invaded; the post-winter slush had bogged down tanks and trucks, while the horses traversed just fine).

The Polish air force was destroyed on the ground in the first days of the war.
The Polish Air Force was actually somewhat decent for it’s time, and Polandhad developed some pretty advanced fighters. Shortly before the war, most planes were moved to small, camouflaged airfields that kept most of them safe; only a few trainer and auxiliary aircraft destroyed on the ground. Though significantly outnumbered and outmatched by more advanced aircraft of the Luftwaff. The air force was active until halfway into the conflict, managing to inflict significant damage its German counterpart: the enemy directly lost 285 aircraft (with an additional 279 damaged beyond repair), compared to Polish losses of 333 – hardly an overwhelming victory.

Poland offered little resistance and surrendered quickly.
This is perhaps the most regrettable misconception, one that isn’t helped by the fact that the fighting last “only” one month. However,Germanyhad actually sustained very heavy losses initially, including an entire armored division, thousands of soldiers, and 25% of its air strength. By the battle’s end, German losses included around 16,000 killed, 28,000 wounded, and 30% of their armored vehicles lost. Polish casualties were heavier, at around 66,000 dead and 694,000 captured, but it should be noted that their forces were technologically and numerically inferior.

Furthermore, most people forget that poor Polandwas faced with a two front war: Stalin and Hitler had signed a signed a pact just one week before the war, which included a secret provision to divide the defeated territory between themselves. When the Nazis invaded from the west, so did the Soviets two weeks later, from the east. The Poles obviously didn’t anticipate this, and they had to cancel plans that would’ve called for a more effective defensive maneuver against the Germans to prolong the fight.  Who knows what would have happened if the accord with Hitler hadn’t been signed. Though the Soviets came to be instrumental in our victory against the Axis, they ironically started off as near-allies to the Nazis, helping to facilitate the rise of the Third Reich.

As for the presumably short duration of the Polish Campaign, note that it lasted only about one week less than the Battle of France a year later, even though French forces, along with the British ones that joined them, were much more equivalent to the German invaders in terms of numbers and technology.

Also, Poland never offered an official or general surrender to the Germans. In fact, not only was it one of the few defeated states never to sign surrender terms, it never formed a collaborationist government either: afterPoland had been overrun, a government-in-exile was established inLondon, along with full-fledged armed forces and an intelligence service (more on those later). These remained the representatives of the Polish people throughout the war. That is whyPoland was, uniquely, administered directly by the Germans – there weren’t enough people willing to work with them.

Moreover, under German occupation, Polandformed the Polish Underground State, which not only fielded one of the three largest resistance forces in the war, but was a rare example of a functioning, underground government, something that didn’t occur in other occupied states. The Polish army continued to fight throughout the war as the Armia Krajowa (“Home Army”) and the Leśni (“forest partisans”). The Polish resistance movement in World War II, which included both these forces and numerous other insurgent groups, was one of the largest and most successful resistance movements in all of occupied Europe (more on them later as well).

Stay tuned for my next two (or three) installments in this series, where we’ll explore the nature of the Polish resistances, and the contributions of Poland’s “Free Forces” on both the western and eastern fronts.

Kryzwy Las: The Crooked Forest

I came across this image during some casual browsing through Facebook. It’s amazing what neat things you can stumble upon during such a seemingly unproductive activity. This forest is like nothing I’ve seen before: otherwise average pine tress that have grown into an unusual shape, despite being surrounded by normal specimens.

This fascinating and aptly named “Crooked Forest” (or Kryzwy Las in Polish), is today located in Western Poland – though it was planted in the 1930s back when the area was part of German Pomerania. It consists of about 400 such trees that have apparently been made to grow this way through human intervention, though how or why remains a mystery.

Interestingly, one friend of mine remarked on seeing similar trees around a nuclear facility in Russia. I initially would have assumed some sort of radioactive or chemical effect was responsible, but this forest’s emergence pre-dates anything capable of that. Another respondent noted how magnetism often influences the orientation of other living things, and that perhaps some highly magnetic anomaly is behind this.

Upon doing some minor research – there wasn’t much to find – I discovered that they were likely allowed to grow for 7 to 10 years before tree farmers kept then down. Perhaps its the same horticultural technique used to shape lucky bamboo and other plants – though that would take quite a lot of time, skill, and patience.  Again, why they went through the trouble to do this is unknown, but for all we know they just thought it’d be neat or something.

Which it very much is. The feedback I received upon sharing the first image was surprisingly enthusiastic. I merely expected some casual interest, but a lot of people were enamored by it. The peculiarities of nature or human aesthetics can be a captivating thing, even if it seems simple or minute in scale. I’m heartened to know I’m far from alone in being awed by the “little things” in life (of course, that’s why all the respondents are my friends).

As one friend of mine put it, the unusual curvature of the trees is like something out of Dr. Seuss. Another friend and fellow bibliophile noted how one could read on them – which, come to think of it, seems like a neat thing to do.

In fact, I think I’ll seriously chalk that up as something to do one of these days, given that I’ve always wanted to go to Poland anyway (plus, who how many people could say they’ve seen these trees in real life, let alone read on them?).