On the tread of time
Remembering the Warsaw Commune
(This article originally appeared in issue 23 of 1953 and 1 of 1954, of our Italian language newspaper Il Programma Comunista).
The fourth partition of Poland (the previous ones took place by Russia, Austria and Prussia respectively on August 5, 1772, April 4, 1793, October 24, 1795) was sanctioned by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia with the Russian-German non-aggression pact of August 23, 1939. Working together with the Nazi armies, already masters of half of the Polish territory, the Soviet troops attacked and invaded Poland from the East on September 17, 1939. The partition thus became a historical fact. Applying other secret clauses of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Russian troops also occupied Bukovina, Bessarabia, and the Baltic States.
The Russian-German pact, which the Kremlin’s courtly historiography has tried to present since June 1941 as a Machiavellian device used to gain time, was not limited to the territorial arrangement of the war prey. On the basis of it, trade agreements were agreed upon, whereby Russia supplied Germany with large quantities of oil, coal, raw cotton and minerals necessary to feed Nazi war production. France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Yugoslavia and Greece, later submitted and submerged by the Nazi invasion, had that fate also thanks to the material aid offered by Russia to Hitler’s government. It is true that today the government of Moscow presents itself as the paternal protector of the independence of these nations against American imperialism, and every time that the French parliament is the scene of the German rearmament within the European Defence Community, Stalinists and Gaullists, in the context of the EDC, demand the reinstatement of the Franco-Russian Pact signed at the Kremlin by Bidault and General De Gaulle at Christmas 1944. But the incontrovertible fact remains: from September 1939 to June 1941, the German-Russian coalition agreed to divide up Europe, reserving only for itself the right to national independence.
This was not the view of the ousted national bourgeoisies and the nationalities who were overthrown and oppressed by the invaders. However, the reaction to the occupation had to be carried out in the typical forms and ways of the bourgeois class, imposed by the demands of class domination. On the one side, they worked to establish governments of straw, the so-called “quisling” governments, voluntarily subject to the will of the occupying military authorities; on the other side, they shrewdly used the desperation and revolt of the lower classes, of the working class, starved and bled dry by a ferocious war, for the purpose of national and nationalist resistance against the invader. The European bourgeoisie, calculating that a peace dictated by the Russian-German coalition was an unlikely eventuality, so it was urgent to prepare the conditions for their future inclusion in the opposite coalition of the United States and the British Empire, boldly implanted a dangerous double game; but they were careful not to take on the harshest and bloodiest duties that were reserved for the working class, trapped in the populist demagogic pitfalls of partisan warfare. The repression of the occupying powers unraveled with deadly ruthlessness. Allies in the war, partners in the economic exploitation of the occupied lands, Germany and Russia, in spite of their ostensible ideological differences, led with equal agreement the ruthless repression of the Polish national resistance and later crushed the proletarian uprising in Warsaw.
If the Russian and German General Staff had, in September 1939, proceeded to occupy and divide up Poland, according to a preordained plan, the State police did not work with less agreement. In March 1940, officials of the Gestapo (the infamous Nazi political police that Moscow was later to accuse of the worst crimes and have harshly judged at the Nuremberg trial) met with a delegation of the NKVD (Beria’s secret police) to agree on a plan of common repression aimed at crushing the Polish underground organizations. The Stalinists, who after the rupture of the Russo-German pact had to create around themselves a jolly partisan mythology, remained absolutely calm during the Russian-German occupation of Poland. A recently published book on the Polish resistance, L’Histoire d’une armée secretea by Bor-Komorowskj, tells us that out of 168 anti-Nazi publications in Poland, only in November 1941, i.e., five months after the outbreak of war between the former allies Russia and Germany and twenty months after the German occupation, did a clandestine Stalinist leaflet appear. The writer of the book, a Polish refugee in France, is probably in the good graces of the Western Foreign Ministries, but this does not alter the fact that what he says about the attitude of the Polish Stalinists at the time of the Russian occupation of Poland corresponds to the truth. Accepting the Russian occupation of eastern Poland, the Stalinists could not oppose the annexation of the western part of Poland, which the Germans had carried out in agreement with the Russians.
The results of the collaboration between Gestapo and NKVD were seen in the bloody anti-Semitic campaign that culminated in the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto (Jewish quarter) by the Nazis, and in the Katyn massacre that cost the lives of thousands of Polish officers, whom the NKVD gendarmes suppressed in a gigantic massacre. Each in his own area of occupation, and with a common goal in mind, the Russian and German occupiers took care to get rid of their internal enemy: Judaism and militaristic Polish nationalism. In 1944, in spite of the state of war, the former allies had to conduct, above the front, a terrible bloody police operation against the Warsaw Commune that had risen up against the German occupier, thus repeating the nefarious policy of the Prussians and the French republicans against the Paris Commune of 1871, in spite of the armistice, in spite of the shame of Sedan.
Since April 1943, when the Nazi government denounced the discovery of thousands of corpses of Polish officers in mass graves discovered in the Katyn forest, located in eastern Poland occupied by the Russians until June 1941, and accused the NKVD of having perpetrated the horrendous massacre, ever since then the Kremlin has furiously responded by rejecting the tremendous accusation. But how can it deny that the mass repression of the Jews, at least in the early days, was carried out by the German Gestapo with the tacit complicity of the Russian military authorities? At that time, Russia and Germany were allies; they dominated Poland together; they carried out a common or convergent policy on the international level.
If the Katyn massacre was a gut-wrenching slaughter of poor, unarmed, bound Christians, led to the edge of mass graves and shot in the back of the head, the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, which cost the lives of 400,000 Jews of both sexes and of all ages, took place in the midst of furious street-fighting, in the cellars and in the sewers. It was an atrocious war between soldiers transformed by rage into cannibalistic beasts and fighters devoted out of desperation to a bloodthirsty revenge-suicide.
The systematic massacre of the Jews began from the beginning of the German occupation. The Nazis proceeded first of all to eliminate the Jewish communities of the less important cities, transferring them en masse to the large towns. As a result of this, at the beginning of 1942, the Warsaw ghetto counted 400,000 people, men, women and children who lived in appalling conditions of poverty and misery. The German authorities granted four and a half pounds of bread per person for a month. In this way it was possible to suppress thousands of people by starvation, keeping their weapons in their sheaths. One hundred and thirty thousand Jews taken from the ghetto of Lublin disappeared in the extermination camp of Belzec, killed in the gas chambers. During the months of July and August the massacres continued: the Jews brought in the camps of Belzec, Sobilar, Treblinka, received the order to undress completely, they were led to the gas chambers, buried in mass graves by mechanical means in the thick of the forests. The chilling news of the massacres reached the Warsaw Ghetto, informing the inhabitants of the cruel fate that awaited them. They were caught in a trap; there was no other option but to choose between death in the gas chambers or dying in a fight. On the night of April 19, 1943, a SS company penetrated the ghetto, but was met by heavy fire of rifles and machine guns. Certain of being killed if taken prisoner, the Jews had decided to die with their weapons in their hands. They defended themselves with furious heroism, challenging for seven days, from Easter Monday to Saturday, the deadly fire of the cannons aimed at the houses of the ghetto at close range, the fires set by commandos and the tear bombs. By the end of May the last house was destroyed and the last Jew killed.
The propaganda directed from Moscow, on the occasion of the execution of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg, of Israeli nationality, made fierce attacks on the American government accusing it of fomenting anti-Semitism. Racial hatred, especially against blacks, stains the American bourgeoisie with infamy. But it is equally true that the campaign of extermination conducted by the Nazis against the Polish Jews was begun at the time when the Russians occupied Poland alongside Germany and the Gestapo consulted with the NKVD.
The Stalinist-Nazi holy alliance experienced against the Jews and the rebellious nationalists was to be reestablished, despite the state of war between Russia and Germany, against the Warsaw proletariat which had risen up heroically against Hitler’s executioners.
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In the first issue of this article (number 23 of 1953) we recalled the stages of the policy of violence and extermination conducted by Germany (then allied with Russia) in Poland against Jews and “the resistance”. Then came the reversal of the front.
The Warsaw Commune of August 1944 represented in the bestial massacre of cannon fodder that was the Second World War, the only example of collective heroism. In fact, it was not a crushing clash of mechanical monsters dragging behind the dumb and passive multitudes that characterized the battles between the regular armies; it was the heroic madness of the struggle of men armed with incendiary bottles and hand grenades against the motorized and armored columns of the Wehrmacht, a Wehrmacht enraged by the victorious offensive of Marshal Rokossovsky, whose troops, advancing since June on a 400-kilometer front, had reached the gates of Warsaw on July 28, at the same time that the Anglo-Americans were expanding their bridgehead in Normandy. All the more infamous was the behavior of the Russians in the face of the proletarian insurrection that broke out in Warsaw on August 1. Even more shameful than the conduct of the Nazis, who were able to drown the revolt in blood, - and what blood! - exclusively because of the decision of the Moscow government to block the advance of Rokossovsky’s troops.
The wicked association of the time of the meetings between the Gestapo and the NKVD was repeated. The struggle within Warsaw took on terrible aspects. Rebels wearing SS uniforms taken from a conquered weapons depot attack the Nazi troops by surprise and capture armored vehicles. The Germans use Tiger tanks, shelling, set fire to entire neighborhoods burning the civilian inhabitants alive, forcing men and women and children to go down into the cellars where they are exterminated with grenades. But they lose the depots of the Central Post Office, the gasworks, the filter station and the main railway station. Entire neighborhoods are liberated by the insurrectionaries at the head of which the proletariat fights.
The arrival of the Russians is awaited, the resumption of Rokossovsky’s advance. But, inexplicably, the Russian troops stay still. The BBC gives news of the insurrection in Polish. Radio Moscow is silent. The Luftwaffe bombs and strafes the districts occupied by the insurrectionaries. Not a single Russian plane appears in the city sky. It is clear that the Russians took up the task of helping the Nazi executioner.
Only on the fourth day of the revolt, August 4, does the Communist Party gives the order to its own organized to participate in the revolt, putting themselves under the orders of Gen. Bor.
The same day the Nazis launch an offensive, an excited exchange of messages between Churchill and Stalin takes place. The English premier, eager to exploit the uprising to his own ends invites Stalin to run in aid of the insurgents. Stalin refuses dryly, denigrating the military capabilities of the insurrectionaries that he considers impotent to face the four German armored divisions including the “Hermann Goering” that defend Warsaw. The common objective of the leaders of the English and Russian governments is, we repeat, to neutralize the insurrection using it for their own imperialistic purposes. Churchill proposes to the Russians to take it under protection by ordering Rokossovsky to conquer Warsaw: Stalin, faithful to the principle that the enemy ceases to be such only if dead, orders Rokossovsky to remain under cover, leaving the Nazis the task of massacring the rebels. Stalin acted the exact same way, spoke the exact same words, of Bismarck at the time of the Paris Commune.
Locked in a gigantic trap of concrete and steel, the Warsaw Commune did not surrender. Betrayed by those it believed to be its allies, it found in itself enough heroism to overcome even disappointment, an enemy worse than physical fear itself. The Germans destroy men and houses with systematic ferocity: they attack the streets with incendiary and explosive bombs, combining aerial bombardment with artillery fire. When the streets were deserted, the infantry advanced, spraying the collapsed rubble on the dead and wounded with flame-throwers. The “Nebelwerfer” hurled phosphorous and explosive bombs with multiple bursts against the buildings. For the first time they use the “Goliaths”, small tanks loaded with explosives, electrically driven. They are formidable devices: they destroy everything in their path. On August 10, Allied planes attempt to parachute weapons and ammunition to the insurgents, but the Germans converge fire on the area clearly identified by the light signals on the ground. Rivers of blood flow.
The 13 August the Russian agency “Tass” diffuses a communiqué in which it charges the responsibility of the revolt to the Polish exiles in London and denies the news about the existence of a connection between Warsaw partisans and Russian troops. But if what Moscow says is true, would it not be the duty of the Russian government, allied with England in the war and protector of a “National Liberation Committee” made up of Polish communists, to rush to the aid of the revolt?
On the 17th the Commune starts entering a death agony. The Germans begin an infernal offensive, preparing it with cannonade from 600mm howitzers, whose shells weigh a ton and a half. Fiercely shelled by land artillery, Tiger tanks, Goliaths, and airplanes, the insurgents continue to fight. Seventy thousand men of the Wehrmacht hurled themselves against the neighborhoods defended by the communists who had with them women, old men and children squatting like animals in the cellars, tormented by hunger and thirst, continually threatened to die under the rubble of the buildings crumbled by the bombs. For three days the insurgents manage to launch a counterattack. The fight reaches the limits of madness. The insurgents, forced to retreat, take refuge in the sewers, in the underground passages of the city. The Germans throw grenades and gas bombs into the tunnels and shoot the prisoners on the spot. Until the last moment the insurgents wait for the arrival of the Russian troops. In vain! They only arrive three months after the massacre....
On September 29 the Germans launched a general attack against the insurrection. On October 3, after 63 days of epic fighting, the last defenders of the Commune surrender to the Germans, who in recognition of the heroic behavior are committed to apply the Geneva Convention, and treat the insurrectionaries as prisoners of war. The executioner himself is choked with blood. Fifteen thousand dead lie in the destroyed districts.
At first sight, the refusal of the Moscow government to help the insurgents can be attributed to the nationalistic interest in getting rid of the political forces of the Polish government in exile made up of Polish refugees in London, known to be linked to British imperialism. The so-called cold war that broke out between the winners of the conflict, and before that, the violent clashes that broke out in Poland between the Stalinists and the pro-Western parties, would seem to prove the hypothesis. But the very fact that the Russian military occupation of Poland guaranteed the political control of the Stalinists, as the subsequent historical evolution was to confirm, shows that Moscow, by letting the insurrectionaries be trapped, was counting on a very different purpose. Stalin’s government set out to save before the international proletariat its false prestige as a revolutionary agent. The Warsaw Commune, wanted and defended by the revolutionary proletariat, had to die. Avoiding to get its hands dirty, the Russian government passed the infamous task to the Nazi army.
The glorious end of the Warsaw Commune is a bloody proof of the political Jesuitism of the Moscow government, a proven indictment of the counter-revolutionary task of international Stalinism. It shows that wherever in the future the proletariat will declare and fight the revolutionary civil war against capitalism, it will find behind itself, as in Warsaw in the summer of 1944, or in front, as in Berlin in the summer of 1953, of the Stalinist gendarmes of the counter-revolution. But the reckoning will come. Then Stalinism will also have to pay for the 15,000 fallen of the Warsaw Commune.