An old photo on my Twitter stream captured my attention. It was of a German military parade in occupied Warsaw in 1940. My interest in history led me to think about the scene and how it represented a reality far removed from the average American’s experience.
The Germans were marking the one-year anniversary of an independent Poland’s defeat by Adolf Hitler’s war machine on September 28, 1939. In addition to the soldiers lining the road and marching down it, two dozen German aircraft fly overhead.
The year before, during the 20-day Siege of Warsaw and the week leading up to it, the Luftwaffe pounded the city, killing up to 7,000, mostly civilians. Perhaps some of the same aircraft that flew over the parade that day participated in destroying the city. The appearance of those warplanes must have been unnerving.
On the left side of the road numerous civilians can be seen, mostly boys and girls wearing shorts and dresses. These children are likely Polish. Imagine what they and their parents were thinking at the time. Just a year earlier, their nation was attacked from the west by Germany and from the east by the Soviet Union, and erased from the map. Their longtime historical ally, France, was overrun by Germany a few months before in the summer of 1940.
At that very moment, the undefeated German air force was locked in deadly aerial combat in the Battle of Britain. It would take another month before the Royal Air Force handed the Luftwaffe its first major loss. America and its immense productive capacity was on the sidelines. Joseph Stalin was allied with Hitler. Things looked grim for the people of Warsaw.
Just 20 years earlier, many of the parents of those children lining the street fought in a desperate battle against the nascent Soviet Union. In this earlier Battle of Warsaw, a massive Bolshevik force overran eastern and central Poland and threatened to encircle Poland’s capital city. But the Poles cracked the Soviet codes and deciphered their radio signals. They knew the Red Army’s plans and prepared a trap.
In a sharp series of counterattacks, a Polish army formed out the ashes and chaos of World War I drove the Soviets out of Poland and forced them to sue for peace. Poland—and very likely Western Europe—was saved from the horrors of communism. So, while these Poles knew victory against long odds, they likely found it hard that day in 1940 to see a path back to freedom and independence.
World War II was exceptionally tough on Poland and her people. In 1939, Nazi authorities began to round up Poland’s Jewish population, concentrating some 3 million people into increasingly crowded ghettos. The largest was in Warsaw, where up to 400,000 people were packed together in terrible conditions. Eventually, the Germans deported thousands of people a day from these ghettos to death camps with names like Treblinka, Soribor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Word of these murderous actions eventually made it back to Warsaw, where some 1,000 Jewish fighters rose up in a valiant effort to resist the occupying Germans. From April 19 to May 16, 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto battled the Germans before being crushed. Some 13,000 ghetto residents died, while tens of thousands were quickly sent off by rail to the extermination camps.
A little more than a year later, with the advancing Soviet Red Army on their doorstep, a resistance force known collectively as the Polish Home Army rose up to battle the Germans. Up to 50,000 patriotic Poles fought for 63 days from August 1 to October 3, 1944. But substantial help from the Soviets was not forthcoming—many historians believe Stalin halted the Red Army to allow the Germans to kill resourceful and independent-minded Poles who might prove problematic in a Poland that he planned to dominate after the war.
The Germans killed some 16,000 Polish fighters while up to 200,000 civilians were killed as well, many of which were victims of mass executions. After the 1939 invasion, the 1943 ghetto uprising, the 1944 uprising, and the punitive aftermath, some 85 percent of Warsaw lay in ruins by January 17, 1945, the day the victorious Red Army finally marched into the city.
On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill, tossed out of office as prime minister in 1945 before the war’s end, addressed America at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.
Poland would suffer for 33 long years of Soviet occupation before a Polish Catholic cardinal was elevated as pope in 1978. A year later, Margaret Thatcher was elected U.K. prime minister. In September 1980, fresh stirrings of resistance in Poland led to the creation of Solidarity, an independent trade union movement centered on the vital Polish shipyards in Gdansk. Less than two months later, Ronald Reagan won election promising to rebuild America’s military and grow the economy. When asked what his strategy was towards the Soviet Union and the Cold War, Reagan said, “We win, they lose.”
These four people—pope, president, prime minister, and Polish trade union leader—set in motion a chain of actions that led to the fall of the Soviet Union and the reestablishment of a free and independent Poland in 1989. The children forced to attend that German military parade in Warsaw in 1940 would have been about 60 years old in 1989. The horror they saw and hopelessness they felt are unfathomable to most Americans. Yet they emerged from the crucible.
A basic understanding of history remains vital to our time. That’s even more so with the tyrannical urgency of instant, online information coupled with astroturf-enhanced mass political advocacy.
Being familiar with civilization’s cadence—its ebb and flow of progress and destruction, of glorious achievements and grotesque inhumanity—tends to increase respect for traditions and norms, for one’s elders and forebearers. Further, it lends a degree of wise skepticism to overhyped 24-hour news cycle claims of events being “unprecedented” or “historic.”
With a resurgent and revanchist China, Russia trying to reclaim empire, a nuclear North Korea and Iran, ISIS, and more, history informs and provides hope in troubling times. Reflecting on history is edifying because seeing the hope of people in desperate situations can supply hope in our day. Further, history’s study encourages gratitude for the relative ease of our present struggles, both personal and national.
Things aren’t bad at all, when you think about it. Not even close.