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In Warsaw, a Good War Wasn’t

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This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2004, issue of the Washington Post.

The veterans have left town. The flags have been packed away for the Fourth of July. The memory of the Second World War, our Second World War, has been honored so now perhaps its worth taking a moment to honor someone elses. An opportunity to do so will present itself this Sunday, when CNN broadcasts an unusual documentary called Warsaw Rising. The timing of the broadcast is deliberate: the week after the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, the 60th anniversary of D-Day and soon the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising itself, which began on August 1. As CNN puts it, heres a chance to listen while the survivors of this little-known tragedy of the war finally tell their story.

Of course, the Warsaw uprising isnt as little known as all that: Survivors in Poland have been telling their stories for quite some time. But it is true that the story is little known in this country, and there are reasons for that: It wasnt a story our political leaders wanted to dwell on at the time, and it hasnt been one anyone in this country wanted to talk much about since. Among other things, if we really absorbed its lessons, it would be difficult for Americans to feel quite so sentimental about World War II, and quite so nostalgic about the unshakable moral purpose for which it was supposedly fought.

For the story of the Warsaw uprising really is the story of the destruction of Polands greatest generation. The uprising began when the leaders of Warsaws underground army launched a rebellion against the Nazis who had brutally occupied their city for nearly five years. Hearing the Soviet Red Army guns to the East, knowing of D-Day and the American entry into the European war, they assumed the fighting would last just a few days, until the Allies joined and the city was freed. We believed so much in the West, one of the survivors wistfully told CNN.

But their assumption was incorrect. Stalin not only refused to send Red Army troops to help what he described as a band of criminals, he also refused to allow British and American planes to refuel in the Soviet Union, making airlifts impossible. Neither the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, nor the American president, Franklin Roosevelt, thought it important enough to pressure the Soviet dictator. With the exception of one airlift, the planes never came.

The Poles were left to fight alone. In the battle, which lasted 63 days, more than 200,000 people died, among them most of the countrys intellectual and political leadership. The scale of the catastrophe, the psychological, physical, and economic damage, is almost unimaginable. Original underground army footage, obtained by CNN reporter David Ensor, shows vast stretches of central Warsaw reduced to rubble, people living in ruins, teenagers building barricades out of the remains of homes. As Norman Davies, the historian of the rising, points out, more civilians died every day for those 63 days than died on September 11. Others escaped through the sewer system, walking 20 hours through raw human waste.

When the Red Army did finally liberate Warsaw the following winter, there was almost nothing left. Soviet secret police officers rounded up and arrested the remaining underground leaders, on the grounds that anyone brave enough to fight Germans would probably fight against the Soviet Union too. Again, Roosevelt and Churchill did not object: They had already consigned Poland to the Soviet sphere of influence during their conference with Stalin at Yalta, and had washed their hands of the countrys fate.

For those tempted by the postVietnam nostalgia for the good war a nostalgia which seems to increase as things go badly in Iraq its an unsettling story. But there are many such stories. No less terrible are the tales of the Allied troops who forced White Russians and Cossacks into trucks and returned them to the Soviet Union at Stalins request where most were killed. Or the accounts of the mass arrests that accompanied the Soviet liberation of Central Europe, while we in the West officially looked away. One of the reasons the survivors in CNNs film speak such beautiful English is that they were all exiles, forced to live abroad after the war.

In fact, for millions of people, World War II had no happy ending. It had no ending at all. The liberation of one half of the European continent coincided with a new occupation for the other half. The camps of Stalin, our ally, expanded just as the camps of Hitler, our enemy, were destroyed. Not that you would know it, listening to Americans reminisce about D-Day, or the children welcoming GIs in the streets, or the joyous return home. Perhaps there is no such thing as an entirely good war after all.

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    Anne Applebaum is a columnist for the Washington Post and a member of the Post’s editorial board. Reprinted by permission of the Washington Post. All rights reserved.