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Warsaw Uprising - 2004-06-14

U.S. and British forces were advancing from the west, Soviets from the east. It seemed the right time for the Polish resistance - the largest in any Nazi-occupied country - to rise against their oppressor. On August one 1944 the battle to liberate Warsaw began.

It was an uneven contest. Though well organized, the Polish underground hardly matched the well armed German forces. Of 40 thousand Polish fighters, only a quarter had reliable weapons. The rest made do with stones and bricks.

They were counting on allied help. As Soviet forces approached the city, Stalin urged the Poles to rise up. So did U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. But when Soviet troops reached the edge of the city, they stopped.

And did nothing, says former top U.S. foreign policy adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in a riveting CNN television documentary on the uprising:

"They not only watched the Nazis massacre the insurgents and kill a lot of the civilian population but they prevented for many weeks us - the Americans and the British - from delivering help to the insurgents. The fact of the matter is Stalin did not want to see Warsaw liberated by the Poles. He preferred to see it smashed."

Planning to take over Poland after the war, Stalin wanted the resistance out of the way. So he turned down American and British offers to help. A frustrated Churchill finally urged sending relief over Stalin's objections, but President Roosevelt would not agree and did not seem to take the issue very seriously. On CNN, historian Norman Davies says a key opportunity was missed:

"The Western allies had a lot of cards they could have played. They were supplying the Soviet Union with colossal amounts of transport, ammunition, military supplies, and if the President had intervened, he may well have had a response."

But Brian Porter, professor of history at the University of Michigan, is doubtful. In an interview with VOA, he says the President's hands were tied:

"Stalin was not going to allow any help to go to the Poles after the uprising was launched. For the Americans to have tried to help anyway, it is really hard to imagine how that would have played out. We have to remember that the war was not yet over, and while victory seemed quite certain at this point, there was still quite a bit of fighting left to do. Aside from that, Japan was still very much alive."

Meanwhile, Poles fought desperately to save their city. Facing starvation, they ate every available horse and dog and drank the water from puddles. Professor Davies writes in his book Europe: "Street by street, house by house, sewer by sewer, the insurgents were shelled, gunned and dynamited on one bank of the Vistula, while Soviet soldiers sunbathed on the opposite bank."

As the end neared, Poles used the sewers to escape, wading through human waste sometimes up to their chest. More than 200 thousand Poles lost their lives in the uprising, most of them civilians. Professor Davies notes that every day of the encounter as many Poles died as Americans were killed in the World Trade Center attacks.

Did the Warsaw Poles act impetuously, given the Russian record of dealing with their country? Russia had occupied much of Poland from 1795 to 1918, says Professor Porter, and joined Hitler in starting the Second World War:

"We in the United States tend to remember it as a German invasion of Poland. Poles very much remember it as a combined German and Russian invasion of Poland. Whereas the Germans did invade on September first, only two weeks later, the Russians invaded from the other side after having signed a treaty between Stalin and Hitler that agreed to divide Poland between them."

On invading, Hitler exterminated as much of the Polish educated class as he could. The Russians pursued the rest, says Professor Porter:

"The very few that made it through the cauldron of those years were very often rounded up and imprisoned if not killed by the Soviets when they took over. So really the elite of an entire generation was pretty much wiped out."

And so was much of Poland. At the 1943 Tehran conference of the big powers, Roosevelt and Churchill ceded more than one-third of the country to Stalin. The Poles had not been consulted and indeed were kept in the dark.

With that, the Soviets occupied Poland and held it 44 years until a new resistance formed and this time succeeded. A free Poland finally emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The victors paid tribute to their predecessors in the Warsaw uprising, which had failed in fact but remained an inspiration.

Yet other memories linger as well, a sense of betrayal not only by Moscow but to some extent by America and Britain. And truth to tell, say historians, it was not the allies' finest hour.