Author: Filip Musiał PhD
In 1939, as a result of the invasions of Nazi Germany on September 1 and the Soviet Union on September 17, Poland lost control of all of its territory. Poland was initially divided between four occupiers: Nazi Germany, its supporter fascist Slovakia, the Soviet Union and Lithuania (which soon lost its independence and became another Soviet republic).
© Rafał Guz (soa) (PAP)
Despite Poland’s defeat in the Defensive War of 1939 and the occupation of Polish territory by neighboring powers, Polish national spirit survived. A legal, government-in-exile was formed in France, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland. After France also fell to Nazi Germany, the Polish government moved to Great Britain. It consisted of executive authorities: the president and the government, supported by a legislative surrogate, the National Council of Poland (Rada Narodowa Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej). Even in September 1939, the month in which the two aforementioned invasions took place, underground structures began to form in Poland. The most important of these was the Service for Poland’s Victory (Służba Zwycięstwu Polski, SZP), which served as the basis for the formation of the Union of Armed Struggle (Związek Walki Zbrojnej, ZWZ) at the turn of the year 1939 to 1940. Numerous independent military organizations formed in different regions of Poland; political parties that went forced underground also created their own military formations. In time, this initially spontaneous process grew organized within the framework of the conspiratorial Polish Underground State (Polskie Państwo Podziemne), also known as the Polish Secret State. It encompassed the entire underground administration: the Government Delegation for Poland (Delegatura Rządu na Kraj) with regional structures down to the municipal level, a surrogate, underground parliament, which was named the Council of National Unity (Rada Jedności Narodowej, RJN) in 1944, as well as education, science and culture. An alternative state and society existed beyond the official reality of occupation. One of the pillars of the Polish Underground State was its armed branch, the Polish Underground Army (Wojsko Polskie w konspiracji). In 1942, this became the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK), which combined the Union of Armed Struggle and practically all military organizations answering to the Polish authorities in exile. The only major formation remaining outside the Home Army was part of the armed structures of the nationalist right, which formed as the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne, NSZ).
Under German and Soviet occupation
From 1939 to 1941, the Germans and Soviets sought to liquidate the Polish elite and crush the national spirit. Palmiry village in the Kampinos Forest, where German forces murdered 2000 people between 1939 and 1941 as part of the AB-Aktion aimed at the Polish political and intellectual elite, became one of the symbols of the physical extermination taking place under German occupation. Meanwhile, under Soviet occupation, Katyń, where the Soviets murdered 22,000 Polish POWs and prisoners on Stalin’s order, including officers of the Polish Army, policemen, lawyers, doctors and teachers, took on a similar symbolic meaning.
Despite these repressions, which over the course of World War II resulted in the death of six million Polish citizens (including around 3 million Jews), the phenomenon of the Polish Underground State endured.
Its situation changed in June 1941 at the time of Nazi Germany’s attack on the USSR. The Soviets, hoping for support from the Allies, recognized the Government of the Republic of Poland in exile (Rząd Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej na uchodźstwie) and established diplomatic ties with it. One after-consequence of this was the formation of General Władysław Anders’ Army in the USSR, recruited from thousands of Poles sent away after September 1939, deep into the Soviet Union and sentenced to heavy labor in prison camps. Stalin’s inclination to recognize the Polish authorities vanished after the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, which swung the situation on the eastern front in his favor. Having destroyed significant German forces in the Stalingrad “cauldron”, the Soviets went on a counteroffensive which the Germans were unable to stop. The nearing of the Red Army to Poland’s pre-war border rendered contact with the Polish Government a distraction for Stalin. He had returned to the idea of annexing part of pre-war Poland and making the rest dependent on the Soviet Union. Therefore, he began to search for a reason to sever diplomatic relations with Poland. This reason eventually turned out to be the discovery of the Katyń graves by the Germans. The request by the government-in-exile to investigate the massacre of Polish officers served as Stalin’s pretext to accuse the Polish Government of collaboration with the Nazis and to cut off diplomatic relations. In spring 1943, Poland became a pawn on the chessboard of the major powers and the Polish authorities systematically lost influence over decisions made by the Western Allies concerning Poland.
In 1942, at the end of November and the start of December, the first wartime meeting between the leaders of the United States, Great Britain and the USSR took place. In Tehran, Iran, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, made the first decisions about, among other matters, the fate of post-war Poland, without informing the Polish government-in-exile. The Soviet dictator sought to gain the agreement of Roosevelt and Churchill to incorporate the Polish territory taken over by the Red Army in September 1939 into the USSR (which represented nearly half of Poland’s pre-war territory). He succeeded. The combined plan for Poland outlined “that the focus of the Polish state and nation ought to be located between the so-called Curzon Line and the line of the Odra River, with inclusion into Poland of East Prussia and the province of Opole. However, the final determination of the borders shall require detailed studies and, in some points, possible resettlement of the population.”
These decisions were important insofar as a month after the end of the Tehran Conference, the Red Army crossed Poland’s pre-war border. The Polish Government, unaware of the decisions made in Tehran, treated these lands as part of the Republic of Poland, but the Soviets treated them as their own. The consequences of this tense situation were exceptionally serious for the representatives of the civil and military branches of the Polish Underground State.
This intensified as Stalin had already begun his plan of subjugating Polish territory as 1942 dawned. One of the tools to realize that aim were the pre-war communists who found refuge in territories occupied by the Soviets after the war had broken out. They came from different backgrounds, but those chosen by Stalin had proven themselves in servility to the Kremlin. Some of them, such as Bolesław Bierut or Michał Rola-Żymierski, had even cooperated with Soviet intelligence before the war. Others, such as Władysław Gomułka, were alumni of the International Lenin School, run in Moscow by the Communist International, which in the interwar period sought to end Poland’s hard-won independence.
By 1941, Stalin had already selected a group of Polish communists in the USSR, whose task was to recreate the Communist Party in Poland, this time under the name of the Polish Workers’ Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza, PPR). They were transported into occupied Poland to build the party as a tool of Soviet policy. In Moscow in early 1943, the Union of Polish Patriots (Związek Patriotów Polskich, ZPP) was created on Stalin’s initiative, intended to be Poland’s political representation. In the spring, he started building a new army commanded by Zygmunt Berling, a deserter from the Polish Army.
Soviet operations in the Eastern Borderlands and west of the Bug River
Given the situation on the eastern front from 1943 onward, the Home Army leadership prepared itself for the eventual takeover of Poland by the Red Army, and not the Western Allies. The idea of a general, national uprising was abandoned in favor of Operation Tempest (Akcja “Burza”), a region-based uprising. Home Army units, often fighting arm-in-arm with Red Army soldiers, were to attack the retreating Germans and welcome the Soviets in liberated cities as hosts. Military cooperation thus led underground Polish forces to reveal their identities, whereas pro-Polish manifestations in cities and towns led the Soviets to the civilian government delegates. The most important operations included the liberation of Lviv (Lwów) and Vilnius (Wilno) in concert with the Soviets. However, after the military operations ended, the Polish military leadership and civilian authorities were arrested by the Soviets and soldiers were imprisoned. They were often given a choice: prison, exile deep in the USSR, or join the so-called “Berling Army” alongside the Soviets. Anti-Polish operations returned to the territories occupied by the Red Army, similar to those of the first occupation (1939–1941) – with a Soviet administration replacing the German one.
In summer 1944, the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army, General Tadeusz “Bór” Komorowski concluded: The attitude of the Soviets towards the Home Army on the territories captured so far […] is negative. The NKVD treacherously arrests all commanders and officers. Units are disarmed and required to join Berling’s army […].
The policy carried out by the Soviets in the Eastern Borderlands, which were incorporated into the USSR, was to a large extent continued in other areas of occupied Poland.
When Red Army soldiers crossed the Bug River in July 1944, they continued operations aimed at destroying the military and civilian structures of the legal Polish authorities. In Moscow, on July 21, 1944, Stalin established the Polish Committee of National Liberation (Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego, PKWN), which would become the communist government. The Committee was transported into liberated Poland on July 27. A day earlier, its representatives had signed a secret protocol allowing the Red Army and the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, to decide the fate of Poles in the areas near the front. The Committee also relinquished Poland’s claim to the Eastern Borderlands (Kresy), recognizing the Curzon Line as Poland’s eastern border. The creation and development of a communist administration dependent on the Kremlin could only be successful after eliminating the Polish Underground State.
An important element of this plan was to halt the Red Army offensive at the Vistula River, at the beginning of the uprising in Warsaw on August 1, 1944. This allowed the Germans to concentrate their forces on crushing the Warsaw Uprising, which finally succeeded in October, after 63 days of heavy fighting. At the same time, during the Uprising, the Soviets were ruthlessly liquidating underground units en route to the capital city; only the fall of the Uprising, in which nearly 40,000 Home Army soldiers were fighting, guaranteed the realization of the political plan aimed at turning Poland into a Soviet satellite state.
Until the autumn of 1945, Soviet troops played an important role in the fight against the Polish independence underground. Without Soviet involvement, which broke the back of the Polish Underground State, Polish communists would not have been able to assume power in Poland.
The end of Operation Tempest, for which the final and dramatic stage was the Warsaw Uprising, plunged the Home Army into chaos. General Leopold Okulicki “Niedzwiadek”, the last Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army, sought to gain control over the organization, which had been shattered by the defeat of the Uprising and whose units were torn between territory occupied by the Germans and the Soviets. However, due to increasing Soviet repressions and recognizing that Operation Tempest had blown the cover of the underground army, he disbanded the Home Army in January 1945. In his final order, he addressed his soldiers and relieved them of their oath: “Home Army Soldiers! I am giving you the final order. Conduct your further work in the spirit of regaining Poland’s independence and safeguarding the Polish people from annihilation. Try to act as guides for the nation and producers of Poland’s independence. In this activity, each of you must be his own leader.”
After the dissolution of the Home Army, the task of continuing the struggle was taken over by the organization “NIE” (“No”), also short for “independence” (“niepodległość”). It was a cadre organization created in the autumn of 1943, which was meant to be capable of long-term, underground operations in case of Soviet occupation. It failed to develop however and was disbanded when, in March 1945, both its leader, General August Emil Fieldorf “Nil”, and the head of the armed forces in the country, General Leopold Okulicki “Niedźwiadek”, were arrested by the Soviets, independent of one another. The remaining members concluded that the organization had been compromised and it was dissolved by the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, General Władysław Anders, at their request. It was replaced by the Armed Forces Delegation for Poland (Delegatura Sił Zbrojnych na Kraj, DSZ), which was the last variant of the military branch of the Polish Underground State. Its objective was to sustain the spirit of resistance, but there was an internal conflict between its activities and founding idea. The commander of the Delegation, Colonel Jan Rzepecki “Ożóg” believed that armed resistance had lost its purpose. He saw no chance to defeat the communists, and their protectors, the Soviets, through open combat. He sought instead to “empty the forests”, by withdrawing soldiers from conspiratorial activities and helping them to legalize their existence. This was practically impossible, however, as repressions aimed at underground soldiers and functionaries who revealed themselves led more and more people to return to the forest. The DSZ lasted merely a few months, as the creation of the Provisional Government of National Unity (Tymczasowy Rząd Jedności Narodowej, TRJN), led the underground in the country to end the phase of active resistance and in the summer of 1945, the Polish Secret State, namely the Government Delegation for Poland (and its territorial agencies), the surrogate underground parliament Council of National Unity, as well as the DSZ, were dissolved. This, however, did not mean the end of the resistance.
Leaders of the Home Army, continuing the fight in the ranks of “NIE” and the DSZ, formed the Freedom and Independence Association (Zrzeszenie Wolność i Niezawisłość, WiN) in early September 1945. The fundamental idea of this organization was different from that of its predecessors. Although it recruited from the Home Army, its founders believed that armed struggle was not the best way to fight for independence. The declaration of the world powers made during the Yalta Conference, which provided for free elections in Poland, became their reference point. It was assumed that the communists had no chance of winning. WiN’s goal was to keep up the spirit of social resistance until the election, to make them truly fair and free, and to support the Polish People’s Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL) in the voting, as it was the only credible opposition party. WiN was supposed to be a civic organization of a political character. However, the reality of the totalitarian system that was being created in Poland verified these assumptions. The theoretical concept was only implemented in practice in the Lesser Poland and Silesia regions, where the number of partisan units, which followed the orders of WiN, was kept at a minimum. The remaining regions of Poland, especially along the eastern border, were full of resistance units, which often caused severe difficulties for the communist authorities.
WiN was the largest underground organization in post-war Poland, it is estimated that at its peak in 1946 it had about 30,000 sworn members, of which 2,000 fought in forest units. The organization was finally eliminated at the end of 1947, though a wave of arrests earlier that year had already limited its area of operations to secluded “islands” in southern Poland. The dramatic epilogue of WiN’s activities was a counterintelligence and counter-espionage operation codenamed “Cezary”, organized by the Ministry of Public Security of Poland, the communist state police. The operation involved the creation of a “5th WiN Military Command” managed by functionaries of the secret police and their agents. Parts of the operation focused on domestic issues, but its main goal was to thwart the activities of WiN’s Foreign Delegation (Delegatura Zagraniczna WiN), and through it the British and US intelligence services. It was conducted from 1948 to 1952.
The second pillar of nationwide resistance, alongside WiN, was the nationalist underground. Originally, it existed as two separate organizations: the National Armed Forces, (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne, NSZ) and National Military Union (Narodowe Zjednoczenie Wojskowe, NZW). The NSZ mostly included armed formations that did not unify with the Home Army during the war. The NZW, on the other hand, included mostly units of the Narodowa Organizacja Wojskowa (National Military Organization, NOW), which had merged with the Home Army. Hence, the organization established at the turn of 1944 and 1945 flourished only after the Polish underground army had been disbanded and it was possible to remove the NOW units from its ranks. Both branches of the nationalist armed underground joined forces toward the end of 1946 and into 1947 when the NSZ subordinated itself to the NZW. Some territorial structures of the organization survived until the early 1950s, but the NZW ceased to exist as a nationwide organization in early 1947.
Apart from nationwide organizations, there were different regional and local organizations created all over the country, which were not included in post-Home Army or national structures. There was a great variety of resistance initiatives, among which it is possible to differentiate two trends: the post-Home Army underground and the so-called unaffiliated organizations. The former, based on regional or local organizational structures of the Home Army and Polish Peasants’ Battalions (Bataliony Chłopskie, BcH), were usually those who had lost organizational contact with central command after the dissolution of the Home Army in 1945. They continued the fight on a regional scale. Among them were organizations such as the Independent Volunteer Group (Wielkopolska Samodzielna Grupa Ochotnicza “Warta”), operating in the Greater Poland region. The Extraterritorial Vilnius Home Army Military District (Eksterytorialny Okręg Wileński AK), operating in Pomerania, whose Home Army 5th Wilno Brigade fought in the Tuchola Forest. In addition, the Extraterritorial Lviv Home Army Military District (Eksterytorialny Okręg Lwowski AK), which was recreated in Lower Silesia after the Poles forced from the Eastern Borderlands, which had been incorporated into the USSR, were resettled there. The Citizens’ Home Army (Armia Krajowa Obywatelska, AKO), operating in the area of Białystok, also came from this mold, and was later subordinated to WiN. In many locations in Poland, independently of one another, organizations which were often called the Home Army Resistance Movement (Ruch Oporu Armii Krajowej) were created, along with other units who drew in former Home Army personnel. The other current of regional, conspiratorial activity, came from formations created from scratch, without any structural connections to the wartime underground. The largest of such organizations were the Conspiratorial Polish Army (Konspiracyjne Wojsko Polskie, KWP), operating in Łódź and the Świętokrzyskie Mountains area, a partisan unit, “Błyskawica” (Lighting bolt), operating mostly in the Podhale region, and the Independent Operational Batallion (Samodzielny Batalion Operacyjny “Zuch”), operating in the Bieszczady Mountains.
The post-war underground did not envision an active, armed resistance. Faced with Soviet operations, including a mass-scale pacification operation in the Augustów Forest region in the summer of 1945, it was obvious that the continuation of armed resistance would lead to enormous casualties without any real success. If any skirmishes and partisan battles took place, they were the result of roundups organized by the communist authorities or of self-defense actions of the underground. Among the latter, there are examples of liberating jails, prisons and camps in order to release anticommunist fighters as well as eliminating and disarming the Civic Militia (Milicja Obywatelska, MO) and secret police stations. Apart from the obvious goal of providing the underground with weapons, this was meant to limit the activity of the communist repression apparatus in the field and to increase the safety of the conspiratorial networks. Disciplinary actions served the purpose of paralyzing the activities of the communist authorities; they were aimed at particularly active members of the Communist Party or administration, as well as officers of the repressive apparatus and persons considered to be their collaborators. Apart from warnings or floggings, there were also operations aimed at the physical elimination of targets. The underground was also involved in extensive intelligence activities; on the one hand it infiltrated the administration and repressive apparatus in order to ensure its own survival, while on the other it was trying to identify the mechanisms governing the new system, its tactics and courses of action. Many of those findings were then handed over to intelligence services in the free world. After the Yalta Conference, the election became the reference point for all resistance organizations fighting for independence. Therefore, propaganda actions were organized in order to sustain the social conviction that the communist government was weak and temporary. Finally, in order to provide funds for military and political activities, expropriation actions were conducted. As in the case of activities carried out during the war, it was assumed that actions against the occupier, in this case the communist administration, institutions and their representatives, were acceptable. Hence, state banks or state-owned cooperatives were raided and robbed, and sometimes individual representatives of the regime would be forced to make a “contribution”.
Looking at the phenomenon of the underground from a different perspective, it is possible to point out two characteristic trends. The first involves formations and soldiers who fought, without any break, since they were recruited to the ranks of the Home Army, until they died or were arrested by the security services. The other involved a response to repressions by the Soviet, and later Polish, security forces. It included soldiers of the underground who attempted to leave during amnesties announced by the communist authorities, but were forced to return to the underground because of the arrests of their friends, who had also come out of hiding, and who did not believe they could live a “legal life”. At the same time, it is worth noting the dynamically changing situation of the armed resistance. It is estimated that after the disbanding of the Home Army, there were still more than 17,000 soldiers fighting in the forests. Combined with a network of civilians, agents and informants, the number of people involved in, or assisting, the underground may have totalled several hundred thousand. Looking at the support for the legally operating opposition parties, such as the PSL of Stanisław Mikołajczyk or Labor Party (Stronnictwo Pracy) of Karol Popiel, and the scale of unorganized social resistance, it is fair to say that the communist regime was rejected overall in the first years of the People’s Republic of Poland. As a result of this attitude in society between 1945 and 1946, the communists’ domain was limited to major urban centers. Rural Poland, especially in the eastern and southern parts of the country, were controlled by the underground. Only ongoing repressions and the breakdown of the social mood following the falsification of the results of the referendum of June 1946 and the election of January 1947, changed the situation. One must not forget about the importance of pacification operations conducted in the winter of 1946/1947, aimed at partisan headquarters. As usual in the case of partisan actions, soldiers were demobilized for the winter, as it was not possible to feed and hide them; only staff officers and small guarding detachments remained in the forests and mountains. The manhunts and raids resulted in the deaths or arrests of many commanders of single units and battle groups. The rigged election results, which were tacitly accepted by the free world, and the announcement of the second amnesty, caused many demobilized anticommunist fighters to come out of hiding, as they had nowhere left to go. It is estimated that by the time the Amnesty of 1947 came to an end, there were slightly more than 1,800 partisans continuing the armed struggle. However, there were no longer any nationwide structures, and the ranks of units, which were hunted, ambushed and infiltrated by the regime, were constantly thinning. With time, they would transform into groups focused on survival, determined to last as long as possible, rather than engage in an ideological fight. In the 1950s, single fighters managed to remain in hiding. It is estimated that in the early 1950s, there were no more than 400 active underground soldiers remaining in post-Yalta Poland. Only a minority of them fought in a few organized units, as the majority was trying to hide from being arrested, unable to commit to any anti-regime actions. The last partisan in hiding, Józef Franczak “Laluś”, died fighting the communist repressive apparatus on October 21, 1963.
All texts (except images) published by the Warsaw Institute Foundation may be disseminated on condition that their origin is stated.