“The ghostly 'liberation' of a corpse city”: 75 years ago today Soviet forces arrived in Warsaw, transferring one totalitarian dictatorship for another
When the 1st Polish Army under Red Army command crossed the Vistula on January 17, 1945, Soviet propogandists called it a liberation, a label that stuck for over seven decades.
However, as writer Jeremi Przybora later commented: “The ghostly 'liberation' of a corpse city.”
For, if truth be told, there was no-one to liberate. The city’s inhabitants had been expelled by the Germans and if the Soviets liberated anything it was a sea of rubble.
For the people who started to drift back to the ruined city, the war was over, but instead of freedom, the arrival of the Red Army ushered in a new period of terror.
Before their arrival, the Germans had spent four months razing the city to the ground and building concrete bunkers to defend Festung Warschau against the Red Army.
However, when the Soviets finally crossed the Vistula, the city was captured in several hours with little resistance from the remaining German garrison.
The whole operation lasted four days from 14 to 17 January 1945 and involved the Polish 1st Army and the 47th and 61st Army of the Belarusian 1st Front.
The Soviet 61st army crossed the Vistula to the south of the city at the Magnuszew bridgehead and the 47th attacked from the north near Modlin. Their aim was to create a kettle encircling the German 9th Army. Aware of the trap, the Germans withdrew most of their forces from the capital.
On January 17, 1945, only German rear-guard forces clashed with soldiers of the 1st Polish Army. The main fighting took place in Bielański Forest, at the Main Railway Station and at the intersection of Aleje Jerozolimskie and Nowy Świat.
What the Polish soldiers of the Red Army saw shocked them. Under a layer of snow were the ruins of homes, scorched walls that were once bedrooms, livings rooms and places where children played with their toys. Death lurked everywhere under the snow. Corpses of insurgents lay unburied in the rubble.
One Polish soldier recalled: “Ruins, ruins, ruins and sometimes corpses with white and red armbands; we knew they were Home Army soldiers. Our boys looked numb, they didn't believe what they saw, they couldn't get any words out, all I heard was ‘God, God’...”.
Another, Michal Barcz of the 1st Polish Army remembered: “Warsaw was a macabre sight. A completely extinct, demolished city, covered with snow. Exploding bullets and mines, which the Germans left a lot of.
Stumps of burnt houses, some rubble, but the first impression was the lack of people.”
When the Soviets entered, there were only a few ghostly souls who crept out of the rubble to witness the arrival of the new overlords.
These were the people who had decided to stay in Warsaw after the fall of the Uprising, fearing death at the hands of the Germans.
One of them was the pianist Władysław Spielman, known from Roman Polańśki’s film. “I didn't know Warsaw was liberated. I had been completely alone for six months, hidden in ruins. When on January 20 I heard some sounds on the street and saw people, I cried. I was free,” he said on Polish Radio later.
The once flourishing city had already been heavily damaged during the air raids in September 1939, later by Soviet air raids. After the Ghetto Uprising the whole former Northern District was razed to the ground. The greatest devastation came during the Warsaw Uprising and immediately after.
Having sent the city’s entire population to concentration camps, forced labour or exile in other parts of the General Government, the Germans set about the deliberate destruction of the city.
A team of German academics had been brought to Warsaw to identify the buildings and areas of the city that were most important to Polish culture and identity. These were systematically destroyed by special German destruction commandos.
Running alongside this, was the theft of anything of use or value on an unimaginable scale.
By the time the Germans left the city, 85% of the city’s buildings on the left-bank were destroyed and an estimated 45,000 railway wagons and several thousand trucks full of stolen private and state had left the city headed for Germany.
While the lifeblood of Polish resistance bled out in Warsaw, the Soviet authorities in Praga began building their terror apparatus to prepare the ground for the takeover of power by the Polish National Liberation Committee.
As early as in September 1944, the NKVD set up a headquarters on Strzelecka Street with a prison and torture chamber.
When the Polish People's Army and Soviet troops crossed the river and entered the left-bank of the city, the NKVD followed in their wake with lists of names of Polish underground activists they were to arrest.
Therefore, the parade that took place on January 19 along Jerozolimskie Avenue was a sad affair.
Jeremi Przybora recalls it as a “parade of victorious troops marching between two silent rows of ghosts […] a parade of liberators who had not liberated anyone.”
Despite a ban by the new authorities, people began to drift back to the city. “Nobody cared that there was nowhere to return to. They came back in rags, in terrible misery, people were coming back to their city. It was very touching,” said Marian Zieliński, a soldier.
The term ‘liberation’ was used for years to describe these events.
Historian Andrzej Krzysztof Kunert said in an interview with PAP: "In my opinion, January 17, 1945 was not the liberation of the city but the liberation of a sea of ruins, devoid of inhabitants. I would call it the occupation of an extinct place, a few hours earlier abandoned by German units."
However, it was the end of the war. The German occupation for five years meant a direct threat to the lives of almost every Pole, regardless of social background, gender or age.
Those who returned to Warsaw started to rebuild their lives, not yet feeling the cold wind of Stalinism that would soon blow from Moscow.