Smersh and Memory

One reason for Poland’s sensitivity to President Obama’s mistaken identification of Nazi extermination facilities as being “Polish death camps” lies in the historical fact that the phrase has been used so often. Wikiquote has more than a dozen examples of the use of the phrase by various individuals going back to the 1980s.


The users don’t actually mean that the death camps were operated by Poland. They just make it sound that way. For some reason, perhaps for reasons of cacaphonia more than anything else, no other country except Germany has had the “death camp” phrase affixed so readily affixed to its national name as Poland. Nobody knows why. Despite the popular belief that many of the Nazi extermination facilities were built in Poland, there were in fact comparatively few.

Most German Nazi concentration camps were located in the territory of Nazi Germany. A complete list, drawn up in 1967 by the German Ministry of Justice, names about 1,200 camps and subcamps in countries occupied by Nazi Germany. During WWII, Nazi concentration camps were also located in many European countries such Germany, Austria, Poland, Bohemia, Slovakia, Belarus, France, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, Italia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Norway, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Unlike with “Polish death camps”, the media did not attach geographical context in reference to camps located in other countries (for example “French concentration camps” or “Norwegian concentration camps”).

Still the phrase seemed to roll off the tongue. The Economist points out that “few things annoy Poles more than being blamed for the crimes committed by the Nazi occupiers of their homeland.”
[It has been pointed out privately and in comments below that most special purpose death camps, as opposed to other types of concentration camps, were in Poland. I regret the error.]


For many years, Polish media, diplomats and politicians have tried to persuade outsiders to stop using the phrase “Polish death camps” as a shorthand description of Auschwitz and other exemplars of Nazi brutality and mass murder.

As President Obama’s speech proved, that effort has been less than successful.

The irony is that Poland unlike some other defeated Allied nations, never surrendered to the Nazis. After refusing to bow to the Nazis they held out against the Soviets. The Polish government in exile only returned to Warsaw in 1990, 50 years after it was invaded by Hitler.  Its resistance was the largest “in all of Nazi-occupied Europe”. Untold thousands of clandestine fighters died for the allied cause. Despite this, it was never portrayed in the same romantic light that the French resistance, for example, was depicted.

There was instead something obstinately quixotic about the Poles; something faintly ridiculous, as if they had had a talent for missing every opportunity to come out on the soft side of history. Nothing exemplified this tragic talent more than the Warsaw Uprising. It was “timed to coincide with the Soviet Union’s Red Army approaching the eastern suburbs of the city and the retreat of German forces.”

Naturally, they were betrayed.

“Controversially, the Soviet advance stopped short, enabling the Germans to regroup and literally demolish the city in crushing the Polish resistance, which fought for 63 days with little outside support.” It was savagely crushed with an almost unholy glee. The Nazis even deployed special self propelled artillery that they had found no other opportunity to use, so godawful it was, assault guns whose monstrous shells exploded a single building at a discharge.  It was like they were saving this horror just for the Poles. The Warsaw fighters held on, doomed of course.


Initially, the Poles established control over most of central Warsaw, but the Soviets ignored Polish attempts to establish radio contact and did not advance beyond the city limits. Intense street fighting between the Germans and Poles continued. By 14 September, Polish forces under Soviet high command occupied the east bank of the Wisła River opposite the insurgents’ positions; but only 1,200 men made it across to the west bank, and they were not reinforced by the bulk of the Red Army. This, and the lack of Soviet air support from a base 5 minutes flying time away, led to allegations that Joseph Stalin tactically halted his forces to let the operation fail and allow the Polish nationalists to be crushed.

Winston Churchill pleaded with Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt to help Britain’s Polish allies, to no avail. Then, without Soviet air clearance, Churchill sent over 200 low-level supply drops by the Royal Air Force, the South African Air Force and the Polish Air Force under British High Command. Later, after gaining Soviet air clearance, the US Army Air Force sent one high-level mass airdrop as part of Operation Frantic.

Although the exact number of casualties remains unknown, it is estimated that about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded. In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass murders. Jews being harboured by Poles were exposed by German house-to-house clearances and mass evictions of entire neighbourhoods. German casualties totalled over 8,000 soldiers killed and missing, and 9,000 wounded. During the urban combat approximately 25% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed. Following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically leveled another 35% of the city block by block. Together with earlier damage suffered in the 1939 invasion of Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, over 85% of the city was destroyed by January 1945, when the Soviets entered the city.


They were — and perhaps still are — pawns to great power politics. The verbatim text of exchanges between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill discussing the question of dropping ammunition and guns to the Warsaw defenders make for fascinating reading to outsiders, but to Polish eyes they are record of everything that was tragic about their unstinting resistance.

Aug. 18, 1944 Winston Churchill’s telegram to F. D. Roosevelt:

“The refusal of the Soviets to allow the U.S. aircraft to bring succour to the heroic insurgents in Warsaw, added to their own complete neglect to fly supplies when only a few score of miles away, constitutes an episode of profound and far-reaching gravity. If, as is almost certain, the German triumph in Warsaw is followed by a wholesale massacre, no measure can be put upon the full consequences that will arise. I am willing to send a personal message to Stalin if you think this wise and if you will yourself send a separate similar message.”

Aug. 24, 1944 message from F. D. Roosevelt to Winston Churchill

… I do not consider it advantageous to the long range general war prospect for me to join with you in the proposed message to U.J. [Uncle Joe].

I have no objection to your sending such a message if you consider it advisable to do so.

And despite the near certainty that President Obama did not mean to imply that the Poles actually operated the death camps, here was the same old jinx raising its head in the President’s speech again. He referred to “Polish death camps” — Polski Obóz Śmierci — though goodness knows his speechwriter would never have thought to use “French death camps” in a public speech.


Not the "Polish Death Camps Again!"

In the end Poland may be the victim of pop history. Poland and Death Camps have been as conjoined as hamburgers and fries; beans and weiners. You can hardly blame speechwriters for knowing only the Cliff Notes version of history. The same kind of history that yearly commemorates the civilian deaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and forgets the Battle of Manila, where casualties were as high as both combined; that remembers Jean Moulin and forgets Witold Pilecki, of the Polish Home army operative who actually volunteered to go into Auschwitz to find out for allied intelligence what was going on there — only to be executed by Soviet Forces in 1948.

Perhaps that predestination to oblivion goes with the national character. Who can forget Vesper Lynd’s posthumous explanation of the reason she worked for the Soviets at the end of Casino Royale. The NKVD had imprisoned in their dungeons her wartime Polish lover; a pilot with the RAF. Each year they let him write one letter to assure her he was alive — for as long as she cooperated.

Bond casts away the letter in fierce contempt. All Bond can say is “the bitch is dead.” So one might have guessed, was the Polish pilot. But then who cared? Even in fiction, who even notices?

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