Warsaw: A True Survivor of World War II

warsawoldtownsquare copy

warsawoldtownsquare copy

Warsaw, Poland’s Old Town

May 8th marks the 70th anniversary of World War II’s VE Day. Most Americans consider Victory in Europe as being the logical end result of the June 1944’s D-Day Invasion and don’t think much about the battles on the Eastern Front. That probably has a lot to do with the Cold War and the forty years we spent thinking about the Soviet Bloc as one solid block.

I got a new perspective when I spent a day touring WWII landmarks in Poland’s capital during my visit to Warsaw for the World of Tanks Grand Finals last month. Warsaw endured almost unparalleled devastation during the conflict and dealt with that destruction in a most surprising way.


Warsaw Uprising Memorial

Poland had developed a strong national identity after the Great War and the Poles never really buckled after the Nazi invasion in 1939. In 1944, after it became apparent that Germany was likely to lose the war, the 50,000-strong Army Krajowa (Polish Home Army) decided to drive the Germans from their country and the uprising began on August 1, 1944.

The Soviet generals didn’t want to divert resources to aid the Poles, Hitler became enraged and the Germany army set out to obliterate the city. By the beginning of October, most of the city had been leveled and the prized historic district was razed to the ground.


Reconstructed Warsaw

If the Polish people had waited out the war and allowed the Soviet army to liberate Warsaw, there certainly would’ve been damage but much of its Old World charm would’ve stayed intact, much like what you’ll see if you visit Prague or Budapest.


Warsaw decided to rebuild the destroyed parts of the old city. “Rebuild” meant “recreate” and the old city now is a virtual reproduction of what was there before. From one perspective, it’s kind of like Disneyland: a 20th-century facsimile of historic Europe. From another, more interesting point of view, it’s a powerful and elegant rebuttal to Nazi destruction. Imagine if the United States had exactly rebuilt the World Trade Center twin towers after 9/11 as a defiant gesture against terrorism. Spend a few hours in rebuilt Warsaw and you get a strong sense of character and national identity in a country that refused to be defined by WWII.


Warsaw’s rebuilt Barbican gate, originally constructed in 1540.

Of course, the obvious contrast is France. The French laid down for the Nazi invasion and the Monuments Men helped make sure the Allies didn’t blow up too many important buildings when they took it back. After a couple of days in Warsaw thinking about their heroic resistance, it’ll be hard to ever enjoy the sights of Paris in quite the same way again.


The Cathedral of St. John church, one of the few rebuilt structures to incorporate more contemporary architecture

Poland is still a country with a heavy burden from the era. It had one of the largest Jewish populations in the world in 1939, approximately 3.3 million people. There are 25,000 Jews living in Poland today.


Poland’s martial heritage is on display at the Polish Army Museum, with exhibits that cover more than 1000 years of armor and weapons from the multitude of states that have existed in this part of the world.


The medieval armaments are especially elaborate and impressive. There is a massive amount of armor and an impressive collection of swords. There are a few explanatory signs in English here and there, but the efforts to be Brit and American tourist-friendly are generally pretty inconsistent.


There’s also quite a few weapons designed and manufactured by the Polish resistance during WWII.


And some German Engima machines for the espionage aficionados.


The Kubus is a armored vehicle designed and built by the Polish resistance during the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. It carried 8-12 troops and was armed with two machine guns and a flamethrower.


ZSU-57-2 Self Propelled Anti-Aircraft Cannon (USSR, 1950s)

Poland is now a member of the European Union, so it’s easy to come and go if you’ve got a U.S. passport. They don’t use the Euro, preferring to keep the Zloty. It’s roughly 4 Zlotys to the U.S. dollar and it’s surprising how inexpensive everything is: food, taxis, clothing and admission to movies and museums are all less expensive than other major European cities. There are plenty of Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC restaurants all over the city and a meal at any of them is cheaper than the same meal would be back home. The locals all recommend the burgers and you can get a fully loaded gourmet burger and a pint of local craft beer for less than $10.

If you’re deeply interested in the European history of World War II, a trip to Warsaw adds a lot of perspective if you’ve already seen the bombing sites in London and visited Normandy and Berlin. If you’re stationed in Germany, it’s easy to get to Warsaw via train and there’s a lot of value for your money.




  • Leon Suchorski

    It puzzles me as to why someone would go all of that way to get there, just to go to a MacDonald’s? There are so many restaurants that serve Polish food to enjoy there. Only like grandma could make.

  • Bobby

    The French didn’t “roll over” for the Germans, they were outmaneuvered when the Germans sent their armor through the Ardennes which no one, including British and American generals, thought they could do. Maybe you should learn some French history or ask one of the surviving French army veterans.
    There were collaborators and resistance fighters in both countries.

    • John Eliopoulos

      And after they were outmaneuvered, they LAID DOWN! Crete, for CHRIST’S SAKE, held out longer that the “largest army in the world”! ” Learn some history” returned to you!

  • Fred

    Just a point, the Soviets did not let the Home Army fail because they were already over-taxed. The Soviets purposefully allowed the Nazis to slaughter the Home Army because the Soviets did not want them left around after the war to vie with the Communists for rule of Poland. In fact I have read that Soviet agents would be infiltrated into Poland to pretend to link up with Home Army units to get the units locations and names of individual members, and then turn around and act as “collaborators,” turning that intelligence over to the GESTAPO. This was down to use the GESTAPO in the Soviets effort to annihilate the members of the Home Army before the Communists were able to take the Polish territory.
    This “knocked out two birds with one stone.” It facilitated the elimination of the mostly Catholic, western Europe oriented Home Army. And, it allowed the Soviets to blame the Nazis for eliminating them. Recall that the Home Army was purportedly supported by the Allies, much of its leadership being in fact in exhile in England at the time.

  • LRT

    Excuse me, but the Germans did not go in only through the Ardennes, they went in through Alsace in 1940, and the French did indeed roll over. The Maginot Line was a farce. A costly defensive fortification that was quickly rendered meaningless by a multi-pronged German attack, after which the French did indeed roll over after a mere 6 weeks.