The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump was right to embrace the 1944 Warsaw Uprising

President Trump speaks at Krasinski Square in Warsaw on Thursday. (Associated Press/Evan Vucci)
Placeholder while article actions load

In her column on Donald Trump’s speech in Warsaw on Thursday, my Post colleague Anne Applebaum criticized the president for embracing the 1944 Warsaw Uprising:

It was supremely ironic. President Trump stood in front of a monument to the Warsaw uprising, the Polish underground resistance army’s catastrophic, failed attempt to overthrow Nazi rule at the end of World War II. The uprising was a national tragedy: 200,000 of the country’s best-educated and most patriotic young people, the men and women who would have been its leaders, died. The capital was burned to the ground. And in large part, the disaster was caused by the fact that none of the other allies — not Britain, obviously not the Soviet Union, and certainly not the United States — came to Poland’s defense, even though the resistance army believed they would.
In front of this monument to unfulfilled expectations of distant allies, this memorial to the horrors of a Europe riven by brutal nationalist struggle, Trump offered his support to a Polish government that is both the most nationalist in Europe and now the most isolated in Europe. He made lengthy remarks about the uprising, complete with the now familiar references to “the blood of patriots,” and at the same time offered his support for Poland in carefully delineated terms.

I hold no brief for the current Polish government (or the Trump administration for that matter). And I am a great admirer of Anne’s often brilliant work. But in delivering his speech before the Warsaw Uprising memorial, and holding the insurgents up as an example of the courage we need to confront the totalitarian threats of our time, Trump was not only right — he righted a historical wrong.

I know something about the uprising, because my mother was one of the insurgents Trump honored in his address. When he talked about the barricade at Jerusalem Avenue — where Nazi snipers shot at anybody who crossed, including “messengers, liaison girls, and couriers,” it resonated deeply because my mom was one of those girls dodging the snipers’ bullets to get messages across the city. She survived, but her father gave his life on the streets of Warsaw — one of the 216,000 who perished during those 63 days of blood and courage.

No American president to date has so honored their sacrifice as Trump did this week. And there is a reason: Because the West’s failure to stand with the insurgents is a stain on our own history.

As I pointed out in a column on the 70th anniversary of the uprising:

Winston Churchill tried to enlist President Franklin D. Roosevelt in pressing Joseph Stalin to allow Allied planes carrying arms for the insurgents to refuel on Soviet air bases. After Stalin rejected their first appeal, Churchill told Roosevelt that they should try again and send the planes anyway if Stalin refused and “see what happens.” But Roosevelt replied, “I do not consider it advantageous to the long-range general war prospect for me to join you in the proposed message to Uncle Joe.”
Churchill decided to send planes anyway, and an estimated 360 British, Polish and South African airmen died in the skies over Warsaw. Eventually the United States sent one air mission, but it was too little too late. When the Poles finally surrendered, Hitler ordered Warsaw razed. As my mother was marched out of Warsaw to be deported to a POW camp in Germany, she looked back and saw the orange glow of her beloved city on fire.

Indeed, the Warsaw Poles were abandoned so quickly after the war that my mother (who was liberated by Patton’s army and finished out the war in London in the Polish army under British command) was not even allowed to march in the victory parade at the war’s end — because the Allies had recognized the communist government installed by Stalin.

Poland never forgot the heroes of the uprising. But in the West it was easier to brush them under the rug and forget them — because remembering them would only remind us of our own moral failure to stand with these freedom fighters.

So for more than seven decades, U.S. presidents largely ignored the Warsaw Uprising … until yesterday, when Trump embraced the insurgents and held them up for the world to see as the heroes they were. Good for him.

Yes, the uprising ended tragically, but that tragedy was not foreordained. It was not a fool’s errand. The Warsaw Poles knew the Soviets were coming and wanted to liberate themselves from Nazi rule before Stalin’s forces arrived — so that Moscow would have to deal with the reality of a self-governing, free and independent Polish government. Had FDR heeded Churchill’s pleas and delivered arms and supplies to the insurgents, they might very well have succeeded.

And if Stalin cracked down anyway, then “the country’s best-educated and most patriotic young people, the men and women who would have been its leaders” would have likely died anyway. The only difference is they would have died in Soviet prison camps, rather than with guns in their hands fighting for their freedom.

Yet even in failure, the Warsaw Uprising was not a mistake — because the spirit of the uprising lived on in the conspiratorial hearts of the Poles, who continued to operate underground during the decades of Soviet domination that followed. The underground movement that briefly liberated Poland from Nazi occupation in 1944 paved the way for the Solidarity underground that took the Gdansk shipyard in 1979.

Had the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1980 to crush the Solidarity movement — a very real possibility, considering its invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia — critics would have dismissed Solidarity’s “catastrophic, failed attempt” to free Poland from communist rule and declared it a “national tragedy.” Instead, Lech Walesa’s gamble succeeded. Solidarity survived martial law by following the example of the wartime underground, and that made possible the peaceful revolution that freed Poland from Soviet domination in 1989. None of it would have been possible without the example of the heroes of 1944.

So I for one am grateful to President Trump for embracing the Warsaw Uprising, for rescuing it from the ashes of our forgotten history and for holding it up for the world to see.

And I am grateful that an American president did this while my mother — and the last of her fellow insurgents — were still alive to bask in the well-deserved recognition.