Was Warsaw Totally Levelled?

“When the red army entered in Jan 1945 there was nobody and nothing to liberate, except for stray dogs and rats. A huge desert of rubble remained as a monument to the city which suffered more than any other in the whole war.”

— Adam Zamoyski, Poland: A History

The destruction of WWII is unfathomable. Understandably – and rightly – our attention is first given to the loss of life incurred during the war, the unconscionable scale of the killing. It is estimated that 70–85 million people lost their lives, with over 50 million of those who died being civilians. In Poland, about 6 million people were killed, including 3 million of the country’s Jewish population. 

However, an aspect of the devastation that is perhaps overlooked in school curriculums and TV documentaries is the destruction of Europe’s built environment. The face of Europe was to be left permanently disfigured by the ravishes of war. Countless medieval towns and cities were pulverized by artillery fire and air raids or burnt to the ground in acts of vengeance. 

Architecture, artworks, and historical treasures were incinerated in the bonfire of wartime Europe. To this day, the scale of what was lost can only be guessed at because the archives, records, and catalogs so often went up in smoke too.

The most famous European cities left in ruins during WW2 are Berlin, Volgograd (then Stalingrad), Dresden, Gdańsk (then Danzig), and Poland’s capital, Warsaw. 

Of all the cities on this list, Warsaw is unique in being the only city for which orders were given to raze it to the ground completely. This was not for strategic or colonial purposes but as revenge. The destruction of Warsaw was Nazi Germany’s response to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. It was an act of punishment meted out for Polish fighters having dared to take back their city. 

Join Poland at War as we tell the tale of Warsaw’s destruction and answer the question: Did the Nazis succeed? Was Warsaw totally leveled?

And if you’re going to be in Warsaw, please consider booking a place on our Warsaw Old Town Guided Walking Tour or Warsaw Ghetto Tour — discover the story of this fascinating capital city with expert historian guides.

Warsaw Before the War: Paris of the North

Let us begin by looking at what Warsaw was like before World War Two. In 1927, an article in the New York Times proclaimed that Warsaw was regaining its status as the Paris of the North. The writer goes on to say that Warsaw is, “the gayest, cleanest and most feminine of European cities”.

For any Times readers interested in Polish history, these words would not have come as a surprise. Warsaw had long been compared to Paris for its wide boulevards, vibrant theatres, galleries, cabarets, cinemas, and coffee house culture. During the 19th century, Warsaw was a hotbed of creative activity – her most famous son was undoubtedly the composer Fryderyk Chopin (more on his enduring legacy in the city later).   

Following Polish independence in 1918 (the first taste of Polish sovereignty since 1795), the capital went through something of a renaissance. Although politics could not be said to be stable anywhere in Europe in the 20s and 30s, Polish society was not as divided as in some neighboring countries. Warsaw was again a European center for creative expression, a vibrant modern city.

Take a look at recently restored and colorized videos that give a striking glimpse of Warsaw life in the pre-war period.

The Outbreak of WW2 and Warsaw

Everything changed with the launch of Germany’s Blitzkrieg against Poland on 1 September 1945. Over 1.5 million German troops marched into Poland from three sides. They were supported by thousands of tanks and aircraft and represented the strongest army on the planet. In addition, Germany’s then ally of the Soviet Union was to invade Poland’s eastern territories on 17 September. 

By 27 September, Warsaw had fallen entirely under Nazi control, and its citizens’ brutalization began immediately. The universities were closed, and the city’s Jewish population (accounting for nearly 30% of the total) began suffering severe persecution. By the end of 1939, Jewish bank accounts would be frozen, Jewish shops had to display a Star of David in the window, and Jews were forced to wear identifying armbands.  

In late 1940, Jews were rounded up and cruelly forced to live in the newly established Warsaw Ghetto. Eventually, around 460,000 Jews were imprisoned in the ghetto, an area encompassing a mere three-and-a-half square kilometers. In the extremely cramped conditions, an average of 9 people would be found sharing a single room. Illness and hunger became everyday realities as people fought to survive on meager rations. 

The penalty for any non-Jewish Pole caught assisting Jews was death. 

Today, only small traces of the Warsaw Ghetto survive. For those wishing to read more about this chapter in the city’s history, we recommend looking at Marcin Dziedzic’s ‘Teraz 43’ photo project, contrasting wartime images of the ghetto with shots of contemporary Warsaw. The powerful work was created, in the words of the artist:

“[to provoke] two things. First, memories of the old Warsaw: the noisy, colorful, multicultural, and multi-faith society that once thrived here. And secondly, I hope it sends a powerful, serious, and thundering reminder about where hatred can lead us.”

First to Fight: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

On 19 April 1943, Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto took up arms against their jailers and executioners in what would become known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There was no hope of any strategic victory, but it was to be a triumphal movement of defiance. This was the first major anti-Nazi uprising organized by civilians in the European theater of war.

The Ghetto Uprising was an act of righteous vengeance against German forces. Having already faced starvation, disease, random street executions, and much else besides, from 1942, the Jewish population was intermittently being rounded up for deportation to Nazi German concentration and death camps such as Treblinka. 

The Jewish Combat Organisation (ŻOB) was established in April 1942, and they would be instrumental in organizing the uprising. Their first act of resistance came in January of 1943 when they opened fire on German soldiers during a deportation round-up. The fighting was successful in limiting the number of Jews deported at that time. At this time, between 55,000 and 60,000 Jews remained within the ghetto walls. 

The last fight of the uprising began on 19 April 1943, on the eve of Passover. Jews who weren’t to fight were sent below ground into underground passages. Meanwhile, the rebels turned apartment buildings into snipers’ nests, attacking German forces from above. But early success was short-lived – Nazi orders were given for buildings to be burnt to the ground one by one. Soon, everyone had to flee underground, but the passageways that once provided a safe haven were before long starved of oxygen as the inferno raged above. 

This tragic end to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising presaged what would happen in the city-wide uprising of ’44. But it did become an example for Jews imprisoned elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe. The chaos allowed a significant number of Jews to escape from the ghetto to blend and blend in with the non-Jewish city population. 

If you’re in Warsaw and wish to explore this even further, there’s an exhibition space dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the POLIN Museum of the History of the Jews

The Warsaw Rising, 1944

The Warsaw Rising was one of the most dramatic chapters in all of the Second World War. The street battles and subsequent reprisals would cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and lead to Hitler’s orders that the Paris of the North should be leveled. 

During the years of occupation, a Polish resistance force had been built up. Known as the Home Army, it constituted the armed wing of the Polish Underground State. Some estimates suggest as many as 600,000 men and women were linked to the Home Army, making it the largest orchestrated underground movement of WWII.

Through acts of sabotage, the spreading of misinformation, and providing Polish citizens with hope for a better tomorrow, the brave actions of the Home Army made life uncomfortable for the German occupying forces in Poland. Among the underground forces were the Gray Ranks, boys from the scouting association who had volunteered in the ranks of the resistance movement. 

Holding meetings in basements and courtyards, transporting materials in babies’ prams, crafting homemade weapons – the Home Army slowly worked towards the day of battle they knew would have to come.

In 1944, once Russian shells could be heard in the distance, the Home Army knew that the time was drawing near. Although the Soviet Union was now ostensibly on the same side of the war as Poland, Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1939 was still a fresh wound. The thought of the Red Army marching into Warsaw as a liberation force understandably put Poles ill at ease. 

The Warsaw Uprising commenced at exactly 5.00 PM on 1 August 1944, a moment immortalized in its codename: ‘W’ Hour. The beginning of the rising brought success, with the Home Army capturing much of central Warsaw. However, by the fourth day, it became clear that Red Army reinforcements would not arrive. Soviet inaction would later be referred to by the writer Arthur Koestler as “one of the major infamies of this war.” Varsovians were on their own.

“This is the fiercest of our battles since the start of the war. It compares to the street battles of Stalingrad.”

— SS chief Heinrich Himmler to German generals on 21 September 1944.

The initial success of the Polish fighters was met with a merciless response. The Luftwaffe began a bombardment of the city, destroying large sections of the city and even targeting hospitals. Himmler ordered SS units to begin murdering Warsaw citizens house by house – a policy that resulted in the deaths of perhaps 50,000 (read more about The Wola Massacre).

The battles of the rising would result in 50% of Warsaw being destroyed. It is estimated that around 16,000 resistance fighters were killed along with up to 200,000 civilians. Warsaw had been left to fight almost entirely alone, and the population was decimated. Around 700,000 survivors walked out of the city with barely anything more than the clothes on their backs.

The best place to explore the history of the rising today is undoubtedly the Warsaw Rising Museum, a destination that can be included on one of our bespoke WW2 tours in Poland.

Hitler Orders the Destruction of Warsaw

The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station for the Wehrmacht. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation.

— SS chief Heinrich Himmler, 17 October, SS officers conference

Hitler had long planned for the Germanization of Warsaw with his Pabst Plan. The city was to be turned into a provincial German city, with only a few of Warsaw’s landmarks being preserved once the war had been won. The Warsaw Uprising, though, provided the perfect opportunity for Nazi forces to permanently remove any trace of the historical Polish city – a major step in Hitler’s goal of achieving Lebensraum (‘living space’) for the German nation. 

As stated above, 50% of the city had already been obliterated between the invasion in 1939 and the two months of the uprising in 1944. Following the end of the rising, special German units were sent to burn (Brandkommandos) and demolish (Sprengkommandos) the remaining buildings.

By the beginning of 1945, 85–90% of Warsaw had been reduced to rubble. A million inhabitants had lost everything they owned. Over 10.5 thousand buildings were lost, including around 94% of the city’s historic buildings and landmarks. The Nazis had paid special attention to the destruction of Warsaw’s libraries, universities, and centers of culture.

Curiously, in the midst of so much cultural vandalism, Fryderyk Chopin’s heart, entombed in the Church of the Holy Cross, managed to survive. The Nazis had stolen the composer’s heart when they arrived in Warsaw, knowing the symbolic significance it held for so many Poles. But, ironically, this early theft ensured the relic’s survival. 

Phoenix City: The Rebuilding of Warsaw 

Today, Warsaw’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The status was awarded to the city center due not only to its historical significance, but due to the brilliance of Warsaw’s reconstruction.

85–90% of Warsaw was nothing but rubble in 1945, yet it rose once more – the Phoenix city. At the beginning of this article, we asked: Was Warsaw totally leveled? Well, yes, almost the entire city was razed. But were the Nazis successful in their overall aim? No, they failed.

Hitler’s so-called 1,000-year Reich lasted 12 years before it faced total defeat. As British historian Andrew Roberts emphasizes at the end of his one-volume history of WW2, Storm of War, Nazi Germany’s war effort was doomed by the very fanaticism propelling it. The Nazi ideology of hate was central to the dictatorship’s military failures. And ultimately, the Nazi desire to wipe Warsaw from the map was a failure. 

In the wake of WW2, it was decided that with the rebuilding of Warsaw, the conversation rulebook would be thrown out the window. For a long time, conservations had preached ‘preservation before restoration’. Authenticity was the word on everybody’s lips. It was said that a copy could never be anything more than a pale imitation – better to commemorate what was lost and proceed with building in modern styles.

It was felt by many, however, that Warsaw had to be rebuilt, and rebuilt in a way that provided visitors with a sense of historical continuity. The people who joined together decades after the war to recreate Warsaw’s did so in painstaking detail. Restorers even consulted the 18th-century Warsaw cityscapes of Venetian painter Bernardo Bellotto in order to capture details of the historic buildings.

Raising the city of Warsaw from the ashes was to act as an inspiration to people who had lost everything during the war. The rebuilt center of Warsaw gives visitors and citizens a tangible sense of connection to the city’s noble, 700-year history. And most importantly, it symbolizes the final victory of Poland over the armies that would have seen her destroyed – it is a monument to all those who gave their lives in Warsaw’s uprisings against oppression. 

Polish Warrior Mermaid

Warsaw Today

Today, the city of Warsaw stands in glorious defiance of the failed attempt to wipe it from the map. The rebuilt Warsaw Old Town packs all the historical charm travelers associate with Europe’s great cities. Anyone wishing to explore the history of Poland and Warsaw specifically will be spoilt for choice by the range of top-class museums on offer.

Those interested in WW2 should not miss the aforementioned Warsaw Rising Museum. The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a fascinating testament to the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland. If you have an interest in medieval art and history, the National Museum in Warsaw has a marvelous collection of artifacts along with a program of expertly curated temporary exhibitions. 

Warsaw’s reputation as a city of art and culture continues into the 21st century. A bustling cafe culture, eclectic mix of restaurants and bars, and excellent shopping scene make Warsaw the perfect place to base yourself when exploring all that Poland has to offer. 

Explore WW2 Warsaw With Poland At War Tours

Are you a history enthusiast looking to visit World War Two historical sites and museums? There’s perhaps no country with as high a density of significant WW2 destinations as Poland.

It was here that the first shots of the Second World War were fired. Poland witnessed some of the fiercest urban warfare of the whole war in cities such as Warsaw and Wrocław (then Breslau). Hitler made his wartime base in former East Prussia (present-day Poland), a site that can visited to this day and home to the Wolfsschanze Museum (note: we offer a Day Tour to the Wolf’s Lair from Gdansk).

And, of course, many of the Holocaust’s most notorious camps were built by the Nazis in occupied Poland, including Auschwitz. Learn about the tragedy of the Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, located a short distance from the city of Kraków. 

If you’d like to visit these locations in the company of expert guides, please browse our selection of World War Two Tours in Poland.

Should you have any questions or comments for us, we’d love to hear from you — get in touch.

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