From the moment the Red Army crossed the pre-war border of the Second Republic of Poland in January 1944, the partisan movement began resistance. The dates conventionally said to mark the end of its activity include: the spring of 1947 (the year the communist government announced amnesty, which most members of the anti-communist conspiracy movement accepted), the winter of 1953 (when the last organized units were defeated) or even October 21st, 1963 (when the last hiding partisan, Józef Franczak, known under the alias “Lalek”, was killed in an ambush).
During that period, estimates from 120,000 to 180,000 people participated in conspiracy organizations, out of which no more than 20,000 fought in armed units. About half this group were former soldiers of the Polish Home Army; after its dissolution on January 19th, 1945, they functioned within the Armed Forces Delegation for Poland and later in the Freedom and Independence organization. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people belonged to the National Military Union, the rest were members of local organizations. It is impossible to estimate the number of persons who were not partisans themselves but provided the units with room and board, warned them about danger, or assisted with medical care. On the other side of the struggle, there was the state apparatus of the People’s Republic of Poland, represented by various uniformed service formations, which changed over time – from the Internal Security Corps to the Civic Militia (MO) and Voluntary Reserve of the Civic Militia (ORMO) – supported by divisions of the Red Army and the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) as well as propaganda organs that represented the partisans as unscrupulous bandits.
Today, we call the members of these military formations – which fought independently of each other and sometimes also against one another – cursed soldiers. This contemporary designation was coined in the circles of the Republican League, which in 1993 organized an exhibition devoted to post-war partisan organizations at the University of Warsaw. The term was then popularized by the writer and journalist Jerzy Śląski, who used it in the title of his book on the unit of Marian Bernaciak, to which he himself had belonged. “The memory of that time cannot disturb the contemporaries, who are preoccupied with their own issues. Now is a different time, with different interests and different problems.” – he wrote in the last chapter[i]. Śląski died in 2002, so he did not live to see how the years to come were to prove him wrong.
A memory boom after years of oblivion
The restoration of the memory of the post-war resistance did not occur swiftly after the transformation in 1989. Tomasz Strzembosz and his students as well as scholars gathered around the Zeszyty Historyczne WiN-u (Historical Journal of the “Freedom and Independence” Organization) journal conducted research on the subject, but it did not break through to the mainstream consciousness. Things happened in accordance with the scenario of political transformation described by the semiotician of culture Marcin Napiórkowski in his publications on the history of memory[ii]: after the first stage of transformation, which is characterized by demands for justice and a reckoning with the past, comes the second stage, in which priority is given to modernization, while the feeling of responsibility towards the past loses importance.
Some contemporary politicians and journalists perceive this state of oblivion as the result of the deliberate actions opinion-forming elites. The phrase “cursed soldiers” was in fact coined to emphasize the silence around post-war partisans already after the democratic transformation, and not, as one could think, in relation to how the authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland tried to erase memory of them[iii]. Any attempt at answering whether there indeed was a deliberate silence appears futile and it seems impossible to do so without siding with one of the camps of the contemporary political dispute in Poland. Thus, instead of inquiring about intentions, it is better to look at the results of such an approach to history – after all, as the historian Marcin Kula put it, “not thinking about the past is also a way of referring to it”[iv].
After the second stage of the transformation, which is oriented towards the future, the third stage again turns towards the past. The society realizes that it did not properly honor the memory of forgotten heroes because it was preoccupied with keeping up with the West and earning money. According to this perspective, it could be possible that the economic success of some and failure of others are founded on a kind of neglect in the treatment of the past. The reaction that follows is a kind of memory boom – a phenomenon observed in Poland from around 2005. Two events played a catalyzing role in its advent: the 2003 referendum on Poland’s accession into the European Union, which was preceded by the first large-scale use of historical rhetoric (both from the side of Euro-enthusiasts as well as Euro-sceptics) and the opening of the Warsaw Uprising Museum the following year. Due to the museum’s activity, which goes far beyond displays, the insurgents became heroes of mass culture, paving the way for the “forest” resistance, which quickly followed in their footsteps.
Meeting the cursed soldiers
The 2007 publication of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej) titled Atlas podziemia niepodległościowego 1944–1956 (Atlas of the underground resistance 1944–1956) was of crucial importance for the breakthrough that was about to happen. Interestingly, the publication itself does not contain the phrase “cursed soldiers”; Rafał Wnuk, who pitched the idea for the book, explained that the editors decided not to use the term due to its vagueness and emotional character[v]. During a debate on the Institute of National Remembrance on the history channel of the Polish public television (TVP Historia), the journalist Cezary Gmyz explained the source of the success of the book as follows: “The Atlas (…) referred to the readers’ closest environment. Anyone holding the book could see what unit was active in their area. This really spoke to young people.”[vi]. The historian Tomasz Łabuszewski, also present in the studio, agreed with this interpretation and suggested that the growing popularity of the post-war armed resistance lay in the “possibility of breaking it down into hundreds of regional heroes, with which mainly young people could identify as their own heroes of their ‘little homelands’”[vii].
An array of grassroots initiatives commemorating postwar partisans quickly ensued. Finally in 2009, the Alliance of Veteran and Independentist Organizations (Porozumienie Organizacji Kombatanckich i Niepodległościowych) came up with the initiative to make March 1st the “Day of the Soldiers of the Anticommunist Underground”. The legal initiative was undertaken by president Lech Kaczyński, who changed the name of the holiday to the National Memorial Day for “Cursed Soldiers”, and after his death in the Smoleńsk catastrophe, the project was continued by Bronisław Komorowski. In February 2011, the Polish parliament almost unanimously passed the bill, introducing a new state holiday into the calendar. The date was carefully thought out – on March 1st, 1951 Łukasz Ciepliński “Pług” was executed with six other members of the IV Executive Office of “Freedom and Independence” in the Warsaw-Mokotów prison.
There is no questioning the rapid growth of interest in the anti-communist resistance. Its many symptoms include the flood of popular science publications coming mainly from two museums (in Ostrołęka and Warsaw), a multitude of events organized on March 1st, like the competition for youth Żołnierze Wyklęci – Bohaterowie Niezłomni (Cursed Soldiers – Unbroken Heroes) (which was organized for the sixth time this year), and the Tropem Wilczym (Following the Wolves’ Trail) run (organized for the fifth time this year). In February 2017, the Janusz Kurtyka Education Center of the Institute of National Remembrance, located in Warsaw, opened an escape room in which members of the public can pretend they are partisans planning to rescue a prisoner from the hands of the secret service.
The feelings of closeness towards the heroes of “little homelands” on the level of local communities with a state-level cult as a keystone are not a sufficient explanation for the popularity bestowed on the cursed soldiers. The key to understanding its roots can be found in an analogy with events from sixty years ago.
On March 11th, 1956 three twentysomethings – Jerzy Ambroziewicz, Walery Namiotkiewicz and Jan Olszewski – published an article titled “Meeting the people of the Home Army” in the student magazine titled Po prostu. They spoke as the voice of a generation that had honestly believed in the new order that was being built in post-war Poland and became severely disappointed when following Stalin’s death the lies and crimes of the first decade of the communist system were made public (which, by the way, Khrushchev was quick to dismiss as the results of a “personality cult”, enabling the said system to last). The disillusioned faith created an ideological void. “The youngest of us are called passive, devoid of ideals, cynical and full of lies. If that is the case, were they born this way?”[viii] – the editors of Po prostu asked rhetorically, postulating the need for new role models. They found such models in the soldiers of the Home Army, who were being repressed by the authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland at that time. The young editors valued the purity of their intentions in the fight against the German occupants.
Despite the fact that they occur in a different historical context, the contemporary processes have a similar mechanism. The heroes of the democratic opposition during communism are stuck in a bitter conflict, which is only escalating as years go by. The choices they made before 1989 are perceived as ambiguous today, especially in the eyes of twenty- or thirty-year-olds who cannot remember all the nuances of political engagement in the realities of the former era and yearn for uncompromising attitudes. A decade ago, they found examples of such attitudes in the Warsaw insurgents. Today – they see the cursed soldiers as role models.
All the colors of pop culture
During the last decade, the Warsaw Uprising has become – as Napiórkowski argues – a cultural franchise on par with Star Wars: a phenomenon commonly recognizable in public space thanks to its characteristic symbols (the anchor symbol of “Fighting Poland”, the date 1944 or simply “44”, the figure of the Little Insurgent, etc.)[ix]. Objects bearing it, for instance T-shirts, have become the carriers of a certain value system and narrative. In the recent years, this phenomenon has spread also to the cursed soldiers. From patrons of streets and schools, they have become heroes of comic books, and they have transferred from commemorative plates straight to murals where sometimes (like on the buildings on the Trakt św. Wojciecha road in Gdańsk-Orunia) they are presented in superhero esthetics or, when they are images of women, in a pin-up style.
The image of the wolf – which thanks to Zbignew Herbert’s poem Wolves ( Wilki) is as widely recognizable as the insurgents’ anchor symbol – has become immensely popular. Three or four years ago, there was just a handful of stores that offered hoodies or T-shirts decorated with the image. Currently, a new online store is launched about every two weeks, and some of those that have been in operation since the beginning of the trend have even opened retail premises in a few Polish cities. The array of items on sale has grown broader: the wolf shows its fangs on mugs, linen, lingerie, and even on the packaging of an energy drink. Together with the phrase “cursed soldiers”, it has become just another logo that functions similarly to popular sport clothing brands or the above-mentioned science fiction saga. When we pay for products bearing it, we buy not as much the object itself as a lifestyle: we imitate football players, we side with the Jedi against the galactic empire, or honor the memory of the cursed soldiers.
This is not a new phenomenon. Music stars have been worn on T-shirts for decades. In the 70s in the USA and Western Europe, progressive youth showed off the image of Che Guevara (who came back also in the 90s as an icon of the emerging alter-globalist movement). Now, the insurgents and partisans have taken the place of these past idols. Exhibiting their image on clothing and other gadgets serves building social ties within the community through enabling mutual identification upon first sight.
According to a survey titled “The historical consciousness of Poles” conducted by the CBOS Public Opinion Research Center in March 2016, 75% of Poles declare they were at least “moderately interested” in history, while one in four of the survey participants declared their interest was high or very high. Marta Bożewicz, the author of the survey, observed that these attitudes had increased in comparison with a study from 1987, but the trend was also accompanied by a decrease in knowledge of important dates from Polish history. She noted that this could be the result of access to new technologies, which allow one to forget facts since they can be (re-)checked at any time[x].
According to historian Andrzej Friszke, the trend that favors a fashion for history without factography may lead to the banalization of the former, and this in turn even to distortion[xi]. How many of those brandishing banners with the symbol of the National Military Union and the image of Witold Pilecki are aware that he was an officer of the Home Army and the two organizations referred to different political traditions? How will those wearing T-shirts with the words “Freedom and Independence 1945–1954” explain the second date – which suggests the end of the activity of “Freedom and Independence”– while in fact the communist security service took over control of the organization after the arrest of Łukasz Ciepliński, nom de geurre “Pług”, on November 27th, 1947 and de facto ran it (of which its regular members were unaware) until its complete destruction in 1952?
Colorful pop culture has the tendency to simplify and to forget that there is a whole scale of grey between black and white. It is problematic in the case of cursed soldiers, who constitute much more controversial hero material than the Warsaw insurgents.
A missed lesson
This is where the problem of putting all of the post-war anticommunist armed resistance in one box comes into play. On the one hand, the cursed soldiers include Witold Pilecki, who in 1940 let himself be arrested in order to infiltrate the death camp in Auschwitz, where he founded the conspiracy Military Organization Union and sent out reports about what was happening behind the barbed wire fences. On the other hand, they also include Romuald Rajs, nom de guerre “Bury”, who, according to the findings of the National Institute of Remembrance from 2005, is responsible for crimes against the civilian population committed in 1946 in the Podlasie region.[xii] Both men were imprisoned, convicted, and executed by the authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland and both became figures that impact the imagination of masses. The cursed soldiers are today a monolith and a myth, a narrative used to explain reality in an unequivocal way. There is no room for nuance.
In reaction to this situation, a new critical trend in writing about history has emerged which focuses on describing the crimes of cursed soldiers. The writer and columnist Jaś Kapela is on the forefront of this phenomenon. His activities verge on the border of journalism and performance (for instance, he applied to the Danuta “Inka” Siedzikówna National Poetry Competition organized around the theme of cursed soldiers with a selection of poems, which included such lines as “It’s not for them: lattes from Starbucks / or the new iPhone, or Instagram. / Not for them – gender, books by Marx, / Dancing with the stars, funny ads”[xiii]). He aims to provoke both thought and outrage.
The historiography of post-war anti-communist partisans is thus one more area in which the Polish society has been divided into two camps, the “custodians of national innocence” and “those who track national wrongdoings””[xiv]. The divide is visible even on the typographical level. When put in quotation marks “cursed soldiers” suggest an author is skeptical towards building the mythology of post-war partisans[xv]. On the other hand, when someone writes of Cursed Soldiers (or more and more often about Unbroken Soldiers) with capital letters, they contribute to strengthening the myth[xvi].
The temperature of the dispute does not favor reliable research. The shelves of bookstores are filled with books with the word “cursed” in various title configurations, but there is still a lack of a solid academic monograph on the most important post-war conspiracy organizations. Despite the weight and popularity of the subject, there is no significant increase in knowledge on the phenomenon – it remains just ammunition in the political struggle.
Today, the custodians of national innocence are in power. They have aptly utilized the memory boom and introduced the cursed soldiers en masse into the national pantheon. In accordance with the logic of myths, which favors contrasts, one could form the impression that the “forest soldiers” were the only post-war Polish patriots, while anyone who contributed in any way to building the People’s Republic of Poland was a pathological case[xvii] or at best exhibited reprehensible conformism. It is easy for us, who live in a country that has enjoyed independence for over 70 years and sovereignty for almost 30 years, to let the tragic character of those times escape us. The tragic choice young people faced, cornered by a state steered from Moscow and the – however unsymmetrical – tragedy of the choices of those who concluded that this was the only state they were given. A profound reflection that avoided both national posturing and mockery could be an important lesson of self-awareness for us as a nation and society. We, however, have preferred to play truant and miss this lesson.
Divided by history and politics – divided, thus weak – we stand facing contemporary threats which have not yet knocked at our doors: cyber-attacks, hybrid war, and terrorism. Our role models are supposed to be not even the Home Army insurgents of Warsaw, but the cursed soldiers, partisans who lived “by the law of the wolf”. This is a significant expression of distrust towards the structures of the state on behalf of those governing it. Once inculcated, it will remain with us for a long time. And its effects will be felt even longer.
Translated by Aleksandra Małecka
The article was first published in “Res Publica Nowa” nr 3/2017 and translated into English with support from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education’s research dissemination funds (contract no. 692/P-DUN/217).
[i] Jerzy Ślaski, Żołnierze wyklęci, ed. IV, Warsaw 2012, p. 261.
[ii] Marcin Napiórkowski, Powstanie umarłych. Historia pamięci 1944–2014, Warsaw 2016, p. 334-345.
[iii] See np. Grzegorz Wąsowski, „Żołnierze wyklęci”… ale przez kogo? Refleksje w przeddzień święta, „W polityce” [accessed: 21.08.2017 r.]. Online: https://wpolityce.pl/polityka/110368-zolnierze-wykleci-ale-przez-kogo-refleksje-w-przeddzien-swieta-jakosciowa-zmiana-nastapila-dopiero-po-powstaniu-ipn. “The phrase »Żołnierze Wyklęci« was an expression of our accusations towards the elites of the Third Republic of Poland. An accusation of omitting the most dramatic an heroic chapter in the history of the resistance of our ancestors against the communist regime in rebuilding the nation’s historical sensibility”.
[iv] Marcin Kula, Odniesienia do historii jako jeden z wymiarów tożsamości, [in:] idem, O co chodzi w historii?, p. 149.
[v] Rafał Wnuk, “Wokół mitu >>żołnierzy wyklętych<<”, Przegląd Polityczny, 2016, vol. 136, p. 185-186.
[vi] After ibidem, p. 186.
[vii] „Żołnierze wyklęci” – między historią, popkulturą a polityką, discussion between Andrzej Friszke, Tomasz Łabuszewski, Zbigniew Nosowski and Rafał Wnuk, Więź, 2016, vol. 3, p. 11.
[viii] Jerzy Ambroziewicz, Walery Namiotkiewicz, Jan Olszewski, Na spotkanie ludziom z AK, Po prostu, 1956, vol. 11, after: Marcin Napiórkowski, op. cit., p. 231.
[ix] Powstanie Warszawskie jak „Gwiezdne wojny”. Rozmowa z Marcinem Napiórkowskim, „Mówią wieki”, 2016, vol. 9, p. 52.
[x] Świadomość historyczna Polaków, oprac. M. Bożewicz, CBOS, Warsaw 2016 [accessed: 21.08.2017]. Online: http://nck.pl/obserwatorium-kultury/317815-2016-swiadomosc-historyczna-polakow, p. 15.
[xi] „Żołnierze wyklęci” – między historią, popkulturą a polityką, op. cit., p. 14.
[xii] Informacja o ustaleniach końcowych śledztwa S 28/02/Zi w sprawie pozbawienia życia 79 osób – mieszkańców powiatu Bielsk Podlaski w tym 30 osób tzw. furmanów w lesie koło Puchał Starych, dokonanych w okresie od dnia 29 stycznia 1946r. do dnia 2 lutego 1946 [accessed: 21.08.2017]. Online: http://ipn.gov.pl/pl/dla-mediow/komunikaty/9989,Informacja-o-ustaleniach-koncowych-sledztwa-S-2802Zi-w-sprawie-pozbawienia-zycia.html#page.
[xiii] Idem, “Wiersze o żołnierzach wyklętych”, Krytyka Polityczna [accessed: 21.08.2017]. Online: http://krytykapolityczna.pl/felietony/jas-kapela/wiersze-o-zolnierzach-wykletych.
[xiv] In the words of the editor-in-chief of the Więzi journal, which he used six years ago to describe the sides of the Polish historical debates, later quoted also in the issue on cursed soldiers. See Zbigniew Nosowski, Drodzy Państwo!, „Więź”, 2016, vol. 3, p. 5.
[xv] See for example Rafał Wnuk, op. cit.
[xvi] See for example Żołnierze Wyklęci w sieci historii. Antologia publicystyki historycznej miesięcznika „wSieci historii” z lat 2014–2017, ed. M. Karpowicz, M. Żaryn, J. Żaryn, Warsaw 2017, passim.
[xvii] This is a paraphrase of the words of Zbigniew Glua, who wrote about the authors and victims of propaganda under the People’s Republic of Poland :who believed that if someone raised a hand against that system, they undoubtedly were a pathological case”. See Zbigniew Gluza, “Od wydawców”, [in:] Wyklęci. Podziemie zbrojne 1944–1963, ed. M. Markowska, Warsaw 2013.