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Warsaw’s Forgotten War

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By the winter of 1916–1917 most Varsovians likely believed their world was coming to an end, as their city was being visited by rapidly escalating incidences of starvation, disease, death, and conflict over increasingly scarce resources. Overshadowed by the greater horrors of a war yet to come, the existential crisis of Varsovians during the Great War has largely been forgotten. This article draws on various theoretical perspectives from the field of memory studies, particularly of the political and cultural structures which create silences, in an effort to explain why the First World War is likely to remain Warsaw’s forgotten war.

By the winter of 1916–1917 most Varsovians likely believed their world was coming to an end, as their city was being visited by rapidly escalating incidences of starvation, disease, death and conflict over increasingly scarce resources necessary to sustain human life. Were it not for copyright law, the title of Tadeusz Konwicki’s famous novel, A Minor Apocalypse, would serve as an apt heading for a study of the impact of the world’s first total war on the daily lives of the inhabitants of one of central Europe’s great cities. Overshadowed by the greater horrors of a war yet to come, the major apocalypse of devastation and destruction which characterized Warsaw’s amply-documented experience of the Second World War, the deprivation and desperation marking the existential crisis of Varsovians during the Great War has been largely forgotten. In Warsaw today, one is hard pressed to find any sign or site of public memory that might recall or reflect on the suffering of its citizens during the Great War, even as minor apocalypse. This is in stark contrast to the innumerable commemorative plaques, memorials and monuments devoted the Warsaw’s experience of the Second World War that dominates the city’s memory culture.

Not surprisingly, the historiography on Warsaw during the Great War is extremely limited, while that devoted to Poland more generally occupies little more than a shelf in the stacks of the Warsaw University library. Again, the contrast with the ever-expanding literature on the city’s experience of the Second World War could not be more striking. Moreover, in the traditional Polish national narrative that has dominated the existing sparse scholarship on the First World War, Warsaw figures little more than the major urban political setting in the larger story of the recovery of an independent Polish state (Królikowski and Oktabiński 2008; Wyszczelski 2008). One glance at the existing Polish-language secondary literature reveals an overwhelming preponderance of outdated titles on the military history of the war, devoted primarily to battles in which Polish legions participated, along with accounts tracing the activities of political parties and personalities during those years, especially those identified with the struggle for Polish independence. This has been supplemented in recent years by important German and English-language scholarship on the German occupation regime, which established its seat in Warsaw following the Russian evacuation of the city in August 1915 (Polsakiewicz 2009; Kaufman 2008). However, inasmuch as Warsaw appears in these studies, it does so mainly as a setting or target of German occupation policy, rather than a subject worthy of study in its own right.

The only real scholarly treatment of the experience of Warsaw’s inhabitants during the Great War is the one written by Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz, published nearly forty years ago (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1974). While Dunin’s focus was directed partly at the material condition of the population and the demographic consequences of the war, his short monograph is descriptive rather than analytical and interpretive, and lacks any kind of comparative perspective. Given the context in which it was written, Dunin’s book also ignored important issues related to class, ethnicity, gender, and culture that have inspired the best recent scholarship of the wartime experience of other capitals and major cities. Three years earlier, Dunin was also responsible for the publication of the only significant anthology of memoirs on the First World War in Warsaw, which informed and shaped his later study (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1971). The perspectives presented, as we shall see, were predominantly those of the male Polish intelligentsia and, as such, they focused more on wartime political developments than on everyday life.

Truth be told, literature on the urban experience of World War One in European metropolitan centers is still in its infancy. The pioneering volume of essays on the war’s social history in London, Paris and Berlin, Capital Cities at War, edited by Jan Winter and Jean-Louis Robert, was published only in 1997. This was followed by a second volume devoted to a cultural history of the war in the three capitals in 2007. In between, Belinda Davis, one of the contributors to the first Capital Cities volume, published Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (2000). Outside of the “Big Three” capital cities, David Rechter published an analysis of Jewish politics in wartime Vienna in 2001 (The Jews of Vienna and the First World War); but the real breakthrough came with Maureen Healy’s Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire: Total War and Everyday Life in World War I (2004) with its focus on shops, street corners, schools, pubs, and apartment buildings, everyday sites of conflict and “communal disintegration” on the home front as a consequence of growing hunger, violence, and the deterioration of social norms. More recently, Roger Chickering’s The Great War and Urban Life in Germany: Freiburg, 1914–1918 (2007) adopted a comprehensive methodological approach to a micro-history that illuminates the wartime experience of a medium-sized frontline city.

If the literature on the social and cultural history of the Great War in major European urban settings has yet to extend much beyond London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna to places like Warsaw Budapest and Prague, there is even less to be said of studies of war-related memory and memorialization in these latter cities. In Warsaw’s specific instance, one basically needs to start from scratch. In its attempt to initiate such a discussion, this article draws on various theoretical perspectives in the field of memory studies, beginning with the classic “socio-constructivist” approach to memory originally developed in the 1920s and 1930s by Maurice Halbwachs (Halbwachs 1980), as well as its significant amendment by Jan Assmann to account for institutionalized commemoration through cultural evolution (Assmann 2011). It has also benefited from the considerable theoretical contributions of Pierre Nora and his collaborators, particularly those related to the “places” (or “realms”) of memory, an academic enterprise developed over several decades (Nora 2001 and 2007). Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s analysis of the relationship of power to silences in memory, commemoration, and the production of historical narratives (Trouillot 1995) is especially relevant to this study, which focuses not only on what has been forgotten from Warsaw’s lived experience of the First World War, but also why it has been forgotten. At the same time, this article will contrast the forgotten war with the minimally memorialized one. Commemorating the social and economic experiences of non-combatants in wartime is a challenge in any case, but a monument constructed in 1925 in Vienna’s Central Cemetery depicting a grieving mother who was just as likely to have lost her child to malnutrition and disease as to battle during the war, suggests at least one possibility (Healy 2006, 54). Present-day Warsaw’s memory landscape of the First World War, as we shall see, contains nothing of the sort.

A Past Buried by Memory

Over twenty years ago, in his famous discussion of the recovery of memory of the Second World War, the late Tony Judt argued that in contrast with Western Europe, the problem in post-communist Eastern Europe was not a shortage of memory, but its reverse: “Here there is too much memory, too many pasts on which people can draw. [...]” (Judt 1992, 99). For our purposes, Warsaw’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Grób Nieznanego Żołnierza) in present-day Piłsudski Square offers a case in point. In 1923, a group of anonymous Varsovians, inspired by state-sponsored monuments and commemorations originating in Britain and France, placed before the Saxon Palace, then the seat of the Ministry of War, a stone tablet commemorating the unknown Polish soldiers who had fallen during the years 1914–1920. This effort at commemoration already conflated two wars, the Great War of 1914–1918 and the Polish-Soviet War, not to mention the border wars and armed conflicts with Ukraine, Lithuania, and Germany. Soon enough, the initiative for an official tomb was taken up by the War Minister, General Władysław Sikorski; some forty battlefields were considered by the Ministry for removing and transporting to Warsaw the remains of an unknown soldier, and ultimately Lwów during the Polish-Ukrainian War in eastern Galicia was selected. On 2 November 1925 the ceremonial reburial was accompanied by a twenty-one gun salute and the lighting of the eternal flame by President Stanisław Wojciechowski (Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowy 2005).

The burying of memory of the Great War, by heaping on it more recent memory, had clearly begun. In fact, it was already in process before the appearance of the tablet of the anonymous citizens in front of the Saxon Palace. Without a doubt more unknown Polish soldiers had died on the battlefields of the Great War than in independent Poland’s subsequent border wars and war with Soviet Russia. Accompanying this process of historical production were more fundamental silences about the everyday experiences and sufferings of Warsaw’s non-combatants, who died in even greater numbers than did its soldiers fighting in various armies during the First World War.

Let us return for a moment to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Ministry’s decision to use the site of the tomb to honor those who had died fighting for an independent Poland since 1794 contained a silence about the majority of Poles who had died fighting in the Great War in the service of the imperial Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian armies. Of the thirteen battles of the years 1914–1918 currently inscribed on tablets at the site, all of them involve Polish legions and brigades which fought – presumably for the idea of independent Poland – under their own banner, but as part of other armies, particularly the Austro-Hungarian and French. If the reality of Pole fighting Pole (rather than for independence) for the greater part of First World War contradicted the emerging narrative, so too did the collaboration of Polish political elites with ruling regimes and occupation authorities, even if those elites were divided in their support of the Entente and Central Powers. This includes those rival political figures now credited through their combined efforts with the restoration and defense of an independent Poland, Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski, to whom statues, squares, and roundabouts have been dedicated in Warsaw.

In any event, the thirteen battles featured in Piłsudski Square are not representative of Polish combat during the First World War. However, they are overshadowed by twenty-four battles from late 1918 to 1920, the years of the Soviet-Polish war and of Poland’s border wars with its Ukrainian, German, and Lithuanian neighbors, when Polish soldiers were mobilized and fought for a Polish state. The Battle for Lwów, as mentioned, fits this category, and that one of its battlefields, Gródek Jagielloński, was selected over dozens of others for the removal of the remains of an unknown soldier was not accidental. General Sikorski had commanded troops there in fending off a bloody Ukrainian siege in January 1919 (Wapiński 1997, 471). The wars of 1918–1920, too, would be dwarfed after 1945 by the seventythree inscriptions commemorating land, naval, and air battles of World War II in which Polish forces fought, or, like Katyń, were buried. They would also be bracketed by fifty-two “battles” prior to 1914, including terrorist attacks on Russian troops during the revolutionary years of 1904–1908. Thus, of the 162 battles featured at Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, approximately 45% are dedicated to World War II, 32% to the period 972 to 1914, 15% to the wars of 1918–1920, and only 8% to the years of the Great War – none of which, again, commemorate the thousands of Polish soldiers who died in the service of imperial armies. “Commemorations,” according to Trouillot, “impose a silence on events they ignore and fill that silence with narratives of power about the event they celebrate” (Trouillot 1995, 118). Whatever the intentions of the Warsaw citizens and their homemade tablet in 1923, the state-driven narrative at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is about the state, and those who fought and died for it for nearly a millennium. The tomb embraces accompanying themes of victimization and martyrdom, while excluding and trivializing what does not fit the conceptual framework which shaped its creation and evolution. The effective silencing of Polish military casualties during the Great War is not the result of conspiracy or even a political consensus. Instead, its roots are structural. This memory structure is also reflected in Warsaw’s larger monument landscape, which, in its few references to World War One, emphasizes its outcome – namely, independent Poland – at the expense of its actual course.

One can hardly expect military cemeteries, even symbolic ones like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to commemorate non-combatants of any era, yet as Katrin Van Cant has shown in her analysis of the nearly eighty open-air monuments erected in Warsaw between 1989 and 2009, the emphasis on the heroes of recent Polish military history and particularly those of World War II is similarly pronounced in the city’s streets (Van Cant 2009). 1 30% of these monuments are directly related to World War II, the majority of which commemorate the Home Army and the Warsaw Uprising. By comparison, only 6.5% of the new statues refer to World War I. “The most natural explanation for this,” according to Van Cant, “is that in Polish national memory, this war, despite the terrific human and material losses on the Polish side between 1914 and 1918, mainly has a positive connotation, because of its outcome” (Van Cant 2009, 98–99). In other words, the Great War does not easily fit the dominant narrative told by Warsaw’s monuments (any more than it did the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), “of Poland and the Polish people as victims of their history, nevertheless always displaying an indestructible will to fight for the existence and freedom of the nation” (Van Cant 2009, 113).

However, if we look closely at these monuments, we will see that there is more to the story. None of the monuments in Van Cant’s study refer to the Great War as it was experienced by non-combatants in Warsaw, but to its “positive outcome” for the Polish nation. That outcome had been a relatively taboo subject in the communist era, during which not a single monument was erected to commemorate a person or event that took place prior to 1945, with the exception of the monument to the Polish communist and founder of the Soviet secret police, Feliks Dzierżyński, in the city center. 2 The 1998 Memorial to the Military Action of the Polish American is dedicated to Polish-American soldiers who fought under the command of General Józef Haller in France and against the Ukrainians in eastern Galicja in 1918. There is also the 2005 memorial to Father Jerzy Skorupka, a chaplain in the Polish army who died in 1920 during the war with the Soviets. In the 1990s three statues were dedicated to Piłsudski, the acknowledged “founder” of the interwar state, and a final one to Dmowski in 2006. Due to Dmowski’s primacy of place in the pantheon of Poland’s radical right, the monument and surrounding roundabout in his name proved the most controversial, despite Dmowski’s “positive” role at the Paris Peace Conference.

Also honored, in Skaryszewski Park, is Colonel Edward M. House, advisor to the American wartime president Woodrow Wilson and “friend of Poland,” whose 1932 statue was removed by the communists in 1951 and restored in 1991. 3 Wilson and Herbert Hoover are two other Americans connected to the First World War honored in the Polish capital. Tellingly, Wilson is honored with a plaza (plac in Polish) for making an independent Poland one of his Fourteen Points and an American war aim. Constructed in the interwar period as a major transportation hub, plac Wilsona and its name survived through and beyond the communist era. Meanwhile, Hoover, the head of the postwar American Relief Administration responsible for saving thousands of lives, is honored with a skwer (which really isn’t a square) adjacent to Warsaw’s most prominent boulevard, Krakowskie Przedmieście. Skwer Hoovera remains the only physical marker of Warsaw’s existential catastrophe of the Great War. In 1922 a monument “of gratitude to America” had been erected in Hoover’s honor that portrayed two women holding children who had presumably been saved from starvation as a result of American relief efforts, but by 1930 the sandstone sculpture was already falling apart and had to be removed from the square. It was subsequently destroyed during the Second World War. Under the communist regime, the square was stripped of Hoover’s name along with the pedestal for the original monument, but the square’s original name was restored in 1992, accompanied by a stone memorial. Plans to restore the original statue of 1922, however, have not been realized to date (Hoover Institution 2005).

Two groups, as Van Cant shows, are completely underrepresented in Warsaw’s public monuments – women and Jews. Three of Warsaw’s currently standing monuments commemorate Jews, all of them directly related to World War II and the Holocaust, of which only one was erected after 1989, in the distant suburb of Falenica. Women come off slightly better, with four new monuments since 1989, raising the total to seven, which honor “the fighting (and caring) woman and first-class patriot” (Van Cant 2009, 109). Primarily viewed as non-combatants during the First World War, no member of either group is remembered for this time period. More significant, however, is that Varsovians themselves are woefully underrepresented in the monuments and statues of their own city. Only a few local heroes have been honored with their own monument in Warsaw, and none of them are connected to the First World War. The emphasis is clearly on the national rather than the local. As Van Cant explains, “Warsaw as the capital fulfills the role of visiting card to the entire country” and the narrative delivered by its monuments is firmly focused on the later history of twentieth-century Poland “because it was extremely traumatic and [because] the scars inflicted by those events are still very fresh in the national consciousness” (Van Cant 2009, 112). However, the problem with remembering the First World War in Warsaw may run much deeper than a preoccupation with what came after it, but with how its “history” was recorded in the first place, in its very sources.

The Root of the Problem

The recording of history, Assmann argues, gives rise to “a dialectic of expansion and loss,” the latter “through forgetting and through suppression by way of manipulation, censorship, destruction, circumspection, and substitution” (Assmann 2011, 9). According to Trouillot, “[Sources] privilege some events over others, not always the ones privileged by the actors [...] Silences are inherent in the creation of sources, the first moment of historical production” (Troiullot 1995, 48 and 51). If, as Trouillot argues, “History is the fruit of power” and “in history, power begins at the source” (Trouillot 1995, xix and 29), what can be said of the sources available for an examination of the everyday lives of ordinary Varsovians during the First World War?

Let us begin with the archival evidence. Warsaw was under Russian rule during the first year of the war, until early August 1915, after which the city came under German occupation. The documents written and compiled by these political authorities obviously reflect a certain perspective, if not always from the top, then from various ranks of administrations concerned primarily with the preservation of order and control. Seldom do we hear from those who are the subjects of these documents, except when they offer resistance to or come under suspicion of the authorities. The most significant archival collection of Russian administration for the first year of the war, the files of the Warsaw Superintendent of Police, demonstrates a preoccupation with requisitioning and evacuation, along with ungrounded fears of Jewish espionage on behalf of the Central Powers. 4 No attention is paid to the steady deterioration of living standards caused by the war and requisitioning, at least in the documents available to us. And what is available to us represents only a small fraction of the written record, since many documents were deliberately destroyed during the Russian evacuation, while others were transported from Warsaw, never to return. Thus what have survived are fragments, such as the files of the requisitions commission for Warsaw’s fourth precinct, 5 which historians may take as representative – at least for a particular process.

The documents of the German occupation authorities in Warsaw fared no better, in fact, even worse. Again, there was purposeful destruction. The majority of the most important and secret documents from the Warsaw Governor-General’s office were burned in November 1918, as described in his memoirs by Bohdan Hutten-Czapski, the principal “Polish expert” of Governor-General Hans von Beseler (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1971, 478–479). Nevertheless, some 980 volumes were preserved, as were those of the Chief of Administration, and deposited in the Archiwum Akt Nowych (AAN). Following the German invasion of 1939, these documents were packed off in their entirety to Potsdam, where they were destroyed in 1945 during the siege of Berlin. Meanwhile, fragments from Beseler’s personal collection had been preserved by his family and after World War II were transferred to the German federal archive in Koblenz. Some were reproduced on microfilm and photocopies and returned to Poland. Today, some thirty-six files as well as fragments from fifteen others, only a tiny fraction of what had once existed, are available to researchers at the Archiwum Główne Akt Dawnych (AGAD). 6 These consist primarily of Beseler’s reports, the quarterly reports of the Chief of Administration, and a small number of announcements, declarations, orders and petitions. The collection of the Imperial German Presidium of Police in Warsaw contains only a few random documents, which are practically useless, since it is difficult to place them in larger contexts.

Nonetheless, the available German documents, taken as a whole, reveal more about wartime living conditions in Warsaw than the Russian documents, perhaps because their political implications grew as the war continued. Official quarterly reports, for example, discuss the refugee crisis the Germans encountered upon entering Warsaw, high inflation and unemployment, threats to public health, tensions in Polish-Jewish relations, fraternization of German troops with Polish women, and especially issues related to the food supply – its control and distribution, and associated activities, such as smuggling. Appendices to the reports of Chief of Administration contain particularly valuable statistical data on various diseases and levels of employment. What is striking, however, is the absence of references in these documents to the political situation in Warsaw, perhaps because these were precisely the kinds of documents that were purposefully burned in November 1918.

In an early report from the Fall of 1915, Beseler claimed that one of his main tasks was “to contain or deflect political propaganda” for independence. 7 To do so, the German occupation regime first permitted cultural expressions of Polish (and Jewish) national sentiment and, as the war continued and the Russians failed to sue for peace, the establishment of quasi-state institutions and self-governing bodies such as municipal councils. Among the former was the Provisional State Council (Tymczasowy Rada Stanu – TRS), a consultative body formed to work with German and Austrian authorities to design state institutions in the occupied Polish Kingdom. Before it was replaced by one of those institutions (the Regency Council), the TRS lasted some seven and a half months, from 14 January to 31 August 1917. It is estimated that over 25% of its archive survived the Second World War, 8 a far higher percentage than that of its successor, both of which are located in Warsaw’s AAN. Whereas one is hard-pressed to find references to the political situation in the German documentary collections housed in Warsaw-based repositories, this appears to have been a primary concern of the TRS, whose files reveal a careful monitoring of the Warsaw press, both legal and underground, thanks to which we have some evidence of incidents of unrest – food riots and student strikes in May 1917, demonstrations and political vandalism following the arrest of Józef Piłsudski in July 1917. However, such documents afford us only fleeting and fragmentary glimpses into the lives of ordinary Varsovians during the First World War, and these through lenses trained on other objects.

The same could be said of the collections of private papers of individuals who served in these “Polish” institutions which are also housed at AAN, principal among them the Dzierzbicki and Drzewiecki papers. 9I mention these two in particular because of the positions held during the war by Stanisław Dzierzbicki and Piotr Drzewiecki, respectively. A civil engineer by training, Stanisław Dzierzbicki was a dedicated public servant who, during the war years, became involved in the provision of relief and assistance to victims of the war, most significantly as the president of the Main Welfare Organization (Rada Główna Opiekuńcza – RGO), after which he became a member of the Provisional State Council and Minister of Agriculture under the Regency Council. To judge by his papers, Dzierzbicki was concerned primarily with issues related to funding, provisioning, and the distribution of assistance before 1917 and, as his functions changed in that year, by outbursts of unrest in Warsaw’s streets and universities. Piotr Drzewiecki, who had presided over a number of industrial and commercial boards before the war, was one of the founding members of the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee, an NGO formed with imperial Russian approval in August 1914 in order to deal with war’s side-effects, economic or otherwise, on the Warsaw home front. As the war continued and the needs of Warsaw’s inhabitants mounted, the Citizens’ Committee became the main welfare agency in the city. Following the Russian evacuation, its executive branch was transformed into the Warsaw city administration, where Drzewiecki served as vice president. Drzewiecki’s papers for this period reveal the perspective of an administrator dealing with German demands for labor, unwelcome German supervision of the city’s judicial and educational institutions, and a strained city budget. They also reveal a National Democrat concerned with electoral politics, in this case, the newly formed Warsaw City Council. In both the Dzierzbicki and Drzewiecki papers, with the focus on the administrative and political, only side-glances are offered toward the quotidian struggles of those whom they presumably served.

The best view of these struggles from the archives, at least for the first twenty-one months of the war, is contained in the minutes of meetings of the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee and its presidium, which are available in the Warsaw city archive. 10 The minutes of these meetings are quite detailed and demonstrate how the committee’s responsibilities expanded in conjunction with the needs of the city and its population. From concerns about the city’s unemployed, waves of refugees, energy supplies, and setting price ceilings in the early months of the war, to the provisioning of public kitchens, food rationing, the spread of infectious diseases and drafting an electoral ordinance during the first year of the German occupation, the challenges facing the Committee are well documented. However, while the Committee’s discussions of the reports of its sections and sub-sections appear in the minutes, they are abbreviated, while the reports themselves – which would provide an even closer view of everyday life on the ground – are not available. Thus, what we often see is in the aggregate – the number of refugees sheltered, or meals served in public kitchens over a particular period – instead of the specific. Far less complete are the archives of the Committee’s successor organizations, the Warsaw city administration and the Warsaw city council, although what is available provides evidence of financially strapped city institutions trying to make ends meet while dealing with an implacable occupier and growing urban unrest, including a strike of municipal employees. 11 Basically, the documentary evidence is far more robust for the first year of the war, when Warsaw remained under Russian rule and before the Warsaw Citizens Committee and its sections were transformed into organs of self-government, than in the last three-plus years when the general economic crisis experienced by the city’s inhabitants was gradually transformed into an existential catastrophe.

Indeed, a similar imbalance can be noted in a reading of the mass circulation press, the principal chronicler of everyday life. The difference can be explained by censorship, whose constraints were fewer under the Russians than the Germans. In part, this was because Warsaw’s Polish-language daily press, by and large, was pro-Russian, as were the National Democrats, who possessed the strongest political organization in the city. Greater press freedom was also a consequence of the Revolution of 1905, which led to a veritable explosion of press titles in Warsaw, including those in Yiddish and Hebrew. Compared to its Polish counterpart, the Jewish-language(s) press in Warsaw was viewed with far greater suspicion by the Russian government during the first year of the war, to the point that it was shut down entirely as the Russians prepared their evacuation from Warsaw in the summer of 1915 (Zieliński 2005, 116). While reporting on the situation at the front, especially as it drew closer to Warsaw in the fall of 1914 and again in the summer of 1915, was largely taboo, the Polish press remained free to express itself on practically everything else, including the now perennial “Jewish question.” More to the point, through featured sections titled “Z miasta” (“From the City”), dailies such as the long-standing Kurjer Warszawski, with its close ties to the city’s Polish political and cultural elites, as well as Nowa Gazeta, representative of Warsaw’s assimilated and liberal Jewish elite, were able to offer relatively clear snapshots of how the city’s residents sought to negotiate the hardships of the war’s first year, although the accompanying commentary reflected the biases of journalists and editors.

This situation was reversed under the Germans, who were well aware of the politically destabilizing effects of the ever-deteriorating living conditions in the city, to which their policies of requisitioning and control of resources were the main contributing factor. Thus, reporting on those conditions and their consequences became increasingly taboo, particularly following the establishment of preventive censorship on 25 September 1915, which specifically targeted “all rumors, news and commentaries about the decisions of the occupation authorities, whether civil or military” and “all articles about incidents, accidents, epidemics and poverty.” 12 While some circumvention of the censor was possible, as I have discussed in another article devoted to a discussion of Warsaw’s “barefoot” phenomenon (Blobaum 2013), the issues had to appear politically innocuous to avoid scrutiny. One will therefore find no mention of Warsaw’s major food riots of June 1916 and May 1917 in the officially registered Warsaw daily press – a most dramatic instance of silencing. What we know about these riots come from other sources – a list of ransacked grocery stories subsidized and administered by the city that Nowa Gazeta and other legal dailies intended but were never able to publish, as well as accounts in the clandestine press. Interestingly, even in a media outlet whose self-proclaimed goal to provide information that could not otherwise appear in the Warsaw press, news about the May 1917 riots appeared in its back pages, this despite the fact that looting had lasted an entire day. 13

As if in compensation, the German occupation authorities were more than willing to permit public expressions of Polish national pride in commemorations, the most significant being the celebrations of the anniversary of the Constitution of 3 May 1791, and in the press commentary leading up them. Particularly welcome was the discussion of events in Polish history that had an anti-Russian flavor, such as the 1830 and 1863 uprisings. There was another form of venting, however, that proved even more valuable to the Germans. After an initial attempt to put a lid on public expressions of Polish-Jewish hostility in order to prevent disturbances in the rear of their armies, as the war continued the German authorities gradually began to lift it in order to release steam from frustrations built up by their own policies. By the end of the war, the vitriol in Polish-Jewish press polemics in Warsaw matched that of the last years of Russian rule.

The point here is that, over the course of the war, as everyday struggles in Warsaw literally became a matter of life and death, the Warsaw press moved away from these struggles in its coverage. One might blame the German censor in the case of the legal press, but the issues of malnutrition and starvation were not a priority of the uncensored “independent” press, even when the collapse of living standards resulted in food rioting.

Memoirs are often taken by historians as a more suspect type of primary source, even if they place too much faith in the value of archives and contemporary press accounts. However, it is important to raise questions about which memoirs get published and with what objective. A look at those compiled by Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz in his anthology for Warsaw during the First World War is instructive here. As mentioned, despite its claim to represent a cross-section of perspectives, the anthology displays a clear bias in favor of political activists and journalists from the male Polish intelligentsia. Bogdan Hutten-Czapski, a landed Polish aristocrat close to the Kaiser who arrived in Warsaw as a member of the entourage of Governor- General Beseler, is the sole voice of the German occupation authorities in the anthology, while the perspective of the of the imperial Russian regime lacks a single representative. Despite Warsaw’s pronounced demographic feminization during the war, excerpts were taken from the writings of only two women, Maria Kamińska and Władysława Głodowska-Sampolska, activists with ties to the radical left, ancestors of the communist regime which ruled Poland at the time of the anthology’s publication in 1971, but who were politically insignificant during the war years. Further exaggeration of the role of proto-communist formations is evident through the inclusion of memoirs written by male activists Bronisław Fijałek and Aleksander Tomaszewski. The anthology also appeared three years after that regime’s 1968 “anti-Zionist” campaign, a purging of Jews from the state bureaucracy, party apparatus, and positions of prominence in Polish society. Excerpts from the memoirs of two assimilated Jews – those of Kamińska (whose real name was Maria Eiger) and the journalist Aleksander Kraushar – do make an appearance, but their authors’ ancestry remains unacknowledged by the editor. Wartime Warsaw thus appears in the anthology as ethno-religiously homogeneous, and without a single mention of Polish-Jewish relations, the defining issue of local politics following municipal council elections in 1916.

This is not to suggest that Dunin-Wąsowicz’s anthology is worthless for the study of everyday life in Warsaw from 1914 to 1918. As mentioned, Dunin’s book on Warsaw during the First World War pays a great deal of attention to material conditions and their deterioration, and his anthology does provide space for the memoirs of social workers. One of the most revealing comes from Franciszek Herbst, who served as secretary of the Labor Section of the Warsaw Citizens Committee and continued to serve the city administration following the Committee’s dissolution. Yet even Herbst writes that the distribution efforts of the Citizens Committee were exclusively carried out by women volunteers (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1971, 306). If women were in the front lines in the distribution of aid during the war, the direct recipients of this aid, first and foremost, were also women. These two categories of women are absolutely crucial to understanding the experience of war in Poland’s once and future capital, but their voices are nowhere to be found in Dunin’s anthology. Nor will we find them in the works of professional historians.

History and Memory

Pierre Nora has succinctly defined historiography as “the scholarly construction of memory” (Nora 2001, xx). Michel-Rolph Truillot ties that “scholarly construction” to power and to “the size, the relevance, and the overwhelming complexity of the overlapping sites where history is produced, notably outside of academia” (Trouillot 1995, 19). “The value of a historical product,” he argues further, “cannot be debated without taking into account the context of its production and the context of its consumption” (Trouillot 1995, 146). In this sense, history – as the story about what happened – becomes part of continuous myth-making and sanitization processes that include the creation of sources, the social construction of memory itself, and its cultural organization, commodification, and institutionalization through ceremony and commemoration. Despite professional historians’ belief in scientific history and an ability to set aside their own preferences and stakes, only broad and profound transformations of consciousness and identity can create new ways of understanding the past – for example, of the kind in France identified by Nora which gave birth to memory studies.

In Poland, while the beginnings of such transformations may be perceptible, national consciousness and identity are still largely shaped by feelings of victimization and the “struggle” for independence which, in turn, have provided the conceptual framework that makes some narratives rather than others powerful enough to pass as accepted history. Except for its outcome, as we have already noted, the First World War ill fits this framework and the everyday travails of non-combatants on the Warsaw “home front” during the war even less so. To demonstrate this point more specifically and the way that “history” can be made to fit an established and accepted framework, let us return for a moment to how women and their wartime roles are featured in the few studies devoted to them.

As mentioned previously, Warsaw’s women, broadly speaking, can be divided into two categories. The first, to borrow Belinda Davis’s term used throughout her study of wartime Berlin, were the “women of lesser means” (Davis 2000), who, in the case of Warsaw as well as Berlin, comprised the vast majority of women. In Warsaw this included the laboring poor, but more significantly the female unemployed, particularly former domestic servants, who before the war comprised the largest number of employed women in Warsaw and whose jobs were lost due to the evacuation of Russian officials and the growing impoverishment of middle-class and intelligentsia households. Joining these “women of lesser means” were single mothers and wives left temporarily or permanently without male partners due to wartime circumstances of conscription and labor out-migration. Among the most publicly and politically visible women in this category were the rezerwistki, soldiers’ wives whose sense of entitlement was publicly acknowledged – that is, until it came to be perceived as a threat to the existing social order. Finally, there were the “women of loose morality,” as they were referred to in the press, occasional prostitutes whose numbers increased significantly in the midst of the city’s economic destitution.

The second kind of women in Warsaw were similar to those identified by Maureen Healy in her study of wartime Vienna, defined as a vocal minority among affluent women who spoke on behalf of “women” in general, including “women of lesser means” (Healy 2004, 167). Although the numbers of women of affluence, if anything, declined in Warsaw during the war years as economic misery traveled up the social hierarchy, the size of the minority speaking on behalf of women grew noticeably as a small number of prewar feminists of conviction were joined by a much larger group of feminists of wartime circumstance. The latter can be defined as the female members of prewar social and cultural conservative elites whose perspectives and, ultimately, demands were shaped by their wartime experience in philanthropy, social work, and public assistance. These women, conservative in their political outlook but well aware of the importance of their wartime social roles, made and ultimately won the case for women’s suffrage and equal political rights by the end of 1918.

Neither of these two groups of women, however, is featured in the scant literature on women during the First World War. Instead, the focus has been placed – or misplaced – on those women who served as volunteers in auxiliary military organizations, particularly those which supported the Polish Legions. These organizations, with a combined 16,000 members by the middle of 1916, were also the largest wartime women’s associations on Polish lands. As noted by Joanna Dufrat, their agenda included the promotion of equal political rights (Dufrat 2008), but to assign the achievement of those rights to these organizations is to exaggerate. To claim, moreover, that “the most significant role” played by Polish women during the war years was their work in auxiliary organizations (Kuźma-Markowska 2011, 267), trivializes and even silences the wartime home front roles played by the majority of women, as consumers in dire need of philanthropy and public assistance and social workers attempting to meet that need, especially in urban centers like Warsaw.

The fact that women are featured at all in the Polish narrative of the First World War – even as patriots contributing to the recovery of an independent state – is the outcome of a slight alteration in the conceptual framework resulting from the introduction of women and gender studies to Polish universities since 1989. An even more fundamental change has occurred in the discussion of Polish-Jewish relations, starting in the late 1980s and accelerating with the publication of Neighbors by Jan Tomasz Gross in Polish (Gross 2000). Over the last couple of decades there has been a great deal of new research into the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in Poland (Blobaum 2005) and on the parallel and interrelated trajectories of modern Polish and Jewish politics (Porter 2000 and Ury 2012). For the period of the First World War, the work of Konrad Zieliński particularly stands out (Zieliński 2005).

There is a danger, however, in reducing the histories of Poles and Jews in the modern era to their “relations,” to the emergence of radical nationalism and anti-Semitism, and more generally to the rise of mass political organizations. I raise this issue as someone who recently has become conscious of his own participation in this distortion and, therefore, in the neglect of other possible narratives. As Assmann reminds us, the past is not something that can be “preserved,” but is “continually subject to processes of reorganization according to changes taking place in the frame of reference of each successive present” (Assmann 2011, 27). In this instance, professional historians have become prisoners not only of a fashionable historiographical trend focused on the rise of modern and competing nationalisms, but also of sources that confirm their own predispositions, in particular the writings and memoirs of political activists and intellectuals, as well as the articles and columns which characterized a highly politicized Polish and Jewish press. In the process, we have taken evidence of political mobilization, the development of national identities, and growing antagonism between Poles and Jews to shape what is becoming an accepted narrative, while ignoring evidence to the contrary: namely, that majorities of Poles and Jews, even in Warsaw’s hothouse, were not politically mobilized, and that the numbers of those who were not only waxed, but also waned.

During the First World War, only a minority of eligible voters participated in Warsaw’s first-ever municipal elections in 1916. What then can be said of the even larger numbers of Poles and Jews, especially women, who were not embraced by the limited suffrage in the electoral ordinance approved by the German occupation authorities earlier that year? In the end, identity politics were likely of secondary or even tertiary concern to the majority of Poles and Jews who by circumstance should have been, and were, focused on pursuing strategies of surviving the wartime existential crisis, even if it came at the other’s expense and, truth be told, at the expense of fellow co-nationals.

According to Trouillot, historians, whether amateur or professional, are full participants in the processes of historical production, of shaping and reshaping of conceptual frames of reference that determine what is thinkable and unthinkable, and of making the unthinkable a “non-event” (Trouillot 1995, 98). Warsaw’s two major food riots during the First World War, clear expressions of concerns at the street level, have thus become non-events in conceptual frameworks that contain space only for events of political and national significance. Recovery of the lived experiences of ordinary Varsovians during the war and the capacity of such a narrative to pass as accepted history require a fundamentally different, if not directly competing, framework. The odds, at least in the short term, are against its emergence.

Conclusion: An Imagined Centennial

The hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War is rapidly approaching. It will be interesting to see how this event will be commemorated in Warsaw, or if it will be treated as a “non-event.” Given the layered structures of memory, commemoration, and historical production, one can imagine possible scenarios. As a consequence of the war’s “positive” outcome in November 1918 – the restoration of an independent Polish state – the centennial of August 1914 may not pass by entirely unnoticed. Perhaps a wreath will be laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in honor of those Poles who died as members of the Polish legions, to the neglect of those who did not. Perhaps honorable mention will be made of women who served in auxiliary organizations supporting the legionnaires. One might expect to hear speeches of politicians in front of Warsaw’s two monuments to Józef Piłsudski, likely in competing claims to the founder’s legacy. This expected accentuation on the end point of independence may not be entirely exclusive, however. Perhaps newspapers and magazines will publish articles by local, non-academic historians focusing on the nuts and bolts of the city’s history to include stories from the war’s first days and weeks – of a city in motion, of the run on banks, of panic-buying, of the shortage of coin to make spare change, of the prohibition on sales of alcohol.

Such stories, if they do appear, will not challenge the existing conceptual framework. No mention will be made of the thousands of young men who volunteered to serve in the Russian army, or of the support of Warsaw’s political elites for the generally popular cause of Russian arms. No mention will made of the thousands of young women who volunteered to serve on the home front as nurses and nurses’ aides in treating the Russian wounded. No mention will be made of the Russian government’s financial support for and fruitful working relationship with the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee in managing the immediate economic consequences of the war’s first weeks and months. Mention might be made of Warsaw’s most popular political figure during the war’s first year – Prince Zdzisław Lubomirski, co-founder and presiding officer of the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee and the city’s first president following the Russian evacuation – but a proposal to honor his contributions to the city’s well-being and his efforts to fend off existential disaster is extremely unlikely. After all, in November 1918, Piłsudski technically seized power from the Regency Council, one of the quasi-state institutions created by the German occupier and headed by Lubomirski who had “collaborated” with not one, but two imperial regimes. To date the sole tribute to the well-meaning prince’s activities during the war remains the publication of the diary of his devoted wife (Pajewski 2002).

Just as Lubomirski’s profile fails to fit the statuary mold of hero and martyr, so too does that of Dr. Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka. Trained in France as a specialist in tuberculosis Budzińska-Tylicka began practicing in Warsaw in 1908, where she became an early pioneer in the area of women’s health and formed part of the leadership core of the prewar feminist movement that focused on equal rights. During the war years, Budzińska-Tylicka organized courses in the delivery of first aid and organized a field hospital for treatment of the wounded, while also continuing her advocacy of women’s rights. In September 1917, she presided over the Polish Women’s Congress, whose most prominent delegates came from the fifteen organizations that comprised the Union of Polish Women’s Associations. Following the meeting of this “small women’s parliament,” as Nowa Gazeta called it at the time, 14 Budzińska-Tylicka and the executive committee of the Women’s Congress intensively lobbied the Warsaw city council and administration to revise the electoral ordinance of the previous year, while organizing mass meetings to pressure male elites into granting voting rights at both the state and local level. Following the war and the death of her son from the Great Influenza, and with the success of the suffrage campaign behind her, Budzińska-Tylicka became a prominent spokesperson for planned parenthood and birth control. Budzińska-Tylicka’s support for “conscious motherhood,” including abortion, was condemned at the time by Poland’s interwar Roman Catholic Church and would be condemned now by its more powerful and more politically influential contemporary version. Moreover, Budzińska-Tylicka opposed the Sanacja regime established by Józef Piłsudski following his coup d’état of 1926 (Sierakowska 2006, 80). Thus, despite Budzińska-Tylicka’s prominent place in the successful women’s suffrage movement of the war years, we should not expect to see a public monument constructed in her honor any time soon. A more likely candidate would be the better known “national feminist” Iza Moszczeńska, who, as founder of the Women’s Military Auxiliary League sought to merge women’s desires to participate in the struggle for independence with their emancipatory aspirations as early as 1913 (Dufrat 2008, 118). Moreover, Moszczeńska was an early twentieth-century defender of the more traditional notions of “Polish” motherhood (Blobaum 2002, 807), and thus better fits existing conceptual structures for commemorating women in Warsaw. That said, the odds against a Moszczeńska monument are long as well, given the general paucity of public statues devoted to women in the Polish capital.

There remains the monument of the desperate mother and her two hungry children which once stood prominently on Hoover Square – to my mind, the most symbolic representation of everyday life in Warsaw during the First World War. The planned reconstruction and resurrection of that monument, originally announced in 2006, has been inexplicably delayed. I can imagine no better moment than the centennial of August 1914 for a ceremonial unveiling of that statue, not necessarily “in gratitude to America” (the inscription on the original statue), but in remembrance of a forgotten war and its horrific impact on the lives of the majority of city’s non-combatants. After all, a conceptual framework once existed to accommodate that statue in the heart of Warsaw. The question is whether one exists in the present.


Robert. Blobaum. In Eberly Family Professor of European History and Director of the Transatlantic MA Program in East-Central European Studies at West Virginia University. His books include Rewolucja: Russian Poland, 1904–1907, which was awarded the Oskar Halecki Prize, and Antisemitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland, both published by Cornell University Press. He is currently working on a book devoted to everyday life in Warsaw during the First World War.


1 Being interested primarily in the “street scene,” Van Cant’s study deliberately excludes cemeteries.

2 The monument to “bloody Feliks,” whose hands were repeatedly painted red by politically-inspired vandals in the 1980s, was removed immediately after the 1989 revolution.

3 This according to the inscription on the base of the statue.

4 Archiwum Państwowe m. st.Warszawy (APW), Zarząd Oberpolicmajstra Warszawskiego (ZOW).

5 APW, Komisja Rewizyjna IV Rejonu Miasta Warszawy (KR).

6 These are available in three collections: Cesarsko-Niemieckie Generał- Gubernatorstwo w Warszawie (CNGGW), Szef Administracji przy Generał-Gubernatorstwie w Warszawie (SAGGW), and Cesarsko-Niemieckie Prezydium Policji w Warszawie (CNNPP).

7 AGAD CNGGW 1, Beseler to the Kaiser, 23 October 1915.

8 Archiwum Akt Nowych (AAN), Tymczasowa Rada Stanu w Warszawie (TRS), description of collection.

9 AAN, Akta Stanisława Dzierzbickiego (ASD) and Akta [Piotra, Ludwika i Wiesława] Drzewieckich (AD). The Drzewiecki collection, in addition to the papers of Piotr Drzewiecki, also contains those of his brother Ludwik and Ludwik’s son, Wiesław.

10 APW, Komitet Obywatelski Miasta Warszawy (KOMW), 1914–1916.

11 APW, Zarząd Miejski m. st. Warszawy (ZMW), 1915–1919.

121 APW, Redakcja Nowej Gazety (RNG) 1, Circular #12 of the Press Department of the Chief of Administration under the Warsaw Governor-General, 6 October 1915. This collection of documents from the editorial board of Nowa Gazeta contains communications and announcements from the German occupation authorities and offers a rare perspective on how one Warsaw daily dealt with German censorship.

13 See “Rozruchy żywnościowe wybuchły w Warszawie,” Komunikat Informacyjny 1 (9–11 May 1917), p. 4. The same could be said for Rząd i Wojsko, an “independent” press organ published by Piłsudski’s supporters; see “Głód i polityka” and “Rozruchy w Warszawie,” Rząd i Wojsko 18 (20 May 1917), pp. 7, 8.

14 “Po zjeździe kobiet”, Nowa Gazeta 446 (10 September 1917), p. 1.

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