world war 2: warsaw uprising 1944

Hans Thieme. Recollections of the German Staff Officer. In: Warschauer Aufstand, 1944.

Editors Bernd Martin and Stanisława Lewandowska. Deutsch-Polnischer Verlag, 1999.

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  Excerpts from the war memoirs of Hans Thieme written immediately after the war’s end and based on his journal entries. Thieme was born in 1906 in Naunhof near Leipzig. He was a Professor of Jurisprudence from 1935 to 1940 at the University of Breslau and subsequently in Leipzig. He was conscripted for military service in 1939, and in 1944 he served as a intelligence lieutenant in the staff of the 203rd Division of the Wehrmacht. Following the war, he held a professor’s position in Goettingen. From 1953 to 1974 he taught in the Department of Jurisprudence at the Albert-Ludwig University in Freiburg near Breisgau. The excerpts were shortened to the extent that unimportant personal statements and repetitions were not included. This abridgement is indicated in the text. The editors would like to thank Professor Thieme for the permission he has given to publish.

Translation: Łukasz Nogalski.

I viewed the mission that was now bringing us to Warsaw with great apprehension. We did not know exactly what had happened there, but we could easily imagine the occurrences. Because the Russians had already approached the Vistula River and Praga, a city district on the East bank of the river, the Polish nationalists and workers, or perhaps just one of the groups, had without a doubt revolted; now they were to be suppressed. I could easily imagine what methods were to be used. It was also not hard to guess who was to lead us. I knew well the SS terror tactics used in the occupied countries; I had experienced their escalation in the General Government [occupied Poland]. It was imperative not to compromise oneself by getting involved in such affairs. Until now we had dealt with decent military assignments and did not want now to allow ourselves to get involved in any kind of scoundrel at the eleventh hour. We affirmed all this view among ourselves during the journey to our destination; our fears were of course to be fully confirmed.

It was in the morning on about the 5th or 6th of August when we arrived at the Warsaw-West station over Kutno-Lowicz, a familiar name from the 1939 campaign. A thick plume of smoke hovered above the city, and one could hear artillery fire and explosions; the railway station was almost empty. Only a couple of troop transports were on the move, as earlier Polish railway men were servicing these trains under the auspices of the German supervisory service. At the beginning, it was not known what to do with us. Colonel Schmidt of the 608, with whom we were supposed to be working and who had departed a day earlier, was not so easy to find. We were transported to Wlochy, a suburban railway station leading to Sochaczew, and there we unloaded. Major Weiss and I started our search.

Life seemed to run an almost normal course in these suburbs. However, now one saw many troops, trucks full of police, and Azerbaijani conscripts. Finally we found the colonel and learned about the military situation. The Poles had suddenly revolted on the 1st of August in the afternoon, and they had eliminated those soldiers who had been found alone in the city. They surrounded or occupied German bases and offices of authorities, captured military depots and having done that, were able to arm, clothe, and supply themselves with food. It was hard to ascertain who was friend or foe. Many Poles wore the camouflaged outfits of the SS, and a Tiger tank had also fallen into their hands. The insurgents were able to link together through the underground sewer system while we were able to defend only a few bases with the utmost difficulty.

The troops at high field command, those at the telegraph office [PASTA building], etc., had not yet been able to fight their way through to the Vistula River and to the other embankment and rejoin the front by completing their crucial breakthrough. The command of the troops was the 9th Army Group, and it deployed against the insurgency and command was given to SS Lt. General Reinefarth, high SS officer and Police Chief in the city of Poznan, and a Ritterkreuz [Knight’s Cross medal] holder. We were supposed to report to him, then to locate in the Wlochy, Warsaw’s suburb, but also keep two combat-ready platoons. (…)

We then occupied a large farm in the vicinity of Wlochy where we located our artillery pieces. A couple of small houses were taken for the officer staff (…), quite separated from the rest of the troops, and a modest apartment from a woman of German descent for the Major and myself. Then it was off to the unfortunate city. The police blocked the access roads into the city; only the military was allowed to pass. We had already heard that the whole affair was going dreadfully. There constant explosions, fires were blazing, all giving good evidence of that situation. We got the first impression of what was occurring on Lodzer Street, even before one could reach the city. There stood an orthodox Church in the middle of a cemetery. It was quite modern, massively built, and well-equipped, clearly a public benefice. Some inhabitants: men, women, and children apparently had fled to its cellar with their most valuable belongings. Their plundered luggage, clothes, beds, and other belongings lay around the cellar in disarray. Everyone [German soldiers] fumbled around there, trampling the belongings to look for and grab whatever they needed. But where were these people now? I came out alone from the cellar (...) and went around the church to one of the cemetery monuments. There they were! These poor and obviously innocent refugees who had hidden themselves in the church had been driven here together to the cemetery as a herd of people, and had been mowed down together – men, women, old people, and children. They lay now in the pool of their own blood. The flies buzzed in circles by the thousands, until some laborers burned or buried them.

Soon we saw more evidence of much sinister and gruesome oppression, charred bodies by house walls in heaps, limbs contorted and frozen in their defensive positions at death. Others were carried on stretchers to their graves with utmost indifference. We did not stop anywhere, and we didn’t inquire about anything. We only saw what any passerby could observe. During the first 3 or 5 days of the uprising everyone Polish, of any age or gender, was shot on the personal orders of Hitler. However, this was not done out of any humanitarian concern. The men were still being shot. They were driven away in a truck. They were called to a picket fence. Every one had to rip off a board and then line up with it. Then they were shot row by row, gasoline was poured on their bodies, and they were burned. The boards were there, so that they would burn better. I had never seen anything like it. Strangely enough, and may the Lord be praised for this, I never did personally witness the murder of a single person to the last day of this war, despite seeing large numbers of dead bodies. I did not purposely avoid such things, however I did not seek them out either like many people who during the Polish [1939] campaign had voluntarily rushed in to shoot along when there was a nearby execution taking place. (...)

We drove further toward the city, but we only got a couple of hundred meters because the fighting was still going on there. One could hear rifle shots and machine gun fire, and one saw overturned streetcars, barricades, and burning houses. There was terrible desolation everywhere. A large brickwork church on the left-hand side appeared to have suffered damage and was obviously being used as a gathering point for women and children who had been finally evacuated from the unlucky city. They sure shunned the executions. An unending procession of lamentation moved alongside of us. It was the most convulsive sight of my war experience to that point. There were women, children, and old people; dead tired, desperate faces, eyes swollen from smoke and tears, soothed faces. It was a scene of complete exhaustion and hopelessness.

Policemen with rifles under their arms trudged along. All of the police from occupied Poland came together there to show off their bravery and also to enrich themselves on the side. I did not see this activity, but others did. They saw how these policemen executed those from the procession who could not keep up, those who were sick and lagging behind, and right in front of their compatriots. What was particularly troubling about this misery is that unlike in Russia what was occurring was not a matter of a completely poor, and in any event already moaning, mass of people; rather these were people of our own social class, women in fur coats, cute children who up until two days before had been fully cared for. This memory has always caused me anguish during my short stopovers in Warsaw: the look from so many hostile eyes, people of our culture, who knew exactly what I knew. For that reason I was always glad never to have been deployed in the West. And now I stood beside these people in bitter agony, and I was shocked.

Now we arrived at the command post of the SS-commander. There were two buses parked on the right side of the street. We reported to the SS-commander, a medium-built stringent man with a sharply chiseled face. With a cold glance at the procession of women and children that was passing no farther than 10 meters from us, he said, “You see, this is our biggest problem. These refugees! I don’t have enough ammunition to kill them all!“ He said this quietly and with a remorseful shrug of the shoulders, this elegant officer with the Iron Cross [German medal] and pleasant manners. Meanwhile tears fell down my cheeks. What kind of human being was he? (…)

In the first days everyone [Polish civilians] was killed, but later on only the men were shot. Novel methods were used against the resistance fighters. The Goliath for example was a remote-controlled demolition charge, and the Typhoon created pummeling weather in the wells of Warsaw’s sewers system that served the resistance fighters as a hiding place. The Azerbaijani battalion or the “infamous plunderer’s brigade of Kaminski“ was deployed there. [ RONA ] They were a savage band which took out its frustrations on the civilian population, plundering and pillaging to their hearts’ content. I remember that a women from a one-family house in the nice suburb of Wlochy came running to us in a panic because two of those savage guys, wearing only a shirt and pants but with a revolver in their hands, were pestering her. I went in the house with a couple of people and took away these two twerps. I reached an SS officer and I wanted to hand them over, but he rejected the idea of dealing with them. I told him that we should be ashamed of such auxiliary troops in front of the Poles to which he angrily replied, “It is good that the Poles would once get a good taste for the Asiatic hordes from whom we were protecting them.“ I then took the two to their “Colonel“ Kaminski himself who, after I established the facts of the case, gave them a reprimand and then sent them away. A savage Caucasian character!

As a matter of fact, the unfortunate Polish nation wanted nothing else but to live undisturbed by their two big neighbors. The uprising, which broke out as the Red Army was approaching, was only intended to secure the future independence of Poland. Now, however, the Russians were sitting close by Praga, the suburb of Warsaw, on the right bank of the Vistula River. The Russians were watching, and not grudgingly, how the last class of Polish leaders and intellectuals were being slaughtered. They even prohibited the Anglo-American alliance, which wanted to help the insurgents, from using their airports. Despite this, the Poles received a lot of support from the air, namely supplies of automatic weapons and provisions; and as a result the uprising lasted for more than five weeks [in reality it was six weeks] and this time lead to the destruction of the majority of the Polish capital which until then, and despite the bombardments of 1939, had suffered only relatively minor war damage.

We tried to be released from this dishonorable assignment as soon as possible, which was not suited for the deployment of our heavy, horse-drawn artillery pieces. And so I drove with Major Weiss to Sochaczew to the 9th Army and some other service units. Because we had a lot of challenges to replenish our heavily hit division, they allowed us to go. On several other occasions I was with Major Weiss in the city which was constantly under a thick plume of black smoke and torn apart by fires and explosions. After the fighting troops, which suffered high casualties, came the plundering Azerbaijani, the SS, and the police. They all enriched themselves by all means possible and then let everything go up in flames. According to the orders of Adolf Hitler, Warsaw was to be razed to the ground. Commodities, furniture, and food products were taken out of the city by trucks, and there must have been significant stockpiles of these goods in the city because even during the war, it was possible to buy everything even when the goods were offered at unheard of prices. We hauled off a large amount of eggs from a refrigerated warehouse where one would literally crawl in eggs, and there were sacks upon sacks of sugar. My office got a new typewriter that was brought in single handedly by Major Weiss from an abandoned house. Lieutenant John "organized" for himself a brand new huge six-tube Telefunken radio and was parading around wearing an obviously stolen golden signet and getting drunk with his buddy, Sergeant Muhl, and a couple of Polish “ladies“ with whom he was spending the nights. (...)

The troops were demoralized by Himmler’s permission, first to the Azerbaijani battalion, and later to all the troops deployed in Warsaw to plunder the city. It became a matter of self-preservation to get out of there as soon as possible. I once visited the headquarters of our “special forces“ led by Lieutenant Schirmer and Lieutenant Prim. The headquarters was in a residential house on the northwest edge of the city. These once cozy and nicely furnished apartments of Polish families, some of whom were still hiding anxiously in the cellars, were now badly devastated. Repeatedly we also visited Colonel Schmidt in his command post now located at a fuel dump. There he played his vain genial role because he was assigned the command of a number of military formations and because he was treated by the superior commanders in the police with every possible courtesy. They treated the Wehrmacht well in every single respect due to their inferiority complex. (...)

For my part, I traveled on December 8th (...) in the general direction of the West [direction towards Dresden for vacation] (...) At first we drove t towards Lodz [ back from Dresden] where we were supposed to pick up a Mercedes Jeep. (…) In Lodz we had to wait another day. I saw “Don Pasquale” by Donizetti in a theater and stayed in a good hotel. I also saw the Lodz Ghetto which made the most horrifying impression on me. The car had to be picked up far outside the city where the intelligence units where stationed. Gasoline was rationed to me by the headquarters, and so the drive could begin. It was very pleasant to be able once again to sit at the wheel and be in control. I am not a machine that only carries out the orders of strangers; on the contrary I like to be my own leader. Despite this, I am very glad that during the war I did not shoulder any personal responsibility.

I have to admit that it was astounding to see how well administered and tidy occupied Poland actually was. There was order, cleanliness, reconstruction, especially in the flat countryside. It was a sign that we were not incapable of governing a foreign country. By what means this state of things was achieved is quite another matter. We drove through Lowicz and turned left from the highway toward Warsaw to cross the Vistula River. This was my route from the 1939 campaign, and I again recollected many details from that time, including the cemetery of World War I heroes that impressed us very much. We bathed in the Vistula River with great pleasure. Then our trip again took a northeast course. I drove grudgingly into East Prussia, knowing that the Russians could have already broken through the Vistula front and could cut all of us off and that we could meet with the fate of the Courland Army. How easily was all this fulfilled, how easy was it to predict this, and how little did one want to believe this at that time! (…)
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