The Royal Castle, Warsaw…
Today, the Royal Castle is a proud and magnificent red brick building at the heart of the reconstructed Old Town but as with everything else in Warsaw it had to be rebuilt after the Second-World-War.
At the ticket office the clerk explained that the whole of the castle was not open today but by way of compensation entrance was free. This seemed like a good deal, no money changed hands and only half a museum for Kim!
Inside the castle we passed through a succession of royal chambers and reconstructed rooms. The castle was more or less destroyed in September 1939 when the Luftwaffe bombed it and the Wehrmacht artillery finished the job soon after. Staff at the Palace had very little time to respond to the German invasion but they did manage to save a few valuable pieces and hide them away for the duration of the war. The Germans turned up quickly of course and the castle was stripped and looted by Hitler’s team of archaeologists and historians, the Ahnenerbe Organisation who dropped by to catalogue and steal the precious exhibits and take them back to Berlin.
On account of this most of the displays are obliged to point out that what we see is a reconstruction or a copy. Most of what went to Germany was never returned and was either destroyed or is hidden away in private collections still.
What is most noticeable is that in the museum rooms almost all of the pieces on display have an explanatory note that they are the gift of this or that government and country, Russia, Italy, The Vatican, The Netherlands and so on. It is impossible to view these exhibits and the explanations and not feel sad.
At the end of the tour there was a powerful cinema exhibition which described the history of the Palace. The early days were straight-forward as it advanced through two hundred years of Polish independent history and then through the partitions and the subjugation and finally towards the destruction of the castle and the entire city of Warsaw.
Adolf Hitler always had a sinister blueprint for Warsaw. This plan was to destroy it and rebuild it as a German city as part of his policy to provide additional living space for the German people. In 1939 Warsaw was only a short distance from the German border and German (now Polish) cities like Breslau (Wroclaw), Stettin (Szczecin) and Possen (Poznań). We know now that he never got to finalise those plans – he never built his new German city but he did manage to destroy Polish Warsaw.
The Nazi demolition of Warsaw…
In 1945 as the German army prepared to retreat ahead of the advancing Soviet Red Army Hitler gave orders that Warsaw should be razed to the ground. The sad thing for me about that is that not that a deranged madman gave the order but that others actually carried it out. Surely it must have occurred to someone that what they were doing was wrong, was criminal or was just simply insane?
Obviously not and as the German troops left they destroyed all of the bridges over the River Vistula and completely destroyed 85% of the city. This was planned systematic destruction. Special demolition units called Sprengkommando meticulously planned the destruction. Buildings were numbered according to importance to Warsaw and Polish Culture and one by one they were dynamited and demolished. The higher up the list the more attention to demolition detail. Buildings without historical or cultural interest were destroyed by Verbrennungskommando whose job it was to go from house to house and simply burn them to the ground.
In October 1944 Heinrich Himmler said – “The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation.”
In 1939 Warsaw had a population of 1.3 million, by 1944 this had been reduced to 900,000 but by 1945 less than a thousand people remained living in the ruins of the city.
This year (2015) there has been a lot of bleating from the German city of Dresden about the damage caused by Allied bombing raids in 1945. Anyone who complains in Dresden should be obliged to go to Warsaw to get a sense of perspective.
It is impossible to visit a place like this and not be moved by the sheer scale of the murders, deportations and destruction. Information like this weighs heavy. Why on earth do we such dreadful things to each other? Personally I am not interested in donkey sanctuaries, save the panda, the league against cruel sports, bull fighting, fox hunting or Blue Cross dog rescue because man’s inhumanity to man eclipses completely anything else that we do that can be described as cruel. This is what we have to deal with first of all.
Historically the Germans have been good at this sort of thing of course. In the Dark Ages Saxons used to regularly visit England and burn places down, in 410 Germanic barbarians sacked and looted Rome and more recently in 1870 they besieged and bombarded the city of Paris. Currently they are trying to destroy the Greek economy. I like Germany, I like German people, when you visit they are always welcoming and kind but sadly they are serial destroyers!
After this sobering exhibition we left the Royal Palace and disappointed that there was no improvement in the weather we wandered out of the Old Town until we came across a café where we stopped for tea and cake and to plan the rest of the day.
We walked now through a vast open concrete ceremonial square, just a curious empty place in the middle of the city. This was once called Saxon Square and at one end once there stood a magnificent Palace. It was destroyed by the Germans in 1945 of course but now there are plans to rebuild it in the original style and turn it into a new National Museum. The only part to be restored so far however is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where two army guards stood perfectly still as they took their tedious turn to look over the eternal flame.
The route now took us back in the general direction of the hotel and there were some choices to be made. My preference was to make for the old Jewish ghetto area and another museum while Kim had a plan to wander back to the hotel through the shopping precincts so we separated at this point and each went our own chosen ways with a plan to meet again in a couple of hours or so.
The Royal Palace in 1945…