August 12th in German History: The Wola Massacre Ends

Wola Massacre Memorial on Górczewska Street | The Wola massa… | Flickr
The memorial to the Wola Massacre.

During the Second World War, Germany was responsible for uncountable massacres, atrocities and genocides. The reasons for these acts were many, but they often boiled down to a combination of racist hatred and a brutally practical desire to eliminate resistance. These motivations were behind the Wola Massacre, the killing of tens of thousands of Poles by German soldiers. The massacre ended on August 12th, 1944.

Polish women and children led by German troops.

The Warsaw Uprising began on August 1st and saw Polish Resistance attack German forces occupying the city. Large segments of the city, especially those on the left bank of the Vistula river, were liberated quickly before the Germans could organize an adequate response. Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, issued orders to suppress the uprising without mercy, and on August 5th German battle groups began to advance on the city from the Wola suburb in the west. The German forces consisted of SS and Wehrmacht troops along with Russian collaborators. The lead battle groups were stopped by Polish resistance and took to looting civilian houses in their areas of control and killing the inhabitants. Himmler stated that Warsaw’s population was to be killed, and the Germans, some of them from the SS Dirlewanger brigade, a unit composed of criminals and collaborators that was famous for its sadistic brutality, were all to happy to oblige. The arrival of reinforcements and the use of the Polish population as human shields for tanks allowed the Germans to push to the city center and cut resistance in Wola in half. Men from the district were conscripted into burning detachments forced to burn the bodies of the dead; most of these men were executed to eliminate witnesses. German troops burned hospitals with patients inside, executed civilians, and tortured prisoners. The massacre only ended on August 12th when the general in command, Erich von dem Bach, ordered that killings stop and for prisoners to be sent to concentration camps. In all, forty to fifty thousand people were killed in the Wola massacre.

War brings out the worst in humanity, that much has always been true. However, the particular brutality which Germany exhibited on the conquered peoples of Europe stands out as among the most evil practices ever engaged in by a nation. The factors which enabled such savagery-the dehumanization of enemy civilians, the actions and rhetoric of revered leaders, and the desperation of soldiers under fire, are not in themselves uncommon. However, in this case they were taken to extremes and combined to deprive the perpetrators of their humanity.

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