Dzisiaj w Polsce jest Dzień Flagi.
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POLAND has celebrated „Flag Day” on May 2nd since 2004. Asked what it means, most Poles shrug. Some say it is a jingoistic gimmick to plug the gap between Labour Day, on May 1st, and the May 3rd anniversary of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s 1791 written constitution, the first in Europe.
But ask Polish veterans of the second world war, particularly those that served on the eastern front, and they will remind you of a neglected story. For in Berlin on May 2nd 1945, Polish troops clambered up Berlin’s iconic victory column, the Siegessäule, to hoist their colours at the end of the battle for the German capital. Hitler’s corpse lay a few hundred metres away.
It is the Soviet flag fluttering atop the Reichstag that people remember from that day, thanks partly to an iconic photograph. This is not unreasonable: the lion’s share of the fight against Nazi Germany was undertaken by the peoples of the Soviet Union.
But the contribution of the Polish army to the battle for Berlin was significant. It fielded up to 200,000 troops, more than the combined American, British and Canadian deployment at D-Day. This was Poland’s largest battlefield deployment in the history of its military victories (more soldiers were sent to fight in the 1939 Battle of the Bzura, in which the invading Nazis defeated the Poles).
The Poles were greatly outnumbered by the 1.5m Soviet troops in the Berlin „defensive area”, a dense network of anti-tank obstacles, gun emplacements, trenches and bunkers. But they did make a tactically instrumental contribution to the fight: the Polish 1st Infantry Division bailed out a halted Soviet tank advance on the Reichstag. The Poles were later invited to the Moscow victory parade, while the British and Americans were shunned (Soviet leaders accused the Western allies of conducting a strategy of bait and bleed throughout the war).
The Polish army on the eastern front had been set up, with Stalin’s blessing, to rival its counterpart on the western front, backed by Churchill. Many of its commanders were Russian plants, but most of its soldiers were former Gulag inmates who had been deported from Poland to Siberia during the Soviet occupation of 1939-1941. All the troops who took part in the Battle of Berlin, including Holocaust survivors and former Home Army resistance fighters, wore Polish uniforms, used the Polish salute and swore an oath to Poland alone.
Some witness testimonies state that the Polish flag was raised before the Soviet one, possibly even a day earlier, making it the first Allied victory banner to be raised in Berlin at the end of the war. One version has it that the Polish solider who raised it was shot dead by the Soviets, who then pulled the flag down. If these accounts are true, they were soon covered up by Soviet propaganda.
The story of the Polish flag in Berlin helps illustrate several things: that Poland did not surrender to Germany; that the Polish army, contrary to the allegations of some, was neither ineffective or inept; that many Polish Jews did not passively accept their fate at the hands of the Nazis; that Poland did not collaborate with Germany (although some traitors did).
The story also serves as a reminder that Poland’s war heroes, normally associated with the London-based government-in-exile, were vastly outnumbered by Poles who fought under Soviet high command, willingly or otherwise. Some Poles might also like to consider that if the Battle of Berlin was their countrymen’s finest hour, then it should also be shared with, among others, the ordinary people of Russia who did so much to bring an end to Nazi tyranny.