Most of the major cities of pre-war Poland were devastated during World War II. Warsaw, Poznań and Białystok were virtually razed to the ground, suffering under the subsequent marches of hostile armies and the long-lasting Nazi occupation. Meanwhile, Kraków, the biggest and most crucial city of southern Poland, remained almost untouched. How did Kraków make it through the war with hardly a scratch?
On 6th September 1939, Kraków surrendered to the German armed forces without a fight, and 6 days later it was proclaimed the capital of the General Government – a new territory created and governed by Nazi Germany. One of the main purposes of the General Government’s existence was to be the Third Reich’s supply base for agriculture and light industry, so the Nazi army had no interest in destroying its infrastructure. Moreover, Hans Frank, the newly appointed Governor-General, decided to continue some of the pre-war plans for Kraków’s development. In order to justify these plans, the Nazis announced that Kraków was an urdeustche Stadt (Ancient German City), and even founded a pseudo-scientific institute to prove the city's German roots through historical research.
Nevertheless, the Nazi occupation of Kraków was no different to anywhere else, including the imposition of harsh totalitarian rules, racial and national segregation with the systematic extermination of Jews and Poles of Jewish origin, erasing all remnants of Kraków’s Polish history, and mass theft of works of art.
The Nazi occupiers did everything possible to Germanize the inhabitants of Kraków. By 1939, all Polish higher education institutions and high schools were officially closed. Poles could only study in elementary schools with a much-limited programme – excluding history or geography. Professors and intellectual elites were systematically arrested and sent to Nazi work or concentration camps. Despite all these repressions, during the 5-year, 5-month occupation of Kraków, the city itself never suffered as a result of warfare, battles or strategic clearance, and wasn’t in peril until 1945 – the counter-offensive of the Soviet Red Army.
A Lviv inhabitant who came to Kraków just after the war wrote in his diary:
10th March, 1945. We are in Kraków. We made it the day before yesterday. When we left the railway station in the morning we stopped, speechless. A vibrant city! Shining windows, perfect pavements, untouched roofs covered with snow… With people walking here and there in the decent coats with leather collars, in good winter boots…
Compared to razed Warsaw and starving and looted Lviv, to those who came from other parts of Poland, Kraków in 1945 must have been a city from another world.
Red Army at the Gates
In January 1945, however, with the Red Army approaching at full speed and the Germans retreating contumaciously, usually leaving nothing more than scorched earth behind them, Kraków seemed doomed… but eventually came through unscathed. How was that possible? There are two narratives to that story: the Communist one and the post-Communist.
Version One: The Red Army and Marshal Konev saved Kraków.
Throughout the Communist period of Poland's history, the official binding dogma was that Kraków was saved by the strategic genius of Marshal Ivan Konev. An official Kraków city guide from 1967 says:
Kraków was liberated on 18th January 1945 after a 5-year-long Nazi occupation. The lightning-fast march of the Red Army managed to thwart the Germans’ plan to completely destroy the city in the last minute before retreating. The famous manoeuvre carried out by Marshal Ivan Konev – encircling the city and attacking it from the north-west instead of the east – utterly surprised the command of the German armed forces. It was so unexpected that German units, in fear of having their path of retreat cut off, hastily fled the city and couldn’t blow up all crucial or historical buildings, even though they had mined all of them many days before the Red Army came. Only the railway bridges and a few negligible buildings were destroyed. Kraków, unlike other Polish cities, came out unscathed! The people of Kraków honoured Marshal Konev with the title of honorary citizen as a token of their gratitude!
Some scientific publications, the Polish Film Chronicle (a propaganda outlet of the Communist party), and school and university textbooks, as well as a popular film drama titled To Save The City from 1971, reinforced this version. It became so deeply rooted in Kraków's post-war history that as late as in 1987 (two years prior to the abolishment of Communism in Poland), a statue of Ivan Konev was erected.
Version Two. Kraków was saved because no one planned to destroy it.
After the fall of Communism in 1989, the story was revised. Analysis of the classified military documents of the previous regime revealed that the Red Army’s role in saving Kraków was a bit less heroic.
The latest research shows that the German armed forces had little interest in defending Kraków, and that the risk of being encircled was substantial. The Germans were well-prepared for the Soviets to come, and when the latter approached, the Germans blew up the bridges on the river Dunajec south of Kraków, securing a safe line of retreat for all their troops. They also closed the dam in Rożnów, which resulted in the Dunajec rising by 3 metres, thus becoming almost impassable. The Germans had so much time for a full retreat that they not only managed to evacuate all their administration but also to transport away looted pieces of art.
Their intention was not to defend Kraków, but to slow down the Red Army’s advance and earn some time to entrench and concentrate all the forces in Upper Silesia (the crucial eastern heavy industrial region of Nazi Germany) and the line of the Oder River. The Siege of Breslau – a hopeless, 5-month defence of the tightly encircled fortress of Wrocław – is undisputed proof that the German armed forces were determined to ferociously hold the cities they wanted to. Kraków was just not one of these cities.
The legend of the whole city being mined before its ‘liberation’ seems no more than a legend nowadays. In fact, the Germans mined only some of the bridges and a few industrial sites, mostly with anti-personnel mines, not with those meant to destroy whole buildings. The only facilities that were deliberately set on fire were the headquarters of the Gestapo and the police (for obvious reasons). None of the historic buildings was mined, which indicates that the German armed forces limited their actions to strictly strategic moves, with no intention of annihilating the city.
Konev. Not a hero anymore.
It seems that the legend of Marshal Ivan Konev heroically saving Kraków was very much needed for him personally, as an asset in his rivalry with Marshal Georgy Zhukov, and for Soviet plans of expansion. Poles accused the Red Army of passivity and of letting the Warsaw Uprising bleed out in 1944, and if these charges were proven by not taking proper care of Kraków, they could have led to even more serious unrest in Poland, which was to become a satellite country of the USSR. Officially, the Red Army came to Poland as liberators in 1945 and propaganda did everything possible not to reveal the Soviets’ real plans. Some of their historical dogmas made it all they way to 1989. The rescue of Kraków was one of them.
Konev’s monument was taken down and transported to Russia in 1991, in 1992 he was deprived of the title of honorary citizen of Kraków.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 22 May 2015.
Sources: 'Kraków Przewodnik', 1967, Garlicki/Kossowski/Ludwikowski, 'Historia Krakowa dla każdego', 2007, Jan M.Małecki, 'Ocalenie Krakowa', 2013, Bartłomiej Kuraś, 'Ocalić miasto' reż. Jan Łomnicki.