Walking to the Old Town in Warsaw along ul. Długa or heading towards the Żoliborz district of the city along ul. Miodowa, on Krasiński Square, we encounter a scene that seems to be taken from a war film.
The group of sculptures that comprise the Warsaw Uprising Monument depict Polish partisans in the same way that Jan Matejko created the characters of his Battle of Grunwald painting. Dynamism and movement, euphoria and drama are captured in bronze and granite. At the top of the stairs which divide the square a group of several characters, possessed by uprising fervour, emerge from a partially abstract, and partially realistic composition.
These are the insurgents battling Hitler's Nazi occupiers in August 1944. At the bottom of the stairs, some of the group members are climbing down into a sewer - a scene commemorating the evacuation of the Old Town. The building housing the Supreme Court of the Republic of Poland forms the monument's background, a modern construction, based on a design by Marek Budzyński. The baroque Krasiński Palace is situated on the opposite side of the road. The palace was burnt down during the Warsaw Uprising and rebuilt after the war. Nowadays, the entire Old Town can be considered as a 1:1 scale model, an architectural simulacrum designed for tourists, rarely visited by the city's inhabitants. The process of its reconstruction in the middle of the 1940s is a fascinating story in itself.
The uprising began on August 1, 1944. The occupiers responded with a decision to completely tear down the city and exterminate its citizens. There were a reported 150000 civil casualties. During the fight, 25 percent of the city's buildings were destroyed with a further 35 percent wrecked by the Vernichtungskommando after the armed rebellion was crushed.
Opinions about the uprising are divided. Its critics talk of the heavy price of a battle which began on an impulse while others talk of its inevitability. The People's Republic of Poland (PRL) propaganda critiqued the uprising as irresponsible. This may explain why the battle became so glorified after 1989. The construction of the Warsaw Uprising Museum initiated by then-mayor Lech Kaczyński in 2003 symbolized this ideological turn. The interactive museum stresses the heroism and patriotism of Polish insurgents, dismissing the issues of the rebellion's impulsiveness, responsibility and leader rationality into the background. Two models of patriotism emerge from this debate: national conservatism and social patriotism.
The construction of the Warsaw Uprising Monument is a different story. Its origins lie in the turn history took in PRL's political strategy. State propaganda diminished the role of the uprising and even decreased the death toll. The significant fact that Stalin, due to various political reasons, decided to hold back the Red Army from entering the city was not mentioned either. Memories of the event endured in the minds of Warsaw's inhabitants- perhaps best proven by Miron Białoszewski's 1967 memoir Pamiętnik z powstania warszawskiego / The Warsaw Uprising Diary, describing the rebellion from the civilian point of view. The Warsaw Uprising Monument could not be erected due to political reasons, despite a number of commissions (for instance, the commissioning of a Monument of the Heroes of Warsaw in 1956).
The climate changed slightly during the 1980s, when, during a serious economic and political crisis and the increasing popularity of the anticommunist party, the government made efforts to acknowledge the veterans. History once again fuelled the voters' trust. The resolution of the May 3 constitution became publicly celebrated at the beginning of the decade. A shift also occurred in the authorities' attitude towards the Warsaw Uprising. The statue of the Little Insurgent was unveiled in 1983 in close proximity to the defensive walls of the Old Town. In that same year, the Warsaw Uprising Museum and Archive project was initiated - it was supposed to form a Department of the Historical Museum of Warsaw, while the rubble of the Polish Bank - an insurgent redoubt in ul. Bielańska - was to serve as its foundations. The construction, however, was never completed, despite the fact that architectural designs had been commissioned and a cornerstone laid in 1994. The uprising museum as it exists today is an entirely separate political project.
The decision to build the Warsaw Uprising Monument was the communist authorities' swan song. The statue was unveiled in changed political circumstances on August 1, 1989 - on the 45th anniversary of the Uprising. The decision about the monument's construction, based on a design by Wincenty Kućma and Jacek Budyń, caused public outcry. Countless communities connected to the Uprising and the monument's concept opposed it. Accusations were made about dividing the nation and focusing on portraying the insurgents' failure alone.
The form suggested by Kućma and Budyń was also criticised for its association with Social Realism. Long discussions were held over whether the monument should be an abstract or realist form. The form that was finally displayed on the Krasiński Square brings an ironic smile to faces of art historians and Varsovians, particularly those who still remembered the revolutionary plans made after the Monument of the Heroes of Warsaw commissioned in 1956, with design ideas from Oskar Hansen and a group of artists such as Emil Cieślar, Andrzej Latos and Karol Śliwka. The project by Oskar Hansen and Julian Pałka for the road monument in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1958 became a symbol of the new way of thinking about monuments in general. However, neither of these projects have ever been completed.
The accusation regarding the social realist form of the monument is not entirely unjustified. Kućma and Budyn's Warsaw Uprising Monument is immense in its scale, pompous and, indeed, if a few details were altered, could successfully be regarded as a Great Patriotic War Monument created in true Soviet fashion.
The Little Insurgent Monument by the Old Town walls has a distinctively different effect. It is a small statue created by Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz soon after the war in 1946. The idea to put it on display, purposely out of people's way, came much later and also caused controversy (as it seemed to strengthen the conviction that children actively participated in insurgent fights). The little figure has nevertheless remained a symbol of the uprising for decades. Its image was displayed in private households among photographs and flowers. Jarnuszkiweicz himself had certain doubts regarding this particular piece:
I am torn over this statue. I have yielded to the need to repay the debt I had towards the fighting children, but later I became embarrassed of this thing. I felt guilty for (albeit subconsciously) manipulating the most intimate of feelings, neglecting form for the sake of content, doing a botched job.
He was finally convinced by the thought that the small scale of the statue (the original size was increased to 140 centimeters / 55 inches) actually makes is an anti-monument, merely an ovule of a monument. The exceptional sculptor did not envision its 'full accomplishment' in the form taken in Krasiński Square.
Recently, Kuśma and Budyn's monument was defended by Artur Żmijewski, known for his left-wing views. In a piece entitled Wagarując / Playing Truant he describes his entrance examination to the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw:
I was asked about my favourite Warsaw statue. I replied it was the Warsaw Uprising Monument in Krasiński Square. I presume I had quite a few points deducted for this answer.
Żmijewski, however, makes a point that unlike monuments that use abstract forms (such as the one commemorating the Umschlagplatz on ul. Stawki in Warsaw), the Warsaw Uprising Monument 'is effective' and manages to capture the viewer's imagination through the way it 'resembles a comic strip'. Referring to the famous Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the artist also wrote:
We are unlike the Germans, we are unlike the Mexicans - we don't understand aesthetic imperative, but we do understand colourful comic strips. (…) Abstract forms will not serve their ideological duty on the Poles in the way a monument will. A monument ought to make us able to live and forget, to slowly and gently move events back into past and cede the memory of them into stone or bronze. A monument ought to maintain memories of the past but in a reduced, dwarfish form, somewhere far on the edge of consciousness.
The discussion regarding monuments in Poland is a recurring one - particularly after the death of John Paul II and the Smoleńsk catastrophe of April 10, 2010 - although the level of said discussion is not satisfactory. The dispute over having a statue to commemorate the Smoleńsk event and the feud about the cross being removed from the Presidential Palace in the summer of 2010 made Dorota Jarecka, an art critic for Gazeta Wyborcza, 'boycott monuments". 'Nowadays,' she says, 'a monument belongs to the person who unveils it, not the one it commemorates'.
Putting aesthetic matters aside, the power of Jarnuszkiewicz's statute lies in the fact that it first became a symbol and as a symbol it embedded itself in the social consciousness of Poles.
Meanwhile, the Krasiński Square monument will forever remain an overdue gesture from the PRL authorities. And it is this memory of the monument that its form commemorates.
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, December 2010