All that Ruckus about the Holy Cross Brigade

On February 18, 2018, in Munich, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki laid a wreath at a military cemetery to honor the fallen soldiers of the Holy Cross Brigade of the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne — NSZ), a Polish war-time and post-war hard core Christian nationalist outfit. This symbolic recognition of the unheralded heroism of the NSZ does not reflect Morawiecki’s private ideological preferences. His family is staunchly Piłsudskite, which means firmly in opposition to the National Democrats, who fielded the outfit.

The premier’s visit to the cemetery came on the heels of the exchange with an Israeli journalist. The media, however, not only reacted hysterically to the press conference, but it also went ballistic at Morawiecki’s trip to the cemetery, which was widely perceived as an act of bad will, indeed, a provocation. One the one hand, the journalists exclaimed, Polish prime minister blamed the victims for the Holocaust. On the other, he glorified “Nazi collaborators” of the Holy Cross Brigade of the NSZ.

Holy Cross Brigade

What was the Holy Cross Brigade? It was a large guerrilla unit of over 900 men and women cobbled together from smaller forest detachments of the National Armed Forces in the Kielce region of western Poland in August 1944. The Holy Cross Brigade fought the Nazis and Communists simultaneously. It was engaged in several serious battles against the Germans, and dozens of hit and run operations. It also clashed with the Communists, including the NKVD commandos, who were robbing, raping, and assassinating patriotic Poles and civilian bystanders. The Polish partisans served as protection units for helpless civilians.

When the Red Army launched its surprise offensive in January 1945 the front collapsed and the Brigade raced westward. Its command was hoping to be able to link up with the Free Polish Army in the West. The alternative was to remain in Poland and be destroyed by Stalin.

After initially battling it out with the Germans, the Brigade trekked west through bluff and bluster, taking advantage of the general disintegration of the enemy. But after a while the forces of the Third Reich reorganized and barred the way to the Poles. Faced with either death or capitulation, the Brigade command chose a stratagem. Stressing their anti-Communism, the Poles entered into a non-aggression agreement with the Wehrmacht at the end of January 1945. Therefore they were permitted to continue to march south-west to Bohemia, where their unit was confined at an encampment in March. The collapsing German Third Reich was hoping to use the Holy Cross Brigade for propaganda purposes and to deploy it at the front. The Polish command flatly refused. However, it agreed to assign a small number of volunteer troops to be sent, including by air, behind the Soviet lines. The volunteers were given confidential orders to shoot any German assigned to them upon landing. In any event, no Germans were attached and a small number that made it back to Poland promptly reported back to the NSZ leadership and re-entered the struggle against the Communists.

Meanwhile, by the end of April, the Holy Cross Brigade took off from its place of confinement in search of the Allied. Soon, its reconnaissance elements linked up with the US Third Army. The bulk of the Brigade commenced ambushing retreating German army and SS units. Soon, the Poles obtained intelligence about a German concentration camp at Holleischen (Holysov), which was a sub-installation of the Flossenburg mother-facility. On May 5, the Holy Cross Brigade swiftly attacked Holleischen, freeing several thousand women, including about 200 Jewesses who were about to be burned alive.

A French prisoner recalled: “Suddenly about 10:30am, as in a movie, when I was looking out the window with a few others, we noticed in a part of the forest… a group of people in khaki uniform. They moved in an enveloping way, and there were many of them, and other groups were coming from the other side as well. There was no noise. We did hear neither command nor shooting. We were paralyzed and it was astonishing to see simultaneously our guards in the courtyard who could not see anything. The military in khaki uniforms moved swiftly and then they attacked the gate to the Camp of the Jewesses as well as our gate. They opened it, one did not know why, but very quickly and the yard was full then with people in khakis, fast and silent. The guards on duty lift their hands and drop their weapons…. We ran downstairs; the doors to the blocks were opened, the cupboards opened too. There was a dead German at the gate. It all seemed like we were dreaming or we were mad…. Suddenly, artillery opened up close by, rifle and machine gun fire resounded around us. That was the Polish partisans conducting guerrilla war. From time to time stray bullets hit the shingles.”

The commanding officer of the Holy Cross Brigade, Colonel Antoni Skarbek aka Bohun recalled in the Jewish Voice (New Jersey): “At this moment my aide de camp Second Lieutenant Zygmunt [Borowiecki] ran up to me to report that there are two barracks on the left side. They are surrounded by a double row of an electrified barbed wire fence. The gate was closed with a chain and locks. The doors to the barracks were also closed. Emaciated faces appeared from little windows, and there were loud screams for help. I ordered immediately to bring the [German] commander of the camp and turn off the electricity to the barbed wire fence. Answering my question about the reason to lock up and isolate these two barracks, he responded that on Hitler’s orders prisoners of Jewish origin were locked up there. The buildings, along with the women, were to be doused with gasoline and burnt at the moment when [the Americans] would be approaching…. After opening the gate, I entered the enclosure and I saw gasoline barrels positioned next to each barrack…. The doors to the barracks were then forced by the [Polish] soldiers. I wanted to enter inside but a macabre sight which I noticed stopped me at the threshold. From the darkness of the building there was emerging a horrible stench of human waste mixed with the smell of rotting cadavers. From the depths there crawled out with great tears of joy, the surviving [Jewish] women.”

The Holy Cross Brigade continued its assaults on the XIII German Army desperately fought back. The Poles took over 500 prisoners, including an army staff jointly with an American company, and cleared the way for the US 2nd Infantry Division to enter Pilzen. The Americans recognized them as allies and, to honor the Polish soldiers, allowed them to wear the “Indian Head” insignia of the Division.

Within a few weeks, however, the situation deteriorated as the Soviets and Czech Communists appeared in the Pilzen area and began to butt heads with the Holy Cross Brigade. Stalin demanded that the Poles be handed over to the Soviets. General George Patton refused and adopted the Brigade, transporting it to the American zone of occupation and enrolling the Polish guerrillas in US-led Guard Companies. For the next decade, they were getting ready to liberate Soviet-occupied Poland with the Americans.

For all those reasons, Prime Minister Morawiecki resolved to honor the Holy Cross Brigade. What about the National Armed Forces? Were they German collaborators?

National Armed Forces (NSZ)

The National Armed Forces were formed in 1942 by the nationalist radical Lizard Union of the National Radical Camp and a dissident part of the Christian-right National Military Union of the National Party as well as a plethora of other groups. The NSZ was an umbrella organization for Christian nationalist, radical nationalist, hard right, and extreme populist as well as conservative and monarchist orientations. At its peak it reached perhaps as many as 90,000 volunteers. Of course, many volunteered without any explicit ideological preferences, simply attracted by the NSZ’s appealing line that Poland had two enemies: the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, Hitler and Stalin.

In addition, the volunteers approved of the organization’s underground strategy and tactics. Its principal goals were: to prevent Polish collaboration with the Germans; to engage in espionage against the Third Reich; to practice targeted assassination against both the Germany and Soviets as well as their collaborators; to protect the civilian population, in the countryside in particular, against the depredations of the Communist guerrillas and common robber bands; and to prepare for the imminent collapse of Germany. Like virtually all other Polish underground orientations, the NSZ fought for the Polish majority, and never subordinated its interests to those of Poland’s minorities, who were mostly regarded as disloyal, if not outright collaborators either of the Soviets or Germans or both.

According to Israeli historians Szmuel Krakowski and Israel Gutman, the NSZ, to a much lesser extent than the mainstream Home Army, were responsible for the death of Jewish fugitives in the countryside. Such events usually occurred within the context of the Jewish participation in foraging for food or Communist guerrilla actions. The Christian nationalist clandestine press carefully chronicled the persecution of the Jewish minority by the Germans, including the Holocaust. Like most other Polish underground organizations, the NSZ did not implement a comprehensive rescue plan, whether or not it would have been feasible, but individual soldiers participated in rescue operations, sometimes involving broader organizational assets.

Most importantly, the NSZ developed a plan to attack Germany at the moment of its collapse to the Western Allies to re-capture ancient Polish lands in Silesia and Pomerania for Poland. The Holy Cross Brigade was an element of the plan, which came to naught because of the arrival of the Red Army in central Europe.

Meanwhile, from 1939, the National Armed Forces undertook long range intelligence gathering operations, sending its adherents as far west as occupied France. Its operatives penetrated the Third Reich’s armament industry, including the secret V-2 production facility. They tracked down the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine repair yards from the Atlantic to the Baltic. They confirmed the results of Allied bombings and spotted targets for the US Air Force and the Royal Air Forces as far afield as Hamburg. All information was radioed to London via the Home Army.

The price for resisting the Germans and Soviets was horrific. In sum, the Christian nationalist orientation, both political and military sections, and the National Armed Forces in particular, lost the most leaders, cadres, and activists out of all Polish clandestine parties during the Second World War and its aftermath. Most national democrats and radical nationalists died at the hands of the Germans. The Christian nationalists populated virtually every German concentration camp: Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof, Ravensbrueck, Dora-Mittlebaum, Dachau, and others. They died of starvation, torture, and beating. They were shot in mass executions in Piasnica, Palmiry, Ponary, Rury Jezuickie, and elsewhere. In a single case of the intelligence operation of Naval Lieutenant Stanisław Jeuthe, about 500 persons were arrested, tortured, sent to concentration camps, or decapitated at the Moabit prison in Berlin. One of the captured intelligence operatives, 18 year old nationalist radical Wanda Węgierska, confided in her secret farewell note for her family: “The Polish war banners shall yet flutter over Berlin!” She was guillotined by the Germans. The Lizard Union’s Jeuthe team had brought in a wealth of intel about the Kriegsmarine and rocket weapons, in particular penetrating the V-1 facility at Penemȕnde. In the wake of this string of stunning success the Gestapo created a special task force to deal with the Polish nationalist radicals: Sonderkommando ZJ.

There is not much evidence of collaboration of the NSZ with the Germans, although, admittedly, there were instances of a tactical cease fire, safe conduct, and prisoner swaps with the German military and police. In one instance, when a junior NSZ officer, enraged by the Communist guerrilla terror, entered into a local tactical alliance with the Germans, his own NSZ unit rebelled and attempted to assassinate him, wounding the officer severely. The Gestapo spirited him away to safety. But this was just an exception. Fighting the Germans was the norm.

Christian Nationalists

The NSZ was a war time avatar of a section of the Christian nationalist movement known as the National Democrats (Endeks). The National Democratic party (Endecja) was founded at the end of the 19th century as an all-Polish and all-estate phenomenon. It means that it operated uniquely everywhere in the partitioned Polish lands. It also was not a class party. It united all social strata from peasants, workers, and artisans through the free professions, intelligentsia, merchants, entrepreneurs, financiers, landed nobles, and aristocrats. Its women’s outfits operated largely autonomously. The nationalist-led civil society included also a variety of outfits for the youth: Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, sports associations, and job training clubs: from crocheting circles to machinist cells. The ideology of the Endeks spanned the spectrum from free market libertarianism and parliamentary democracy of the older generation to the corporatist solutions and authoritarian arrangements of the younger ideologues. There was even a tiny splinter group advocating Christian totalitarianism under the leader principle. For most however, social conservatism and staunch traditionalism permeated their thought as well as an unabashed gospel of modernization and development, usually through the state.

Even though most of the founders of modern Polish nationalism were initially rather agnostic in their religion, the rank and file from the very beginning professed a burning faith in Christianity. Although Catholicism was favored, other branches of Christianity, including Lutheranism in particular, were proudly present in the Endek movement. So were Polish Tatars, some of them still Muslim, and Poles of Jewish background, most of them converted Christians. Thus, the Endeks were not racist but cultural nationalists. One of their leading intellectuals remarked in June 1939: “Polonized Germans, Tatars, Armenians, Gypsies, Jews belong to the Polish nation if they live for the common ideal of Poland… A Negro or a Redskin can become a real Pole if he accepts the spiritual heritage of the Polish nation, which is contained in its literature, art, politics, customs, and if he has an unbendable will to contribute to the national existence of the Poles.”

The National Democrats adhered to an idea that majority rights outweigh minority concerns. This was in particular the case because minority postulates were framed in ethno-nationalist forms, unlike the Polish ones, which remained culturally nationalist for the most part. And the newly reborn Polish Commonwealth after 1918 had to be glued together based upon a common nationalism. In Poland, minority nationalisms had to subordinate themselves to the majority nationalism. From this point of view, the Endeks were anti-Ukrainian, anti-Belorusian, anti-Lithuanian, anti-Jewish, anti-German, and so forth. They are remembered particularly for their anti-Jewish animus. Indeed, their anti-Jewish activities were clearly most pronounced, consistent, and widespread. In the National Democrat mind, they were part and parcel of advancing the interests of the dominant Polish nationalism.

To create a Polish middle class, the Endeks promoted native businesses, and boycotted minority ones, including Jewish. The boycott meant that the Polish members of the Christian majority were discouraged, sometimes physically, from shopping at minority establishments. To strengthen the Polish intellectual elite, the Christian nationalists instituted a numerous clauses at universities that targeted Jews, just like in the United States and elsewhere at the time. This was intended to limit educational opportunities for a minority considered culturally alien. This discriminatory practice was coupled with affirmative action: Polish Christian lower class children, economically disadvantaged, were favored in college admissions over Jewish kids, who usually came from well-to-do families. Further, in a weird echo of Zionist postulates, the Endeks advocated mass Jewish emigration from Poland. In sum, they were the most anti-Jewish political orientation in Poland.

Yet, ultimately, the Christian nationalists were largely toothless vis-à-vis the Jewish minority because, after 1926, they were a permanent opposition party. Anti-Jewish humiliation, harassment, and even violence were real but they mostly lacked the government’s backing, and invariably met with official counteraction. The Endek anti-Semitism was a tool to mobilize support against the leftist dictatorship of the Sanacja. But it failed to deliver a National Democrat victory in or out of the parliament.

Further, in Peter Pultzer’s typology, the Christian nationalist brand of the anti-Jewish animus was an old fashioned bigotry; it was not a modern pagan exterminationist anti-Semitism. The National Democrats never argued for a physical extermination of the Jews because their nationalism was Christian. That means they believed that God came first and that the nation must not be deified for it would be pagan. In 1947, a top Endek intellectual exclaimed: “Poland had to wait a thousand years for a slogan to appear that the Commonwealth should only be populated by the Poles. It was only the Soviet agentura that advanced and realized the slogan. We cannot find it among any of the Polish thinkers.”

Overall, by the interwar European standards, the Polish Christian nationalists were rather mild. As late as the 1930s, the Encyclopedia Britannica called the National Democratic orientation “moderate.” Today, after the Holocaust, nothing like this is of course acceptable. Hence, we heard all that ruckus about the Holy Cross Brigade, even if most of the outraged were perfectly ignorant about its guerrillas, the National Armed Forces, and the Christian nationalists of Poland. At least, Prime Minister Morawiecki, did his history lesson well. Saving women, including Jewish women, from the Nazis, as well as fighting ferociously against Hitler and Stalin, deserve our recognition.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 8 March 2018

www.iwp.edu

Dr. Chodakiewicz authored a monograph on the National Armed Forces, their Holy Cross Brigade, and its SOE chief of staff: Narodowe Siły Zbrojne: “Ząb” przeciw dwu wrogom (Warszawa: WAMA, 1994, Fronda, 1999, 2nd ed. 2005). He also co-authored, with Jolanta Mysiakowska-Muszyńska and Wojciech Jerzy Muszyński, Polska dla Polaków! Kim byli i są polscy nacjonaliści (Poznań: Zysk i S-ka, 2015). All quotes and facts are cited therein.



Categories: Expert Analyses, History of Poland, WWII