Veterans, Victims, and Memory

The Politics of the Second World War in Communist Poland

by Joanna Wawrzyniak (Author)
©2016 Monographs 259 Pages
Open Access


In the vast literature on how the Second World War has been remembered in Europe, research into what happened in communist Poland, a country most affected by the war, is surprisingly scarce. The long gestation of Polish narratives of heroism and sacrifice, explored in this book, might help to understand why the country still finds itself in a «mnemonic standoff» with Western Europe, which tends to favour imagining the war in a civil, post-Holocaust, human rights-oriented way. The specific focus of this book is the organized movement of war veterans and former prisoners of Nazi camps from the 1940s until the end of the 1960s, when the core narratives of war became well established.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: Communism, Myth and Memory
  • Collective Memory, Memory Groups and Myths of War under Communism
  • Agents: Veterans, Victims and the Nation State
  • Structures: Organizations in the Communist System
  • Sources Consulted
  • Chapter 2: The Communist Post-war: Organizing Life and Memory
  • Challenges of Demobilization
  • Communist Legislation and the ex-Combatants and Prisoners, 1945–48: A View From Above
  • Memory Groups: A View from Below
  • Commemoration: ‘I can still smell that putrid stench’
  • Assistive activities and group interests
  • ‘The Soil Has Been Tilled’: Towards the Unification of Memory Groups
  • Chapter 3: The Myth of Victory over Fascism (1949–55)
  • Setting the Stage
  • The Unification Congress
  • Fighters for peace
  • In the ranks of the national front
  • Sites of Memory and the Myth of Victory
  • Concentration camps
  • Fields of battle
  • The forest and the urban resistance
  • Behind the Scenes: Organization as Illusion
  • Unity and exclusion
  • ‘We have been unable to plough this fallow field’
  • The withdrawal of patronage and awards
  • Chapter 4: The Myth of Unity (1956–59)
  • Memory Unbound
  • Changes
  • ‘They gather almost every day and muck-rake in the past’
  • Against the monopoly of memory
  • ZBoWiD in the provinces: the case of Lublin region
  • The Myth of Unity: Formation
  • The ‘family of combatants’ and criteria for verification
  • ‘Let’s do patriotism’
  • Anti-German attitudes
  • The Second ZBoWiD Congress
  • Chapter 5: The Myth of Innocence (1960–69)
  • Clientelism: ‘We Have Been Able to Arrange It’
  • The Partisans
  • ‘Only ZBoWiD can speak in the name of the Home Army tradition’
  • Partisan culture
  • Rival Martyrologies
  • Wartime martyrdom
  • Anti-Semitism
  • The innocent Poles and the ungrateful Jews
  • Afterword: The Long Shadow of the Communist Politics of Memory
  • Polish War Memory in Comparative Context
  • Communist Narratives: between Persistence and Change
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

List of Abbreviations

List of Figures

2.1   Map of post-war shifts of borders. Wikimedia Commons.

2.2   Poster of the Congress of ZUWZoNiD in Warsaw, 1945. National Library of Poland.

2.3   Appeal addressed to partisans, resistance members, and soldiers to join ZUWZoNiD; it offers benefits and legal assistance. National Library of Poland.

2.4   Appeal to demobilized soldiers to join ZUWZoNiD, 1947. National Library of Poland.

2.5   March organized by Polish Union of Former Political Prisoners, Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, Warsaw, March 1947. Photo by Jerzy Baranowski, National Digital Archives/Polish Press Agency.

2.6   Unveiling of the Gloria Victis Memorial dedicated to the Home Army, the second anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, Powązki Military Cemetery, Warsaw, 1 August 1946. Photo by Jerzy Baranowski, Polish Press Agency.

2.7   Propaganda picture of a former soldier of a female brigade of Polish Armed Forces in the East ploughing the post-German territories, Platerowo, 1946. Photo by Dąbrowiecki, National Digital Archives/Polish Press Agency.

2.8   Announcements of meetings of ZUWZoNiD concerning the planned merger of veteran organizations, 1947/1948. National Library of Poland.

3.1   Ceremony at the Monument to Brotherhood in Arms, on the fourth anniversary of the liberation of Warsaw’s Praga district. September, 1948, Warsaw. Photo credits unknown, Polish Press Agency.

3.2   Plan of the demonstration of support to the Unification Congress of veterans and former prisoners organizations, 31 August 1949, drawn in Department of Propaganda of KC PZPR. AAN, KC PZPR, VII, 2672, p. 10.

3.3   Decorated backdrop in the hall of the University of Technology during the Unification Congress. The two swords symbolize the victory over the Knights of the Cross in the Battle of Grunwald (1410) and, by extension, over Germany. The caption between the swords runs: ‘We stand united guarding Democracy and Independence of People’s Poland’, Warsaw, September 1949. Photo by Wojciech Konradzki, National Digital Archives/Polish Press Agency. ← 10 | 11 →   

3.4   Delegates to the Unification Congress after wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 31 August 1949. Photo by Dąbrowiecki, National Digital Archives/Polish Press Agency.

3.5   Conceptualisations of ZBoWiD member’s badge submitted to the design contest of 1950, illustrating the ruling ideas of the time. The explanation under the last one runs: ‘The Polish sword (Polish nation) cuts the chains of fascism and capitalism thereby securing world peace.’ AZGZKRPiBWP 3,7.

4.1   Notice of celebrating a Day of International Solidarity of Resistance Fighters, Sieradz, April 1957. National Library of Poland.

4.2   Notice of the opening of a travelling exhibition: ‘Documents of Hitlerite Fascist Crimes’. National Library of Poland.

4.3   Second Congress of ZBoWiD, a view of the presidium: Józef Cyrankiewicz is addressing the audience; to his right: Janusz Zarzycki. Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, 1959. Photo by Mariusz Szyperko, National Digital Archives/Polish Press Agency.

5.1   A head nurse with her war medals. Włościbórz, December 1969. Photo by Stefan Kraszewski, Polish Press Agency.

5.2   Typical propaganda motif spread by ZBoWiD during the millennial celebration of the Polish statehood: the caption runs: ‘6,028,000 murdered Poles. Murderers shall not be forgiven.’ The number is somewhat overestimated and the formulation does not indicate that it contains also Jewish victims. The vengeful caption epitomizes the reaction of the party to the pastoral letter of Polish bishops to German bishops (November 1965), where they used the phrase: ‘We forgive and ask for forgiveness.’ National Library of Poland.

5.3   In 1968, an anniversary of liberating concentration camps was used as a propaganda opportunity to equate Zionism with fascism. Captions run: ‘No more war’, ‘No more Auschwitz’, ‘Stop Zionism’, ‘Stop fascism’. Rzeszów, April 1968. ← 11 | 12 →

List of Tables

3.1   ZBoWiD’s income between 1950 and 1956 (thousands of złoty)

3.2   ZBoWiD’s expenses between 1950 and 1956 (thousands of złoty)

4.1   Content of articles in Za Wolność i Lud, by theme (January 1957 – September 1958)

5.1   Number of organization units and the total membership of ZBoWiD, 1959–69

5.2   Composition of county directorates (1961/62 and 1968)

5.3   Composition of county directorates according to group, Lublin and Warsaw voivodeships (1961/62 and 1965/66) ← 12 | 13 →   


In the half century of communist rule in Poland, public memory of the Second World War played a substantial role in the transmission and legitimization of power. At the same time, it was open to reinterpretations, both spontaneous and planned, which were the results of international changes, generational turns, and activities of memory groups. Still, in the vast literature on how the Second World War has been remembered in Europe, research into what happened in Poland, one of the countries most affected by the war, is surprisingly scarce. This book fills this gap by giving an account of the emergence of the core Polish narrative about the war out of two embodiments of memory: the communist state’s revolutionary story on the one hand, and various memory groups’ initiatives on the other. It argues that the official patterns of war memory, which evolved from revolutionary rhetoric towards patriotic narratives of collective heroism and sacrifice, were to a surprising extent the results of negotiation between the state and memory groups.

Important features of those patterns of heroism and sacrifice are still present in Poland. Their long gestation, explored in this book, might help to understand why the country often finds itself in a ‘mnemonic standoff’, to use James Werstch’s term,1 with Western Europe, which tends to favour imagining the war in a civil, post-Holocaust, human rights-oriented way. The specific focus of this book is the organized movement of war veterans and former prisoners of Nazi camps from the 1940s until the end of the 1960s, when the core narrative became well established. The book tells the story of how certain social categories (including social entitlements for veterans and victims) were created or contested over the course of time.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2015 (December)
The Politics of Memory Survivors Communism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 259 pp., 19 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Joanna Wawrzyniak (Author)

Joanna Wawrzyniak is Deputy Director of the Institute of Sociology at the University of Warsaw, where she also heads the Social Memory Laboratory. She has published extensively on the relationship between history and memory in Poland, the uses of oral history, and the current state of memory studies in Central-Eastern Europe. Recently she was a visiting fellow at Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies and at Imre Kertész Kolleg in Jena (Germany).


Title: Veterans, Victims, and Memory
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