It was a cold, dark, wet March day not long ago. Some forty Johns Hopkins SAIS students and half a dozen faculty and guests were beginning a four-day study of the campaign that devastated Poland in September 1939. We were standing on a small spit of land in the harbor of Gdansk, then Danzig; we walked through a ruined concrete building, and past the shattered remains of bunkers. The place is called Westerplatte, and it is where World War II began.
Danzig was nominally a “free state” in the “Polish corridor” that gave Poland access to the sea. It was largely a German city, and was already dominated by the Nazis. Westerplatte was an ammunition-handling area with train tracks running through it. Before the war began the Poles had quietly fortified it and expanded its garrison to some two hundred soldiers under Major Henryk Sucharski and Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski. Their orders in the event of a German attack were to hold their position for 12 hours.
Shortly before five a.m. on September 1 the German training battleship Schleswig-Holstein, nominally on a goodwill visit to Danzig, lowered its 11-inch guns and opened fire at point-blank range—less than two hundred yards—at the Westerplatte fortification. Several hundred German marine commandos, who had been kept below decks on the Schleswig-Holstein, deployed ashore to storm Westerplatte, together with a much larger local SS-Heimwehr force of about 1,500 men under Danzig’s Police General Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt.
The shells from the battleship shattered some buildings, but the range was so close that they could not do as much damage as expected. The Poles had prepared obstacles and fields of fire, and they beat back assault after assault. The Germans pounded Westerplatte with artillery and mortar fire. Still the attacks failed. They called in scores of Stuka dive bombers, and still the defenders of Westerplatte, now outnumbered by more than ten to one, kept fighting from their fetid bunkers, the ground around them turned into a moonscape by bombs and shells.
Finally, on September 7, after six days of resistance, the defenders of Westerplatte surrendered, having inflicted several hundred casualties on the attacking Germans. Initially at least, they were treated with military courtesy. Not so the small band of Polish postmen (also reservists) who defended the Danzig post office against a similar assault. After beating back several attacks over 15 hours, they surrendered. A month later the Germans shot them.
The story of Poland in 1939 is replete with such tales, none more heroic than the defense of Warsaw, which held out for three weeks under the leadership of Mayor Stefan Starzyński and the border guard Commander Walerian Czuma. The government of Poland had already left the city. Warsaw’s citizens improvised defenses, aided by tens of thousands of soldiers from defeated or just-mobilizing units who had streamed into the city. It too was pummeled from the air by hundreds of bombers, and on the ground by artillery and the assaults of the Wehrmacht. Eventually the hopeless defense collapsed. Mayor Starzyński, who had spent years building a modern and attractive urban center, saw it destroyed in the desperate fight he led. In December, the Germans executed him, too.
Polish cavalry did not, as legend has it, insanely charge German tanks with lances. Rather, a poor and exposed country put up an extraordinary fight, suffering nearly two hundred thousand dead and wounded, and inflicting perhaps fifty thousand on the Wehrmacht and another five thousand or more on the invading Soviets. This was followed by years of ruin—including the near-obliteration of Warsaw in 1944 as the Home Army rose up against the Germans. Meanwhile, the Red Army watched for weeks from the other side of the Vistula River and did nothing. Stalin preferred that the Wehrmacht do the job of wiping out the Home Army, and so it did. It was the culmination of years in which Germans and Russians pursued parallel strategies of decapitating the Polish state by massacring officers, politicians, intellectuals, and other leaders by the tens of thousands.
To what end? The Poles displayed throughout the war a courage that can only be described as hopeless. Britain and France would not, and indeed could not, offer them succor. The only Great Power that could, the Soviet Union, chose instead to rend their country in two and complete its destruction. And yet even when their allies had abandoned them, the Poles fought on. In May 1944 the free Polish 2nd Corps under General Władysław Anders took Monte Cassino. Anders and his men knew that the Allies had resigned their country to Stalin, and that they would die either as exiles or on the muddy battlefields of Italy. Indeed, the Polish government did not recognize the cemetery they built for their fallen comrades near the Cassino monastery until after Communism fell. What was the point of such courage?
The defenders of Westerplatte, utterly outgunned and doomed, could not have known that their resistance would go down in Polish history. Yet what they did, and what the defenders of Warsaw did in 1939, and what many other Poles did in later years, kept Poland’s soul alive and whole. When the time came in the 1980s for the dockworkers of what was then Gdansk to rise up against a Soviet puppet government, they could draw on a faith and a courage that had survived the decades—in part because of that record.
As we were getting ready to leave Westerplatte my colleague (and fellow TAI columnist) Jakub Grygiel spoke to us about John Paul II’s visit there in 1987, on his third and final trip to Communist Poland. Addressing the young people present, as he so often did, the Polish Pope said this:
Each of you, my young friends, will find in life some personal “Westerplatte.” Some measure of tasks that have to be undertaken and fulfilled. Some rightful cause for which one cannot avoid fighting. Some duty, or necessity, which one cannot shun. From which one cannot desert. Finally, some order of truth and values, which must be held and defended, like this Westerplatte, within oneself and around oneself.
A “Westerplatte moment” is not about taking a calculated risk. It is the moment when you resign yourself to dire consequences because to act otherwise than you know you ought is to lose yourself—and, as Robert Bolt’s version of Thomas More says in A Man For All Seasons, in that case a man “needn’t hope to find himself again.”
Westerplatte moments are few and far between, thank goodness, but they do come. Most terribly in war, but also, as John Paul said, in daily life, and even in political life. One wonders how today’s leaders, particularly in this electoral season, will deal with the Westerplatte moments that will come their way. One wonders whether they will recognize them when they occur, or, alas, whether they even know that they happen at all.