Wola massacre

Wola massacre

The Wola massacre (Rzeź Woli, "Wola slaughter") (August 5-August 8, 1944 in Wola, Warsaw) was the scene of the largest single massacre in the history of Poland. According to different sources, some 40,000 to 100,000 Polish civilians and POWs were killed by the German forces during their suppression of the Warsaw Uprising. The Nazis tried to suppress the uprising early with an attempt to terrorize the inhabitants of Warsaw, hoping to end without having to commit to heavy urban combat, before realizing it was only stiffening the opposition.

The massacre

German forces, notably subunits of the Sicherheitspolizei security police and notorious force of amnestied criminals SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger, rounded up and indiscriminately executed many of the people in the Wola district, including the elderly, women and children, as well as the insurgents taken prisoner. Mass executions in the district also included the mass murders of patients and personnel of the local hospitals, some of them burned alive. A critical aim of this German policy was to crush the will of the Poles to fight and bring the uprising to an end without having to commit to the heavy city fighting.

On August 5, the three groups started their advance westward along Wolska and Górczewska streets toward the main East-West communication line of Aleje Jerozolimskie. Their advance was halted, but the Heinz Reinefarth's and Oskar Dirlewanger's regiments started to carry out orders of Heinrich Himmler: behind the lines, special groups of SS and police forces went from house to house, rounding-up and shooting all inhabitants. Regular German soldiers of the Wehrmacht also took part in the killings.

Martin Gilbert, in his book The Second World War: A Complete History, page 565, (see Google Books page view) describes the event:

By August 5, more than fifteen thousand Polish civilians had been murdered by German troops in Warsaw. At 5:30 that evening, General von dem Bach Zelewski gave the order for the execution of women and children to stop. But the killing continued of all Polish men who were captured, without anyone bothering to find out whether they were insurgents or not. Nor did either the Cossacks or the criminals in the Kaminsky and Dirlewanger brigades pay any attention to von dem Bach Zelewski's order: by rape, murder, torture and fire, they made their way through the suburbs of Wola and Ochota, killing in three days of slaughter a further thirty thousand civilians, including hundreds of patients in each of the hospitals in their path.

At the same time, the insurgent Zośka and Wacek battalions managed to capture the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Warsaw concentration camp. The area became one of the main communication links between the insurgents fighting in Wola and those defending the Warsaw Old Town. On August 7, 1944, the Nazi forces were joined by tanks, with civilian women being used as a human shields. After two days of heavy fighting, they managed to cut Wola in two and reach the Bankowy square.

The massacre was halted when Adolf Hitler ordered the captured civilians to be sent to concentration camps or directed to forced labor. The Verbrennungskommando, which was composed of selected Polish men, collected most of the victims' bodies and then burnt them in several locations.


Up until mid September, the Nazis were shooting all captured insurgents on the spot. After SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach arrived in Warsaw (August 7, 1944), it became clear that atrocities only stiffened the resistance and that some political solution should be found, considering the limited forces at the disposal of the German commander. The aim was to gain a significant victory to show the Armia Krajowa the futility of further fighting and make them surrender.

This did not immediately succeed, but from the end of September on, some of the captured Polish fighters were treated as prisoners of war and civilians spared, and in the end the districts of Warsaw still held by insurgents capitulated on October 2, 1944.

The main perpetrators were Heinz Reinefarth and Oskar Dirlewanger, who presided over the most cruel atrocities. Dirlewanger was tortured to death by Polish military guards after the war, but Reinefarth was never prosecuted. A list of several former Dirlewanger members still alive and never prosecuted was made by the Warsaw Uprising Museum in May 2008.

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