Testifying to Atrocities: The Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland
Testifying to Atrocities: The Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland
The establishment of the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland was a continuation of preparatory work, started already during World War II, to bring German perpetrators of war crimes to justice. Documentary work was carried out by the Polish government-in-exile and by the Polish Underground State. In the final stages of the war and in its aftermath, in the changed political circumstances, communist politicians took over the initiative.
Establishment of the Commission
The Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland (GKBZNwP) was established on 29 March 1945, although the relevant founding decree was not issued until November. According to this document, the purpose of the Main Commission was to investigate and collect evidence of Nazi German crimes and to publish the results of these investigations as well as the materials gathered in their course. Although the Commission faced with various problems typical of the difficult postwar period, it did have a significant mandate. It was authorized to conduct investigations under the Code of Criminal Procedure, its members had to be qualified judges or prosecutors, and its proceedings had the status of judicial activities. In addition, the Main Commission worked hand in hand with other institutions, including the Institute of National Remembrance (in existence from 1945 to 1950) which pursued a broad range of tasks, including the compilation of studies on German policy in occupied Poland.
In 1946, the first issue of the Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce (Bulletin of the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes)appeared. The range of subjects treated on its pages reflected the Commission’s broad range of interests – concentration camps, death camps, and labor camps, the extermination of Polish Jews, crimes committed during the Warsaw Uprising, crimes against Soviet prisoners-of-war, and German legislation as a means of repression. One year into its activity, the Commission began publishing the material it had collected. At the same time consistent efforts were made to select, verify, and publish materials having the highest evidential value, the premise being that the crimes documented were not individual actions but part of a detailed plan devised by the German authorities. Like the name of the Commission itself, the title of the bulletin replaced the designation “German” with “Hitlerite” during the Stalinist period.
Compliance with procedures when collecting testimonies from witnesses was also dictated by practical considerations. Irrespective of the intention to use them as research materials, the depositions collected were also to serve as evidence in trials of war criminals, which meant that they had to obey strict criteria so as not to be called into question in court. The Commission worked hand in hand with Poland’s most important judiciary institution dealing with the punishment of war criminals – the Supreme National Tribunal.
The Commission’s scope of activity, as indicated above, determined the type of materials that we can find in its holdings today. It must also be borne in mind, however, that the focus of those activities sometimes shifted. In the immediate postwar years research played a lesser role, while collecting and publishing testimonies of crimes was of primary importance. The collected material eventually wound up in the archive of the Main Commission, where it was used for the purposes of research as the latter aim came to the fore. Particularly since the 1960s, with the reopening of many cases adjourned during the Stalinist period, we see an outpouring of various academic studies based on GKBZNwP documents.
The significance of the materials
Thanks to the efforts of the Commission’s members, an incredibly valuable body of source material for research on the German occupation of Poland was compiled in the immediate postwar period – a collection that is in fact part of a larger body of documents, since material concerning the occupation can also be found in other Polish archives and museums. The documents of the Main Commission, currently in the holdings of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), are subdivided into two main parts: 1) documentation produced by the German authorities, agencies, and organizations, including camp documentation, and 2) materials produced by various agencies collecting evidence of and prosecuting German crimes, including the Polish government-in-exile, but mostly agencies operating in post-war Poland. We are chiefly interested in the latter part, which includes, above all, trial documentation from the Supreme National Tribunal, courts (including special tribunals), and prosecutors’ offices.
This part of the material includes witness depositions documenting German crimes against Poles and, to a smaller extent, the Shoah. Altogether, around 11,000 investigations were carried out in Poland up until the late 1970s, including around 6,000 discovery proceedings, with 105,000 witness depositions taken.
One cannot, however, fail to mention the ongoing discussion as to the reliability of depositions made in communist Poland, their factual accuracy and value as a historical source. These questions are not new and it is clear that the materials in question did not come into being in an abstract, apolitical setting where the overarching aim was only to seek redress for Nazi-German crimes. For Poland’s new communist authorities, the immediate postwar period was a time for laying the foundations of a communist system in Poland, although not yet in such extreme form as after 1948. Many witnesses may have resented the political situation or been afraid to reveal certain facts, even if truthfully relating the general circumstances.
Another factor that should caution historians is that things are much more straightforward when it comes to violent, yet unequivocal repressions such as executions, the Wola Massacre, or conditions in prisons and camps. German terror, however, was not always straightforward. The occupation authorities tried to sow discord among neighbors, among religious, national, and racial groups, and among social classes, and to take advantage of antagonisms existing between these. If such had been the case, the witnesses found themselves in a difficult position, having to talk about the deeds of members of their local community and sometimes having to inculpate them, which is something they tried to avoid. The investigating judge wasn’t always interested in exploring these complex circumstances.
A third limitation has to do with whether and to what extent the witnesses testifying were willing and able to talk about their often traumatic experiences. In many accounts, it is clear that they remember them down to the smallest minutiae; every detail has etched itself in their memory and is recalled with precision even years after. Does this mean that they are telling the whole truth, or perhaps concealing the more painful details? On the other hand, can we ever rule out that some embellished their stories?
The above remarks in no way undermine the importance of the materials gathered by the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes. It is a very significant body of material which contains a wealth of information, having been collected scrupulously and in line with strict procedures, and prepared for use in trial proceedings. At the same time, like any subjective source having recourse to memory, it requires critical analysis. Yet it shows with striking clarity what the experience of the war was like for Polish society as a whole, for different local communities, for families and for individuals, whose fate was affected by terror, and reveals the scars it left on their psyches and lives.
The degree to which different parts of the material are known varies. After 1948, ambitious plans for the Commission’s further work were limited and its elaborate structure of regional commissions abolished. With the death of Stalin the situation improved again and the Main Commission and its bulletin became an important forum for research on the German occupation in communist Poland. From the 1960s on, the Commission was headed by Czesław Pilichowski, who brought a group of scholars from Poznań with him. In the 1970s, one of Poland’s most interesting postwar scholars, the lawyer, historian and political scientist Franciszek Ryszka, became editor-in-chief of the Biuletyn. Moreover, independently of the work of the Main Commission, the authors of some of the testimonies were active in postwar Poland and will hence be familiar to those interested in the German occupation. For example, Chronicles of Terror includes the account of Anna Czuperska (collection: Pawiak), the author of Cztery lata ostrego dyżuru: wspomnienia z Pawiaka 1940-1944 (Four Years in the Emergency Room: Memoirs of Pawiak 1940-1944). Maria Kopeć, a doctor and postwar professor of medicine, also shared her memories, as did Leon Wanat, the author of Za murami Pawiaka (Behind the Pawiak Walls).
From today’s perspective, however, it must be concluded that the goal of disseminating information about the collection, particularly abroad, has not yet been achieved. The Main Commission’s initial publications and its bulletin drew considerable interest and continued to attract attention in later years; it seems, however, that as time went by less priority was given to the publication of testimonies. Regardless of the unclear policy of Poland’s communist authorities in this respect, it remains a fact that the witness testimonies collected by the Main Commission did not enter international academic circulation even as the research paradigm changed and the fate of civilians, the Holocaust, and genocide became topics of scholarly interest (the last of these in the twenty-first century). In Poland, too, the testimonies were forgotten after 1989 amid fascination with new possibilities of conducting research into the Soviet occupation of Polish lands.
The importance of Warsaw
The history of German-occupied Warsaw held an important place in the work of the Main Commission, perhaps even the most important one. This is understandable, both because of the role of the Polish capital in the activities of the Polish Underground State and due to the scale of atrocities and destruction that accompanied the Warsaw Uprising. The first issue of the Commission’s bulletin contained a special section devoted to Warsaw: “German crimes committed during the uprising in Warsaw in August and September 1944”, it proclaimed, “occupy a special place in the overall balance of German crimes committed in Poland during the course of the last war. Crimes committed in Warsaw against tens of thousands of defenseless men, women, and children were perpetrated by military units upon clear orders of the supreme German military authorities, and were the work of the German army, military staff, and agencies independent of the Gestapo.”  That same year, in 1946, the Commission also published Zburzenie Warszawy. Zeznania generałów niemieckich przed polskim prokuratorem, członkiem polskiej delegacji przy Międzynarodowym Trybunale Wojennym w Norymberdze (The Destruction of Warsaw: Testimonies of German Generals before the Polish Prosecutor, a Member of the International War Tribunal at Nuremberg) (Katowice 1946).
In Chronicles of Terror readers will find several collections of testimonies describing life under the German occupation: Treblinka and the Holocaust, the war on religion and the Catholic Church, and repressions against the intelligentsia, Polish science, and culture. Several collections are devoted to Warsaw. They depict a city in which terror and street executions were part of daily life, both before and during the Warsaw Uprising. The city of the Pawiak, executions in the ruins of the ghetto, and Gęsiówka camp. Finally, a city that experienced its most tragic moments during the Warsaw Uprising. Descriptions of the cruelty of that time can be found in the Wola Massacre collection, among others. Wola was a district which met the most terrible fate of all when, at the beginning of August 1944, the leaders of the Third Reich decided to murder all of Warsaw’s civilians. Before that decision was reversed, several tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives there.
Prof. Piotr Madajczyk (Institute of Political Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences; Łazarski University) – historian. His research interests include national minorities in Poland, Polish-German relations in the twentieth century, forced migrations in Central Europe after World War II and the recent history of Poland. In addition to scholarly work, he is also a commentator on historical issues and contemporary Germany and Austria. Author of Inżynieria społeczna. Między totalitarną utopią a cząstkowym pragmatyzmem [Social Engineering: Between Totalitarian Utopia and Partial Pragmatism] (ed., 2012) and Czystki etniczne i klasowe w Europie w XX wieku [Ethnic Cleansing and Class Purges in Europe in the Twentieth Century] (2010).
 Decree of 10 November 1945, Dziennik Ustaw (Journal of Laws) 1945, no. 51, pos. 293. On the beginnings of the Commission’s activity, cf. Mieczysław Motas, Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce i jej oddziały terenowe w 1945 roku. Wybór dokumentów, Warsaw 1995.
 Janusz Druko, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej 1945-1950, Rocznik Warszawski 2006, vol. 24, p. 191-213.
 Cf. Waldemar Monkiewicz, Zbiory Głównej i Okręgowej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich (komunikat), Białystok 24-25 September 1979, for internal use only.
 P. Lewandowski, “Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu w Polsce (1945-1999),” Piotrkowskie Zeszyty Historyczne 2015, vol. 16, p. 145-172, here p. 163.
 Although when talking about camps this statement may be overly simplistic, as demonstrated by Anna Pawełczyńska in her by now classic work Wartości a przemoc. Zarys socjologicznej problematyki Oświęcimia, Warsaw 1973.
 “Zbrodnie Niemieckie podczas Powstania w Warszawie,” Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce, 1946, vol. I, p. 233-275. Quote: p. 233.