Karol Wacław Świerczewski (Polish pronunciation: [ˈkarɔl ɕfjɛrˈt͡ʂɛfskʲi]; callsign Walter; 22 February 1897 – 28 March 1947) was a Pole who became a Soviet military officer and a general. He served as a general in the service of the Soviet Union, Republican Spain, and the Soviet-sponsored Polish Provisional Government of National Unity after World War II.
Born in Warsaw, Karol Świerczewski grew up in a poor working-class family. At age 12 he went to work at a factory in Warsaw until 1915 when, during the First World War, he was evacuated to Moscow. In 1918 he joined the Bolshevik Party, fought in the Russian Civil War as a soldier of the Red Army. During the Polish-Soviet War he fought on the Soviet side and was wounded. In 1928 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Red Army he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner no. 146, his first military award.
In 1936, under the name General Walter, he went to Spain, during the Spanish Civil War, where he led the XIV International Brigade in the battle of Lopera, and later the 35th International Division, in the Segovia offensive, and the battles of Brunete, Belchite. Teruel and the Aragon Offensive.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War Świerczewski served as a general of the Soviet Army. His commanders, seeing Świerczewski's complete incompetence and deepening alcoholism, moved him to command only reserves. This decision was made by General Georgi Zhukov. The fact that Świerczewski gave most of his orders under influence of alcohol, which had tragic consequences for his soldiers, was described in Zygmunt Berling's book Wspomnienia (Memories). In 1943 he became one of the generals charged with the creation of the Soviet-controlled Polish Armed Forces in the East, the 1st Polish Army. His constant alcoholism and related disregard for life and health of his soldiers stirred conflicts with Zygmunt Berling. Also for this reason he has been removed from the command on several occasions. Świerczewski's alcoholism-related orders gained criticism from other Polish generals as well, including Gen. Aleksander Waszkiewicz.
In 1944 he became one of the leaders of the Polish Workers' Party and the government of People's Republic of Poland. In the winter of 1944 and the spring of 1945 he led the Polish Second Army during the fighting for western Poland and the Battle of Berlin. His leadership in the Battle of Bautzen (Budziszyn) has been severely criticized by modern historians, and he is held responsible for the Second Army incurring very heavy casualties in that engagement. While commanding, he might have been drunk, and was temporarily relieved of his command. However, due to important backed in the Soviet structures (likely, NKVD) he not only retained his command, but all controversies were hushed up, and after the war he was gloried as a hero.
In February 1946 Świerczewski became the Deputy Defense Minister of Poland. He was involved in the persecution of the independence movement in Poland, and signed many death sentences, while establishing a communist regime in Poland.
For several years after the Second World War ended, the Ukrainian Nationalist insurgency led mainly by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army continued fighting in the South-East of Poland. This war largely supported by the local Ukrainian part of the population, continued until 1949, with some sporadic fights taking place as late as 1956.
Świerczewski was heavily wounded in a skirmish in March 1947, as he went on inspection of the Polish troops fighting with Ukrainians without an escort, in an ambush organized by Ukrainian Insurgent Army near Baligród, and died within hours after. There were several conspiracy theories claiming, that the ambush has been arranged by the Soviet intelligence, while Ukrainians who somehow knew about the general's arrival to the area and his escort being left after because of the mechanical problems with both trucks transporting soldiers, were only executors of the Soviet orders. The general, a Pole but essentially a Soviet officer with a heroic record from the Spanish Civil War and a long Red Army war record, had been previously placed lower in the command by Soviet Union than pre-war Polish officers Berling and Rola-Żymierski.
Świerczewski's death was used as a direct pretext for the pre-planned forcible expulsion of the Ukrainian population (Operation Vistula) from the territories in the South Eastern part of the post-war Poland to the "Recovered Territories" (Ziemie Odzyskane, areas Poland gained from Germany after the war). In the socialist Poland many myths were created around Karol Świerczewski ("The General of Three Armies"), but details of his life and especially his service in the Red Army during Polish-Soviet War as well as the details of his Spanish War record were never mentioned.
In People's Republic of Poland, the Polish communist propaganda made him into a hero, and many controversial aspects of his life (such as his incompetence during the Battle of Bautzen) were hushed up.
After 1989, as Poland regained independence from Soviet rule with the end of the Warsaw Pact and the coming to power of Solidarity, many of his monuments were removed and streets renamed because of his role in implementing the communist regime in Poland.
On May 21, 2003, the Polish organization of former veterans and independence fighters applied to the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) to investigate crimes against the Polish nation committed by Karol Świerczewski. In a letter, they recall that he was "one of the people who consciously worked towards [the] enslavement of Polish nation, through enforced communist regime that was [a] vassal towards Moscow". Among crimes that are not subject to expiry and should be investigated by the IPN are 29 death sentences on Polish soldiers and officers, which were signed by Świerczewski during his command of the Soviet-controlled 2nd Polish Army.
While being an unwilling photography subject himself, General Walter was a keen amateur photographer. His daughter donated 333 of his photographs to the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales in Albacete, Spain, to form a permanent part of their archive.
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- James Neugass War is Beautiful. An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War, The New Press, London-New York, 2008
- I. Pidkova, R. M. Shust, K. Bondarenko, "Dovidnyk z istoriï Ukraïny" (A hand-book on the History of Ukraine), 3-Volumes, Article "Сверчевський Кароль" (t. 3), Kiev, 1993–1999, ISBN 5-7707-5190-8 (t. 1), ISBN 5-7707-8552-7 (t. 2), ISBN 966-504-237-8 (t. 3).
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- (Russian) Пан Вальтер in "Совершенно секретно", a monthly in Russia