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Military archives in Poland

An introduction

By Jacek Jędrysiak, Assistant Professor in the University of Wrocław and Head of Section in Military Historical Bureau of Lieutenant General Kazimierz Sosnkowski in Warsaw-Rembertów

The Committee of Military Archives thanks Jacek Jędrysiak for his commitment and the active participation to this blog

1. The structure of the contemporary military archives network

According to the Act of 14 July 1983, the military archival fonds in Poland is a separate part of the national archival fonds, subordinated to and managed by the Minister of National Defence (pol. Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowej, MON).

In overall, it includes all documentation produced by military units and institutions, as well as files related to state defense, produced by defense units operating in other ministries as well as central and local state offices.

Since 2016, the archives managed by MON can be divided into two categories. The first consists of archives subordinate to the Military Historical Bureau of Lieutenant General Kazimierz Sosnkowski (Wojskowe Biuro Historyczne im. gen. broni Kazimierza Sosnkowskiego, WBH).

These are currently:

  • Central Military Archives of the Military Historical Bureau (Centralne Archiwum Wojskowe Wojskowgo Biura Historycznego, CAW-WBH, Rembertów)
  • Military Archives in Oleśnica;
  • Military Archives in Toruń
  • Branch office of the Military Archives in Toruń  in Gdynia.
Picture 3:  Banner on the Building of the CAW-WBH: Commander in Chief of the Polish Armed Forces General Kazimierz Sosnkowski with his staff officers in 1943. Source: CAW-WBH. Source: CAW-WBH

The second group consists of the so-called archives of organizational units, for example:  

Archives of the Military Counterintelligence Service; Military Intelligence Service Archive; Military Police Archive; archives of military universities; archives of research institutes etc.

2. Contemporary military archival fonds

The fonds of the military archival network includes materials on the Polish Army, conventionally from 1908 (considered the beginning of the rebirth of the Polish armed forces) to the present day. Materials concerning the earlier history of the Polish military are stored in other archives, including in particular the Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw. In addition, some of the documents from the period 1908-1939 were evacuated during World War II and are still in the institutions founded in exile during World War II: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum  and the Józef Piłsudski Institute (both London) and the Józef Piłsudski Institute of America (New York).

Picture 4: Exposition in the main hall of the CAW-WBH building 100 anniversary of  the creation the WBH. Source: CAW-WBH

These institutions also store materials on the Polish Armed Forces in the West from 1939-1947, the Polish Underground State and post-war Polish military emigration.

The establishment of the Institute of National Remembrance in 1999 is also significant. The Act of 18 October 2006 on the disclosure of information on documents of state security organs from 1944-1990 and the content of these documents obliges to submit documentation to the Institute of National Remembrance concerning, among others, military security organs, which include: Military Information (Główny Zarząd Informacji, GZI); Military Internal Service; Second Directorate General Staff of the Polish Army; other services of the Armed Forces conducting operational and reconnaissance or investigative activities, including in the types of armed forces and in military districts. The Institute of National Remembrance also collects all documents regarding communist crimes and other crimes constituting crimes against peace, humanity or war crimes committed against persons of Polish nationality or Polish citizens of other nationalities in the period from September 1, 1939 to July 31, 1990, so documents regarding the participation of units of the Polish People’s Army (Ludowe Wojsko Polskie, LWP) involved in the above-mentioned activities.

A number of documents concerning the Polish Army history are also found in Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian and Lithuanian archives.

Picture 4a: Plaque in honor of officers served in the  WBH who were killed during World War II. 100 anniversary of  the creation the WBH. Source: Jacek Jędrysiak

3. History of military archives in Poland until 1945.

The fall of the November Uprising in 1831 meant the end of the regular Polish army in the 19th century. In this way, it was also impossible to develop the foundations of military archives. The conditions for work in this field arose with the establishment at the end of 1916 in the areas occupied by the Central Powers of the Congress Kingdom of the Military Commission of the Provisional Council of State. At that time, the Scientific Section subordinated to it undertook preparatory work in order to establish the Military Archives in the future.

Picture 5: Documents in the warehouse. Source: CAW-WBH

After Poland regained independence in 1918, the Central Military Archives (CAW) was established from the former Archive Department of the Scientific Section. Its first director was Lieutenant (finally Lieutenant Colonel) Dr. Bronisław Pawłowski (until 1933) and the headquarters of the CAW was so called the Copper-Roof Palace in Warsaw. Then, until 1931, its collections were in Legions’ Fort in the Warsaw Citadel. The initial CAW resource consisted of the files of the General Gouvernement Warschau, the 1st Polish Corps in Russia, the Polnische Wehrmacht and (obtained at the beginning of 1919) the documentation of the Polish Legions and the Polish Auxiliary Corps. Gradually, it included orders and operational and organizational files of the Polish military authorities, documentation of Polish formations and military associations from the period before World War I and the war years, files of the military authorities of the former partitioning countries and clippings from periodicals devoted to military matters were also collected.

Picture 6: Documents in the warehouse. Source: CAW-WBH

Until 1927, CAW was subordinated to the Military Institute of Science and Education (Wojskowy Instytut Naukowo-Oświatowy, WINO). Then it was included in the structure of the newly established Military Historical Bureau as the Military Archive (Archiwum Wojskowe, AW). The change was intended to better coordinate the scientific and research activities of military institutions run since 1922 by the existing Historical Office of the General Staff. From 1933 to the outbreak of war, Major Bolesław Waligóra was the director of the Military Archives. At that time, the institution took over the files from the disbanded archival boards at the Commands of the Corps Districts and the archives of the Military Historical Bureau. From 1929, documentation of central military institutions, created in the years 1918-1928, was systematically collected.

The AW structure in 1928 included:

  • Department I – old files until 1863 and the library;
  • Department II – files of military formations and unions during the World War (until 1918);
  • Department  III – Independent Archival Section – operational files from the period of Independent Poland (from 1918);
  • Department IV – military administrative files (from 1918);
  • Department V – military files of central authorities and institutions (since 1918);
  • Department VI – foreign military files.

The change in the structure took place in 1935. From November of that year, the AW consisted of:

  • Archive Management,
  • General Department with old department I and a library,
  • Scientific and Archival Department with old departments II, III, IV, V, VI
  • Records and Administration Department.
Picture 7: Documents in the warehouse. Source: CAW-WBH

The AW collected, inventoried and stored files of importance to the history of the Polish military, registered military files in other archives, libraries and private persons, supervised the substantive over military registers and developed regulations and instructions for them, conducted queries for authorities, offices and private persons and issued copies and excerpts from files. The Military Archives also coordinated and supervised the activities of the entire military archival service, including clerks at the headquarters of the general districts and the headquarters of the corps districts.

According to estimates from 1933, the resources of the AW in 1939 numbered about 7,000 meters of documents. From 1931, the Archive had its seat in a building at Pokorna Street in Warsaw.

During the Polish campaign in 1939, only part of the most valuable collections was evacuated to Romania and through Paris to Great Britain. The vast majority, including intelligence files, were taken over by the German and Soviet occupiers. Already in the autumn of 1939, the Third Reich joined the organization of the Heeresarchiv branch in Gdańsk-Oliwa. There were 15,000 meters of files in total, including documents of central institutions of the Polish Ministry of Military Affairs, types of armed forces and services, military units. These materials were used for repressive purposes, therefore they were divided and inventoried contrary to the principles of archiving. Germany and the Soviet Union also exchanged files important from the point of view of their goals, adding to the losses and mess in the collections.

Picture 8: Documents in the warehouse. Source: CAW-WBH

4. History of military archives in Poland after 1945

The reconstruction of the Military Archives was entrusted by the order of the High Command of the Polish Army (under Soviet auspices) of September 16, 1944 to the “reactivated” Military Research and Publishing Institute (Wojskowy Instytut Naukowo-Wydawniczy, WINW). WINW initially resided in Lublin, and then in Łódź. The activity of the AW until the founding of the Gdańsk-Oliwa Branch in April 1945 is poorly known. Materials from Oliwa were evacuated by the Germans at the turn of 1944/1945 to Potsdam and Berlin. About 5,000 meters from about 10,000 meters documents from Oliwa have survived in general. The evacuated materials were looted by the USSR in 1945 and included in the resources of the local archives. In 1964, the Soviet side returned approx. 400 meters of documents, which was a smaller part of the acquired materials. It was not until the 1990s that another part of the military archives from Russia was reclaimed to Poland.

However, invaluable collections concerning, for example, the Polish Military Organization or the Second Department of the General (Main) Staff are still in Russian hands.

Securing the recovered pre-war CAW materials became a priority of the organized institution. This was confirmed by the order of August 5, 1945, which ordered the re-formation of the Central Military Archives, subordinated to the Main Political and Educational Directorate. Unfortunately, during the Stalinist period, pre-war files were to be used by the communist authorities for the purposes of political repression, remaining at the disposal of the military and civilian secret police. In particular, the GZI  was actually aiming at limiting the role of the new CAW to the role of current LWP files created after 1943. As a result, in 1947 GZI took over the actual authority over the archive. The process of gradual removal of pre-war files to the warehouse in Wesoła near Warsaw began. As a result, the CAW was actually deprived of its historical fonds and the secret police created an alternative, so called Archive of the Polish Army. However, the CAW was not liquidated, and the network of field archives, including 6 archives of military districts, was even subordinated in terms of content. As they remained in the structure of subordination to the commands of military districts, supervision over the formation of the archival fonds was illusory.

Picture 9: Reading room in the CAW-WBH. Source: CAW-WBH

The next reorganization of the CAW was made by order of the Ministry of National Defense No. 01/Org. in January 1951. The CAW was (initially informally) subordinated to the IX Department of the General Staff. Its headquarters became Fort of Sokolnicki in Warsaw. Forming the resources of the CAW consisted in the first place in merging the archival materials of the pre-war AW dispersed in the country and abroad. The files seized by the GZI slowly began to be taken over, but some of them were still at the disposal of the secret police, and the process of their full transfer to the CAW was completed only in the 1990s. In addition to the files of the pre-war CAW, the Germans also collected in Oliwa files of a number of key military institutions of the Polish Army from before 1939, e.g. the Main Inspectorate of the Armed Forces, the General Staff of the Polish Army, etc. It is worth mentioning that in 1950, the destruction of those materials of the Polish Army from before World War II, which were useless from the point of view of the secret police, was considered. This could concern e.g. an act from the period of the Polish-Soviet War or the Silesian Uprisings! The destruction action was stopped, but the pre-war files were taken over by the CAW in a disordered form. It was not until 1956 that the action to develop the files taken over from GZI began.

In the course of the assessment, it was found that out of the pre-war CAW resources, the archive had only 30% of files. Another 30% was taken over by the Archives of the Ministry of Public Security, 10% were dispersed in other military institutions, the rest were destroyed. The commenced consolidation action, lasting until 1964, resulted in an increase in the number of files held by 3,000 to 4371 meters of documents. In the same year, the action to scientific description this fonds began.

An inventory and consolidation of the LWP files from the years 1943-1945 was also constantly undertaken. They were put in order in the course of the action lasting until 1960. The main resource of the CAW, however, consisted of successively taken over documents of military institutions and units created after 1945 and of disbanded military formations (e.g. in the 1970s of the Internal Security Corps). Until 1968, however, no initiative regarding post-war materials was taken, which became an urgent problem due to the dismantling of some units. For this purpose, a number of files of military units established after World War II were taken over from the subordinate archives. As a result, fonds were created and developed for the most important institutions (e.g. the General Staff or the Main Political Directorate) and military units until 1956.

CAW was constantly struggling with space and quality issues in the warehouses. Since May 1972, the permanent seat of the CAW has been the building acquired from the then Academy of the General Staff in Rembertów.

The structure existing until 1990 and subsequent transformations did not have a positive impact on the development of the growing resource. In principle, until 1954, the formal status of the CAW as a central archival institution in relation to other military archives was not sufficiently regulated. It was only in the years 1959-1965 that the supervision of the CAW over the remaining 13 military archives and 127 file repositories was agreed with the Main Directorate of State Archives. In general, until the years 1987-1990, the archives of military districts and types of the armed forces remained outside the CAW structure.

Picture 10: Conference room in the CAW-WBH. Source: CAW-WBH

In 1990, the military archival network was given the following structure:

  • Branch No. 1 of CAW: Archives of Central Institutions of the Ministry of National Defense (Modlin)
  • Branch No. 2 of CAW: Archives of the Warsaw Military District (Warsaw)
  • Branch No. 3 of CAW: Archives of the Pomeranian Military District (Toruń)
  • Branch No. 4 of CAW: Archives of the Silesian Military District (Wrocław)
  • Branch No. 5 of CAW: Naval Archives (Gdynia)
  • Branch No. 6 of CAW: Archives of Air Forces and Air Defense (Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki)
  • Branch No. 7 of CAW: Archives of the Cracow Military District (Cracow, since 1992)

The key in this context was Branch No. 1, which took over the files of such dismantled LWP institutions as the Military Internal Service, Main Political Directorate, Main Directorate of Combat Training, Military Chamber of the Supreme Court, etc. At that time, CAW became a typical historical archive, other branches took over the role of archives of current institutions and types of armed forces.

This structure survived until 2000, when only Branch No. 1 remained under the CAW’s subordination. The other archives were subordinated to the Land Forces Archive (branches in Toruń, Wrocław and Kraków), the Navy Archive in Gdynia and the Air Force and Air Defense Archive in Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki.

Another change took place already in 2009, when to the CAW was subordinated the Archives of the Ministry of National Defense in Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki (former Archives of the Institutions of the Ministry of National Defence), the Military Archives in Toruń, the Military Archives in Oleśnica (relocated between 2005 and 2007 from Wrocław), the Archives of the Air Force in Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki and the Naval Archives in Gdynia. The Land Forces Archive and its branch in Kraków were liquidated, and their resources were transferred to other units. In 2010, work began on the reconstruction and expansion of the building of the Central Military Archives.

Picture 11: UNESCO certificate for the Documents of the Polish radio intelligence  from  the period pf the Battle of Warsaw in 1920. Source: CAW-WBH

5. Present day

The main institution of the military archival network is currently the Military Historical Bureau, whose director since its establishment in 2016 is Professor  Sławomir Cenckiewicz. The actions of the WBH management led to the completion of the delayed renovation of the CAW building in Rembertów. In 2018, the fact of illegal destruction of files from the communist period in 1990-2009 in Rembertów, Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki and Gdynia was also revealed.

When CAW-WBH was established, the following were subordinated to:

  • Military Archives in Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki (former Central Institutions of  MON and Air Force Archives)
  • Military Archives in Gdynia;
  • Military Archives in Toruń;
  • Military Archives in Oleśnica.

The archive in Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki was dissolved in 2018 and its resources transferred to other institutions. The Archive in Gdynia was subordinated to the Archive in Toruń.

CAW-WBH is today the most important military historical archive. The entire CAW materials are divided into 11 parts. The first four are the historical departments of the institution, the next are artificially created collections:

  • Archive materials from 1908-1939
  • Archive materials from the period of World War II
  • Archives of the Polish Army from 1943-1945
  • Archives of the Polish Army after 1945
  • Collection of the Military Archival Commission
  • Personal and Award Files
  • Photo collections
  • Cartographic collections
  • A collection of regulations, instructions and legal acts
  • Archives of the Polish Army from the years 1943-2012 – unedited
  • Collection of files of the Military Historical Research Office
  • Part of the files from section I, e.g. “Polish Legions and the Polish Auxiliary Corps” (https://wbh.wp.mil.pl/pl/pages/oddzia-ii-i3034-1-100-2022-08-31-1y1w/) are available online.

There is also an electronic resource database for files from the sections I-IV: https://wbh.wp.mil.pl/pl/pages/oddzia-ii-i3034-1-100-2022-08-31-1y1w/

The Military Archives in Toruń mainly stores materials from the former Pomeranian Military District and the units that were part of its structure after 1956. The records of the disbanded archives in Nowy Dwór and Modlin from the area being the scope of the archive’s supervision are also successively included in the resource. The branch in Gdynia mainly stores the old files of the Navy.

The Military Archive in Oleśnica mainly stores materials from the former Military Districts: Silesian, Warsaw and Cracow since 1956. The archives have also successively included files of dissolved archives in Nowy Dwór and Modlin from the area under the supervision of the archive.

In the three above-mentioned archives, materials are recorded only on the basis of files lists, combined into provisional collections. The list of collections is available online on the sites of the archives.

6. Databases and using of the archival materials rules

Archival materials are available to anyone who requests it, unless there are grounds for refusal of access specified in legal provisions. Only in exceptional cases may the director of the archives refuse access to archive materials if:

  • their disclosure could violate the legally protected interests of the state, organizational units and citizens (e.g. they contain protected personal data or information that violates personal rights),
  • their disclosure could violate secrets protected by law (state, official, professional),
  • their physical condition does not allow for sharing.

Materials up to 1990 were declassified, unless the confidentiality clause has been extended after this period.

Data from personal files of professional soldiers are made available in the scope of the service history, decorations and official opinions created until 1990. Making personal files available to a wider extent requires the user to provide justification for the purpose of sharing and obtain the consent of the Director of the Military Historical Bureau.

Archival materials are available free of charge in the reading room. Original files are available only on site, they cannot be borrowed or taken outside the reading room. Using the reading room in each of the archives requires prior registration of the place.

User application forms are available on the website: https://wbh.wp.mil.pl/pl/pages/formularze-2021-01-21-w9lf/

Materials from which usable copies (microfilm or scans) were made are made available in the form of these copies, not originals.

When using the archives in the reading room, you can make free copies of them with your own camera, as long as they are intended for personal non-commercial use. Due to the safety of the materials, it is unacceptable to use a flash lamp and manipulate the archives other than as a result of normal use. Copying should also be done in such a way as not to disturb the work of other users (e.g. without using a tripod).

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blogging CAM meeting

Being catalogued

The Committee of Military Archives’ Blog in OpenEdition Catalogue

By Kathleen Van Acker and Flavio Carbone

The Committee of Military Archives secretary-general and president

During the month of July 2022, the Committee of Military Archives received an email.

Céline Guilleux, chargée de validation scientifique Calenda et Hypothèses beloging to OpenEdition (CNRS – EHESS – Aix-Marseille Université – Université d’Avignon), confirmed the publication of our blog in the Openedition catalogue.

The archivists of the CAM have been catalogued (yes, pun intended). The scholars know that on one hand the catalogue and the procedure to catalogue a book belong to the librarians, on the other hand the inventory and inventoring of archival fund is the business for archivists. It happens!

Taking our joke aside, it is important to consider that the platform Hypotheses.org represents only a part of a larger portal and project, OpenEdition.

But, what does it mean? It means that the publication of the blog in the catalogue gives more visibility. The CAM blog will be better indexed in search engines and will be added to catalogues specialised in humanities and social sciences such as Isidore.

In this regard, we should consider some results after more than one year using the blog as the main line of communication of the Committee of Military Archives. The approval of the blog proposal launched by CAM steering committee in September 2021 and later the publication of the blog approved in July 2022 by the Hypotheses validation team represent two main achievements in the CAM initiative.

The CAM meeting in Athens, September 2021 (CAM president archive)

Those achievements offer more visibility within the group of archivists and historians. The main aim is to build a trustful community within and outside the military archivists who belongs to the International Commission of Military History larger community.

Athens, 3 September 2021. The CAM president presentation of the blog initiative moving from the “Mars&Janus” newsletter to the blog hosted on the Hypotheses platform

The question is why did the CAM decide to request the opening of a scientific blog on the Hypotheses platform? Because Hypotheses is open to the whole academic community (researchers, research teams, PhD students, information specialists, institutions, etc.) in all disciplines of the arts, humanities and social sciences.

In principles, we cannot expect to keep the archivists inside the archives digging in the files and the archival funds full of dust (sorry for the stereotype). The CAM efforts are part of the main objective to open the initiatives of the CAM delegates and, generally speaking, of the entire military archivists community outside the archives, developing direct scientific links.

Those are the outcomes of the discussion held during the 2020/2021 CAM year, starting from September 2020 with the election of the new Steering Committee and the approved at the end of the meeting in Athens in September 2021, presenting the initiative to the entire International Commission of Military History general assembly.

Athens, 3 September 2021. The CAM president presentation of the blog to the ICMH general assembly

In the long term perspective, alongside the blog, the Committee of Military Archives should launch other initiatives.

New ambitious objectives could be reached once the CAM communities could welcome new delegates and friends belonging to public institutions, such as universities, scholarly societies, etc.

So, to conclude the Committee of Military Archives welcomes new members and interested persons to join our initiative and be active part of the project. Please join us!

Enlist now!

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