** war and social upheaval: World War II -- Poland

World War II: Poland

Figure 1.--This portrait of two unidentified Polish children from an obviously prosperous family was taken in a Warsaw photographic studio just before the Germans invaded in 1939, launching World War II. There was no way they could understand how their world would be turned upside down.

No country suffered during World War II more than Poland. Of all the terrible situations during World War II, Poland was the worst place to be and the Polish people suffered terribly. Poland was part of an alliance with Britain and France that confronted the NAZIs in World War II. Both Poland and France were defeated and occupied. Unlike the French, Poland continued to resist and was a valiant and valued ally throughout the War. World War II began with the German invasion of Poland (1939). The Soviets of course also invaded Poland in 1939, but Britain and France wisely only declared war on Germany. The subsequent Cold War between the Soviets and the western Allies also had its origins in Poland. Stalin's repressive measures in Poland, especially the murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Forrest was revealed by the NAZIs in 1942. Soon Soviet measures against the Polish Government in exile, the creation of a rival Polish Governmrent, and the abandonment of the Polish Home Army in Warsaw (1944) were some of the major issues which began the separation of the Soviet and Western Allies even before the end of World War II. Poland was a major issue at both Yalta and Potsdam. Many critics hav charged that tht President Roosevelt in particula abandoned Poland to the Soviets. [Olson and Cloud] The simple fact is, however, that the Red Army destroyed the Whermacht. If it had not been for the relentless pressure of the Red Army in the East, D-Day would have never been possible. The Soviet domination of Poland and Eastern Europe after the War was a simple reflection of that basic fact. America and the Western Allies could not have rescued Poland from the Soviets without war. In the end it was the Polish people who would prevail. It was in Poland with Solidarity in the 1980s that the Soviet empire began to unravel.

World War I

The Polish nation once the most powerful in Europe disappeared as a result of three partitions in the 18th century carried out by Austria, Prussia, and Russia with the major share and Warsaw going to Russia. The Poles resisted these empires and in reaction the Russians in particular set out to destroy Polish national identity and Russify the Poles. Polish nationalism was largely preserved by the nobility and the Church. The Polish peasantry was largely a political. Although there was no Polish state, Poles participated in the War as part of the armies of the three empires that had partioned the country. About 2.0 millions participated in the War. Nearly 0.5 million were killed. Polish nationalists were divided in the conflict. Many right-wing Poles led by Roman Dmowski's National Democrats promoted the Allied cause which on the Eastern Front meant the Russians. Dmowski thought that a grateful Russia might agree to autonomy for Poland, perhaps even independence in the future. Josef Pilsudski led the Polish Socialists. He also commanded the Polish Legion in the Austrian Army. He thought that Russia might be knocked out of the War. Austria which had gained Galicia in the partition had been the most willing to allow a measure of Polish autonomy. The poor performance of the Austrian Army on the Eastern Front resulted the Germans assuming command. Marshal Pilsudski refused to take an an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser. German authorities arrested him and imprisoned him in Magdenburg Castle. Russian collapse changed the political situation in the East. America had joined the war. President Wilson promoted the 14 Points wgich included national self determination. With Russia no longer in the war Britain and France came out for Polish self-determination. Although the Germans had achieved their goals in the East reverses in the West changed the political landscape. Revolts broke out in German cities. The Kaiser abdigated and fled to Holland. German authorities released Pilsudski Magdenburg (November 10, 1918). He immeditely headed for Warsaw. He arrived there on the same day the Armistice on the Western Front went into effect (November 11). The Germans had set up a Regency Council in Warsaw. Understanding that a Polish national rising was about to take place, the Regency Council turned to Marshal Pilsudski. The German garrison in Warsaw chose to evacuate by train. The Allies recognized the new Polish state set up by Pilsudski. At Versilles the Poles demanded the boundaries of Poland before the 18th century partitions. The boundaries of the new Polish nation were only established by diplomacy and military engagements (1919-21). Inter-war Poland included a German minority in the west and eastern areas where Lithuanians, White Russians, and Ukranians outnimbered Poles.


Poland was in part created by the Versailles Treaty (1919) ending World War I and a war with the Bolsheviks which extended Poland's boundary east into areas with populations that were not predominately Polish. As a result, Poland during the inter-War era was a muti-national, multi-ethnic, and mult-relogious state. About 60 percent of the population was Polish-speaking and predominately Catholic. The largest minority was the Ukranians in the east which constituted about 15 percent of the population. About 10 percent of the population was Jewish. The Jews were scattered thriughout the country, but mostly in urban areas, both cities and villages. As a result, about 40 poercent of the population of Warsaw was Jewish. There were other minorities, including Germas in the west and Lithuanians, and Belorussians in the east. Hitler used the susposed mistreatment of ethnic-Germans as an excuse to launch the War. Poland was invaded and occupied by the Germans and Soviet Unuin (September 1939). Both were determined to destroy the Polish nation. The NAZI obsession with race proved deadly in Poland. Stalin was also concedrned with ethnicity, but not because of race. He recognized the nationalist and religious factors associated with ethnicity and the impact on his ability to control an area. This is why he launced the Ukranian famine (early-1930s). Animosities between the ethnic groups caused futher conflict, especially animosity between Poles and Ukranians. Despite plans to kills Ukranians in large numbers as part of Gebneralplan Ost, some Ukranians cooperated with the Germans againstJews Poles and Soviets.


Geography prordanined disaster for Poland. The country was located between the two most evil totalitarian powers in world history and both were determined not only to defeat Poland, but to destroy Polish nationalism. The Soviets carried out four invasions of Poland (1919, 1919, 1939, and 1944). After the Revolution in Russia, the Bolshevicks were determined to export revolution to Germany, the industrial heartland of Europe where they believed the Revolution should have occurred. The Red army nearly reached Warsaw, but were defeated by the Poles. Stalin sought to regain territory lost to the Poles. Hitler's dream of Lebensraum meant land in the east. This meant Poland and Soviet territory. To get to Soviet territoey, Hitler first had to crush and annex Poland. The NAZIs added a new dimension to to the conflict, a racial war targeting both Jews and Slavs. Thus in 1939 Poland was caught between two emensely powerful totalitarian powers who targeted not only the country, but the Polish people for a range of issues including ideological, social class, religion, and race. The result would be the dearh of 20-25 percent of the Polish people.

German-Polish Non-Aggression Treaty (1934)

Poland was concerned about Hitler's seizure of power in Germany (1934). Hitler had constantly railed against the Versailles Treaty and Poles instantly recognized that this meant the Polish-German border, especially the Polish Corridor. There were many disputes about the border after Wold War I and a customs war had developed between the two countries, largely as aesult of border issues. The German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact was signed to put the issues at play on a diplomatic plane (January 26, 1934). The two countries pledged to resolve their problems through bilateral negotiations and to refrain from armed conflict for a period of 10 years. The impact was to normalize relations. The treaty essentially recognized Poland's borders, somthing Hitler had repeatedly spoke against. Hitler calculated, however, that it would be helpful to show that he was a reasonable leader and not the war-monger that the Allies had feared. This was important in the first years of his reign when the Reichwehr was not capable of defending the country from Allied intervention. And he had no intention of complying by treaty restrictions once German military power was restored.

Munich Accord (1938)

Britain and France caved into German demands and turned over the Czech Sudentenland to Hitler as part of the Munich Accords (September 1938). Poland was not part of the accords. It did, however, have border disputes with Czechoslovakia dating from the time the two countries were formed after World War I. The Poles moved to seize the disputed territory, taking advantage of Czechoslovakia's distress. We at this time do not have information on Polish Government thinking. There seems, however, to be no realizatiion that within a few months, Hitler would be demanding Polish territory. The Poles moved to annex Zaolzie after the Munich Agreement. They ewceived Northern Spisz and northern Orava after the First Vienna Award. Both represented relatively small areas. These areas included northern border areas of Slovakia and Czech border areas around Such� Hora and Hladovka, around Javorina, and also territory around Lesnica in the Pieniny Mountains, a small territory around Skalit� and some additional minor border regions.

Polish Military and Diplomatic Preparations (1933-39)

Hitler after seizing power (1933), adopted a moderate forign policy after swizing power. He negotated a German�Polish Non-Aggression Pact (January 26, 1934). The Poles given Hitler's speeches and writings were releaved. Hitler's goal was to put the Allies at rst until his rearmament program had created a new, poweful German Army. The Poles watched thec growth of the Wehrmacht with growing concern. Poland in 1939 was a small country wedged between two vicious totalitarin giants that had attempted to destroy Poland as atate and Polish national life. The two totalitarian states were her bitter historical enemies--the Soviet Union and NAZI Germany. The Poles had been able to seize large areas of the old Russian Empire after World War I. The Red Army had been weakened by the Civil War and Marshal Pilsudski succeeded in extending Polish borders to areas largely populated with Ukranians, White Russians, and Lithuanians. The German still held some of the Polish lands seized by Prussia in the 18th century Polish partitions. The NAZIs were equally opposed to Poland because areas of the former German Empire such as the Polish Corridor with ethnic Germans were awarded to Poland after World War I. Poland in the inter-war era maintained a substantial army, but did not have an industrial capacity or scientificic establishnent capable of equiping it with modern armaments. Nor did the Poles plan a reasonable military strategy. Its principal diplomatic approach was the Franco-Polish Alliance and Military Convention of 1921. Under the terms of this treaty, a German attack on Poland would trigger a French offensive against Germany in the West. This treaty was premised on the French maintaining a clear military superiority over Germany. French military policy soon evolved into a defensive outlook of resisting Germany behind the fortified Maginot Line. The French pledge to Poland was confirmed just before the War (May 1939). As a result of Germany of Germany's denounciation of the versailles Treaty, annexation of Austria, and then campaign against Czechoslovakia, Britain became increasingly concerned about German intentions. hamberlain at Munich made it clear that Britain would accept further norder modifications as long as they were done peacfully. He was of course speaking of the Polish border. In soon becme clear that Poland was the next target, but the Poles were no going to give in to German threats. British and Polish diplomats discussed posible cooperation. It was Hitler, however, who made the desion. He ordered the invasion of what was left of Czechoslovakia (Mach 15, 1939). Shortly after, the terms of an accord were worked out, the Anglo-Polish Agreement (March 31, 1939). The British pledged their support of Polish independence. They had, however, a relatively small army and no way of offering immediate assistance if the Germans struck. Poland was not willing to consider Soviet aid, realizing that allowing the Red army into the country would soon allow Stalin to seize control. Poland was hopeing that the antagonism between the NAZIs and the Soviets making it difficult for either to invade Poland.

Cracking the German Enigma Machines

The German military in the inter-War period developed the theory of Blitzkrieg and Hitler financed the countruction of a military to conduct Blitzkrieg. An integral part of Blitzkrieg was command and cointrol of rapidly moving mobile formations and this was only possible through radio communications. This meant that broadcast messages could be easily intercepted by the enemy. The German sollution to this was the Enigma Machine, originally developed by the German Railway System. The Germans were convinced that Enigma messages could not be deciophered. Poland in the period before World War II attempted to break the German Enigma cipher system. Btilliant Polish codebreakers with limited resources managed to dechipher some German Enigma mssages before World War II began. They were at first reluctant to share their work with the British and French. This chznged after Munich when Hitler began to move against the Poles. The Germans made cryptographic improvements that rendered much of the Polish work moot. The Polish work was an important beginning and the British and French had greater resources to attack the Enigmna problem. The Poles built new mechanical cryptanalytic aids which they called bombes as well as Enigma replicas and presented them to their new Allies (July 1939). After the German invasion, the Poles managed to close down their code breaking operation anf the German occupation forces never learned of what they had accomplished. The work by the Poles, however, played an important part in the future success success of Ultra--the British code breaking effortb at Blechly Park.

NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 1939)

The War in Europe began in 1939 when the German blitzkrieg smashed Poland in only a few weeks. The invasion was made possible the preceeding week when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. NAZI Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and newly appointed Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov on August 23, 1939, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. At the time of the signing, British and French delegations were in Moscow trying to reach an understanding with Stalin. He was convinced, however, that they were tring to draw him into a war with Hitler. The two countries which until that time had been bitter foes, pledged not attack each other. Any problems developing between the two countries were to be delt with amicably. It was last for 10 years. The Pact shocked the world and the purpose was immedietly apparent. It meant that Germany could attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Thus after defeating Poland, Germany did not have to fear a full-scale European war on two fronts. What was not known at the time was that there was a secret protocol to the pact which in effect divided Eastern Europe betwen the two countries. This protocol was discovered after the end of the World War II in 1945. The Soviets continued to deny this protocol until 1989. The NAZIs 8 days after signing the Pact invade Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II. Although the Soviet's did not enter the War against Britain and France, the Soviets were virtual NAZI allies as they provided large quantiies of strategic materials, especially oil. Communist parties in Britain and France opposed the war effort. The Communist Party in America opposed President Roosevelt's efforts to expand defense spending and assist Britain and France.

Poland in World War II

Poland was to become the most dedicated and determined member of the Allied coalition. Poles inflicted considerable casulties on the Germans (more than the French) when the Germans invaded (September 1939). Poles were involved in the defense of France, and the Battle of Britain. Poland had the largest resistance movement of any of the occupied countries other than the Soviet Union which of course was not entirely occupied. After the German attack on the Soviet Union, Poles fought with distinction in both the Soviet Red Army and the the British 8th Army in North Africa and Italy. Poles also fought with the British after D-Day and played an inmprtant role in the liberation of the Netherlands at the end of the War. No other country fought more vigorously and suffered such geart casulties for so little reward. [Davies] Poland's geography was the unfortunate deciding factor. Poland was located between the two powerful totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. At the onset of the War, these two counties had the greatest military power of any country on earth. Obviously no good for Poland was going to come of that. A quarter of Poland's population prished furing the War-- the geatest proportion of any World War II beligerant country. The Soviets drove the Germans out of Poland (1944) and occupied it. As a result, there was little the Western Allies could do for Poland. A little noted fact is that Soviet policy changed after the War. We suspect that the Allied focus on Poland was a factor. There were other factors, but Soviet policy did chgange. Soviet post-War policy was less brutal. Polish Communists were put in charge who however brutal, their conduct did not approach the barbarity of the Soviets (1939-41). In many ways the Poles were a kind of poison pill within the Soviet Empire. The United States never entirely abandoned the Poles and would play a major role in supporting Solidarity in the 1980s which led to the fall of theBerlin Wall and eventually the collapse of the Soviet Union otslelf (1991).

German Blitkrieg (September 1, 1939)

World War II began with the German invasion of Poland (1939). The Germans more than any other military, correctly assessed the lessons of World War II. The War in Europe began in 1939 when the German blitzkrieg smashed Poland in only a few weeks. The invasion was made possible the preceeding week when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. The Panzers crossed the Polish frontier on September 1 along with a devestating strike by the Luftwaffe. The Polish Army and Air Force was shattered. Over 1 million German soldiers surged into Poland. Hitler emerged from the Reich Chancellery in a new grey uniform with his World War I Iron Cross. In a speech at the Reichstag before cheering NAZIs he declared, "I myself am today, and will be from now on, nothing but the soldier of the German Reich." Whithin 6 days Cracow, the center of Polish nationhood, fell. Pincer movements began on September 9 to encirle the major remaining Polish forces. Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin ordered the Red Army to attack from the East. German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk on September 18. Warsaw fell a few days later after a ruthless bombing assault. The Blitzkrieg tactics that were to prove so devestaing in the West during 1940 were all on display in 1939. Neither the British or French showed much attention, abscribing Polish defeat to military incompetance. The French had promissed the Poles an offensive in the West. It never came. [Fest, pp. 602-603.]

Soviet Invasion (September 17, 1939)

The Soviets of course also invaded Poland in 1939, but Britain and France wisely only declared war on Germany. The shattered Polish forces fall back east and attempt to organize a new defensive line. Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin ordered the Red Army to attack from the East on September 17. The demoralized Polish Army which valiantly fought the Germans, offers little resistance to the Soviets. German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk on September 18.

Polish Government in Exile

President Ignacy Moscicki on September 17, 1939, who was in the small town of Kosow near the southern Polish border appointed Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz, the Speaker of the Senate, as his successor. Raczkiewicz realizing that the Polish Army had been defeated and wanted to make sure that a Polish Government be established to resist the NAZIs from overseas. Raczkiewicz was in Paris and took the oath of office at the Polish Embassy. Raczkiewicz appointed General Wladyslaw Sikorski as Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces and Prime Minister. The Government was recognized by the French, British, and Americans. The Polish Government at first was located in Paris, but with the fall of France moved to London. The Government in Exile was a coalition government of National Unity. As other War-time goivernments in exile, the Polish Government was a government of national unity. It was made up of representatives from the four important political parties: The Christian Democratic Labor Party, The National Democratic Party, The Polish Peasant Party, and The Polish Socialist Party (PPs) as well as members without party affiliation. The participants put domestic dfferences aside to focus on liberation of their country. General Sikorski was killed in an controversial aircrash near Gibraltar (July 1943). General Sikorski was succeeded as head of the government in exile by Stanislaw Mikolajczyk. The Polish Government-in-Exile placed great emphasis on the procecution of war criminals after the War.

Internment of the Polish Army

Polish soldiers were interened by the NAZIs after they were taken prisioner. Camps did not exist for the number of prisoners taken. They were placed in camps under the most horific conditions. Many were simply forced to live in the open surrounded by barb wire. The Polish POWs were in NAZI custody longer than any other World War II combatant. As a result, very few of the Polish POWs taken by the NAZIs survived the War. Polish soldiers were also internened in camps by the Soviets. Available accounts suggest that the conditions in the Soviet POW camps were for the most part tollerable. [L. Gladun] The exception of course were the Polish officers. The Soviets like the NAZIs at this stahe of the War wanted to irradicate Polish nationalism and military officers were considered to be among the most partriotic elements in Polish society.

NAZI Occupation

The occupation of Poland was one of the most brutal in European history. The NAZI occupation of Czecheslovakia had been brutal. The ocupation of Poland was savage. The NAZIs were determined to destroy every vestage of Polish national culture in an effort to wipe out the very idea of Poland. Their plan was first to destroy the entire Polish intelegencia and reduce the Poles not murdered or deported east to a kind of ignorant labor pool of mannual laborers for German industry and agriculture. The eventual goal under Genealplan Ost was to Germanize Poland. Occupation authorities, especially the SS, were under no legal or moral constraints as regards their conduct and the execultion of occupation policies. Poles had no recourse. The NAZIs set out to eliminate the Polish intelgencia and reduce the rest of the country to a vast population of slave labor. It is estimated that a quarter of the population of Poland perished during the occupation. Hitler did not view Poland as a legitimate nation. He saw it as a creation of the hated Versailles Treaty ending World War I. Poland had split Germany through the Polish Corridor. He was determined that Poland would never again threaten Germany or limit Germany's drive for lebensraum. The NAZI plan was simple. First phase: The Germans began eliminating the Polish inteligencia. Einsatzgruppen were given orders to arrest and kill prominent Polish civilians and individuals such as government officials, police, army officers not intened, the nobility, teachers, and priests throughout Poland, any one who could promote Polish nationalism or orhanizw national resistance. Today their are countless memorial stones and plaques througout Poland where these executions took place. And it was not just men, women and children were also killed in the second phase. Second phase: The Germans began expeling Poles, at first to the General Government (GG), and colonize the former Polish areas with Germans. The expulsions were conducted brutally and the GG had no way of caring for the influx of refugees. The invasion of Poland brough a much larger area an numbers of foreigners under German control (September 1939). Himmler had asigned the Main Office for the Consolidation of German Nationhood (SS-RKF) the task of preparing a plan for Germanizing Poland. The Chief of SS-RKF Department II (Planning) SS-Oberführer Professor Dr. Konrad Meyer was responsible for preparing the plans. An important part of the program for the program was to reclaim as much suitable generic material as possible which meant kidnappin g Polish children and raising them as Germans. The NAZIs began the process even while fighting was still going on. Some children were actually shot, but many more died in the mass expulssions of Poles and Jews living in the areas of Poland annexed to the Reich. Eventually all of Poland would become Germanized and incorporated into the Greater German Reich.

Soviet Occupation

The Cold War which followed World War II between the Soviets and the western Allies had its origins in Poland. World War II histories often focus on the NAZI brutalities in occupied Poland. The Soviets also invaded (September 17). The Soviet occupation also was extremely brutal. Mostly men from the upper clssses were arrested and either shot or snt to the gulag. In addidditiibn middl class men were arrested that harborderd natioianlistic tendencues,m giovernment officilasm army ifficers m pilice, eachers, etc. Many were shot, others were sent to the Gulag. A young Army officer provides a chilling account of the Soviet Gulag. [Rawicz] The best known example of this is if course Katyn. When discovered during the War, the Soiviets tried to blame it in the Germans who were more than capable of such acts. Many othders includiung whole familes were deported to Central Asia and Siberia. This whole process would be repeated in the Balatics, occupied by the Soviets a year later with the fall of France. uscivered during the War Soviet policy like NAZI policy was to destroy Polish nationalism. The Soviet occupation, however, did not have the much more seadly racial component of NAZI policy -- Generalplan Ost.

Katyn Forest

Stalin ordered the NKVD to execute thousands of Polish Army officers that had been interened in 1939 when the Soviets invaded and occupied eastern Poland. After the NAZI invasion (June 1941) Stalin allowed the interened Poles to form military units to fight the NAZIs. They could either join Polish units that sould fight with the Red Army or join the Wesern allies. At this time the Poles began reporting thousands of unaccounted for officrs. Stalin's repressive measures in Poland, were revealed by the NAZIs when they found mass graves especially the murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Forrest (March 1942). Te Soviets claimed the NAIS shot them. The Polish Government in Exile demanded a Red Cross investigation. Many British and American officials, including Harry Hopkins, criticized the Poles or stirring up troublw with the Russians. Hopkins to whom the Soviet alliance was critical, claimed it was rumors planted by Polish landlords who might loose their land holdings to the Russians. [McJimsey, p. 293.] (I'm not sure to what extent Hopkins was aware that the NAZIs had already targeted landowners.)

Displaced Children

World War II began in Poland with invasions by the NAZIs from the west abd Soviets from the east Large numbers pf Polish children were displaced as a result of those invasions and subsequent occupation by twoi brutal totalitarian regimes. Poland was devestated by World War II. Poland along with Yugoslavia were the two countries most devestated by the War. About a quater of the Polish population perished at the hands of both the NAZIs and Soviets. And children were among the groups most affected. Polish children were caught up in both the fighting and in forced poulation transfer carried out by NAZI and Soviet authorities. There wee several resons for this and our information is incomplete. Substantial numbers of Polish children were displaced by the initial NAZI and Soviet occupations. The Germans began deporting Poles from western Poland to the Government General (1939). Ethnic Germans, many from the Baltics, were moved into these provinces. Jewish children along with their parents were interned in ghettos set up in the major cities. In the process there wee also killings. Children left orphaned were mong the most vulnerable. And when the mass killing began, the NAZIs especially targeted children. The Soviet occupation was only somewhat more brutal as far as non-Jewish Poles were concerned (1939-41). The Soviets deported large numbers of Polish families to Central Asia. Large numbers of Poles died in the process. The NAZIs targeted more Polish children in the Lebensborn profram (1939-44). More Polish children were dis placed, first in the NAZI anti-partisan campaigns (1943-44) and subsequently in the fishing as the Red Army reentered Poland (1944-45). The final tragedy was after War when the Soviet Govrnment fircibly removed Poles living east of the new boundary imposed upon Poland.

Polish Resistance

The Polish underground resistance to the NAZI occupation began almost immediately after the NAZI and Soviet occupations began. As far as we know if was largely fovcused ahainst the NAZIs. The resistance effort continued throughout the War. The resistance was carried out primarily by the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) which was loyal and under the control of the London-based government-in-exile. The Polish resistance was active, but impaired by Soviet actions against non-Communist Polish POWs and resistance groups. The Polish resistance played a role in soome of the major efforts of the War. Perhaps its most important role was at the very beginning of the War. The Poles played a role in the British cracking of the German Enigma code machines. The Polish resistance managed to obtain information on the German missile program and get it to London. The most notable action by the resistance was the Home Army's uprising in Warsaw.

The Holocaust

Polish Jews were the first to feel die in what has become known as the NAZI Holocaust. Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe with the exception of the Soviet Union. It was in Poland that mass murder of the Jews began and was perfected. The death camps were located in Poland not Germany. And in Poland the Germans found many willing to help them and few Poles intersted in protecting the Jews. Heydrich in September 1939 layed out the NAZI plan for the Jews to SS officers. Einsatzgruppen began killing Polish Jews with the German invasion (September 1939). Most Polish Jews were forced into Ghettos. These ghettos were liuidated by the SS in 1942 following the Wannsee Conference: Lublin (March 1942); ghettos of Eastern and Western Poland (Spring 1942); and the Warsaw Ghetto (July-September 1942).

Opperation Barbarossa (June 22, 1941)

The Battle of Britain in many ways changed the course of the War. An invasion of Britain was impossible without air superiority. Hitler, fearing a cross-Channelinvasion, decided that the only way to force the British to seek terms was to destroy he Soviet Union. He began shifting the Wehrmacht eastward to face the enemy that he had longed to fight from the onset--Soviet Russia. The nature of the War changed decisevely in the second half of 1941. The Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, launching the most sweeping military campaign in history. The Soviets were surprised and devestated. Stalin ignored warnings from the British who as a result of Ultra had details on the Germna preparations. Stalin was convinced that they were trying to draw him into the War and until the actual attack could not believe that Hitle would attack him. The attack was an enormous tactical success. The Soviets were surprised and devestated. The Soviet Air Force was destoyed, largely on the ground. The Germans captured 3.8 million Soviet soldiers in the first few months of the campaign. No not knowing the true size of the Red Army, they thought they had essentally won the War. German columns too the major cities of western Russia and drove toward Leningrad and Moscow. But here the Soviets held. The Japanese decission to strike America, allowed the Sovierts to shift Siberian reserves and in December 1941 launch a winter offensive stopping the Whermacht at the gates of Moscow--inflicting irreplaceable losses. The army that invaded the Soviet Union had by January 1942 lost a quarter of its strength. Hitler on December 11 declared war on America--the only country he ever formally declared war on. In an impassioned speech, he complained of a long list of violations of neutality and actual acts of war. [Domarus, pp. 1804-08.] The list was actually fairly accurate. His conclusion, however, that actual American entry into the War would make little difference proved to a diasterous miscalculation. The Germans who months before had faced only a battered, but unbowed Britain now was locked into mortal combat with the two most powerful nations of the world. The British now had the allies that made a German and Japanese victory virtually impossible. After the Russian offensive of December 1941 and apauling German losses--skeptics began to appear and were give the derisory term " Gr�faz ".

Soviet-Polish Treaty (July 1941)

The NAZIs and Soviets after invading Poland, paritioned Poland (September 1939). This was provided for under the terms of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact. Both countries launched a horific occupation designed to destroy not only the country, but the very notion of Polish nationality. Polish leaders and the iunteligensia were arrested and many executed in an effort to ensure that Poland would never again become a nation. The NAZIs pursued this policy throughout the War. Soviet policy changed after the NAZI invasion (June 1941). Stalin saw the Poles as possible allies. The Germans rapidly occupied the Societ eastern zone of pre-War Poland, but the Soviets had large numbers of Poles, both POWS and civilians deported from Poland as part of the process of suppressing Polish resistance. As a result, the Soviet Government signed an agreement with the London-based Polish Government in exile which invalidated the border arrangenents negotiated with the Germans (July 30, 1941). The agreement also changed the status of the Poles detained in the Soviet Union. They were given the choice of fighting with the Red Army or joining the Polish forces fighting with the Western Allies.

Polish World War II Commands

Eventhough Poland was occupied by the NAZIs and Soviets in the first military operation of the War, substantial Polish forces fought under British and Soviet commands on the western and eastern fronts and made important contributions. Poland in manpower terms was the fourth largest contributor to the Allied cause in Europe. Some Poles managed to escape to the West after the invasion and occupation of their country (September 1939). The fought in France (May-Jue 1940). Polish pilots fought in the Battle of Britain (July-September 1940). The Polish POWs taken by both the NAZIs and Soviets were treately brutally. The Germans did not follow the Geneva Conventions in their treatment of Polish POws. Few managed to survive the German camps. The Soviets also treated the POWs they took brutally. The NKVD shot many officers. Those not short were poorly treated ahd fed. After the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941), Stalin releaed the Polish PWs from the Gulag and gave them a choice of fighting with the Red army or the Allied in the West. The Polish armies on the eastern and western fronts thus fought under separate commands during the war. This of course was the result of the political division.

Soviet Policies

The Soviets continued taking measures against the Polish Government in exile, The Soviets created a rival Polish Governmrent, and abandoned the Polish Home Army in Warsaw (1944). These were two key steps which began the separation of the Soviet and Western Allies even before the end of World War II.

Ukranian-Polish Ethnic Violence (1943-44)

Ethnic tensions existed in Eastern Europe between Poles and Ukranians. Poles and Ukranians were both subject peoles of the Tsarist empires and there were many areas in which the two ethnic groups were mixed. The Poles after World War suceeded in eastablishing a new Polish nation which included areas with substantial Ukranian populations. The Ukranians failed and were ansorbed by the Soviet Union. Ukranian nationalists were still acive, especially in the western Ukraine, and hopeful of establishing an indepedent state as a result of World War II. NAZI policy after the invasion of Poland (1939) was to supress Polish nationalism of any kind. Policy toward the Ukranians was more varried and various NAZI officials persued inconsistent policies. The NAZis encouraged the Ukranians before the invasion of the Soviet Union, but then suppressed the natiinalists after Barbarossa and the seizure of the Ukraine (1941). NAZI policy was conflicted because their anti-Slav racial policy and their anti-Bolshevick idelogy conflicted. Ukranians were Slavs, but the nationalists were anti-Bolshecick. NAZI policy changed again as the war in the East began to go aginst them. To reduce resistance to their occupation, the NAZIs encouraged or at least tolerated inter-ethnic violence. Two areas of Poland were the location of this inter-ethnic violence: Volhynia and Galicia. Generally it was the Poles who suffered because the NAZIs armed some Ukranian nationalists to supress resistance activity. The result was extensive attrocities against civilians. This was mostly attacks on Polish villages, because the Ukranian groups were better armed and tolerated by the Germans. The NAZIs permitted or tolerated this because they viewed the Poles as hostile and supporting the partisans. Accounts of the violence give varied estimates of the results. It seems clear that tens of thousands of people were killed, mostly Polish villagers. Different mostly Ukranian groups were involved in the killing. German Wehrmacht military units also wre involved in attacks on Polish villigers as part of their anti-partisan campign. Czechs were also attacked. Few Jews were attacked because they had previously been eliminated by the NASIS. The killings were primarily conducted during summer and autumn of 1943, but actions continued in to 1944 before the Red Army reached the area.

Operation Bagration (June-August 1944)

The attention of the Western Allies was on Normany in June 1944. As a result, the greatest defeat of a Germany army in the field is virtually unknown in the West. The massive Wehrmacht victories diring the NAZI Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union are some of the best known battles on the Eastern Front. Except the Stalingrad offensive and the concluding Berlin offensive, other Red Army opeations are less-well reported in the West. Stalingrad was not as is often reported the gturning point in the War, rather it was the Red Army offensive before Moscow and ironically the closely related Pearl Harbor attack, both of which occurred within a few days of each other (December 7-10, 1941). While the Red Army Wniter 1941 Offensive is commonly not given the attention it deserves, an even more devestating Soviet offensive is virtually ignored in Western World War II accounts--Opperation Bagration (June-July 1944). Like the Offensive before Moscow and Stalingrad, Bagration wasa master piece of battlefield deception (Maskirovka). It was notable because it was the first major successful Soviet offensive not launched in Winter conditions. It was also the greatest Red army victory of the War. The Red Army suceeded in destroying the most powerful German formation at the time--Army Group Central. Before Bagration, the Wehrmacht had suffered substantial battlefield losses, but was still a very potent military force. After Bagration not only was the Wehrmacht unable to reactt powerfully to the Allied invasion of France, but would be unable to launch amother important offensive in the East. The Soviets succeeded in killing and capturing ???? Wehrmact personnel, destroying enormous quantities of material, and liberating Byelorussia. This opened up the liberation of Poland and the assault on the Reich itself. The enormous success of Bagration was due to three factors: 1) superior Red Army forces, 2) deception, and 3) Allied ground operations in Italy and France and air operations over the Reich which made it impossible for the Wehrmact and Luftwaffe to concentrate its forces.

Warsaw Rising (August 1944)

The most dramatic resistance effort by the Polish Home Army was the uprising against the NAZIs in Warsaw when the Soviets neared the Vistula (July 1944). After Operation Bagration (June-July 1944), Warsaw on the Vistula was the principle barrier standing between thev Red Army and Berlin. The Poles did not greet the Red Army in the same way that populations in the West cheered the Americans and British. They had no illusions about what would follow in the wake of the Red Army, a Stalinist dictatorship. The Home Army (loyal to thev London goverment-in-exile) decided on a desperate gambit at the Red army apprpached the Vistula. They would stage an insurrection and free Warsaw. The Home Army rebelled (August 1) anticipating the support of the Red army. Instead Stalin ordered the Soviet troopds to stop on the far side if the Vidtula. The German reaction was savage. On one day alone the SS rounded up and shot 25,000 Polish men women and children. The Americans offered to drop supplies, but Stalin refused permission for the flights to use needed Soviet air bases to refuel for the return trip. Thev Poles fought valiantly on, finally capitulating (October 2). The Germans at Hitler's orders virtualy razed the city. The Soviets finally took Warsaw with little resistance from the Germans (January 1945). [Davies]


Poland was devestated by the War. Warsaw was of course the greatest example of this. The devestation extended to other cities and towns throughout the country. Enormous damage was done by the German Army and airforce during the initial campsign (September 1939). This was aklmost entirely in western Poland. The Soviets invaded eastern Poland (September 17). Little damage resulted as the despirited Polish Army offered little resistance. Both the NAZIs and Soviets after seizing control engaged in mass arrests and deportations. Poland as a result lost more than 40% of its physicians and dentists, more than 40 percent of its lawyers, and more than 25 percent of its teachers. Estimates vary, but about 6 million Poles were killed, 3 million Jews (all but about 0.1 million) and 3 million gentiles. There was aso organized German plunnder, The Germabns invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941), this meant the area of eastern Poland annexed by the Soviets. Again the physical damage was relatively limited because the Whermacht pushed east so rapidly. There was, however, extensive damage as the Wehrmacht pursued anti-partisan campaigns. Additional damage occurred in fighting between Poles and Ukranians. And as the Red Army pushed into Poland, the Wehrmacht conducted a burned earth program of destroying everything of any value. This included even towns and villages. Warsaw was of course the greatest example of the mindless destruction, but only one example. Krakow escaped the damage inflicted on many other Polish cities because of the rapid adance of the Red Army.

Moving Poland West

The Battle of Kursk settled the question of who would win World War II (July 1943). Earlier german defeats (Moscow and Stalingrad) meant that German could not win the war. Kursk showed that the Soviets could conduct both successful winter and summer offensives and beat the Germans in massive armored engagements. With the Western Allies battering Germany from the air about to land in Italy and preparing a cross-Channel invasion, it was clear that Germany was defeated. The only question was how long it would take and at what price. A few months after Kursk, the Big Three ( Churchill, Roosevely, and Stalin) met in Tehran (November-December 1943). It was the first meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt with Stalin. And at Tehran and the subsequent conferences (Yalta and Potsdam), the future of Poland was a major subject of discussion. The War had begun with the NAZI invaion of Poland. Poland was a member of the Allied coalition against Germany. Polish soldiers were fighting in the East with the Sovies and in the Wst with the British (North Africa and Italy). The future of Poland was complicated by the fact that while the Soviets were now fighting with the Allies, the began the War by figting with the Germans, invading Poland a few days after the Germans. And they committed terible attrocities in Poland, simukar to what the Germans were doing in their share of conquered Poland. The NKVD began aprogram of destroying the Polish inteligencia to make the country a more compliant colony. The Soviets also had territorial objectives. Most of Poland had been part of the Tsarist Empire and the eastern regions of pre-War Poland had large non-Polish populations (Lithuanians, Beylorussians, and Ukranians). Stalin was willing to permit a post-War Poland, but the question of the boundaries and the nature of the government became a major bone of contention between Stalin and the Western Allies. In the end, the Bigh Three agreed to move Poland west. Agreement was never reached on the future government. Stalin in possession of Poland imposed a Communist puppet government. Many Poles today bdelieve the Allies sold them out. In fact, the only way that the Americans and British could have prevented what occurred was to fight a war with the Soviets. That was neither politically feasible nor would it have necessarily been in the best interest of the Polish people.

Yalta (February 1945)

Poland was a major issue at both Yalta and Potsdam. Many critics have charged that that President Roosevelt in particular abandoned Poland to the Soviets. [Olson and Cloud] The standard right-wing cant is that America won the war, but lost Poland. The simple fact is, however, that the War was never fought to save Poland. Britain and France went to war to save themselves and American joined Britain knowing that if Britain fell it would be net. The war was thus fought to defeat the NAZIs. Many of FDR's criticics did not even want to go to war to save Britain--let alone Poland. It is probably true that had the President been in better health that he could have more aggresively pursued the issues. And it is also true that he was not fully aware of the nature of the Soviet regime. That said, neither woukd have changed the f=all importaht facts on the ground. Also the War was not won by America. It was won by America and Britain and their allies and the Soviet Union. In fact, it was the Red Army that destroyed the Whermacht. Eight out of every 10 Wehrmacht soldiers killed during the War were killed on the Eastern Fron by the Soviets. If it had not been for the relentless pressure of the Red Army in the East, D-Day would have never been possible. The Soviet domination of Poland and Eastern Europe after the War was a simple reflection of that basic fact. As it was not America and Britain that won the war alone, America was not in a position to impose a peace settlement and boundries in Eastern Europe. America and the Western Allies could not have rescued Poland from the Soviets without another war and that was neither politically possible or probably in the best interests of the Polish people. One often ignored fact is that Soviet policy in Poland after the War was very different than during the first occupation (1939-41). Stalin like Hitler set out to destroy the Poish nation and Polish national identity. After the War while Soviet policy was not bebign, it now accepted the existence of the Polish nation. That new policy must have at least uin part be due to the influence of the Western Allies.

Polish Veterans

World War II began obsrensibly as an effort to defend Polish independence (September 1939). The Poles fought bravely, but the defense of Poland was poorly coceived and at any rate doomed as it was caught between the Whermacht and Red army. Much of the Polish Army of 1939 perished either in NAZI concentration camps or in the Soviet Gulag. Small numbers escaped west and fought with the French when the Germans attacked (May 1940). The FAF formed two Polish squadrons which fought during the Battle of Britain. The Soviet NKVD shot many officers that they had taken prisoner when they invaded POland. The Katyn discoveries were just part of that operation. Once the Germans invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941), the Soviets allowed Polish POWs to fight the Germans with the Red Army or join the British in North Africa. The Polish soldiers in the 8th Army were commanded by General Anders. They fought both in North Africa and Italy. There most important battle was at Monte Casino. On the Eastern Front the Poles fought both in the Home Army and with the Red Army. One source mentions Polish deserters from the Whermacht, but we do not yet have the details on this. One source suggests about 90,000 Polese deserted the Wehrmacht, most from Silesia. After the War the Poles were badly disappointed. Many of the Poles who fought both with the Red Army and and British from eastern Poland. This was the area of course that was annexed by the Soviet Union. Many of the members of the Home Army who conducted the resistance to the NAZIs were after the War arrested by the NKVD and many were simply shot. The Poles sho fought with the British were shocked when thet were not allowed by Prime Minister Atlee to march in the London victory parade to honor British servicemen and the allies that fought with Britain (June 8, 1946). The Poles in manpower terms made the fourth largest contribution to fighting the Germans (after the Siviets, Americans, British, and French) and in the West fought with the British. Primeminister Atlee was, however, concerned about offending Stalin. The British did invite RAF 303 Squadron which had fought in the Battle of Britain. But they refused if their Polish comrades were excluded. The Polish veterans were given the choice of remaining in Britain or returning to Poland where Communist propaganda insisted they would be welcomed. Some did so. They fared better than the Home Army veterans. but were roughly interogated by the new Communist Polish secret police and made to understand that their service was not only not appreciated, but would be closely watched and were luckly not o be arrested.

Cold War

In the end it was the Polish people who would prevail. It was in Poland with Solidarity in the 1980s that the Soviet empire began to unravel. Poland because of its geographic location became the epicenter for the Cold War. For without a compliant Communist Poland, a the Communist East German regime was untenable. Unfortunately for the Soviets, Poland proved the most difficult Eastern European satellite country to control. It is interesting to specuale as to just why Poland proved so difficult for the Soviets to dominate. Poland was the only Eastern European satellite that had until the 18th century been a major European power. With the Polish partitions of the late 18th century, the Polish nation disappeared from the maps of Durope. What did not disappear was the Polish Catholic Church which became the repository for Polish nationaism for three centuries. Stalin spoke derivisely of the Vatican, asking how many divisions the pope commanded. In fact it was a Polish pope in the 1980s that would play a critical role in the unraveling of the Soviet empire Stalin constructed in Eastern Europe.


Davies, Norman. Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw (Viking, 2004). Davies is critical of The allies, President Roosevelt in particular for allowing Stalin to swollow up Poland. Like other authors making similar charges, Davies does not explain just what could have been done to have prevented it. Davies is, however, on firmer ground when he criticised Churchill and Roosevelt for not making a personal appeal to Stalin for permission to deliver supplies to the Home Army fighting in warsaw.

Domarus, Max. Hitler Reden und Proklamationen 1932-45 Vo. 1-2 (Neustadt a.d. Aisch: Velagsdruckerei Schmidt, 1962-63).

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.

McJimsey, George. Harry Hopkins: Ally of the Poor and Defender of Liberty(Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1987), 474p.

Olson, Lynne and Stanley Cloud. A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II (Knopf, 2003).

Rawicz, Sławomir. The Long Walk (1956). The book was ghost-written by Ronald Downing based on conversations with Rawicz. It was released in Britain (1956). A film was made based on the book (2000). The Soviets backed by the BBC denied the story. Rawicz was beld in The Gulag but released as part of the 1942 general amnesty of Poles after the German invasion. He was transported across the Caspian Sea to a refugee camp in Iran and made it to the NBritish forces in Egypt. Witold Gliński, a Polish World War II veteran living in the UK, came forward to claim that the story of Rawicz was true, but was actually an account of what happened to him, not Rawicz. This all, however, related to the esape to India. Both Rawicz and Gliński were held in the Soviet Gulag for an extended period.


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Created: February 15, 2004
Last updated: 9:26 PM 4/17/2021