1939: When Poland was torn to pieces

In September 1939, after Nazi Germany stormed into Poland from the west, the Soviet Union attacked from the east. Both dictatorships installed murderous regimes that, as Roger Moorhouse reveals, were hideously similar...

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

The soldiers came in the small hours. Families were woken by a loud banging on the door, and subjected to a bewildering barrage of orders barked in a strange language. Informed that they were a threat to public order, and that they had been slated for deportation, they were told that they had 30 minutes to pack, and would be leaving that very night.

“No one dared move because he would be killed on the spot,” recalled one eyewitness. “They tied daddy up with a chain, and the others searched for weapons and… stole whatever was valuable. They shouted that in half an hour we have to be ready to leave.”

Within hours, most of them would already be at the railheads, wives and children separated from husbands and fathers, herded into bare wooden cattle wagons for a one-way trip into the unknown. Many of them would not survive the experience; few would ever see their homeland again.

We are well accustomed to reading accounts of Nazi depredations in occupied Poland, whether it be the horrors of the Holocaust, or those endured by the non-Jewish population (everything from petty persecution to deportation or execution). Polish suffering at Nazi hands has, justifiably, become part of the established narrative of the Second World War, retold in history books and novels, and depicted on our cinema and television screens.

But the words of that eyewitness came not from a victim of the Nazis but from an account of a deportation at the hands of Hitler’s collaborator of the early phase of the war: Stalin’s Soviet Union.

We forget, perhaps, that only days after Hitler launched his invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, Stalin did the same from the east. While Hitler sent about a million troops into Poland, Stalin dispatched around half that number of soldiers. Mostly, the two forces avoided direct contact with each other but nonetheless collaborated in the defeat of their common enemy; they even staged a joint parade after the fall of the eastern Polish city of Brest (now in Belarus).

Though Stalin’s invasion was portrayed by his propagandists almost as a humanitarian action – assisting ethnic Byelorussians and Ukrainians following the ‘collapse’ of the Polish state – in truth it was no less belligerent in intent than that of his German ally.

We forget, too, that in the aftermath of the military campaign, Hitler and Stalin divided conquered Poland between them. Following the principles outlined in the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, and the Boundary and Friendship Treaty of that September, Stalin took about 200,000 sq km and 12 million inhabitants, annexing them directly to the Soviet Union. Hitler helped himself to marginally less territory but 20 million souls, who were divided between direct annexations and a puppet administration – the ‘General Government’ – under his former lawyer Hans Frank. The two dictators then agreed not to resurrect any form of Polish state, and even dubbed the new frontier between them “the Boundary of Peace”. It was nothing less than the Fourth Partition of Poland (the country had been divided up between other powers on three occasions during the 18th century).


A Nazi ‘Campaign in Poland’ propaganda leaflet from 1939 shows in red the demarcation line – or ‘Boundary of Peace’ – agreed between Moscow and Berlin for their respective areas of occupation. (© Bridgeman Art Library)

Yet, if the grand politics had echoes of an earlier age, the occupation regimes that the two installed were brutally modern. Indeed, they mirrored one another in many respects. Both were instinctively hostile towards Polish society – the Nazis on racial grounds, the Soviets for class reasons – and both embarked on a thorough programme of ‘cleansing’ to remove the elements of which they disapproved.

That process began, in both zones of occupation, with what one might call a policy of decapitation. After the initial, and predictably murderous, efforts to subdue the regions newly under their control, in the spring of 1940 the Germans began what was known as the AB-Aktion (A-B being an abbreviation for Außerordentliche Befriedungsaktion – ‘Extraordinary Pacification Operation’) – a concerted
effort to eliminate the Polish intelligentsia.

 

A grim symmetry

This operation followed a pattern that would become depressingly familiar. As many as 30,000 Polish academics, intellectuals, teachers and writers were arrested by the Gestapo and interrogated. The majority were consigned to concentration camps, but those considered especially dangerous were held in local jails where, in due course, a charge, verdict and sentence were read out.

Those prisoners would then be taken by truck to nearby woods, where they would be executed with a shot to the head and buried in mass graves. In this way, 358 prisoners from Pawiak prison in Warsaw were killed in Palmiry Forest in June 1940; 400 were killed near Cz¸estochowa in July; and 450 people were murdered near Lublin on the night of 15 August 1940. In total, the AB-Aktion is thought to have cost around 6,000 lives.

In a grim symmetry, just as the Germans were ‘decapitating’ Polish society in the west, the Soviets were doing the same in their area of occupation. For Moscow, the primary motivation was not racial but political – hence, in the first instance, Soviet procedures targeted all those who might serve as a focus for opposition to communist rule. The resulting repressions took many forms and claimed many lives, as in the Nazi zone, but are perhaps exemplified by an episode that lent its name to a series of massacres: Katyn.


Documents, photographs and other belongings of the Katyn victims were exhibited in August 1943 as part of a Nazi propaganda campaign. (© Corbis)

After the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland, some 400,000 Polish prisoners of war, policemen, prison officers and others were arrested by the Soviet secret police of the NKVD (the abbreviated Russian name of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Through a process of interrogations and political screening, this number was then whittled down to around 22,000 – predominantly army officers, but also priests, policemen, landowners and intellectuals – who were considered to be hostile towards the Soviet Union and communism.

In truth, as Poles, officers, aristocrats and Catholics, most of them were, in Soviet eyes, damned many times over. On 5 March 1940 – the same week that the AB-Aktion was ordered in Berlin – the instruction was given in Moscow to apply “the supreme punishment: shooting”.

During the following month the prisoners were shipped out of their camps in batches, each comprising a few hundred men, and held in NKVD prisons and safe houses for a short time while their identities were again checked. They were then led away, arms bound behind their backs, and shot in the back of the head, their bodies disposed of in mass graves. The massacre at Katyn in western Russia was discovered in 1943, and has since become synonymous with Soviet brutality. The dead, totalling at least 21,768, included one prince, one admiral, 12 generals, 81 colonels, 198 lieutenant colonels, 21 professors, 22 priests, 189 prison guards, 5,940 policemen and one woman, Janina Lewandowska. Polish society had been decapitated.


The mass graves of some of the thousands of Poles killed by the secret police of the Soviet NKVD in 1940 and discovered at Katyn in Russia by German troops, were exhumed in the presence of representatives of 12 European states in April 1943. (© AKG Images)

At the same time as these killings were being carried out – in both occupation zones – a general sifting of the resident population was already under way. In the ‘German’ west, Poles and Jews in the areas annexed directly to Germany could expect to be deported into the rump ‘General Government’, ostensibly to make way for ethnic Germans who were arriving, having been called ‘home’ to the Reich from eastern Europe.

The first of these deportations was carried out in December 1939, when some 87,000 Poles were forcibly removed from the annexed region called the Warthegau by the Nazis. Conditions were chaotic, with many of the deportees spending hours waiting in the snow, or freezing in parked rail wagons.

Unsurprisingly, the death toll was substantial; as the Nazi administration admitted, “not all the deported persons, especially the infants, arrived at the destination alive”. German propaganda would later boast that at least 400,000 Poles were deported in similar circumstances.

Paradoxically, while Poles were being actively ‘cleansed’ from the annexed regions, the demand for labour on the Nazi home front led to many thousands of their fellows being transported west, into the very heart of the Reich. A few volunteered, but most were coerced, press-ganged or rounded up on the streets. A favourite German tactic was to set fire to a building and prevent the locals from tackling the blaze until the requisite number of ‘volunteers’ had come forward.

The able-bodied, therefore, were just as likely to end up being deported to Berlin as to Warsaw; already, by the middle of 1940, some1.2 million Polish labourers and prisoners of war were working in Germany. There, they would be subject to harsh conditions – they were underfed, underpaid and, as one of their number recalled, “treated worse than dogs”.

 

Politically dangerous

A similar process prevailed in the Soviet east, though the easy targeting of Poles and Jews was replaced by a more complex screening procedure in which huge swathes of Polish society – from teachers, merchants and local politicians to Esperantists (users of the language Esperanto), postmasters and philatelists – were identified as potentially politically dangerous.

Once labelled, the victims would be picked up by the NKVD in the early hours, as described at the start of this article. Taken to the railheads, they were deported to the wilds of Siberia, Kazakhstan or the myriad hard-labour camps of the Gulag, some with the curses of their guards ringing in their ears: “This is how we annihilate the enemies of Soviet power.” The total numbers are still disputed, but it is thought that the four major deportation operations undertaken by the Soviets in Poland between 1940 and 1941 involved at least 1 million people – nearly one tenth of the population of the Soviet-occupied zone.


A deported Polish family, ominously missing their menfolk, pose outside their new ‘home’ in Soviet Kazakhstan. Many deportees would never return. (© Photo Archive Karta Centre Foundation, www.foto.karta.org.pl)

Given the obvious similarities in their methods, it is tempting to speculate about the degree to which the Nazis and the Soviets collaborated in their ‘pacification’ of occupied Poland. Of course, there was a level of everyday co-operation in their common efforts; prisoners were exchanged and joint SS/NKVD commissions toured the eastern zone to evaluate the claims of ethnic Germans wanting to move west. Tantalisingly, too, Khrushchev claimed in his memoir that the NKVD head in Ukraine, Ivan Serov, had close links with his Gestapo counterparts. However, though the major operations were almost simultaneous, there is as yet no evidence to show that they were actually co-ordinated.

The international reaction at the time was muted. With Britain facing Germany alone for much of the period, graver concerns than the tribulations of the Poles occupied London’s corridors of power. Also, little hard information made it to the outside world from occupied Poland, at least until the Polish underground began sharing its hard-won intelligence on the Holocaust in 1942. News of the sufferings of those in the Soviet zone was especially hard to come by. In any case, the British policy of optimistically flirting with Moscow (in the hope of recruiting an ally against Hitler) would doubtless have conspired to prevent any public criticism from being aired. Those Poles condemned to exile in Siberia were doomed to suffer in anonymity. Their stories, long ignored in the west and taboo in the Soviet bloc, are in some cases only now coming to light, but fully deserve to become part of the wider narrative.

By the time the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact ended, with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Polish society had already been devastated by the joint occupation; countless thousands had been killed and imprisoned, with millions more deported and displaced. But there would be no respite. The German occupation lasted another four long, bloody years, followed by a second Soviet occupation that ended with the collapse of communism in 1989. Only then could the horrors – and the uncanny parallels – of those earlier Nazi and Soviet occupations be openly discussed.

Away from the lies and obfuscations of five decades of Soviet propaganda, it is now evident that, in 1939–41, Stalin’s Soviet Union was just as hostile to Poland as Hitler’s Germany was. Poland had the profound misfortune to be crushed between Europe’s two rogue totalitarian states: the rock of Nazi Germany and the hard place of the USSR.

Though the dictators in Moscow and Berlin despised one another, they briefly found common ground in confronting the west and gorging themselves on Polish territory. We should not be so surprised, perhaps, to learn that, in carrying out their plans, the Nazis and Soviets employed strikingly similar methods – that the measures adopted against the racial enemy in one half of Poland were virtually indistinguishable from those applied to the class enemy in the other.

Stalin put it very succinctly in a telegram to Hitler, sent in December 1939, in which he wrote that “the friendship between the peoples of the Soviet Union and Germany” had been “cemented in blood”. He might have added that the blood in question was Polish.

Roger Moorhouse is a historian and writer who specialises in Nazi Germany and the Second World War era.

On 26 February 2017, BBC History Magazine will be returning to Bristol's M Shed for a day of talks re-examining the momentous global conflict of 1939-45.

To find out more about our Second World War Day, and to buy tickets, click here.

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