Print this page
Wrobel, Piotr. The Devil's Playground: Poland in World War II. The Canadian Foundation for Polish Studies of the Polish Institute of Arts & Sciences. Price-Patterson Ltd.
Professor Piotr Wrobel holds the Konstanty Reynart Chair in Polish at the University of Toronto. Prior to his appointment in 1994, he taught Polish, Modern European, German and Russian history at the University of Warsaw, at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Michigan State University at East Lansing and at the University of California at Davis. He obtained his PhD from the University of Warsaw and has been a visiting scholar at the Institute of European History at Mainz, at Humboldt University in Berlin, and at the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies at Oxford. During 1987-1991 he was a research fellow at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and during 1987-88 he served as research director of a clandestine Eastern Archives, which collected materials about the Polish deportees in the Soviet Union after 1939. He serves on the Advisory Board of Polin: A Journal of Polish-Jewish Studies and he has authored or co-authored seven books and more than 75 scholarly articles. His most recent work is The Historical Dictionary of Poland published by Greenwood Press in 1998. The Devil's Playground was first presented in September 1999 at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, where Professor Wróbel was scholar-in-residence as part of the program commemorating the 60th anniversary of the invasion of Poland and the start of World War II.
Fortune governs human affairs unfairly. There are countries in Europe, such as Sweden or Switzerland, where dramatic historical events happen rarely. At the same time, there are European countries where disasters strike frequently. Poland belongs to this second, less fortunate group. During the last three hundred years, every generation in Poland went through either a devastating war, or a bloody uprising, or a merciless occupation and genocide. During some periods of this unhappy era, the Poles faced major historical challenges every ten or twenty years. In this long list of national tragedies, one experience stands out as the most horrific: World War II, which destroyed a large part of the Polish cultural heritage, devastated the economy, demoralized the Polish people, and left them with a fear that would last for a long time. To most Americans and West Europeans, World War II constitutes the proverbial ancient history: vague and remote. Few of those who were directly affected are still alive, everything is rebuilt and there are few reminders of the war. For most East Europeans, including the Poles, the war is a vivid memory, the emotional wounds are still fresh, and serious consequences, rooted in the World War II tragedy, continue to affect them. This subjective difference in the perception of the past makes East-West dialogue, cooperation, and integration difficult.
John Keegan, probably the most outstanding historian of World War II, concludes one of his books in the following way: "No six years of history have been more written about than 1939-1945."1 Unfortunately, this sentence does not apply to the history of World War II in Poland. Most Westerners, even those who are well educated and well read, know next to nothing about this subject. They operate with stereotypes and fragmented information taken out of context. Paradoxically, because of changes in historical education and the passing away of the war generation, the tiny group of people who do know about the Polish tragedy in and after 1939, is getting increasingly smaller. More and more frequently, the Poles face an unpleasant dilemma: they must either hide their sensitivity and swallow their pride, or appear overly idealistic and nationalistically biased.
Fighting for freedom and independence dominated the previous two hundred years of Polish history. After the Partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, the Poles were downgraded to an unhappy class of stateless people. While other, more successful nations built their modern political systems and economies, the Poles had to concentrate on simply surviving as an ethnic entity. They were denationalized, economically exploited, and deported. Their desperate uprisings ended with displays of bloody vengeance on the part of their conquerors. Occupied by three powerful empires, Russia, Austria, and Germany, the Poles asked themselves if they would be able to save their national identity, language, and culture, and if they ever could rebuild their state.
At last, in 1914, a great "war of nations" began. This war delivered a miracle. Germany, Austria, and Russia became enemies, they fought on two different sides of the front and, finally, each of the three found themselves on the losing side of the war. The Austrian Empire disintegrated and disappeared. A bloody revolution pushed Russia into chaos. Germany, also facing a threat of revolution, unable to single-handedly defeat the united forces of Great Britain, France, and the United States, eventually collapsed. Thus, a political vacuum emerged in East Central Europe in 1918. This vacuum was filled by a group of newborn or reconstituted states, among them the Polish Second Republic.
It was not an easy independence. Reborn Poland had to stop Soviet aggression in 1919 and then faced other serious problems such as the national minorities "question" and an inheritance of socio-economic backwardness. These were difficult to solve. But, at least Poland was free, sovereign, and in control of her destiny. Her situation was greatly improved. There is no doubt that without the short inter-war period of independence there would be no free and independent Poland today.
Unfortunately, by the 1930s, the post-war political vacuum in East Central Europe that was essential for Poland's development disappeared. The historical enemies of Poland, Germany and Russia, had recovered their strength and began to reconstruct their empires. Their foreign ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, signed the sinister German-Soviet non-aggression pact of August 23, 1939, agreeing to divide East Central Europe and Poland into two "spheres of influence" controlled by the Germans and the Soviets. Stalin and Hitler decided that Poland – in Molotov's words, "this bastard of the Versailles treaty" – should cease to exist once and for all.
Thus, on September 1, 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland and seventeen days later, the Soviet Union followed suit. "The Poles," wrote the British historian Nicholas Bethell, "were fighting the Germans to the last man, believing that this was a decisive battle of the war, that the allies would organize an offensive to prevent Poland from being conquered."2 Unfortunately, a short-sighted self-interest prevailed in France and Great Britain. Their governments betrayed Poland, breaking their pre-war promises. London and Paris accepted Poland's deadly struggle as a "useful diversion providing a breathing space."3 The Polish army surrendered after 35 days of bloody fighting. Warsaw was the only European capital besieged by the Germans during the war and defended itself for several weeks. The city paid a high price for its resistance: 10 per cent of Warsaw was destroyed as early as September 1939. The Polish army, which under French and British pressure had not started its mobilization until August 30, was crushed by the troops of two hostile and powerful totalitarian giants.
Poland was the only country attacked at the same time by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In 1939 there was no power in the world that could have stopped this deadly coalition. Most people in the West do not realize how tragic Poland's situation was in 1939 and how heroic the Polish defense was. John Keegan writes on this: "There still is no satisfactory account in English of the German-Polish War of 1939, which precipitated the general outbreak. The Polish army - almost completely un-mechanized, almost without air support, almost surrounded by the Germans from the outset and, shortly, completely surrounded when the Red Army joined the aggression – fought more effectively than it has been given credit for. It sustained resistance from September 1 until October 5, five weeks, which compares highly favorably with the six and a half weeks during which France, Britain, Belgium, and Holland kept up the fight in the West the following year."4
The Germans also initiated a propaganda war against Poland. The best known element of this propaganda war is the legendary Blitzkrieg in Poland. The Allies gladly accepted Goebbels' version of the "quick war" because it justified their betrayal. After the war, many outstanding western historians, such as John Wheeler-Bennett in his The Nemesis of Power, used the Blitzkrieg interpretation. Several documentary film directors took as authentic material the scenes Goebbels staged for his propaganda film, "Feldzug in Polen." As a result, many people in the West believe that the Poles did not really fight in 1939, and that the Poles sent the cavalry against the German tanks.
After the September campaign, Poland was partitioned again. Almost 50 per cent of her territory was taken by the Soviet Union, 48.4 per cent by Nazi Germany, and 1.6 per cent by Lithuania. The German occupation in Poland lasted longer than in any other country (leaving aside the much milder occupation of Bohemia) and was the most severe. Historians often divide the German occupational system in Europe into seven categories. The most liberal occupational system was introduced in Denmark, where the German invasion of 1940 barely interrupted normal life. Denmark was controlled by a civilian administration of the German Foreign Office; the Danish king spent the entire war in his palace; and democratic elections were held in 1943. Life in occupied France was also comparatively not bad. In Holland and in Belgium, government administration was carried on by pre-war senior civil servants.
Poland was on the opposite side of the spectrum of occupational systems: there was no other country in Europe where the Germans were so cruel and consistently hostile towards the local population. The Poles were ranked by the Nazis as the second lowest racial group in Europe next to the Jews and the Gypsies. As a result, over 6 million Polish citizens, 3 million Christians and 3 million Jews, were killed during the war, the highest casualty rate among the European states. Millions were deported to Germany and Russia or left in the territories taken by the Soviet Union after the war. By war's end, Poland's population was reduced from 35 million to 23 million – a figure that includes victims killed, deported, in exile in the West or still captive in Russia, and others whose fate is unknown.
Poland's citizens were killed not only by the Germans. The Soviet occupation resembled German rule in many respects; indeed most scholars believe that "In the Soviet occupation zone conditions were only marginally less harsh than under the Germans."5 For their part, many Poles believe that the Soviet occupation was worse. Both the Soviets and the Germans cooperated against the Poles after September 1939. Both invaders followed the old rule: divide et impera (divide and rule). The first element of this division was the territorial fragmentation of Poland. The Germans partitioned their booty into two segments. The entire northwestern part of Poland and a portion of central Poland were incorporated directly into the Reich and became an integral part of Germany, which meant, among many other things, that young Poles were conscripted into the Wehrmacht. The remaining part of central and southern Poland was transformed into a colony of the Third Reich: the Generalgouvernment fur die besetzen Polnischen Gebiete (the Generalgovernment for the occupied Polish territory). The Soviets divided their spoils between Soviet Belorussia and Soviet Ukraine, and gave the small region of Vilna to Lithuania, still free in 1939 but occupied by the Soviets in 1940.
Moreover, the population of Poland was divided on both sides of the Ribbentrop-Molotov line. At the top of the social structure in German-occupied Poland were the Reichsdeutsche, the pre-war citizens of Germany, the Reich. Then, there were four categories of the so-called Volksdeutsche – ethnic Germans – followed by the Slavic minorities in Poland, the Belorussians and the Ukrainians, who enjoyed some kind of autonomy and several privileges. Lower down were the Poles. On the very bottom of the German-constructed social ladder were the groups considered by the Nazis to be non-human and destined for immediate extermination: the Jews and the Gypsies. The Slavs, including the Poles, were the Untermenschen, (the "subhumans") largely destined to be labourers for the Reich. The exceptions were those who were considered suitable for Germanization. This group represented 3 per cent of the Polish population in the Generalgouvernement. Among the Czechs, however, this group represented 50 per cent of the population. Ultimately, most Slavs were destined for "extermination through labour"6 or for deportation to the East.
The Soviets also built a similar social ladder. On its top were Soviet people sent to the newly incorporated areas from the pre-war Soviet territories. Next were native communists and lower classes of the local population, mostly representatives of the non-Polish people who, at least initially, were happy that the Polish state had disappeared. On the bottom of the Soviet-constructed ladder there were the so-called "enemies of the people," the Soviet equivalent of subhumans, mostly Poles and the non-Polish staff members of the destroyed state apparatus as well as owners of local businesses, larger farms, and estates. Both the Soviets and the Germans did their best to deepen the abyss between the various groups within the local population and contributed greatly to the previous Polish-Jewish, Polish-Ukrainian, and Polish-Belorussian conflicts. Some stereotypes and lies, invented by the Germans and the Soviets to aggravate inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts in Poland, are still believed today.
On both sides of the Ribbentrop-Molotov line, the most savage and devastating attack organized by the invaders was against the elite of Polish society. Both the Germans and the Soviets were determined to kill "the best and the brightest" and, to a large extent, they succeeded in doing this. During World War II, the Polish nation was decapitated: the most promising youth, the most patriotic intelligentsia, and the most outstanding intellectuals were killed. Two months after the outbreak of the war, at the beginning of November 1939, all the professors of Cracow's Jagiellonian University and the Mining Academy were invited by the Germans for a meeting. Most of them, one hundred and sixty-seven, were arrested and sent to the concentration camp of Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen. One hundred and three survived and returned to Cracow, but some died immediately after their release. Similar treatment was applied by the Germans to the professors of other Polish universities. Eighty per cent of Polish intellectuals fell into deep poverty and after the war many of them never returned to their pre-war intellectual activities.
The Soviets were killing "the best and the brightest" too. In March 1940, Stalin decided to execute about 22,000 Polish war prisoners, including over 15,000 officers from the three POW camps in Kozielsk, Starobielsk, and Ostaszkow. The Poles were executed in April and May 1940 in Katyn, near Kharkov and near Tver. Most of the victims were reserve officers, the elite of the Polish nation. In Katyn alone, 21 university professors, 300 physicians, and hundreds of lawyers, teachers, and engineers were killed. Altogether, during World War II, Poland lost 45 per cent of her physicians and dentists (both Christian and Jewish), 57 per cent of her lawyers, over 15 per cent of her teachers, 40 per cent of university professors and over 18 per cent of her clergy.7
The Soviets also led a very efficient propaganda campaign against Poland. From the first days of the war, the Soviets, the communist parties in the West, as well as the leftist organizations and individuals influenced by the communists, furiously attacked the Polish Government-in-Exile, the Polish Army, and Polish institutions in the West. The accusations leveled against them most frequently were anti-Sovietism, anti-Semitism, political irresponsibility, and chauvinism. A group of British communist and labour parliamentary deputies, for example, tried to stop the establishment of the Polish Armed Forces in England in 1940. These attacks became more intense after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, when the Soviets became "our brave Russian allies" and Stalin was transformed from a bloody dictator and Hitler's best partner to "good uncle Joe." "An incredible thing seemed to have happened to the American mind," wrote a Soviet defector, Victor Krevchenko, at that time. "The Soviet dictatorship was fully identified with the Russian people. What the communists had not yet succeeded in doing in their own country – as the purges and the millions of political prisoners indicate – they succeeded in doing in America! ... I saw men and women, who themselves called President Roosevelt a dictator, grow furious when Stalin was called a dictator."8 Another successful aspect of Soviet propaganda was that many people in the West, including numerous university history professors, journalists, and writers, accepted the Soviet lie about Katyn and truly believed that the Polish officers were murdered by the Germans. Until the 1980s, many American intellectuals considered the true version of the Katyn crime to be a glaring example of Polish anti-Sovietism, intellectual conservative backwardness, and chauvinism.
In destroying the elite of the Polish nation, the occupiers waged war on Polish culture. "The Poles," announced Hans Frank, the Governor of the Generalgouvernement, "do not need universities or secondary schools; the Polish lands are to be changed into an intellectual desert."9 In order to do this, the Germans closed all Polish scientific, artistic, and educational institutions with the exception of simplified primary schools. The Germans destroyed many historical buildings, scientific and art collections, and libraries. Most museums, public and private art collections, archives, and scientific laboratories were pillaged. Many outstanding German professors and scholars were involved in the robbery of the cultural heritage of Poland. The German struggle against this heritage included as well a carefully planned destruction of the monuments to Polish kings, heroes, writers, and scholars. The publication of Polish books was forbidden and the Polish press, numbering over 2,200 periodicals before the war, was reduced – leaving aside the underground press – to a few dozen titles fully controlled by the Germans. The bookstores were forbidden to sell English and French books, dictionaries, handbooks, newspapers and periodicals. A list of about 3,000 forbidden books was published and the mere possession of these publications was illegal. The Germans also initiated an organized struggle against the Polish language. In the territories incorporated into the Reich, the German authorities ordered the removal of all public notices and inscriptions in Polish, they Germanized Polish place names, and banished the Polish language from public use, including in the Church. Frequently, people who spoke Polish in the streets were insulted and beaten. To some degree, this Germanization operation was extended to the Generalgouvernement. The German administration not only tried to deprive the Poles of education and culture, they did their best to lower the intellectual and moral level of Polish society, to corrupt and demoralize it, and to promote drunkenness and collaboration."10
1. Keegan, John. The Battle for History: Re-Fighting World War Two. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1995, p. 118.
2. Bethell, Nicholas. The War Hitler Won: The Fall of Poland, September 1939. Rinhart and Winston, New York, 1972, p. 117.
3. Ibid., p. 117.
4. Keegan J., op. cit., pp. 67-68.
5. Dear, I. C. B. and Foot, M. R. D., eds. The Oxford Companion to the Second World War. Oxford University Press 1995, Oxford, p. 894.
6. Gross, Jan Tomasz. Polish Society under German Occupation: The Generalgouvernement,1939-1944. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1979, p. 50.
7. Dear, I. C. B. and Foot M. R. D., op. cit., p. 896.
8. Kravchenko, Victor. I Chose Freedom. The Personal and Political Life of a Soviet Official. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1946, pp. 467-468.
9. The German New Order in Poland. The Polish Ministry of Information. Hutchinson and Co., London, 1943, p. 432.10. Ibid., op. cit., p.431-502; Piotrowski, Stanislaw. Hans Frank's Diary. Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warsaw, 1961, pp. 119-130.