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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.

© Copyright Piotr Wrobel. All rights reserved.

Part II

The Soviets, in a similar campaign, also destroyed Polish monuments, removed Polish street signs, and closed Polish bookshops, publishing houses, and newspapers. Ukrainian and Belorussian became the languages of instruction in schools and universities. Russian became compulsory, Polish textbooks were removed, the teaching of religion was banned, and religious life was paralysed. The campaign against Polish culture was presented as a rebuilding of Belorussian and Ukrainian cultures unfairly suppressed by the Poles. Soviet propaganda showed the Polish population in the former Eastern Polish provinces as a small group of colonizers and exploiters, although, out of 13 million people living in the territories occupied by the Soviets, the Poles numbered 5 million, the Ukrainians 4.5 million, the Belorussians 1.5 million and the Jews 1.5 million.

Mass deportations were the most efficient Soviet method of de-Polonizing the territories newly incorporated into the USSR. The deportations started immediately after September 1939 and lasted until the very day of the German attack on the Soviet Union. Altogether, the Soviets deported about 1.5 million people, mostly Poles, to Siberia, to the Arctic regions of European Russia, and to Central Asia. Probably about 30 per cent of those deported died in the Soviet Union, and some survivors, or their descendents, are still there, being unable either to return to Poland or to escape abroad. The Soviet deportation constituted a successful case of ethnic cleansing. Six hundred years of Polish contribution to the development of the territories of Ukraine and the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania were wiped out almost completely.

A similar deportation and de-Polonization plan was implemented by the Germans. In the winter of 1939-1940, under extremely harsh conditions, about one million Poles were deported to the Generalgouvernement from the territories incorporated into the Reich. Those expelled were allowed to take with them only a little cash and a few possessions, and their property was confiscated by the Germans. Thousands of the deportees died during the transportation in unheated freight trucks or immediately after they were dropped off in the Generalgouvernment. Later, the Germans decided that some areas of the Generalgouvernment should also be Germanized. The Nazi authorities brutally deported local populations from several attractive regions, such as the Zamosc region, and tried to colonize them with German settlers. More than 200,000 Polish children were kidnapped and taken to the Reich for Germanization.

Both the Germans and the Soviets terrorized Polish society. The terror started immediately after the Wehrmacht crossed the Polish borders in September 1939. The German Air Force, participating in the September campaign, deliberately bombed civilian targets including civilians escaping from the burning towns and cities. Before October 25, 1939, while the Polish territories were still under the administration of the German Army, the Wehrmacht executed over 16,000 Poles. The occupation authorities began street roundups as early as November 1939, sending the captives to concentration camps or for forced labour in Germany. During the next several years the Germans established over 300 labour, concentration, and extermination camps in Poland. In April 1940, Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of a large concentration camp near the town of Oswiecim situated in an area that had previously been incorporated into the Reich and renamed Auschwitz. In June 1940, the first transport of Polish political prisoners was brought to the camp. In March 1941, the camp population reached 11,000. Before long, Auschwitz acquired ill fame as the harshest camp, where the torture and execution of prisoners defined the daily routine. Until the fall of 1941, the Poles constituted a majority among the prisoners of Auschwitz. In August 1942, the Germans began the systematic killing of the Jews in the gas chambers of the Birkenau section of Auschwitz, making this camp the main Nazi centre of mass extermination of Jews from all parts of Europe.

The Soviets also initiated a policy of terror immediately after the Red Army crossed the Polish borders. Frequently, the Soviet army shot prisoners of war on the spot. People's militias, established by the new authorities and including demoralized Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, initiated random retribution against Polish officers, policemen, local officials, judges, and any other staff members of the Polish state apparatus. In October 1939, the NKVD forced the local population to "elect" representatives to the "People's Assemblies" of Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia. Their representatives were sent to Moscow, where they asked the Supreme Soviet to incorporate the eastern Polish provinces into the Soviet Union. Of the more than 6 million Polish citizens (both Jews and Christians) killed during the war, almost 5.4 million died as a direct result of German and Soviet mass terror.

Both the Germans and the Soviets started a systematic economic exploitation of the conquered Polish territories. Between 1939 and 1944, the Germans deported about two million Poles to the Reich to work in agriculture and industry. There was, however, one striking difference between the Soviet and the German occupation in Poland: different policies towards the Jews. Israel Gutman writes: "For wherever the German regime was strict with the Poles, it was countless times more severe with the Jews."11 From the beginning of the war, the Germans started an extermination campaign against the Jews. The first ghettos were established in October 1939. In November 1940, the large ghetto of Warsaw was sealed. The Jews were tortured, robbed, and starved to death. The Germans encouraged anti-Jewish actions and some Poles engaged in various activities against the Jews.

In June 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and occupied all the territories of the pre-war Polish state. Now, Poland was divided into three German-held areas: the areas incorporated into the Reich (30.8%); the central area administered as a large labour reserve known as the Generalgouvernement (38.8%); and eastern Poland (30.3%) – formerly occupied by the Soviets – known under German control as Reichskommissariats. After their initial victory in Russia, the Germans assumed even more cruel policies toward the population of Poland. In 1942 and 1943, most Polish Jews were killed, mainly in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Belzec. Altogether, the Germans exterminated approximately 3 million Jewish citizens of Poland and 3 million Jews brought to occupied Poland from abroad. Throughout many centuries, the Jews contributed to Poland's economy and culture. Thousands of Polish-Jewish professionals, writers, scholars, physicians, musicians, and artists helped to build the Polish national heritage and fortune. In killing the Jews, the Germans cut off one of Poland's hands and destroyed Polish peace of mind. Because some Poles helped the Germans to exterminate the Jews, and because the killing took place on Polish soil, postwar Poland inherited a most difficult legacy. As a result of the war, other Polish national minorities also disappeared. A long tradition of Polish multinational and multi-cultural society came to a tragic end.

Poland's defeat in the September campaign left the Polish population traumatized. It seemed that the Nazi propaganda slogan calling Poland a Saisonstaadt – a one-season or temporary State – was accurate. After a short and uneasy independence, the Polish state disappeared again. Despite their initial despair, however, the Poles believed that although they had lost the first campaign, the war was not over, and they never relinquished their hope for a final victory. The Polish Government-in-Exile was established abroad. Thousands of Polish soldiers escaped from occupied Poland. Polish army units were organized in France and in the Middle East. In 1940, Polish soldiers fought the Germans in Norway. They helped defend France. They participated in British naval operations and they fought in the Battle of Britain, Britain's only ally outside the Commonwealth. The Polish airmen distinguished themselves with a kill ratio twice that of the British. In 1941, the Poles played a crucial role during the defense of Tobruk in Libya. In 1944, Polish troops participated in the Allied invasion of France and distinguished themselves during the battle of Falaise in Normandy. The Second Polish Corps, led by General Wladyslaw Anders, conquered the German stronghold on Monte Cassino and opened the way to Rome in May 1944. The First Polish Army organized by the Soviets in 1943 went with the Red Army to Berlin. During the battle of Bautzen in April 1945, the Second Polish Army, established by the communists in 1944, defeated the German forces that were sent to the aid of besieged Berlin. By the end of World War II, the Polish Armed Forces were the fourth largest among the Allies, following the armies of the Soviet Union, the United States, and the British Commonwealth.

Inside Poland, the Poles started organizing anti-German resistance and their underground state immediately after their defeat. To quote John Keegan again, the Poles "produced few collaborators and no puppet chief, a unique distinction in the record of European response to German aggression."12 Before long, communication lines between the Polish Government-in-Exile and the underground in Poland were established. Working in secrecy, Polish political parties succeeded in uniting the armed underground and merged most of the underground's units into the Armia Krajowa or AK (Home Army) in 1943. The Home Army reached 380,000 organized and sworn resistance fighters, the largest anti-German underground army in occupied Europe. The Polish underground state included also a clandestine civilian administration, secret educational institutions, and a justice system.

Poland made a "decisive contribution to the Allied war efforts," wrote General Eisenhower, citing the accomplishments of the Polish resistance, notably the important part Polish intelligence played in breaking the German secret military code. The Polish Secret Service had successfully reconstructed the German coding machine, the "Enigma." Anticipating a war, Poland delivered a complete duplicate of the "Enigma" to the British in July 1939, enabling them to break the German secret code and to read their secret dispatches during the war. Equally important, the Home Army's intelligence discovered where the Germans were developing their secret weapons, the V 1 bombs and the V-2 rockets. As a result, in August 1943 Britain sent more than 600 RAF bombers on a successful mission to destroy the development plant. Later, the Home Army and Polish airmen managed to deliver two captured V-2 rockets to London.

Before the summer of 1941, the situation in Poland appeared bleak. She was occupied by two major powers: the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. The United States remained neutral and the British policy towards the USSR was not to antagonize it in any way. Plans for Poland's future were vague and uncertain. However, on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The news was accepted with relief in Great Britain. Churchill joked that if Hitler declared war on the devil, he, Churchill, would look for an alliance with hell. Following Churchill's unconditional invitation to the Soviet Union to join the anti-Hitler coalition, the Soviet-British alliance was signed on July 12, 1941. One of Poland's foes became her potential partner. The English cabinet started to press the Polish Government-in-Exile to come to an agreement with Russia. Because of the extreme conditions created by Hitler's occupation of Europe – it was argued – any differences and conflicts with the Soviets should be set aside. The Poles in London understood this and were ready to join forces with Moscow against Berlin. However, the Polish condition sine qua non was that the Soviets nullify the Ribbentrop-Molotov line of Poland's partition and guarantee the inter-war Polish-Soviet border, established by the Treaty of Riga in 1921 and confirmed by the Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty of 1932.

The Soviets were ready to announce the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact null and void but they rejected the demand for a return to the inter-war borders. The British also refused to guarantee these borders. With a majority of Polish public opinion in England believing that in this case no agreement with Moscow was possible, several members of the Polish Government-in-Exile resigned before the signing of the Polish-Soviet pact of July 30, 1941. Nevertheless, the pact was signed, because resignation and withdrawal from active international politics was not an alternative for Poland. Accusing the Poles of being unrealistic, the British and the American governments asked them to be more flexible and compromise on their eastern border.

Meanwhile, Stalin informed the British ambassador in Moscow that the Soviets planned to create a "Polish National Committee" and a large army to fight on the Soviet side. Such a Polish puppet government in Moscow would jeopardize not only the eastern borders of Poland but also her independence. About 180,000 Polish soldiers and close to 1.5 million Polish civilians were languishing in the Soviet Gulag. They could be either saved and used against the Germans or be wasted and killed in the camps. The Prime Minister of Poland and Commander-in-Chief, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, decided that, in view of this situation, Polish territorial questions had to be left for discussion until after the war. He broke the opposition within his government, and signed the treaty.

Establishing cordial Polish-Soviet relations was not possible, however, and only some of the treaty's objectives were translated into reality. Even though an "amnesty" was offered to the Polish people in the Gulag and a Polish army was organized in Russia, not all Polish prisoners were granted amnesty, and not all of those who were released could join the army. Still, the treaty saved tens of thousands of Polish lives, Poland maintained her status as an ally, and the Government-in-Exile continued its activities. However, Stalin's government announced with increasing frequency that it would deal with "ethnic Poland" only, increasingly referring to the Curzon Line, a demarcation limit practically identical with the Ribbentrop-Molotov line, as the legal western border of the USSR. Anglo-American officials told the Polish politicians in London that the "Curzon Line with certain modifications" should be accepted, and that the Polish question would be handled by the Soviets rather than by the Western Allies. A conflict over the Polish Army in Russia ended with the evacuation of the Polish troops to Persia, and Soviet-Polish relations deteriorated even further. On April 13, 1943, Berlin radio announced the discovery of mass graves of thousands of Polish officers at Katyn, an area formerly under Soviet control. Moscow called this a "fabrication by Goebbels' slanderers," but there were so many indications that the officers were in fact executed by the NKVD that the Polish Government-in-Exile asked the International Red Cross to investigate. Using this as a pretext, Moscow broke relations with the Polish government. The relations were never resumed. In January 1944, the Red Army crossed the Polish inter-war borders and, in July 1944, the Soviets entered Polish ethnic territories West of the Curzon Line. The Soviet-controlled Polish Committee of National Liberation was established as a de facto government and started administrating the Lublin area taken by the Soviets in the summer of 1944.

By the end of 1943, the Polish Government-in-Exile and the leaders of the Polish underground state in occupied Poland realized that the question of Poland's eastern borders was beyond their control and that Poland's post-war independence was jeopardized. This became manifestly clear with the establishment of the "Lublin" government in the "liberated territories" where Soviet authorities resumed the methods familiar to the Polish people from the period 1939-41 – arrests, deportations and executions.

The Polish leaders were desperately looking for a solution. Fearing reprisals against the civilian population, the Home Army did not want to start a premature uprising against the Germans. On the other hand, however, with the Red Army entering Polish territories, it was clear that the German occupation would be replaced by Soviet control and terror. In December 1943, the commander of the Home Army, General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, issued the order for Operation "Tempest," a plan to organize a local rising behind the German lines in order to assist the Soviets during the decisive moments of their offensives. Polish resistance soldiers were ordered to cooperate with the Red Army and help it to break the German lines. Militarily, "Tempest" was directed against the Germans, but politically, the operation was also intended to manifest the existence of the Polish Republic and to strengthen the Polish position in post-war negotiations. "Tempest" began in March and April 1944 in Volhynia, where the Home Army helped capture the city of Kowel. At the same time, other Home Army units drove the Germans from the Nowogrodek region. In July, the Polish underground armed forces attacked Vilna and contributed to the capture of Lvov and Lublin. The Soviets cooperated with the Home Army in these battles but immediately after the fighting, NKVD units disarmed the Poles, merged the Polish soldiers into the Red Army or into the Polish army under communist command, and arrested the officers, many of whom were executed and most of whom were imprisoned and deported to the Gulag. The Polish underground administration was not tolerated by the Soviets anywhere. Members of the anti-German conspiracy, who tried to reshape Polish secret agencies into regular organs of state administration, were arrested by the Soviets on the grounds of anti-Communist sabotage and diversionary activity. The "Tempest" in Eastern Poland failed to attain its political objective and was not even noticed by the Western Allies. Moscow kept claiming that the Polish Government-in-Exile was just a group of political reactionary émigrés who had no support in Poland.

The original plan of "Tempest" did not foresee any fighting in large cities. It was feared that casualties would be too great, and in addition, a number of Polish towns were already heavily dam aged. However, on July 29, 1944, Soviet units appeared in Warsaw's eastern suburbs. The Germans panicked and started evacuating their institutions in Warsaw. The Home Army Command knew about the attempt on Hitler's life that took place on July 20. The Soviet-sponsored Polish Radio in Moscow, known as the Kosciuszko Station, constantly called upon the population of Warsaw to fight the Germans along with the Red Army. The capture of the Polish capital seemed imminent, even though the Germans had managed to recover from their panic and ordered the mobilization of 100,000 young people for work on Warsaw's fortifications. The Wehrmacht was going to reshape the city into a stronghold to stop the Soviet offensive. Therefore, the Home Army commanders believed it was necessary to take Warsaw before its siege. At the same time, the Polish Government-in-Exile believed that it was the last opportunity to establish independent Polish authorities in Warsaw.

On August 1, 1944, Warsaw's units of the Home Army attacked the Germans and gained control of most of the city within three days. Still, only 10 per cent of the Polish fighters were armed. At this point, the Red Army deliberately stopped its offensive and remained idle on the other side of the river. The Soviet Air Force, so active over Warsaw earlier, suddenly disappeared from the skies, allowing the Germans to bomb the city unrestrained. The Red Army not only stopped its advance, but also disarmed detachments of the Home Army marching to Warsaw, and the Soviet government refused to allow the Western Allies to use Soviet air bases to airlift supplies to the fighting Poles. For their part, the Germans sent fresh strong units to Warsaw and, in three weeks, the Nazi forces reached 40,000 well-armed men with artillery, tanks, and planes. On October 2, after 63 days of desperate fighting, the Uprising surrendered.

The Home Army Command and about 12,000 insurgents were taken as prisoners-of-war. The Germans deported the remainder of the city's population to various camps and almost completely destroyed the city. Over 200,000 civilians died, about 18,000 Home Army soldiers were killed, and about 7,000 were wounded. The main body of the Home Army was eliminated. The best representatives of the Polish youth of Warsaw -almost the entire generation – perished. When the Red Army took the Polish capital in January 1945, the city was nothing but a deserted ruin. Warsaw was destroyed to such an extent - over 80 per cent of its buildings lay in ruins – that many politicians and architects doubted it could ever be rebuilt. The defeat of the Uprising weakened the organized resistance in Poland, enabling the Soviets to establish their political domination over the country.

Poland's fate was confirmed at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. The conference was the culmination of a "catastrophic consummation of wartime strategic decisions"13 of American and British leaders and a product of their appeasement policies towards Moscow. In the Polish political vocabulary Yalta became a symbol of treason and betrayal, and the Yalta conference is considered a close copy of the Munich conference.14

In February 1945 it was too late, of course, to undo the mistakes and to change the situation in East Central Europe now that it was already occupied by the Red Army. Unfortunately, during the conference, new grave errors and miscalculations were added to the previous ones. The American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, accepted the loss of East Central Europe in exchange for a Soviet agreement on his United Nations plan and a Soviet promise to participate in the final stage of anti-Japanese operations. The Western Allies lost Poland and the entire region of East Central Europe – the key to the western parts of Europe and to international stabilization during the post-war era.

During World War II, the Americans were unprepared to deal with Stalin. Roosevelt and most of his closest advisers were for the most part ignorant of East European and Soviet history and politics. According to George F. Kennan, probably the best American specialist on the Soviet Union and one of the most outstanding "sovietologists" at large, Roosevelt's diplomatic performance could be explained only by "an inexcusable body of ignorance about the nature of the Russian Communist movement, about the history of its diplomacy, about what had happened in the purges, and about what had been going on in Poland and the Baltic States."15

Soon after the German invasion of June 1941, the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. The possibility of the USSR's collapse and of German hegemony over Eastern Europe and maybe even the northern part of Asia were perceived as very dangerous for everybody. Great Britain and later the United States rightly began to cooperate with and to support the Soviet Union. From the very beginning, however, the Western powers assumed an exaggerated approach and started an unlimited, unconditional, and almost enthusiastic cooperation with Moscow, as if the Soviet Union were not yesterday's - and potentially a future – dangerous rival. Kennan was probably right that during the dark months immediately after the Nazi invasion against the Soviet Union "One might very well have said to Stalin: Look here, old boy, our memories are no shorter than yours. We know very well how you tried to arrange your affairs in this war. We are perfectly aware of the feeling toward us by which your pact with Hitler was inspired. Now you have come a cropper in your effort to collaborate with Hitler, and this is your affair. If you are interested in receiving our material aid, we will give it to you precisely in the measure that we find suitable and for precisely so long as this suits our purposes. Meanwhile we want no sentimentality and no nonsense. You have revealed to us what your aims are in Europe; and while we may help you to repel the German invaders, you may expect small comfort from us in those of your ambitions which extend beyond the territory that was recognized as yours up to 1938."16

Instead, British and the Americans gave the USSR unconditional support and did not consider any alternative policy toward Moscow. They did not understand the importance of a free Poland and East Central Europe for the future of Germany and for the whole postwar order. Kennan concludes: "And there is no reason to suppose that, had we behaved differently either with respect to lend-lease or with respect to the wartime conferences, the out-come of military events in Europe would have been greatly different than it was. We might have wasted less money and material than we did. We might have arrived in the centre of Europe slightly sooner and less encumbered with obligations to our Soviet ally. The postwar line of division between East and West might have lain somewhat farther east than it is today, and that would certainly be a relief to everyone concerned."17

To the Poles such a "postwar division line located somewhat farther east" would have meant freedom. The Poles feel to this day that their country was treated unfairly by the Allies. The Second World War started in and because of Poland, which first stood up to Nazi Germany. Poland fought for the longest time in Europe, went through the most vicious occupation, and suffered the heaviest proportional casualties. Polish soldiers fought on most fronts of the war and, during its last year, the Polish military units constituted the fourth strongest allied armed force after the Red Army, American, and British troops.

In spite of all that, after the war, Poland was treated in the same way, or worse, than some of Hitler's East European allies, (for example, Finland). The representatives of the Polish Armed Forces (except for 25 pilots) were not invited to participate in the victory parade in London in June 1946.'18 The British authorities systematically concealed the truth about the Polish contribution to the breaking of the German secret code and to the destruction of the Penemunde V-1 and V-2 development plant."19 In 1945-1947, the British did their best to get rid of tens of thousands of Polish Armed Forces veterans who were still in England and Scotland.20

The Nazi totalitarian occupation of Poland was replaced by Soviet totalitarian control. Although the war had officially ended in 1945, the Polish people continued to be deported to the Soviet camps and exterminated. The new oppressor drastically changed the borders of Poland, which lost 20 per cent of her pre-war area and two major centres of Polish national culture: Vilna and Lvov. The Soviets continued the economic exploitation of Poland and the extermination of the Polish elite. The Poles came to the conclusion that the Western powers, the United States and Great Britain, had cynically surrendered the idealistic principles previously presented by them in the Atlantic Charter. The Poles felt betrayed by their Western allies.

Half a century later, communism collapsed, Poland regained independence, joined NATO, and is going to enter the European Union. Poland's access to the Union is strongly supported by Germany. Most Polish people understand that integration with Europe and reconciliation with Germany are necessary. Yet, the Poles do not trust. They remember.

* * *

11. Gutman, Israel. The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1982, p. 120.

12. Keegan, J., op. cit., p. 111.

13. Seabury, Paul. Yalta and Neoconservatives in The Cold War Debated, ed. by Carlton, David and Lavine, Herbert M. McGraw-Hill, New York, 1988, p. 24.

14. Kersten, Krystyna. Jalta w polskiej perspektywie (Yalta in the Polish Perspective). Aneks, London, 1989, p. 8.

15. Kennan, George F. Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin. Mentor Book, New York, 1962, p. 333.

16. Kennan, G.F. Russia and the West…, op. cit., pp. 331-332.

17. Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1984, p. 87.

18. Anders, Wladyslaw. Bez ostatniego rozdziatu (Without the Last Chapter). Warsaw, 1989, p. 377.

19. Jezioranski, Jan Nowak. Zrabowane zaslugi (Stolen Achievements). Zeszyty Historyczne (Paris), No. 128, pp. 54-74.

20. Gella, Aleksander. Pozbycie sie Polskich Sil Zbrojnych przez brytyjski rzad J. K. M.,1945-1947 (How H. M. Government Got Rid of the Polish Armed Forces, 1945-1947). Znaki czasu (Rome), No. 9 (1988), pp. 109-129, No. 10, pp. 78-100.