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German occupation of Poland

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German occupation of Poland

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The history of Poland from 1939 to 1945 encompasses the German invasion of Poland as well as the Soviet invasion of Poland through to the end of World War II. On 1 September 1939, without a formal declaration of war, Germany invaded Poland with the immediate pretext being the Gleiwitz incident, a provocation staged by the Gestapo claiming that Polish troops had allegedly committed "provocations" along the German-Polish border including house torching, which were all staged by the Germans. Nazi Germany also used issues like the dispute between Germany and Poland over German rights to the Free City of Danzig and the freeing of a passage between East Prussia and the rest of Germany through the Polish Corridor as excuses for the invasion. Pursuant to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Poland was attacked by the Soviet Union on 17 September 1939. Before the end of the month most of Poland was divided between the Germans and the Soviets.

German and Soviet invasions

The Nazi German invasion was anticipated already since the late thirties in the Polish army order of battle in 1939, but the strategic position of the Polish armed forces to resist was nevertheless hopeless, because Poland was surrounded on three sides by the German territories: Pomerania, Silesia, East Prussia (all parts of Germany), and German-controlled Czechoslovakia. The newly formed Slovak State assisted their German allies by attacking Poland from the south. The Soviet Union encroached from the east, and finally Polish forces were blockaded on the Baltic Coast by the German and Soviet navies. The German "concept of annihilation" (Vernichtungsgedanke) that later evolved into the Blitzkrieg ("lightning war") provided for rapid advance of Panzer (armoured) divisions, dive bombing (to break up troop concentrations), and aerial bombing of undefended cities to sap civilian morale. The Polish Army and Air Force had insufficient new equipment to match the onslaught.

German forces were numerically and technologically superior to Polish armed forces. The Germans threw 85% of their armed forces at Poland. They commanded 1.6 million men, 250,000 trucks and other motor vehicles, 11,000 artillery pieces, 2,500 tanks and a cavalry division. Some of the Luftwaffe pilots were the veterans of the elite Condor Legion, which had seen action during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). The Luftwaffe comprised 1,180 fighter aircraft (mainly Messerschmitt Bf 109s), 290 Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers, 290 conventional bombers (mainly He 111 type), and 240 assorted naval aircraft. The German navy positioned its old battleship Schleswig-Holstein to shell Westerplatte, a section of Free City of Danzig, an exclave separate from the main city and awarded to Poland by Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

The Polish forces found themselves severely outnumbered and outclassed. They consisted of 800,000 troops, including 11 cavalry brigades, two motorized brigades, 4,000 artillery pieces, and 880 tanks: 120 of them of the advanced 7-TP-type. The Polish airforce included 400 fighter aircraft: 160 PZL P.11c fighter aircraft, 31 PZL P.7a and 20 P.11a fighters, 120 PZL.23 Karaś reconnaissance-bombers, and 45 PZL.37 Łoś medium bombers. The navy that did not participate in the withdrawal to United Kingdom and the linking up with the Royal Navy (known as Peking Plan), consisted of four destroyers, one torpedo boat, one minelayer, two gunboats, six minesweepers, and five submarines.

Although the UK and France declared war on Germany, no direct military action was rendered. France was in direct violation of the Franco-Polish Military Alliance that was signed in 19 May 1939, where France promised to attack Germany if Poland was attacked. Great Britain also refused to attack Germany, even though they had sworn to do so in the case of a German invasion. The Wehrmacht was tied up in the attack on Poland, and the French Army enjoyed decisive numerical advantage on their border with Germany, but the Allies failed to contribute solid assistance. Nine divisions of the French army (out of 102 that were ready for action) entered the German area in Saarland. They advanced only to a depth of eight kilometers and took over about 20 abandoned villages, without any resistance. The Saar Offensive caused no German soldiers to be brought from Poland to the west. At the same time, the British Royal Air Force limited itself to dropping pamphlets on German cities. Shortly after their attack, the French General Staff ordered a retreat from German territory; and, on October 4 the French forces returned to their original positions. Many historians believe that, had the Great Britain and France honoured their pledge to Poland, the Nazis would have been contained and the war would not have had such a devastating impact on all European nations.

In the meanwhile, to the east of Poland, the Soviet Union was preparing its own military advance to occupy the eastern part of Poland in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact concluded between the USSR and Germany in August 1939, just weeks before the German invasion.


With Britain and France unwilling to follow on their military commitment to Poland, the Soviet Union, having its own reasons to fear the German expansionism further East, made various offers to Poland of an anti-German alliance, similar to the earlier one made to Czechoslovakia. Regardless of Stalin's true intentions, such alliances backed by the Soviet military force would have been a likely deterrent to Hitler's plans. However, the Poles feared Joseph Stalin's Communism nearly as much as they feared Hitler's Nazism, and throughout 1939 they refused to agree to any arrangement which would allow Soviet troops to freely enter Poland. The Polish refusal to accept the Soviet offer is best illustrated by the famous quote of Marshall Edward Rydz-Śmigły, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish armed forces, who is quoted to have said: "With the Germans we run the risk of losing our liberty. With the Russians we will lose our soul".[1] The Soviets then turned to concluding the treaty with Germany (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) which was signed in August 1939.

The Polish government feared that Germany would launch only a limited war, to seize the territories which it claimed, and then ask France and Britain for a ceasefire. To defend these territories, the Polish military command compounded their strategic weakness by massing their forces along their western border, in defence of Poland's main industrial areas around Poznań and Łódź, where they could be easily surrounded and cut off. By the time the Polish command decided to withdraw to the line of the Vistula, it was too late. By 28 September, Warsaw was surrounded.


In accordance with a secret protocol annex to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Germany asked the Soviet Union on 3 September[2] to engage its troops against the Polish state. The Soviet Union assured Germany that the Red Army advance into Poland would soon follow under the pretext of aiding the Ukrainians and the Belarusians threatened by Germany.[3][4]

On 17 September, the Red Army marched its troops into Poland, which the Soviet Union now claimed to be non-existent. Also, concerns about the Soviets' own security were used to justify the invasion.[5] The Red Army advance was coordinated with the movement of the German forces[6] and met little resistance from the Polish forces (such as Battle of Szack fought by the Border Defence Corps or Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza), who were ordered to avoid engagement into the armed fights with the Soviets although some fighting between Soviet and Polish units took place.[7]

The Polish government and high command retreated to the southeast Romanian bridgehead and eventually crossed into neutral Romania. There was no formal surrender, and resistance continued in many places. Warsaw was bombed into submission, (the event that served as a trigger for the surrender was an accidental damage caused by one of the German bombs to the water supply system and subsequent lack of water) on 27 September, and some Army units fought until well into October (Battle of Kock). In the more mountainous parts of the country, Army units began underground resistance almost at once. The Polish army lost 65,000 troops, 400 air crew, and 110 navy crew. The German losses were 16,000 troops, 365 air crew, and 126 navy crew. 285 German aircraft were destroyed, with 126 claimed by Polish fighter pilots. Ninety were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, and, due to the modesty of Polish pilots, there is a deficit of 70 unclaimed kills. Three hundred more German aircraft were so badly damaged they were written off. The Polish Air Force lost 327 aircraft, 260 of which were lost due to direct or indirect enemy action, with around 70 in air-to-air fighting. Anti-aircraft fire claimed the other 67.

Occupation and dismemberment of Poland

About 15 of Polish citizens lost their lives in the war,[8] most of the civilians targeted by various deliberate actions. The German plan involved not only the annexation of Polish territory, but also the total destruction of Polish culture and the Polish nation (Generalplan Ost).

Treatment of Polish citizens under German occupation


Under the terms of two decrees by Hitler (8 October and 12 October 1939), large areas of western Poland were annexed to Germany. These included all the territories which Germany had lost under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, such as the Polish Corridor, West Prussia and Upper Silesia, but also a large area of indisputably Polish territory east of these territories, including the city of Łódź.

The Germans provided for the division of the annexed areas of Poland into the following administrative units:

The area of these annexed territories was 94,000 square kilometres and the population was about 10 million, the great majority of whom were Poles.

Under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet pact, adjusted by agreement on 28 September 1939, the Soviet Union annexed all Polish territory east of the line of the rivers Pisa, Narew, Bug and San, except for the area around Vilnius (known in Polish as Wilno), which was given to Lithuania, and the Suwałki region, which was annexed by Germany. These territories were largely inhabited by Ukrainians and Belarusians, with minorities of Poles and Jews (see exact numbers in Curzon line). The total area, including the area given to Lithuania, was 201,000 square kilometres, with a population of 13.5 million. A small strip of land that was part of Hungary before 1914, was also given to Slovakia.

After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Polish territories previously occupied by the Soviets were organized as follows:

  • Bezirk Białystok (district of Białystok), which included the Białystok, Bielsk Podlaski, Grajewo, Łomża, Sokółka, Volkovysk, and Grodno counties, was "attached" to (but not incorporated into) East Prussia;
  • Bezirke Litauen und Weißrussland — the Polish part of White Russia (today western Belarus), including the Vilna province (Vilnius was incorporated into the Reichskommissariat Ostland);
  • Bezirk Wolhynien-Podolien — the Polish province of Volhynia, which was incorporated into the Reichskommissariat Ukraine; and
  • East Galicia, which was incorporated into the General-Government and became its fifth district.


Main article: Expulsion of Poles by Nazi Germany (1939-1944)

The future fate of Poland and Poles was decided in Generalplan Ost, a Nazi plan to ethnically cleanse the territories occupied by Germany in Eastern Europe. The remaining block of territory was placed under a German administration called the General Government (in German Generalgouvernement für die besetzten polnischen Gebiete), with its capital at Kraków. The General Government was subdivided into four districts, Warsaw, Lublin, Radom, and Kraków. (For more detail on the territorial division of this area see General Government.)

A German lawyer and prominent Nazi, Hans Frank, was appointed Governor-General of the occupied territories on 26 October. Frank oversaw the segregation of the Jews into ghettos in the larger cities, particularly Warsaw, and the use of Polish civilians as forced and compulsory labour in German war industries.

The population in the General Government's territory was initially about 12 million in an area of 94,000 km², but this increased as about 860,000 Poles and Jews were expelled from the German-annexed areas and "resettled" in the General Government. Offsetting this was the German campaign of extermination of the Polish intelligentsia and other elements thought likely to resist (e.g. Operation Tannenberg and Action AB). From 1941, disease and hunger also began to reduce the population. Poles were also deported in large numbers to work as forced labour in Germany: eventually about a million were deported, and many died in Germany.

According to recent (2009) estimates by IPN, between 5.62 million and 5.82 million Polish citizens (including Polish Jews) died as a result of the German occupation.[9][10]

Treatment of Polish citizens under Soviet occupation

By the end of Polish Defensive War, the Soviet Union took over 52,1% of the territory of Poland (circa 200,000 km²), with over 13,700,000 people. Although estimates vary, the most thorough analysis gives the following numbers in regards to the ethnic composition of these areas: 38% Poles (ca. 5,1 million people), 37% Ukrainians, 14,5% Belarusians, 8,4% Jews, 0,9% Russians and 0,6% Germans. There were also 336,000 refugees from areas occupied by Germany, most of them Jews (198,000).[11] Areas occupied by USSR were annexed to Soviet territory, with the exception of area of Vilnius, which was transferred to Lithuania, although soon attached to USSR, when Lithuania became a Soviet republic.

While Germans enforced their policies based on racism, the Soviet administration used slogans about class struggle, and dictatorship of the proletariat,[12] which in Soviet reality were equal to Stalinism and Sovietization. Immediately after their conquest of eastern Poland, the Soviet authorities started a campaign of sovietization[13][14] of the newly acquired areas. No later than several weeks after the last Polish units surrendered, on October 22, the Soviets organized staged elections to the Moscow-controlled Supreme Soviets (legislative body) of Western Belarus and Western Ukraine.[15] The result of the staged voting was to become a legitimization of Soviet partition of Poland.[16]

Subsequently, all institutions of the dismantled Polish state were closed down and reopened with new directors who were mostly Russian and in rare cases[11] Ukrainian or Polish ones.[11] Lviv University and other schools restarted anew as Soviet institutions. Studies were simply devoted to Soviet propaganda.[11] Polish literature and language studies were dissolved by Soviet authorities.

Simultaneously, Soviet authorities attempted to remove all signs of Polish existence in the area by eliminating much of what had any connection to the Polish state or even Polish culture in general, as well as removing the Polish population[11] On 21 December, the Polish currency was withdrawn from circulation without any exchange to the newly introduced rouble, which meant that the entire population of the area lost all of their life-time savings overnight.[17] In schools, Polish language books were burned.[11]

All the media became controlled by Moscow. Soviet occupation implemented a political regime similar to police state,[18][19][20][21] based on terror. All Polish parties and organisations were disbanded. Only the Communist Party was allowed to exist with organisations subordinated to it. Soviet teachers in schools encouraged children to spy on their parents proposing money as bribes.[11]

All organized religions were persecuted. Most churches were closed; priests and ministers were discriminated against by authorities regardless of their faith, with forms of discrimination including high taxes, forced drafts into military service, arrests and deportations.[11] Children were told that they should pray to paintings of Stalin instead of the cross, and were rewarded with sweets and candy for this.[11] All enterprises were taken over by the state, while agriculture was made collective.[22] The results of Soviet economic policy were quickly seen, in winter locals faced new problems, as shops lacked goods, there was scarce food and they had to face famine.[11]

According to the Soviet law, all residents of the annexed area, dubbed by the Soviets as citizens of former Poland,[23] automatically acquired Soviet citizenship. However, since actual conferral of citizenship still required the consent of the individual, residents were strongly pressured for such consent[24] and the refugees who opted out were threatened with repatriation to Nazi controlled territories of Poland.[5][25][26]

In addition, the Soviets exploited past ethnic tensions between Poles and other ethnic groups, inciting and encouraging violence against Poles by calling upon the minorities to "rectify the wrongs they had suffered during twenty years of Polish rule".[27] Pre-war Poland was portrayed as a capitalist state based on exploitation of the working people and ethnic minorities. Soviet officials openly incited mobs to perform killings and robberies against the Polish population, going as far as stating that the Red Army would help to kill and pillage.[28] A brutal bloodbath ensued.[29] Such events made an everlasting influence on the Polish attitude towards Soviet occupation.[29]

Some parts of the Ukrainian population initially welcomed the end of Polish rule.[30] This was even strengthened by a land reform in which the owners of large lots of land were labeled "kulaks" and dispossessed of their land which was then divided among poorer peasants. However, soon afterwards the Soviet authorities started a campaign of forced collectivisation, which largely nullified the earlier gains from the land reform as the peasants generally did not want to join the Kolkhoz farms, nor to give away their crops for free to fulfill the state imposed quotas. At the same time, there were large groups of pre-war Polish citizens, notably Jewish youth and, to a lesser extent, the Ukrainian peasants, who saw the Soviet power as an opportunity to start political or social activity outside of their traditional ethnic or cultural groups. Their enthusiasm however faded with time as it became clear that the Soviet repressions were aimed at all groups equally, regardless of their political stance.[31] The organisation of Ukrainians desiring independent Ukraine (the OUN) was persecuted as "anti-soviet".

An inherent part of the Sovietization was a rule of terror started by the NKVD and other Soviet agencies. The first victims of the new order were approximately 250,000 Polish prisoners of war captured by the USSR during and after the Polish Defensive War.[32] As the Soviet Union did not sign any international convention on rules of war, they were denied the status of prisoners of war and instead almost all of the captured officers and a large number of ordinary soldiers[33] were then murdered (see Katyn massacre) or sent to Gulag.[34] Of the 10,000-12,000 Poles sent to Kolyma in 1940–41, most POWs, only 583 men survived, released in 1942 to join the Polish Armed Forces in the East.[35] Out of Anders's 80,000 evacuees from Soviet Union gathered in Great Britain only 310 volunteered to return to Poland in 1947.[36]

Similar policies were applied to the civilian population as well. The Soviet authorities regarded service for the pre-war Polish state as a "crime against revolution"[37] and "counter-revolutionary activity",[38] and subsequently started arresting large numbers of Polish intelligentsia, politicians, civil servants and scientists, but also ordinary people suspected of posing a threat to the Soviet rule. Schoolchildren as young as 10 or 12 years old that laughed at Soviet propaganda presented in schools were sent into prisons, sometimes for as long as 10 years.[11]

The prisons soon got severely overcrowded[31] with detainees suspected of anti-Soviet activities and the NKVD had to open dozens of ad-hoc prison sites in almost all towns of the region.[16] The wave of arrests led to forced resettlement of large categories of people (kulaks, Polish civil servants, forest workers, university professors or osadniks, for instance) to the Gulag labour camps.[14] Altogether, roughly a half a million people were sent to the east in four major waves of deportations.[39] Many of them were dead by the time the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement had been signed in 1941.[40]

According to recent (2009) estimates by IPN, around 150,000 Polish citizens died as a result of the Soviet occupation.[9][10] Those estimates also suggest a much smaller number of deportees (around 320,000).[9][10]

Resistance in Poland

Resistance to the German occupation began almost at once, although there is little terrain in Poland suitable for guerrilla operations. The Home Army (in Polish Armia Krajowa or AK), loyal to the Polish government in exile in London and a military arm of the Polish Secret State, was formed from a number of smaller groups in 1942. From 1943, the AK was in competition with the People's Army (Polish Armia Ludowa or AL), backed by the Soviet Union and controlled by the Polish Workers' Party (Polish Polska Partia Robotnicza or PPR). By 1944, the AK had some 380,000 men, although few arms: the AL was much smaller. In August 1943 and March 1944, the Polish Secret State announced their long-term plan, partially designed to counter attractiveness of some of the Communists' proposals. Their plan promised land reform, nationalisation of the industrial base, demands for territorial compensation from Germany, as well as re-establishment of the pre-1939 eastern border. Thus, the main difference between the Secret State and the Communists, in terms of politics, amounted not to radical economic and social reforms, which were advocated by both sides, but to their attitudes towards national sovereignty, borders, and Polish-Soviet relations.[41]

In April 1943, the Germans began deporting the remaining Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, provoking the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from 19 April-16 May, one of the first armed uprisings against the Germans in Poland. The Polish-Jewish leaders knew that the rising would be crushed but they preferred to die fighting than wait to be deported to their deaths in the camps.

In 1943, the Home Army built up its forces in preparation for a national uprising. The plan was code-named Operation Tempest and began in late 1943. Its most widely known elements were Operation Ostra Brama and the Warsaw Uprising. In August 1944, as the Soviet armed forces approached Warsaw, the government in exile called for an uprising in the city, so that they could return to a liberated Warsaw and try to prevent a Communist takeover. The AK, led by Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, launched the Warsaw Uprising. Soviet forces were less than 20 km (12 mi) away, but on the orders of Soviet High Command, they gave little assistance. Stalin described the rising as a "criminal adventure." The Poles appealed for the western Allies for help. The Royal Air Force, and the Polish Air Force based in Italy, dropped some arms but, as in 1939, it was almost impossible for the Allies to help the Poles without Soviet assistance.

The fighting in Warsaw was desperate, with selfless valour being displayed in street-to-street fighting. The AK had between 12,000 and 20,000 armed soldiers, most with only small arms, against a well-equipped German Army of 20,000 SS and regular Army units. Bór-Komorowski's hope that the AK could take and hold Warsaw for the return of the London government was never likely to be achieved. After 63 days of savage fighting, the city was reduced to rubble, and German reprisals were savage. The SS and auxiliary units recruited from Soviet Army deserters were particularly brutal.

After Bór-Komorowski's surrender, the AK fighters were treated as prisoners-of-war by the Germans, much to the outrage of Stalin, but the civilian population were ruthlessly punished. Overall, Polish casualties are estimated to be between 150,000 and 300,000 killed, with 90,000 civilians being sent to labour camps in the Reich, while 60,000 were shipped to death and concentration camps such as Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and others. The city was almost totally destroyed after German bombers systematically demolished the city. The Warsaw Rising allowed the Germans to destroy the AK as a fighting force, but the main beneficiary was Stalin, who was able to impose a Communist government on postwar Poland with little fear of armed resistance.

Collaboration with the occupiers

Main article: Occupation of Poland (1939–1945)

In occupied Poland, there was no official collaboration at either the political or economic level.[42][43] Poland also never officially surrendered to the Germans nor to the Soviets (though a state of war on the Soviet Union had never been formally declared, as opposed to the one on Germany). In the German occupation zone, the Polish resistance movement in World War II was the largest in all of occupied Europe.[44] As a result, Polish citizens were unlikely to be given positions of any significant authority.[42][43] The vast majority of the pre-war citizenry collaborating with the Nazis was the German minority in Poland which was offered one of several possible grades of the German citizenship (Volksdeutsche).[45] During the war there were about 3 million former Polish citizens of German origin who signed the official list of the Volksdeutsche.[43] People who became Volksdeutsche were treated by Poles with special contempt, and the fact of them having signed the Volksliste constituted high treason according to the Polish underground law.

Depending on a definition of collaboration (and of a Polish citizen, based on ethnicity and minority status), scholars estimate number of "Polish collaborators" at around several thousand in a population of about 35 million (that number is supported by the Israeli War Crimes Commission).[42][43][46][47] The estimate is based primarily on the number of death sentences for treason by the Special Courts of the Polish Underground State.[46] John Connelly quoted a Polish historian (Leszek Gondek) calling the phenomenon of Polish collaboration "marginal" and wrote that "only relatively small percentage of Polish population engaged in activities that may be described as collaboration when seen against the backdrop of European and world history".[46]

In October 1939, the Nazis ordered the mobilization of the pre-war Polish police to the service of the occupational authorities. The policemen were to report for duty or face death penalty.[48] Blue Police was formed. At its peak in 1943, it numbered around 16,000.[49] Its primary task was to act as a regular police force and to deal with criminal activities, but were also used by the Germans in combating smuggling, and patrolling the ghettos. Nonetheless many individuals in the Blue Police followed German orders reluctantly, often disobeyed German orders or even risked death acting against them.[5][50][51] Many members of the Blue Police were in fact double agents for the Polish resistance.[52][53] Some of its officers were ultimately awarded the Righteous among the Nations awards for saving Jews.[54][55]

Following Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, German forces quickly overran the territory of Poland controlled by the Soviets since their joint invasion. However, there are no known joint Polish-German actions, and the Germans were unsuccessful in their attempt to turn the Poles toward fighting exclusively against Soviet partisans.[5]Tadeusz Piotrowski quotes Joseph Rothschild saying "The Polish Home Army was by and large untainted by collaboration" and adds that "the honor of AK as a whole is beyond reproach".[5] In 1944, Germans clandestinely armed a few regional Armia Krajowa (AK) units operating in the area of Vilnius in order to encourage them to act against the Soviet partisans in the region; in Nowogrodek district and to a lesser degree in Vilnius district (AK turned these weapons against the Nazis during Operation Ostra Brama).[56] Such arrangements were purely tactical and did not evidence the type of ideological collaboration as shown by Vichy regime in France or Quisling regime in Norway.[5] The Poles main motivation was to gain intelligence on German morale and preparedness and to acquire much needed equipment.[57]

Gunnar S. Paulsson estimates that in Warsaw the number of Polish citizens collaborating with the Nazis during occupation might have been around "1 or 2 percent" (p. 113). However, the damage that these criminals did was substantial. Most were interested in money. Blackmailers significantly increased the danger facing Jews and their chances of getting caught and killed. They harassed rescuers, stripped Jews of assets needed for food and bribes, raised the overall level of insecurity, and forced hidden Jews to seek out safer accommodations. Some individuals took advantage of a hiding person's desperation by collecting money, then reneging on their promise of aid—or worse, turning them over to the Germans for an additional reward. Individuals who turned in Jews in hiding to the Gestapo received a standard payment consisting of some cash, liquor, sugar and cigarettes. Many Jews were robbed and handed over to the Germans by "szmalcownik"s many of whom practiced blackmail as an "occupation". Those criminals were condemned by the Polish Underground State and a fight against these informers was organized by Armia Krajowa (Underground State's military arm), with the death sentence being meted out on a scale unknown in the occupied countries of Western Europe.[58]

A number of people collaborating with the Soviet NKVD before Operation Barbarossa were killed following the German attack. The atmosphere of revenge for the Soviet crimes against ethnic Poles led to the Jedwabne pogrom of July 1941, where a mob of Poles murdered around 300 local Jews in a burning barn-house.[59] The village was previously occupied by the Soviet Union, (see Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact) and some members of the Jewish community were subsequently accused of collaboration with the Soviet occupiers.

The Holocaust in Poland


Persecution of the Jews by the Nazi occupation government, particularly in the urban areas, began immediately after the occupation. In the first year and a half, however, the Germans confined themselves to stripping the Jews of their property and herding them into ghettoes and putting them into forced labor in war-related industries. During this period the Jewish community leadership, the Judenrat, which, unlike Polish authorities, had an official recognition by the Germans, was able to some extent to bargain with the Germans. After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, special extermination squads (the Einsatzgruppen) were organised to kill Jews in the areas of eastern Poland which had been annexed by the Soviets in 1939.

In 1942, the Germans began the systematic killing of the Jews, beginning with the Jewish population of the General Government. Six extermination camps (Auschwitz, Belzec, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór and Treblinka) were established in which the most extreme measure of the Holocaust, the mass murder of millions of Jews from Poland and other countries, was carried out between 1942 and 1944. Of Poland's prewar Jewish population of 3 million, only about 369,000 survived the war.

In general, during the German occupation, most Poles were engaged in a desperate struggle for survival. They were in no position to oppose or impede the German extermination of the Jews even if they had wanted to. There were however many cases of Poles risking death to hide Jewish families and in other ways assist the Jews. Only in Poland was death a standard punishment for a person and his whole family, and sometimes also neighbours, for any help given to Jews.

In September 1942, the Provisional Committee for Aid to Jews (Tymczasowy Komitet Pomocy Żydom) was founded on the initiative of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka. This body later became the Council for Aid to Jews (Rada Pomocy Żydom), known by the code-name Żegota. It is not known how many Jews were helped by Żegota, but at one point in 1943 it had 2,500 Jewish children under its care in Warsaw alone. (See also an example of the village that helped Jews: Markowa). Because of these sorts of actions, Polish citizens have the highest amount of Righteous Among The Nations awards at the Yad Vashem Museum.[60]

Polish-Ukrainian conflict

The Polish-Ukrainian conflict, also referred to as a civil war, occurred with the onset of the massacres of Poles in Volhynia (Polish: Rzeź wołyńska, literally: Volhynian slaughter), an ethnic cleansing operation in the eastern part of Poland that took place mainly between late March 1943 and August 1947, thus, extending beyond World War II.[61] The actions, orchestrated and conducted in most part by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) together with other Ukrainian groups and local Ukrainian peasants in three voivodeships, resulted in between 35,000 and 60,000 Polish civilians being murdered in the former Wołyń Voivodeship alone. Along with Galicia and eastern Lublin, total Polish civilian losses are estimated to exceed 60,000. The peak of the massacres took place in July and August 1943 when a senior UPA commander, Dmytro Klyachkivsky, ordered the extermination of the entire Polish population between 16 and 60 years of age.[62] The massacres committed by UPA led to ethnic cleansing and retaliatory killings in kind by Poles against local Ukrainians in both Poland itself and the regions to the east of the Curzon Line. Estimates of the number of Ukrainians killed in Polish reprisals vary from 10,000 to 20,000, in all areas affected by conflict.[63] The ethnic cleansing reached its full scale with Soviet implementation of Operation Vistula, aimed at securing ethnic homogeneity in both nations. Due to multiple occupations of the region, both sides were effectively and brutally pushed to be pitted against each other, first under German occupation, and later under Soviet occupation. Hundreds of thousands on both sides lost their lives over the course of this conflict.

Government in exile

The Polish government re-assembled in Paris and formed a government in exile. Władysław Raczkiewicz was sworn in as President and chose General Władysław Sikorski as Prime Minister. Most of the Polish Navy escaped to the United Kingdom, and thousands of other Poles escaped through Hungary or across the Baltic Sea to continue the fight. Many Poles took part in the defence of France, in the Battle of Britain, and in other operations beside British forces (see Polish contribution to World War II).

This government in exile, based first in Paris and then in London, was recognised by all the Allied governments. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the Polish government in exile established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, despite Stalin's role in the destruction of Poland. Hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Soviet Union in eastern Poland in 1939, and many other Polish prisoners and deportees, were released and were allowed to leave the country via Persia. (Among them was the future Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin.) They formed the basis for the Polish Army led by General Władysław Anders that fought alongside the Allies at Cassino, Arnhem and other battles.

But in April 1943, the Germans announced that they had discovered the graves of 4,300 Polish officers who had been taken prisoner in 1939 and murdered by the Soviets, in a mass grave in Katyń Wood near Smolensk. The Germans invited the International Red Cross to visit the site, which confirmed both that the graves contained Polish officers and that they had been killed with Soviet weapons. The Soviet government said that the Germans had fabricated the discovery. The Allied governments, for diplomatic reasons, formally accepted this, but the Polish government in exile refused to do so. Stalin then severed relations with the London-based Poles.

Stalin immediately set up the nucleus of a Soviet-controlled Communist Polish government, and began recruiting for a Communist Polish Army. By July 1943, this army — led by General Zygmunt Berling — had 40,000 members. Since it was clear that it would be the Soviet Union, not the western Allies, who would enter Poland and drive off from Nazi Germans, this breach had fateful consequences for Poland. In a seemingly unfortunate coincidence, Sikorski, the most talented of the Polish exile leaders, was killed in an aircrash near Gibraltar in July. Sikorski was succeeded as head of the government in exile by Stanisław Mikołajczyk.


In 1943-1944, the Allied leaders — particularly Winston Churchill — tried to bring about a resumption of talks between Stalin and the London Poles. But these efforts broke down over several issues. One was the massacre at Katyń and the fate of many other Poles who had disappeared into Soviet prisons and labour camps since 1939. Another was Poland's postwar borders. Stalin insisted that the territories annexed in 1939, should remain in Soviet hands, and that Poland should be compensated with lands to be annexed from Germany. The London Poles, led by Mikołajczyk, refused to this proposition, even when Churchill threatened to cut off relations with them. A third issue was Mikołajczyk's insistence that Stalin not set up a Communist government in postwar Poland. Fundamentally, the issue was that the Poles wanted to preserve their independence, while Stalin was determined that he would be in control of Poland. Eventually, the Poles believed, the UK and US firmly supported Stalin on all three issues.

In 1944, the Polish government in exile considered its position boosted, as the Polish forces in the West were making a substantial contribution to the war: in May, the Second Corps under general Władysław Anders stormed the fortress of Monte Cassino and opened a road to Rome, in August general Stanisław Maczek's 1st Armored Division distinguished itself at the battle of Falaise, in September general Stanisław Sosabowski's Parachute Brigade fought hard at the battle of Arnhem. At the same time, however, the Red Army was marching into Poland defeating the Nazis and Stalin toughened his stance against the Polish exiled government in London, now demanding not only the recognition of the Curzon Line as the border, but the resignation from the government of all 'elements hostile to the Soviet Union', which meant in practice president Władysław Raczkiewicz and most of the Polish ministers.[41]

Yalta and the Soviets

Template:Campaignbox Poland 1944-1945


As the Soviets advanced through Poland in late 1944, the German administration collapsed. Over 600,000 Soviet soldiers died fighting German troops in Poland.[64] The Communist-controlled Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN, Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego), headed by Bolesław Bierut, was installed by the Soviet Union in July in Lublin, the first major Polish city to be seized by Soviets from the Nazis, and began to take over the administration of the country as the Germans retreated. The government in exile in London had only one card to play, the forces of the AK. This was why the government in exile was determined that the AK would cooperate with the advancing Red Army on a tactical level, while Polish civil authorities from underground took power in Allied-controlled Polish territory (see Operation Tempest) to ensure that Poland would remain an independent country after the war. The failure of the Warsaw Uprising marked the end of any real chance that Poland would escape postwar Communist rule, especially given the unwillingness of the Western Allies to risk conflict with Soviets over Poland. Soviets performed executions, deportations and arrests of Home Army members that assisted them in fights against the Germans.[65][66] Until 1946 Soviet forces fought against the Polish independence movement, and some former AK and NSZ continued to fight as Cursed soldiers well into 1956.[67]


At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin was able to present his Western Allies, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, with a fait accompli in Poland. His armed forces were in control of the country, and his agents, the Polish Communists, were in control of its administration. The USSR was in the process of incorporating the lands in eastern Poland (Kresy), which it had occupied and annexed in 1939 (see Polish areas annexed by Soviet Union), with some minor border adjustments in Poland's favour (the most important of which allowed Poland to retain Białystok). In compensation, the USSR awarded Poland all the German territories in Pomerania, Silesia and Brandenburg east of the Oder-Neisse Line, plus the southern half of East Prussia (those would be known as the Recovered Territories). The entire country had shifted to the west, and now resembled the territory of Medieval Poland. This entailed the expulsion of 8 million Germans who were forced to relocate their families to the new Germany. Approximately 1000 Germans were certified as "Poles" and were given Polish citizenship. These territories were repopulated with Poles expelled from the eastern regions by the Soviet Union and other territories. The new Poland emerged 20% smaller by 77,500 km² (29,900 mi²). Most of the ethnic Polish population was expelled from the territories incorporated into Soviet Ukraine and Belarus (Repatriation of Poles (1944–1946)) in the population exchange that included the transfer of the Ukrainian and Belarusian population from Poland into these republics.[68] The Soviet-controlled Polish government not wishing to entertain the recreation of Belarusian and Ukrainian minorities within the postwar boundaries of Poland, withdrew the citizenship of those displaced persons (DPs) and political refugees who found themselves in western Europe, leaving them stateless, and collaborated actively in 1947 in the expulsion of remaining Belarusians and especially Ukrainians from the southwestern region of postwar Poland, expelling thousands of Ukrainians into Soviet Ukraine (Operation Vistula), thereby undercutting the ongoing Ukrainian nationalist resistance to Soviet rule (Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA)) and ensuring that postwar Poland would not have any significant minorities to contend with.


Stalin was determined that Poland's new government should be Communist, and therefore ultimately under his control. He had severed relations with the Polish government-in-exile in London in 1943 in the aftermath of the Katyn Massacre, but to appease Roosevelt and Churchill he agreed at Yalta that a coalition government would be formed. The Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, resigned his post and, with several other Polish exile leaders, went to Lublin in eastern Poland, where the Communist-controlled provisional government had been established. This government was headed by a Socialist, Edward Osóbka-Morawski, but the Communists held a majority of key posts. It was recognized by the Western Allies in July 1945. Stalin also agreed that Poland would receive a US$10 billion reparation payment from Germany.

The attitude of the Polish population towards Soviet entry was generally hostile, while some cases existed of welcoming them, they soon turned into hatred and despise as Red Army soldiers engaged in plunder, rape, banditry, while NKVD implemented a reign of political terror. In the eyes of Polish society which wasn't yet under the Soviet occupation in 1939-1941 the Soviets became a new occupiers, and soon protests and demands of their withdrawal have spread among the country. A popular belief was that Western Allies will soon defeat Soviets using atomic weapons and free Poland from the Soviets.[69]

In April 1945, that provisional government signed a mutual pact with the Soviet Union. The new Polish Government of National Unity was finally constituted on 28 June with Mikołajczyk as Deputy Prime Minister. The Communists' principal rivals were Mikołajczyk's Polish People's Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe PSL), veterans of both the World War II resistance group Home Army (AK), and the Polish armies which had fought in the west. But at the same time, Soviet-oriented parties, especially the PPR, under Władysław Gomułka and Bolesław Bierut, held the balance of power, controlling Polish army and police, and being supported by the Red Army. Potential political opponents of Communists were subject to Soviet terror campaigns, with many of them arrested, executed or tortured.[70] At least 25,000 people lost their lives in labour camps created by Soviets as early as 1944.[71] Harry S. Truman and Winston Churchill were aware of the predominance of Soviet controlled parties and decided on a policy of strong resistance to Stalin.

The Western Allies in the persons of Roosevelt and Churchill have been criticised, both by Polish writers and some western historians, for what most Poles see as the abandonment of Poland to Stalin. Well before Yalta, they secretly consigned Eastern Europe and the Baltics to the Soviet Union. At the Teheran Conference in 1943, Roosevelt committed that Stalin could have Romania, Bulgaria, Bukovina, eastern Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Finland,[72] in addition to making changes to the Polish frontier.[73] Meeting with Stalin in Moscow on 9 October 1944, Churchill penciled a list of which power was to have what degree of "dominance" in each country lying between the Soviet Union and western Europe.[74] This bifurcation of secret versus public diplomacy (viz. Stimson Doctrine, Atlantic Charter) sealed the post-war fate of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. Yalta merely confirmed prior Western commitments.


Mikołajczyk and his colleagues in the Polish Government-in-Exile insisted on making a stand in defence of Poland's pre-1939 eastern border (Curzon line) as a basis for the future Polish-Soviet border, a position which could not be defended in practice because Stalin was in control of the territory in question, and he had already been promised those areas by Churchill and Roosevelt back in 1943. The Government-in-Exile's refusal to accept the proposed new Polish borders irritated the Allies, particularly Churchill, making them less inclined to oppose Stalin on the question of the composition of the postwar government. In the end the exiles lost on both issues: Stalin annexed the eastern territories, and gained control over the new Polish government. Whilst Poland avoided the fate of becoming the 17th republic of the Soviet Union as proposed by some influential Polish communists around Wanda Wasilewska,[75] it was to remain under heavy Soviet control until the mid-1950s.

Hans Frank was captured by American troops in May 1945 and was one of the defendants at the Nuremberg Trials. During his trial he converted to Catholicism. Frank surrendered forty volumes of his diaries to the Tribunal and much evidence against him and others was gathered from them. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and on 1 October 1946 he was sentenced to death by hanging.

Of all the countries involved in the war, Poland lost the highest percentage of its citizens: over six million perished, over three million of them Polish Catholics and the remaining three million were Polish Jews.

See also

Notes and references

Further reading

  • Chodakiewicz, Marek Jan. Between Nazis and Soviets: Occupation Politics in Poland, 1939-1947.] Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004 online review
  • Coutouvidi, John, and Jaime Reynold. Poland, 1939-1947 (1986)
  • Davies, Norman (1982), God's Playground. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-05353-3 and ISBN 0-231-05351-7.
  • Davies, Norman Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw (2004)
  • Douglas, R.M. Orderly and Humane. The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War. Yale University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0300166606.
  • Gross, Jan Tomasz, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia, Princeton University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-691-09603-1.
  • Gross, Jan T. Polish Society under German Occupation: The Generalgouvernement, 1939-1944 (Princeton UP, 1979)
  • Hiden, John. ed. The Baltic and the Outbreak of the Second World War, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-53120-9
  • Kochanski, Halik. The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War (Harvard U.P., 2012) excerpt and text search
  • Koskodan, Kenneth K. No Greater Ally: The Untold Story of Poland's Forces in World War II, Osprey Publishing 2009, ISBN 978-1-84908-479-6.
  • Lukas, Richard C. Forgotten Holocaust:The Poles under German Occupation, 1939-1944 (2d rev. ed.; N.Y.:Hippocrene, 1997). ISBN 0-7818-0528-7
  • Terlecki, Olgierd. (1972), Poles in the Italian Campaign, 1943-1945, Interpress Publishers.
  • Steven J. Zaloga, Poland 1939: The birth of Blitzkrieg, Osprey Publishing 2002, ISBN 1-84176-408-6.

External links

  • University of New York in Buffalo Info Poland: World War II
  • Polish Losses in World War II, Witold J. Lukaszewski, Sarmatian Review, April 1998

Template:Poland topics

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