History of Poland (1939–45)
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The history of Poland from 1939 to 1945 encompasses primarily the period from the Invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany to the end of World War II. The outbreak of the war followed the period of intense armament by Nazi Germany and other neighbors of Poland, with which Poland was unable to keep up because of the country's fundamental economic weakness.
Following the German-Soviet non-aggression treaty, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany on 1 September 1939 and by the Soviet Union on 17 September. The campaigns ended in early October with Germany and the Soviet Union dividing and annexing the whole of Poland. After the German attack on the Soviet Union in summer 1941, Poland was occupied by Germany alone.
Under the two occupations, Polish citizens suffered enormous human and material losses. It is estimated that about 5.7 million Polish citizens died as a result of the German occupation and about 150,000 Polish citizens died as a result of the Soviet occupation. Ethnic Poles were subjected to both the Nazi and Soviet persecution. The Jews were singled out by the Germans for a quick and total annihilation and about 90% of Polish Jews (close to three million people) were murdered. Jews and others were killed en masse at Nazi extermination camps, such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibór. Ethnic cleansing and massacres of civilian populations, mostly Poles, were perpetrated in western Ukraine from 1943. The historically unprecedented war crimes committed in Poland were divided at the postwar Nuremberg trials into three main categories of wartime criminality: waging a war of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
A Polish resistance movement began organizing soon after the invasions in 1939. Its largest military component was a part of the Polish Underground State network of organizations and activities and became known as the Home Army. The whole clandestine structure was formally directed by the Polish government-in-exile through its delegation resident in Poland. There were also peasant, right wing, leftist and Jewish partisan organizations. Among the anti-German uprisings waged were the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising. The latter was a late (August–September 1944), large-scale and ill-fated attempt to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Poland's postwar government.
Collaboration with the occupiers was limited. The Nazis planned a permanent elimination of any form of Polish statehood and even a longer-term destruction of the Polish nation.
In September 1939, the Polish government officials sought refuge in Romania, but their subsequent internment there prevented the intended continuation abroad as the government of Poland. General Władysław Sikorski, a former prime minister, arrived in France, where a replacement government in exile was soon formed. After the fall of France the Polish government was evacuated to Britain. It was torn by a conflict between the post-Sanation and anti-Sanation elements, with the latter, led by Prime Minister Sikorski, gaining the upper hand because of the support of the French and then the British government. The Polish armed forces had been reconstituted and fought alongside the Western Allies in France, Britain and elsewhere.
In order to cooperate with the Soviet Union, after the German attack an important war ally of the West, Sikorski negotiated in Moscow with Joseph Stalin and the formation of a Polish army in the Soviet Union was agreed, intended to fight on the Eastern Front alongside the Soviets. The "Anders' Army" was indeed created, but with the Soviet and British permission was instead taken to the Middle East. Further attempts at a Polish-Soviet cooperation were made, but they failed because of the disagreements over the borders, the discovery of the Katyn massacre of Polish POWs perpetrated by the Soviets, and the death of General Sikorski.
Stalin pursued a strategy of facilitating the formation of a Polish government independent of (and in opposition to) the exile government in London. He empowered the Polish communists, whose party he eliminated in 1938 by murdering most of its activists (they had little popular support in Poland). Among the new communist organizations were the Polish Workers' Party in occupied Poland and the Union of Polish Patriots in Moscow. A new Polish army was being formed in the Soviet Union to fight together with the Soviets. At the same time Stalin worked on co-opting the Western Allies (the United States led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the United Kingdom led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill), who in reality conformed to Stalin's views on Poland's borders and future government (he promised free elections). A series of negotiations included the conferences in Tehran, Yalta, and finally at Potsdam. The Polish government in exile approved and the underground in Poland undertook unilateral political and military actions aimed at establishing an independent Polish authority, but they were not successful. The government ceased being a recognized partner in the Allied coalition. The Polish communists founded the State National Council in 1943/44 in occupied Warsaw and the Polish Committee of National Liberation in July 1944 in Lublin, after the arrival of the Soviet army. The Soviet Union did not return the prewar Polish Kresy (the eastern lands), granting Poland instead the southern portion of the eliminated German East Prussia and shifting the country west to the Oder–Neisse line, under Stalin's plan to prevent Germany's future re-emergence as a great military power.
Poland was still to experience much internal turbulence and power struggle, but barring the West's war with the Soviet Union, the Soviet domination was a foregone conclusion.
- 1 Before the war
- 2 German and Soviet invasions
- 3 Occupation of Poland
- 4 Resistance in Poland
- 5 The Holocaust in Poland
- 6 Polish-Ukrainian conflict
- 7 Government in exile
- 8 Polish state reestablished with new borders and under Soviet domination
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
Before the war
The officially pursued German rearmament began in 1935 under Adolf Hitler, contrary to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the foundation of the post-World War I European order. Britain and France also pursued rearmament in response, but failed to strongly react to Hitler's early moves, which emboldened him to embark on a series of territorial expansion undertakings in central and eastern Europe. The Anschluss took place in March 1938 and Austria became a part of Greater Germany. At the Munich conference, called in September to dispel the German plans to conquer Czechoslovakia, the two Western powers agreed nevertheless to Germany's incorporation of the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia's border areas inhabited by German-speaking populations. The Munich Agreement did not last long and in March 1939 Germany occupied Bohemia and Moravia, leaving Slovakia as a German puppet state. Lithuania was forced to give up its Klaipėda Region (Memelland) and formal demands were made for the return to Germany of the Free City of Danzig, whose status had been guaranteed by the League of Nations. Getting ready to attack and occupy Poland, Hitler secured Germany's eastern flank by signing a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union on August 23. Poland was invaded on September 1 and two days later Britain and France, both under a military alliance with Poland, declared war on Germany.
In Poland, after the death of Józef Piłsudski (1935), the successor regime of his "colonels" and President Ignacy Mościcki belatedly pursued military reform and modern rearmament. French loans made possible the Central Industrial Region project, conducted from 1936 as an attempt to catch-up with Poland's economically more developed neighbors' advanced weapon industries. Józef Beck, the influential foreign minister, continued the deceased marshal's even-handed approach to Germany and the Soviet Union and resisted pressure from the Western Powers, who wanted Poland to cooperate with Joseph Stalin's state. Against the large and rapidly increasing German offensive force, Poland not only possessed no comparable quantity of technical resources, but also lacked the knowledge and concepts of the developing modern warfare.
As soon as the Munich Agreement was announced, Minister Beck, disappointed with a lack of invitation for his government to participate in the conference, issued on September 30 an ultimatum to the government of Czechoslovakia, demanding an immediate return to Poland of the contested Zaolzie border region. The distressed Czechoslovak government complied and Polish military units took over the area. The Polish move was negatively received in the West, was contrary to the strategic interests of Poland and contributed to a considerable deterioration of Poland's geopolitical situation. In November, the Polish government also annexed a small border region in dispute with the newly autonomous Slovakia and, supporting Hungary's expansion, unsuccessfully tried to eliminate Carpatho-Ukraine, also autonomous within the now federal Czechoslovakia. The latter goal was accomplished in March 1939, when Czechoslovakia was destroyed.
At the time of seemingly good relations (the Polish opposition frequently criticized the Sanation regime for "flirting" with Hitler), after Munich and in early 1939 Hitler proposed Poland an alliance on German terms, with an expectation of certain acceptance. The Polish government would have to agree to Danzig's incorporation by the Reich and to an extraterritorial highway passage connecting East Prussia with the rest of Germany (through the Polish Corridor, a narrow area linking the Polish mainland with the Baltic Sea). Poland would join an anti-Soviet alliance, coordinate its foreign policy with Germany and become a German client state. The independence-minded Polish government was alarmed and a British guarantee of Poland's independence was issued on March 31. Reacting to this act and to the Poles' effective rejection of the German offer, Germany renounced the existing non-aggression pact with Poland on April 28.
In August the final and competing Allied-Soviet and Nazi-Soviet negotiations took place in Moscow, each participating team working to enlist Stalin's powerful army on their side. By the evening of August 23 Germany was the winner (by default, because given the Polish leaders' continuing refusal to cooperate, the Allied negotiators had nothing to offer) and the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact had been signed. Years later it was discovered that the pact included secret provisions carving up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence of the two signatories, with the dividing line running through the territory of Poland. The "desirability of the maintenance of an independent Polish State" was left to mutually agreed "further political developments".
The Soviet Union, having its own reasons to fear the German expansionism further east, repeatedly negotiated with France and the United Kingdom and through them made an offer to Poland of an anti-German alliance, similar to the earlier one made to Czechoslovakia. The British and the French sought the formation of a powerful political-military bloc, comprising the Soviet Union, Poland and Romania in the east and France and Britain in the west. As of May 1939, the Soviet conditions for signing an agreement with Britain and France were: the right of Red Army troops to pass through Polish territory, the termination of the Polish–Romanian Alliance, and the limitation of the British guarantee to Poland to cover only Poland's western frontier with Germany. The Polish leaders feared Stalin's communism and throughout 1939 refused to agree to any arrangement which would allow Soviet troops to enter Poland. The Polish unwillingness to accept the Soviet offer is illustrated by the quote of Marshall Edward Rydz-Śmigły, Commander-in-Chief of the Polish armed forces, who said: "With the Germans we run the risk of losing our liberty. With the Russians we will lose our soul". The attitude of the Polish leadership was also reflected by Foreign Minister Józef Beck, who, apparently confident in the French and British declarations of support, asserted that the security of Poland was not going to be guaranteed by a "Soviet or any other Russia". The Soviets then turned to concluding the German offer of a treaty and the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed. The Soviet-Nazi cooperation had been making progress since May 1939, when Vyacheslav Molotov became the Soviet minister of foreign affairs.
At the end of August the Polish-British and Polish-French alliance obligations were updated. Poland, surrounded by the Nazi-led coalition, was under partial military mobilization but poorly prepared for war. Full (general) mobilization was prevented by the pressure from the British and the French, who sought a last-minute peaceful solution to the imminent Polish-German conflict.
The German military used a system of automated code for secret transfer of messages based on the Enigma machine. The constantly generated and altered code scheme was broken by Polish mathematicians led by Marian Rejewski and the discovery was shared with the French and the British before the outbreak of the war. Cryptanalysis of the Enigma was an immensely important Polish contribution to the war effort, as it was continued throughout the war in Britain and deprived the unsuspecting Germans of secrecy in their crucial communications.
German and Soviet invasions
On 1 September 1939, without a formal declaration of war, Nazi Germany invaded Poland with the immediate pretext being the Gleiwitz incident, a provocation (one of many) staged by the Germans claiming that Polish troops attacked a post along the German–Polish border. During the following days and weeks the technically, logistically and numerically superior German forces rapidly advanced into the Polish territory. Secured by the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet troops also invaded Poland on 17 September 1939. Before the end of the month most of Poland was divided between the Germans and the Soviets.
The German attack was not anticipated in a timely manner. Defense preparations of the western border were discontinued under Józef Piłsudski's leadership after 1926 and resumed only in March 1939. Afterwards the Polish Armed Forces were organized for the defense of the country. Their strategic position was made more hopeless by the recent German occupation of Czechoslovakia. Poland was now surrounded on three sides by the German territories of Pomerania, Silesia and East Prussia, and the German-controlled Czechoslovakia. The newly formed Slovak state assisted their German allies by attacking Poland from the south. The Polish forces were blockaded on the Baltic Coast by the German navy. The Polish public, conditioned by government propaganda, was not aware of the gravity of the situation and expected a quick and easy victory of the Polish-French-British alliance.
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 destroy airports, railways and stations, roads, and bridges, killing large numbers of refugees crowding the transportation facilities), and aerial bombing of undefended cities to sap civilian morale. Deliberate bombing of civilians took place on a massive scale from the first day of the war, also in areas far removed from any other military activity. The German forces, ordered by Hitler to act with the harshest cruelty, massively engaged in murder of Polish civilians. The Polish army, air force and navy had insufficient modern equipment to match the onslaught.
Each of Germany's five armies involved in attacking Poland was accompanied by a special security group charged with terrorizing the Polish population; some of the Polish citizens of German nationality had been trained in Germany to help with the invasion, forming the so-called fifth column. Many German leaders in Poland and communist activists were interned by the Polish authorities after September 1. 10-15,000 ethnic Germans were arrested and force marched toward Kutno soon after the beginning of the hostilities. Of them about 2,000 were killed by angry Poles, and other instances of killing ethnic Germans took place elsewhere. Many times greater numbers of Polish civilians had been killed by the Wehrmacht throughout the September Campaign.
58 German divisions, including 9 Panzer divisions, were deployed against Poland. Germany commanded 1.5 million men, 187,000 motor vehicles, 15,000 artillery pieces, 2,600 tanks, 1300 armored vehicles, 52,000 machine guns and 363,000 horses. The Luftwaffe had 2,800 warplanes and 400 transport planes. On September 1 the German navy positioned its old battleship Schleswig-Holstein to shell Westerplatte, a section of the Free City of Danzig, an enclave separate from the main city and awarded to Poland by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. 53 navy ships were designated for action against Poland.
According to Antoni Czubiński, 1.2 million Polish troops had been mobilized, but some did not even have rifles. There were 30 infantry divisions, 11 cavalry brigades, 31 light artillery regiments, 10 heavy artillery regiments and 6 aerial regiments. They possessed 3,600 artillery pieces (mostly regular, with only a few hundred of anti-armor or anti-aircraft units), and 600 tanks, of which 120 were of the advanced 7TP-type. The air force regiments included 422 aircraft, including 160 PZL P.11c, 31 PZL P.7a and 20 P.11a fighters, 120 PZL.23 Karaś reconnaissance-bombers, and 45 PZL.37 Łoś medium bombers. The Polish-made P-series fighter planes were becoming obsolete; state-of-the art P-24s were built but sold abroad to generate currency. Łoś bombers were modern and fast. The navy's participation was limited by the withdrawal of major ships to the United Kingdom to prevent their destruction, and their linking up with the Royal Navy (known as the Peking Plan). The navy consisted of four destroyers (of which three had left for England), one minelayer, five submarines, and some smaller vessels, including six new minesweepers.
Although the UK and France on September 3 declared war on Germany, little movement took place on the western front. The offensive in the West that the Poles understood they were promised was not materializing, and, according to Norman Davies, it was not even immediately feasible or practical. Because of the Western inaction, of the secret protocols of the German-Soviet treaty, and other factors including its own poor intelligence, the Polish government was initially not fully aware of the degree of the country's isolation and the hopelessness of its situation. The combined British and French forces were strong in principle, but not ready for an offensive for a number of reasons. The few limited air raids attempted by the British were ineffective and caused losses of life and equipment. Dropping propaganda leaflets had henceforth become the preferred course of action, to the dismay of the Polish public, which was led to believe that a real war on two fronts and a defeat of the Third Reich were coming.
The several Polish armies were defending the country in three main concentrations of troops, which had no territorial command structure of their own and operated directly under orders from Marshal Rydz-Śmigły; it turned out to be a serious logistical shortcoming. The armies were positioned along the border in a semicircle, which provided for weak defense, because the Germans concentrated their forces in the chosen directions of attacks. The German armored corps quickly thwarted all attempts of organized resistance and by September 3–4 the Polish border defenses were broken along all the axes of attack. Crowds of civilian refugees fleeing to the east blocked roads and bridges. The Germans were also able to circumvent other concentrations of the Polish military and arrive in the rear of Polish formations.
As the Polish armies were being destroyed or in retreat, the Germans took Częstochowa on September 4, Kraków and Kielce on September 6. The Polish government was evacuated to Volhynia and the supreme military commander Edward Rydz-Śmigły left Warsaw on the night of September 6 and moved in the eastern direction toward Brześć. General Walerian Czuma took over and organized the defense of the capital city. According to Halik Kochanski, Rydz-Śmigły fled the capital and the Polish high command failed its army. Rydz-Śmigły's departure had disastrous effects on both the morale of the Polish armed forces and on his ability to exercise effective overall command.
The Germans began surrounding Warsaw on September 9. City president Stefan Starzyński played an especially prominent role in its defense. The major Battle of the Bzura was fought west of the middle Vistula, heavy fighting took place in the area of Tomaszów Lubelski (until September 20) and a determined defense of Lwów was mounted (until September 22). Southeastern Poland, next to the Romanian and Soviet borders, was designated by Rydz-Śmigły as the final defense bastion.
On September 11, foreign minister Józef Beck asked France to grant asylum to the Polish government and Romania to allow the transfer of the government members through its territory. On September 12, the Allied war council deliberating in Abbeville, France concluded that the Polish military campaign had already been resolved and that there was no point in launching an anti-German relief expedition. The Polish leaders were unaware of the decision and still expected a Western offensive.
Germany urged the Soviet Union from September 3 to engage its troops against the Polish state, but the Soviet command was stalling, waiting for the outcome of the German-Polish confrontation and to see what the French and the British were going to do. The Soviet Union assured Germany that the Red Army advance into Poland would follow later at an appropriate time.
For the optimal "political motivation" (the collapse of Poland), Molotov wished to hold the Soviet intervention until the fall of Warsaw, but the city's capture by the Germans was being delayed due to its determined defense effort (until September 27). The Soviet troops marched on September 17 into Poland, which the Soviet Union claimed to be by then non-existent anyway (according to the historian Richard Overy, Poland was defeated by Germany within two weeks from September 1). Concerns about the Soviets' own security were used to justify the invasion. The Soviet entry was also justified by the need to protect the Belarusian and Ukrainian populations, was coordinated with the movement of the German forces, and met little resistance from the Polish forces. The limited Polish military formations available in the east were ordered by its command, who were now at the Romanian border, to avoid engaging the Soviets,[c] but some fighting between Soviet and Polish units did take place (such as the Battle of Szack fought by the Border Protection Corps). The Soviet forces moved west (to the Bug River) and south to fill the area assigned to them by the secret protocol of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. They took steps to block the potential Polish evacuation routes into Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Hungary.
About 13.4 million Polish citizens lived in the areas seized by the Soviet Union. Of those, about 8.7 million were Ukrainians, Belarusians and Jews. The minorities' relations with the Polish authorities were generally bad and many of their members greeted and supported the arriving Red Army troops as liberators. The British response to the "not unexpected" Soviet encroachment was muted.
The Nazi-Soviet treaty process was continued with the German–Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Demarcation signed on September 28. It adjusted and finalized the territorial division, placing Lithuania within the Soviet sphere and moving the Soviet-German agreed boundary east from the Vistula to the Bug River, and authorized further joint action to control occupied Poland. An idea of retaining a residual Polish state, considered earlier, was abandoned.
The Polish government and military high command retreated to the southeast Romanian Bridgehead territory and crossed into neutral Romania on the night of September 17. From Romania on September 18 President Ignacy Mościcki and Marshal Rydz-Śmigły issued declarations and orders, which violated their status of persons passing through a neutral country. Germany pressured Romania not to allow the Polish authorities to depart (toward France) and the group was interned. The Polish ambassador in Romania helped General Władysław Sikorski, a member of the Polish opposition who was refused a military assignment and also entered Romania, to acquire departure documents and the general left for France.
Resistance continued in many places. Warsaw was eventually bombed into submission. The event that served as a trigger for its surrender on 27 September was the bombing damage to the water supply system caused by deliberate targeting of the waterworks. Warsaw suffered the greatest damage and civilian losses (40,000 killed), already in September 1939. The Modlin Fortress capitulated on September 29, the Battle of Hel continued until October 2, and the Battle of Kock was fought until October 4. In the country's woodlands, army units began underground resistance almost at once. During the "September Campaign", the Polish Army lost 66,000 troops, 400,000 became prisoners of Germany and 230,000 of the Soviet Union.[e] 80,000 managed to leave the country. 16,600 Germans were killed and 3,400 were missing. 1000 German tanks or armored vehicles and 600 planes were destroyed. The Soviet Army lost between 2,500 and 3,000 soldiers.
Most of the Polish Navy larger ships reached the United Kingdom and tens of thousands of soldiers escaped through Hungary, Romania, Lithuania and Sweden to continue the fight. Many Poles took part in the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain, and, allied with the British forces, in other operations (see Polish contribution to World War II).
Occupation of Poland
The greatest extent of depredations and terror inflicted on and suffered by the Poles resulted from the German occupation. The most catastrophic series of events was the extermination of the Jews known as the Holocaust.
About 1⁄6 of Polish citizens lost their lives in the war, most of the civilians targeted by various deliberate actions. The German plan involved not only the annexation of Polish territory, but also a total destruction of Polish culture and the Polish nation (Generalplan Ost).
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 annexed areas of Poland were divided into the following administrative units:
- Reichsgau Wartheland (initially Reichsgau Posen), which included the entire Poznań Voivodeship, most of the Łódź Voivodeship, five counties of the Pomeranian Voivodeship, and one county of the Warsaw Voivodeship;
- the remaining area of the Pomeranian Voivodeship, which was incorporated into the Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia (initially Reichsgau Westpreussen);
- Ciechanów District (Regierungsbezirk Zichenau) consisting of five northern counties of the Warsaw Voivodeship (Płock, Płońsk, Sierpc, Ciechanów and Mława), which became a part of East Prussia;
- Katowice District (Regierungsbezirk Kattowitz) or, unofficially, East Upper Silesia (Ost-Oberschlesien), which included the Silesian Voivodeship, Sosnowiec, Będzin, Chrzanów, Oświęcim, and Zawiercie counties, and parts of Olkusz and Żywiec counties, which became a part of the Province of Upper Silesia.
The area of these annexed territories was 92,500 square kilometres and the population was about 10.6 million, the great majority of whom were Poles.
In Pomeranian districts German summary courts sentenced to death 11,000 Poles in late 1939 and early 1940. Jews were expelled from the annexed areas and placed in ghettos such as the Warsaw Ghetto or the Łódź Ghetto. The population in the annexed territories was subjected to intense racial screening and Germanisation. The Poles experienced property confiscations and severe discrimination; 100,000 were removed from the port city of Gdynia alone already in October 1939. In 1939–40, many Polish citizens were deported to other Nazi-controlled areas, especially the General Government, or to concentration camps. With the clearing of some western Poland regions for German resettlement, the Nazis initiated the policies of ethnic cleansing.
(see also: Expulsion of Poles by Nazi Germany)
Under the terms of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and the German–Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Demarcation, 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 (for numbers see Curzon Line). The total area, including the area given to Lithuania, was 201,000 square kilometres, with a population of 13.2 million. A small strip of land that was a part of Hungary before 1914 was 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 Bialystok (District of Białystok), which included the Białystok, Bielsk Podlaski, Grajewo, Łomża, Sokółka, Wołkowysk, 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) and the Vilnius province were incorporated into the Reichskommissariat Ostland);
- Bezirk Wolhynien-Podolien — the Polish Province of Volhynia, was incorporated into the Reichskommissariat Ukraine;
- Distrikt Galizien, East Galicia, was incorporated into the General Government and became its fifth district.
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. It became a part of Greater Germany (Grossdeutsches Reich). The General Government was originally subdivided into four districts, Warsaw, Lublin, Radom, and Kraków, to which East Galicia and a part of Volhynia were added as a district in 1941. (For more detail on the territorial division of this area see General Government.) The General Government was the nearest to Germany proper part of the planned Lebensraum or German "living space" in the east, and constituted the beginning of the implementation of the Nazi grandiose and genocidal human engineering scheme.
A German lawyer and prominent Nazi, Hans Frank, was appointed Governor-General of the General Government on 26 October 1939. Frank oversaw the segregation of the Jews into ghettos in the larger cities, including Warsaw, and the use of Polish civilians for compulsory labour in German war industries.
Some Polish institutions, including the police, were preserved in the General Government. Political activity was prohibited and only basic Polish education was allowed. University professors in Kraków were sent to a concentration camp and in Lviv were shot.[d] Ethnic Poles were to be gradually eliminated. The Jews, intended for a more immediate extermination, were herded into ghettos and severely repressed. The Jewish councils there had to follow the German policies. Many Jews escaped to the Soviet Union (an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 from German-occupied Poland) and some were sheltered by Polish families.
The population in the General Government's territory was initially about 11.5 million in an area of 95,500 km², but this increased as about 860,000 Poles and Jews were expelled from the German-annexed areas and "resettled" in the General Government. After Operation Barbarossa, the General Government's area was 141,000 km², with 17.4 million inhabitants.
Tens of thousands were murdered in the German campaign of extermination of the Polish intelligentsia and other elements thought likely to resist (e.g. Operation Tannenberg and Aktion AB). Catholic clergy were commonly imprisoned or otherwise persecuted and many ended up sent to their death in concentration camps. Tens of thousands of members of the resistance and others were tortured and executed at the Pawiak prison in Warsaw. From 1941, disease and hunger also began to reduce the population, as the exploitation of resources and labor, terror and Germanisation reached greater intensity after the attack on the Soviet Union. Poles were also deported in large numbers to work as forced labor in Germany, or taken to concentration camps. About two million were transported to Germany to work as slaves and many died there.[i] Łapanka or random roundup, on streets or elsewhere, was one of the methods practiced by the Nazis to catch prisoners for labor. Several hundred Wehrmacht brothels, for which local non-German women were forcibly recruited, operated throughout the Reich. In contrast to Nazi policies in occupied Western Europe, all Polish state property and private industrial concerns were taken over by the German state. Poland was plundered and subjected to extreme economic exploitation throughout the war period.
The future fate of Poland and Poles was decided in Generalplan Ost, a Nazi plan to engage in genocide and ethnic cleansing of the territories occupied by Germany in Eastern Europe in order to exterminate the Slavic peoples. Tens of millions were to be eliminated, others resettled in Siberia or turned into slave populations. The cleared territories were to be resettled by Germans, and a trial evacuation of all Poles was attempted in the Zamość region in 1942 and 1943. 121,000 Poles were removed from their villages and replaced with 10,000 German settlers.
Under the Lebensborn program, about 200,000 Polish children were kidnapped by the Germans to be tested for racial characteristics that would make them suitable for Germanisation. Of that number (many were found unsuitable and killed), only between 15% and 20% were returned to Poland after the war.
By the end of the Polish Defensive War, the Soviet Union took 50.1% of the territory of Poland (195,300 km²), with 12,662,000 people. Population estimates vary; one analysis gives the following numbers in regard to the ethnic composition of these areas at the time: 38% Poles, 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). Areas occupied by the Soviet Union were annexed to Soviet territory, with the exception of the Wilno/Vilnius region, which was transferred to the Republic of Lithuania. Lithuania itself was soon annexed by the Soviets and, including the contested Wilno area, became the Lithuanian Soviet Republic.
The Soviets considered the Kresy territories (prewar eastern Poland) to be colonized by the Poles and the Red Army was proclaimed a liberator of the conquered nationalities. Many Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Lithuanians shared that point of view and cooperated with the new authorities in repressing the Poles. The Soviet administrators used slogans about class struggle and dictatorship of the proletariat, as they applied the policies of Stalinism and Sovietization in occupied eastern Poland. On 22 and 26 October 1939, the Soviets organized staged elections to Moscow-controlled Supreme Soviets (legislative bodies) of the newly created provinces of Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia to legitimize the Soviet rule. The new assemblies subsequently called for the incorporation into the Soviet Union, and the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union annexed the two territories to the already existing Soviet republics on November 2.
All institutions of the dismantled Polish state were closed down and reopened with new directors who were mostly Russian and in rare cases Ukrainian or Polish. Lviv University and other schools restarted anew as Soviet institutions. Some departments, such as law and humanities were abolished; new subjects, including Darwinism, Leninism and Stalinism were taught by the reorganized departments. Tuition was free and monetary stipends were offered to students.
The Soviet authorities attempted to remove all signs of Polish existence and activity in the area. On 21 December, the Polish currency was withdrawn from circulation without any exchange to the newly introduced ruble. In schools, Polish language books were burned.
All the media became controlled by Moscow. Soviet occupation implemented a police state type political regime, based on terror. All Polish parties and organisations were disbanded. Only the communist party and subordinate organisations were allowed to exist. Soviet teachers in schools encouraged children to spy on their parents.
Ukrainian and Belarusian social organizations, closed by the Polish government in the 1930s, were reopened. In schools the language of instruction was changed to Ukrainian or Belarusian.
Organized religions were persecuted. Most churches were closed; priests and ministers were discriminated against by the authorities and subjected to high taxes, drafts into military service, arrests and deportations. Many enterprises were taken over by the state or failed, while much of agriculture was made collective. Among the industrial installations dismantled and sent east were most of the Białystok textile industry factories. The results of the Soviet economic policies soon resulted in serious difficulties, as shops lacked goods, food was scarce and people were threatened by famine.
According to the Soviet law of 29 November 1939, all residents of the annexed area, referred to as citizens of former Poland, automatically acquired the Soviet citizenship. Residents were still required and pressured to consent and those who opted out (most Poles did not want to give up the Polish citizenship) were threatened with repatriation to Nazi controlled territories of Poland.
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". The hostile propaganda resulted in instances of bloody repression.
Parts of the Ukrainian population initially welcomed the end of Polish rule and the phenomenon was strengthened by a land reform. However, the Soviet authorities soon started a campaign of forced collectivisation, which largely nullified the reform gains. There were large groups of prewar Polish citizens, notably Jewish youth and, to a lesser extent, 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 faded with time as it became clear that the Soviet repressions affected everybody. The organisation of Ukrainians desiring independent Ukraine (the OUN) was persecuted as "anti-Soviet".
A rule of terror was started by the NKVD and other Soviet agencies. The first victims were the approximately 230,000 Polish prisoners of war. The Soviet Union had not signed any international convention on rules of war and they were denied the status of prisoners of war. When the Soviets conducted recruitment activities among the Polish military, an overwhelming majority of the captured officers refused to cooperate; they were considered enemies of the Soviet Union and a decision was made by the Soviet Politburo (5 March 1940) to secretly execute them (22,000 officers and others). The officers and a large number of ordinary soldiers were then murdered (see Katyn massacre) or sent to Gulag. Of the 10,000-12,000 Poles sent to Kolyma in 1940–41, most POWs, only 583 men survived, released in 1941–42 to join the Polish Armed Forces in the East.
Among the Poles who decided to cooperate with the Soviet authorities were Wanda Wasilewska, who was allowed to publish a Polish language periodical in Lviv, and Zygmunt Berling, who led a small group of Polish officers working on a concept of formation of a Polish division in the Soviet Union.
Terror policies were also applied to the civilian population. The Soviet authorities regarded service for the prewar Polish state as a "crime against revolution" and "counter-revolutionary activity", 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 who laughed at Soviet propaganda presented in schools were sent into prisons, sometimes for as long as 10 years.
The prisons soon got severely overcrowded 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. 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. The Polish and formerly Polish citizens, a large proportion of whom were ethnic minorities, were deported mostly in 1940, typically to northern Russia, Kazakhstan and Siberia.
Following the Operation Barbarossa and the Sikorski–Mayski agreement, in the summer of 1941 the exiled Poles were released under the declared amnesty. Many thousands trekked south to join the newly formed Polish Army, but thousands were too weak to complete the journey or perished soon afterwards.
Collaboration with the occupiers
In occupied Poland, there was no official collaboration at either the political or economic level. At an early stage Wincenty Witos, the imprisoned former prime minister of Poland, was offered by the Germans to lead a collaborationist government, but declined. Some other Poles sought official collaboration, but then the occupying powers intended permanent elimination of Polish governing structures and ruling elites and therefore did not seek cooperation. As a result, Polish citizens were unlikely to be given positions of any significant authority. The vast majority of the prewar citizenry collaborating with the Nazis was the German minority in Poland, the members of which were offered one of several possible grades of the German citizenship (Volksdeutsche). During the war there were about 3 million former Polish citizens of German origin who signed the official Volksliste.
Depending on a definition of collaboration (and of a Polish citizen, including the ethnicity and minority status considerations), 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). The estimate is based primarily on the number of death sentences for treason by the Special Courts of the Polish Underground State. The underground courts sentenced 10,000 Poles, including 200 death sentences. 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".
In October 1939, the Nazis ordered the mobilization of the prewar Polish police to the service of the occupational authorities. The policemen were to report for duty or face a death penalty. The so-called Blue Police was formed. At its peak in 1943, it numbered around 16,000. Its primary task was to act as a regular police force and to deal with criminal activities, but they were also used by the Germans in combating smuggling and patrolling the Jewish ghettos. Many individuals in the Blue Police followed German orders reluctantly, often disobeyed them or even risked death acting against them. Many members of the Blue Police were double agents for the Polish resistance; a large percentage cooperated with the Home Army. Some of its officers were ultimately awarded the Righteous Among the Nations awards for saving Jews. However, the moral position of Polish policemen was often compromised by a necessity for cooperation, or even collaboration, with the occupier. According to Timothy Snyder, acting in their capacity as a collaborationist force, the Blue Police may have killed more than 50,000 Jews. The police assisted the Nazis at tasks such as rounding up Poles for forced labor in Germany.
Following Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, the German forces quickly overran the territory of Poland controlled by the Soviets since their 1939 invasion. There were no known joint Polish-German actions, and the Germans were unsuccessful in their attempt to turn the Poles toward fighting exclusively against the Soviet partisans. Tadeusz Piotrowski quotes Joseph Rothschild as saying "The Polish Home Army (AK) was by and large untainted by collaboration" and that "the honor of AK as a whole is beyond reproach". In 1944, the Germans clandestinely armed a few regional AK units operating in the area of Vilnius in order to encourage them to act against the Soviet partisans in the region. AK turned these weapons against the Nazis during the Operation Ostra Brama. Such arrangements were purely tactical and did not evidence the type of ideological collaboration as shown by the Vichy regime in France or the Quisling regime in Norway. The Poles' main motivation was to gain intelligence on German morale and preparedness and to acquire much needed equipment.
Gunnar S. Paulsson estimates that in Warsaw the number of Polish citizens collaborating with the Nazis during the occupation might have been around "1 or 2 percent" (p. 113). Fugitive Jews (and members of the resistance) were handed over to the Gestapo by the so-called "szmalcowniks", who did it for the reward the Nazis paid.
The village of Jedwabne was occupied by the Soviet Union before Operation Barbarossa and some members of the Jewish community were subsequently accused of collaboration with the Soviets. During the Jedwabne pogrom of July 1941, a mob of Poles murdered around 300 local Jews in a burning barn-house.
Resistance in Poland
The Polish resistance movement in World War II was the largest in all of occupied Europe. Resistance to the German occupation began almost at once and included guerrilla warfare. Centrally commanded military conspiratorial activity was started with the Service for Poland's Victory (Służba Zwycięstwu Polski) organization, established on 27 September 1939. Poland's prewar political parties also resumed activity. The Service was replaced by the Polish government-in-exile in Paris with the Union of Armed Struggle (Związek Walki Zbrojnej), placed under the command of General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, a minister in that government.
In June 1940 Władysław Sikorski, prime minister in exile and chief military commander, appointed General Stefan Rowecki, resident in Poland, to head the underground forces. Bataliony Chłopskie, a partisan force of the peasant movement, was active from August 1940. The Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK), loyal to the government in exile now in London and a military arm of the Polish Underground State, was formed from the Union of Armed Struggle and other groups in February 1942. In July its forces approached 200,000 sworn soldiers, who undertook many successful anti-Nazi operations. Gwardia Ludowa and its successor Armia Ludowa were the much smaller leftist formations, backed by the Soviet Union and controlled by the Polish Workers' Party. The ultra-nationalist National Armed Forces also operated separately. By mid-1944, the AK had some 400,000 members but was poorly armed. According to Czubiński, the AK counted 300,000 committed soldiers, who performed about 230,000 actions of sabotage and diversion throughout the war. The attacks were hampered by the Nazi policy of retaliation against the civilian population, including mass executions of randomly rounded up individuals. The occupiers would typically kill one hundred Polish civilians for each German killed by the resistance. The AK encountered difficulties establishing itself in the eastern provinces (Kresy) and in the western areas annexed to Germany. General Rowecki was betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo in June 1943.
The Underground State originated in April 1940, when the exile government planned to establish its three "delegates" in occupied Poland: for the General Government, the German-annexed regions and the Soviet-occupied zone. After the fall of France, the structure was revised to include only a single delegate. The Underground State was endorsed by Poland's main prewar political blocks, including the peasant, socialist, nationalist and Catholic parties and absorbed many supporters of the Sanation rule, humbled by the 1939 defeat. The parties established clandestine cooperation in February 1940 and dedicated themselves to a future postwar parliamentary democracy in Poland. From autumn 1940, the "state" was led by a delegate (Cyryl Ratajski) appointed by the government in London. The Underground State maintained the continuity of the Polish statehood and conducted a broad range of political, military, administrative, social, cultural, educational and other activities, within the practical limits of the conspiratorial environment. In November 1942, Jan Karski, a special emissary, was sent to London and later Washington, to warn the Western Allies of the imminent extermination of the Jews in Poland. Karski was able to convey his personal observations to American Jewish leaders, and even met with President Roosevelt.
The communists, more active after the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and the right wing extremists, neither joined the broad coalition nor recognized the Government Delegate. The situation of the Polish armed resistance was made more difficult by the fact that the Allies now assigned Poland to the Soviet sphere of operations, and Britain refrained from or limited direct support of resistance movements in central-eastern Europe.
With Stalin's encouragement, Polish communist institutions rival to the Government in Exile and the Underground State were established. They included the Polish Workers' Party (from January 1942) and the State National Council in occupied Poland, and the Union of Polish Patriots in the Soviet Union.
The Jewish Combat Organization groups undertook armed resistance activities in 1943. In April, the Germans began deporting the remaining Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, provoking the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (19 April–16 May). 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 death camps.
After the Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet partisans also developed and became militarily active in the General Government and, often aligned with the Polish leftist Armia Ludowa, posed a significant threat to the authority of the AK, which had not adopted a policy of more direct and widespread confrontations with the Nazis until 1943. The Soviet partisans were especially prevalent in Belarus and elsewhere in Kresy. The presence of the various partisan formations, including also the Jewish, National Armed Forces, Bataliony Chłopskie (some right-, some left-wing), as well as of criminal armed bands preying on local populations, led to armed clashes and a climate of uncertainty, just as the Soviet armies, having established their superiority on the Eastern Front, were about to approach Poland's prewar eastern boundaries.
In August 1943 and March 1944, the Underground State announced its long-term plan, partially designed to counter the attractiveness of some of the communists' proposals. It promised land reform, nationalisation of the industrial base, demands for territorial compensation from Germany, and re-establishment of the pre-1939 eastern border. Thus, the main difference between the Underground 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.
In early 1943, the Home Army built up its forces in preparation for a national uprising. The situation was soon complicated by the continuing strength of Germany and the threat presented by the advance of the Soviets, who promoted a territorial and political vision of future Poland at odds with what the Polish leaders were striving for. The Council of National Unity was instituted in occupied Poland on 9 January 1944; it was chaired by Kazimierz Pużak, a socialist. The plan for the establishment of the Polish state authority ahead of the arrival of the Soviets was code-named Operation Tempest and began in late 1943. Its most widely known elements were the campaign of the 27th Home Army Infantry Division in Volhynia (from February 1944), Operation Ostra Brama in Vilnius and the Warsaw Uprising. In the earlier cases, the Soviets and their allies ruthlessly imposed their rule; in the case of the Warsaw Uprising, the Soviets waited for the Germans to defeat the insurgents. The forces of the Polish right-wing called for stopping the war against Germany and concentrating on fighting the communists and the Soviet threat.
In summer 1944, as the Soviet forces approached Warsaw, the AK prepared an uprising in the city to try to prevent a communist takeover of the Polish government. The supreme Polish commander in London General Sosnkowski was pessimistic about the uprising's chances and sent to Warsaw General Leopold Okulicki, instructing him not to allow the uprising to proceed. In Warsaw Okulicki soon developed ideas of his own and became the uprising's most ardent proponent, pushing for a quick commencement of anti-German hostilities. The government in exile approved the uprising (on July 27 Prime Minister Stanisław Mikołajczyk cabled Jan Stanisław Jankowski, the government delegate, authorizing an uprising proclamation at a moment chosen by the authorities in Warsaw). To some of the Polish underground commanders the German collapse and the entry of the Soviets appeared imminent and the AK, led by Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, launched the Warsaw Uprising on August 1. On August 3 Mikołajczyk, conferring with Stalin in Moscow, announced an upcoming "freeing of Warsaw any day now" and asked for military help. However, the Germans turned out to be still overwhelmingly strong and the Soviet leaders and their forces nearby, not consulted in advance, contrary to the insurgents' expectations gave little assistance. General Zygmunt Berling's failed but costly attempt to support the fighters in September using his Polish forces (army units crossed the Vistula but were slaughtered by the Germans) derailed Berling's own career. Stalin had no interest in the uprising's success and Moscow Radio denounced the leaders of the rising as a "gang of criminals". The Poles appealed to the Western Allies for help. The Royal Air Force and the Polish Air Force based in Italy dropped some arms but little could be accomplished without Soviet involvement. The Soviets halted their western push at the Vistula for several months, directing their attention south toward the Balkans.
Desperate street-to-street and house-to-house fighting took place. The Warsaw AK district had 50,000 poorly armed members. They faced a massively reinforced German force of 22,000 SS and regular army units. The Polish command hoped to establish a provisional Polish administration to greet the arriving Soviets, but came nowhere close to meeting this goal. The Germans and their allies engaged in mass slaughter of the civilian population, including between 40,000 and 50,000 massacred in the districts of Wola, Ochota and Mokotów. The SS and auxiliary units recruited from the Soviet Army deserters (the Dirlewanger Brigade and the R.O.N.A. Brigade) were particularly brutal.
After the Uprising's surrender on October 2, the AK fighters were given the status of prisoners-of-war by the Germans but the civilian population remained unprotected and the survivors were punished and evacuated. The Polish casualties are estimated to be at least 150,000 civilians killed, in addition to about 20,000 AK soldiers. 150,000 civilians were sent to labour camps in the Reich or shipped to concentration camps such as Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, and Mauthausen. The city was almost totally demolished by the German punitive bombing raids, but only after being systematically looted of works of art and other property, which were then taken to Germany. The Warsaw Uprising allowed the Germans to largely destroy the AK as a fighting force, but the main beneficiaries were the Soviets and the communists, who were able to impose a communist government on postwar Poland with reduced risk of armed resistance. General Sosnkowski, who criticized the Allied inaction, was relieved of his command and the remaining armed resistance in Poland became greatly destabilized and weakened. The Soviets and the allied First Polish Army, having resumed their offensive, entered Warsaw on 17 January 1945. In January 1945, the Home Army was officially disbanded.
The Holocaust in Poland
In 1938, the Polish government passed a law depriving of the Polish citizenship those who had lived outside of Poland for over five years. The laws was aimed at and used to prevent the tens of thousands of Polish Jews in Austria and Germany, threatened or expelled by the Nazi regime, from returning to Poland.
The Polish courier Jan Karski wrote on the Jewish, Polish and German relations in December 1939. In his opinion, some Poles felt contempt and dismay observing the barbarian anti-Jewish methods of the Nazis, while other watched their activities with interest and admiration. He warned of the threat of demoralization of broad segments of Polish society because of the narrow common ground that the Nazis shared with many ethnic Poles on the Jewish issue.
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, the Germans confined themselves to stripping the Jews of their property, herding them into ghettos (approximately 400 were established beginning in October 1939) and putting them into forced labor in war-related industries. Thousands of Jews survived by managing to stay outside the ghettos. During this period, a Jewish so-called community leadership, Judenrat, was required by the Germans in every town with a substantial Jewish population and was able to some extent to bargain with the Germans. Already during this initial stage tens of thousands of Jews died because of factors such as overcrowding, disease and starvation.
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. The Nazi anti-Jewish persecutions assumed the characteristics and proportions of genocide, and, from the fall of 1941, of the organized Final Solution.
In 1942, the Germans engaged in the systematic killing of the Jews, beginning with the Jewish population of the General Government. The General Government had the largest in Europe population of Jews and was designated to be the primary location of Nazi installations for the elimination of Jews. Six extermination camps (Auschwitz, Bełżec, 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 1945. Prisoners of many nationalities were kept at Auschwitz and parts of the complex were used as a brutal and deadly labor camp, but about 80% of the arriving Jews were directly selected for death (some 900,000 people). Auschwitz, unlike Treblinka or Bełżec, was not strictly a death camp, but it still might have produced the highest number of Jewish victims.[k] Of Poland's prewar Jewish population of 3 million, only about 10% survived the war. Davies wrote of some 150,000 Jews surviving the war in Poland.
About two million Jews were killed after Operation Barbarossa in the areas where Soviet presence was replaced with Nazi occupation. Especially in the early weeks of the German offensive, many thousands of Jews were murdered by members of local communities in the western parts of the previously Soviet zone, including the Baltic countries, eastern Poland and western Ukraine. The pogroms, encouraged by the Germans, were sometimes perpetrated primarily or exclusively by the locals, including Lithuanians and Poles.
Some Poles tried to save Jews. In September 1942, the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews (Tymczasowy Komitet Pomocy Żydom) was founded on the initiative of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka. This body later became the Council to Aid Jews (Rada Pomocy Żydom), known by the code-name Żegota. Żegota is particularly known for its children-saving operation led by Irena Sendler. About 2,500 Jewish children were smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto before the ghetto was eliminated and thus saved. (See also an example of the village that helped Jews: Markowa). Because of such actions, Polish citizens have the highest number of Righteous Among the Nations awards at the Yad Vashem Museum.
Bloody ethnic conflict exploded during World War II in areas of today's western Ukraine, inhabited at that time by Ukrainians and a Polish minority (and until recently by Jews, most of whom had been killed by the Nazis before 1943). The Ukrainians, who blamed the Poles for preventing the emergence of their national state and for Poland's nationality policies (such as military colonization in Kresy), undertook during the interwar years a campaign of terror led by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Under Piłsudski and his successors the Polish state authorities responded with harsh pacification measures. The events that unfolded in the 1940s were a legacy of this bitterness and also a result of other factors, such as the activities of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Ukrainians, generally assigned by the Nazis the same inferior status as Poles, in many practical respects received a more favorable treatment. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) undertook to create an ethnically homogenous Ukrainian society by physically eliminating the Poles and the German occupiers for the most part did not intervene in the resulting campaigns of ethnic cleansing.
The wartime Polish-Ukrainian conflict commenced with the massacres of Poles in Volhynia (Polish: Rzeź wołyńska, literally: Volhynian slaughter), a campaign of ethnic mass murder in western Reichskommissariat Ukraine, which was the Polish Volhynian Voivodeship before the war. The entire conflict took place mainly between late March 1943 and August 1947, extending beyond World War II. The actions, orchestrated and conducted in most part by the UPA together with other Ukrainian groups and local Ukrainian peasants in three former Polish provinces (voivodeships), resulted in between 35,000 and 60,000 Polish civilians being killed in Volhynia alone. Along with Galicia and eastern Lublin area, total Polish civilian losses are estimated to exceed 60,000. The peak of the massacres took place in July and August 1943, when Dmytro Klyachkivsky, a senior UPA commander, ordered the extermination of the entire ethnic Polish population between 16 and 60 years of age. The massacres committed by the UPA led to ethnic cleansing and retaliatory killings by Poles against local Ukrainians both east and west 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 the conflict. The ethnic cleansing and securing ethnic homogeneity reached its full scale with the post-war Soviet and Polish communist removal of the Polish and Ukrainian populations to the respective sides of the Poland-Soviet Ukraine border and the implementation of the Operation Vistula, the dispersing of the remaining Ukrainians in remote regions of Poland. Due in part to the successive occupations of the region, ethnic Poles and Ukrainians were brutally pitted against each other, first under the German occupation, and later under the Soviet occupation. Tens or hundreds of thousands on both sides (estimates differ widely) lost their lives over the course of this conflict.
Government in exile
Because of the Polish government leaders' internment in Romania, a practically new government was assembled in Paris as a government in exile. Under French pressure, On September 30, 1939 Władysław Raczkiewicz was appointed as president and General Władysław Sikorski became prime minister and commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces, reconstructed in the West and as an underground activity in occupied Poland. The exile government was authorized by the Sanation government leaders interned in Romania and was conceived as a continuation of the prewar government, but was beset by strong tensions between the sympathizers of the Sanation regime, led by President Raczkiewicz and General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, and anti-Sanation opposition, led by Prime Minister Sikorski, General Józef Haller, and politicians from the Polish parties persecuted in the past in Sanation Poland. The 1935 April Constitution of Poland, previously rejected by the opposition as illegitimate, was retained for the sake of continuity of the national government. President Raczkiewicz agreed not to use his extraordinary powers, granted by that constitution, except in agreement with the Prime Minister. There were calls for a war tribunal prosecution of the top leaders deemed responsible for the 1939 defeat. Sikorski blocked such attempts, but allowed forms of persecution of many exiles, people seen as compromised by their past role in Poland's ruling circles.
A quasi-parliamentary and advisory National Council was established in December 1939. It was chaired by the Polish senior statesman Ignacy Paderewski. The vice-chairmen were Stanisław Mikołajczyk, a peasant movement leader, Herman Lieberman, a socialist, and Tadeusz Bielecki, a nationalist.
The war was expected to end soon in an Allied victory and the government's goal was to reestablish the Polish state in pre-1939 borders. The government considered Poland to be in a state of war with Germany, but not with the Soviet Union, the relationship with which was not clearly specified.[f] The eastern border problem placed the Polish government on a collision course not only with the Soviets, but also with the Western Allies, whose many politicians, including Winston Churchill, kept thinking of Poland's proper eastern boundary in terms of the "Curzon Line". The exile government in Paris was recognized by France, Britain, and many other countries and was highly popular in occupied Poland. By the spring of 1940, an 82,000 strong army was mobilized in France and elsewhere. Polish soldiers and ships fought in the Norwegian Campaign.
France was invaded and defeated by Germany. The Polish Army units, dispersed and attached to various French formations, fought in the defense of France and covered the French retreat, losing 1,400 men. On 18 June 1940, Sikorski went to England and made arrangements for the evacuation of the Polish government and armed forces to the British Isles. Only about 32,000 Polish soldiers could be evacuated, including 6,200 pilots.[h]
The infighting within the exile government circles continued. On July 18 President Raczkiewicz dismissed Prime Minister Sikorski because of the disagreements concerning possible cooperation with the Soviet Union. Sikorski's supporters in the Polish military and the British government intervened and Sikorski was reinstated, but the internal conflict among the Polish émigrés intensified.
Polish pilots became famous because of their exceptional contributions during the Battle of Britain. Polish sailors, on Polish and British ships, served with distinction in the Battle of the Atlantic.
After Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the British government allied itself with the Soviet Union on July 12 and Churchill pressed Sikorski to also reach an agreement with the Soviets. The Sikorski–Mayski treaty was signed on July 30 despite strong resistance from Sikorski's opponents in the exile government and Polish-Soviet diplomatic relations were restored. Polish soldiers and others imprisoned in the Soviet Union since 1939 were released and a formation of a Polish army there was agreed, intended to fight on the Eastern Front, help the Red Army to liberate Poland and establish a sovereign Polish state. Other issues, including Poland's borders, were left to be determined in the future. A Polish-Soviet military agreement was signed on 14 August; it attempted to specify the political and operational conditions for the functioning of the Polish army. Sikorski's preference, stated around September 1, was for the Polish army to be deployed in defense of the Caucasus oil fields, which would allow it to maintain close contacts with the British forces.
To resolve the various problems that surfaced during the recruitment and training of the Polish divisions and concerning their planned use, Sikorski went to the Soviet Union, where he negotiated with Stalin and the two announced a common declaration "of friendship and mutual assistance" on December 4, 1941. But political and practical difficulties continued (the Soviets were unable or unwilling to properly feed and supply the Poles) and the Polish army chief Władysław Anders and Sikorski obtained British cooperation and Stalin's permission to move the force to the Middle East. 88,000 Polish soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians left the Soviet Union and went to Iran in the spring and summer of 1942. The majority of General Anders' men formed the II Corps in the Middle East, from where the corps was transported to Italy in early 1944. Its 60,000 soldiers grew to 100,000 by mid-1945. Overall, the Polish soldiers were taken from where they conceivably could have affected the fate of Poland and enhance the faltering standing of the Polish government in exile, to where, as it turned out, they could not.[g]
As the Soviet forces began their westward offensive with the victory at Stalingrad, it became increasingly apparent that Stalin's visions of a future Poland and of its borders were fundamentally different from those of the Polish government in London and the Polish Underground State and Polish-Soviet relations kept deteriorating. Polish communist institutions rival to those of the main national independence and pro-Western movement were established in Poland in January 1942 and in the Soviet Union. Early in 1943 the Polish communists (their delegation led by Władysław Gomułka) engaged in Warsaw in negotiations with the Delegation of the government in exile, but no common understanding was arrived at and the Delegation terminated the talks after the Soviet-Polish breach in diplomatic relations caused by the dispute concerning the Katyn massacre. The Polish Workers' Party formulated its separate program and from November was officially under Gomułka's leadership. On the initiative of the Union of Polish Patriots, presided by Wanda Wasilewska, the Soviets began recruiting for a leftist Polish army led by Zygmunt Berling, a Polish Army colonel, to replace the "treacherous" Anders' army that left. The Soviet-based communist faction, organized around the Central Bureau of Polish Communists (activated January 1944), directed by such future Stalinist Poland's ruling personalities as Jakub Berman, Hilary Minc, and Roman Zambrowski, was increasingly influential. They also had a prevailing sway on the formation of Berling's First Polish Army in 1944.
In April 1943, the Germans discovered the graves of 4,000 or more Polish officers at Katyn near Smolensk. Sikorski, suspecting the Soviets to be the perpetrators of an atrocity, requested the Red Cross to investigate. The Soviets denied involvement and Stalin reacted by "suspending" diplomatic relations with Sikorski's government on April 25. The Katyn massacre information was suppressed during and after the war by the British, to whom the revelation was an embarrassment and presented a political difficulty.
Prime Minister Sikorski, the most prominent of Polish exile leaders, was killed in an air crash near Gibraltar on July 4. Sikorski was succeeded as head of the government in exile by Stanisław Mikołajczyk and by Kazimierz Sosnkowski as the top military chief. Sikorski had been willing to work closely with Churchill, including on the issue of cooperation with the Soviets. After his death the Polish government's position within the Allied coalition further deteriorated and the body splintered into quarreling factions.
In November–December 1943, the Allied Tehran Conference took place. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill agreed with Stalin's ideas of using the Curzon Line as the basis of Poland's new eastern border and compensating Poland with lands taken from Germany. The strategic war alliance with the Soviets inevitably outweighed the Western loyalty toward the Polish government and people; they were not consulted. With the Western Allies stalling a serious offensive undertaking from the west,[j] it was clear that it would be the Soviet Union who would enter Poland and drive off Nazi Germans. The Soviet offensive aimed at taking the Vistula basin commenced in January 1944. The Bug River was crossed by the Soviets on 19 July and their commander Konstantin Rokossovsky was heading for Warsaw. On the approaches to Warsaw German panzer divisions counterattacked, while the Poles engaged in an uprising in the city. The situation on the ground, combined with political and strategic considerations, resulted in the Soviet decision to pause at the Vistula for the remainder of 1944.
Past the Vistula, the bloodiest battles fought included the breaching of the Pomeranian Wall by the Soviet and the First Polish armies in the earlier part of 1945 (during their East Pomeranian Offensive, which included the Battle of Kolberg in March). The Polish Army was expanded to 400,000 people and, helping to defeat Germany all the way to the Battle of Berlin, suffered losses equal to those experienced during the 1939 defense of the country. Over 600,000 Soviet soldiers died fighting German troops in Poland. Terrified by the reports of Soviet-committed atrocities, masses of Germans fled in the westerly direction.
In 1944, the Polish forces in the West were making a substantial contribution to the war: in May, the Second Corps under General Anders stormed the fortress of Monte Cassino and opened a road to Rome, in August General Stanisław Maczek's 1st Armoured Division distinguished itself at the Battle of Falaise, in September General Stanisław Sosabowski's Parachute Brigade fought hard at the Battle of Arnhem. Churchill, however, applied pressure to Mikołajczyk, demanding accommodation with the Soviets, including on the borders issue. The Red Army was marching into Poland defeating the Nazis and Stalin toughened his stance against the Polish exiled government, wanting not only the recognition of the proposed frontiers, but a resignation from the government of all elements 'hostile to the Soviet Union', which meant in practice President Raczkiewicz, armed forces commander Sosnkowski, and other ministers.
The Underground State governing structures were formed by the Peasant Alliance, the Socialist Party, the National Alliance and the Labour Alliance. They acted as rivals in a fragile coalition, each defining its own identity and posturing for the expected post-war contest for power. The Polish Government in London was losing its already weak influence on the views of the British and American governments.
The British and Soviet demands on the exile government were made in January 1944, in the context of a possible renewal of Polish-Soviet diplomatic relations and, contingent on the Polish agreement, a Soviet consent for an independent Polish state. Following a refusal to accept the conditions by the Polish government in London, the Soviets engaged only in supporting the leftist government structures they were in process of facilitating, allowing contacts with Prime Minister Mikołajczyk, but already within the framework of communist control. Mikołajczyk, engaged in negotiations with Stalin, resigned his post and Tomasz Arciszewski became the new prime minister in November 1944.
It is estimated that in the final stages of the war, the Polish armed forces were the fourth largest on the Allied side, after the armies of the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Polish state reestablished with new borders and under Soviet domination
The State National Council (KRN), chaired by Bolesław Bierut, was established in Warsaw by the Polish Workers' Party (PPR) on January 1, 1944. Armia Ludowa was its army. The Polish communist centers in Warsaw and in Moscow initially operated separately and had different visions of cooperation with the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1944, KRN sent a delegation to the Soviet Union, where it gained Stalin's recognition and the two branches began working together.
As the Soviets advanced through Poland in late 1944, the German administration collapsed. The communist-controlled Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN) was installed in July in Lublin, the first major Polish city to be seized by the Soviets from the Nazis, and began to take over the administration of the country as the Germans retreated. It was led by Edward Osóbka-Morawski, a socialist. The PKWN Manifesto was proclaimed in Chełm on July 22, initiating the crucial land reform. The agrarian reform, according to Norman Davies, was moderate and very popular.[b] The communists constituted only a small, but highly organized and influential minority in the forming and gaining strength Polish pro-Soviet camp, which also included leaders and factions from such main political blocks as the agrarian, socialist, Zionist and nationalist movements. The Polish left in particular, with considerable support from the peasant movement leaders, both critical in respect to the Second Republic's record, was inclined to accept the Soviet territorial concepts and called for the creation of a more egalitarian society. They became empowered and commenced the formation of the new Polish administration, disregarding the existing Underground State structures.
The government in exile in London had the forces of the Home Army (AK) at its disposal. 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 the underground took power in Allied-controlled Polish territory (see Operation Tempest) to ensure that Poland remained an independent country after the war. However, the failure of the Warsaw Uprising laid the country open to the establishment of communist rule and Soviet domination. The Soviets performed arrests, executions and deportations of Home Army members that assisted them in fighting the Germans.
The Poles in late 1944 and early 1945 on the one hand tended to resent the Soviet Union and communism and feared becoming a Soviet dependency, while on the other the leftist viewpoints were increasingly popular among the population. There was little support for a continuation of the prewar policies.
By the time of the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Soviets were at the height of their power, while the fronts in Western Europe and Italy had not advanced as quickly as expected. The Allies continued their discussions and informally finalized decisions on the postwar order in Europe. Churchill and Roosevelt accepted the Curzon Line as the basis of Poland's eastern border, but disagreed with Stalin on the extent of Poland's western expansion, at the expense of Germany. Poland was going to get a provisional (until the agreed free elections) government of national unity including both the communist elements established in Lublin and pro-Western forces. There was a disagreement regarding the issue of inclusion of the London-based government in exile as the main pro-Western faction in the government of national unity.
Stalin agreed at Yalta that a coalition government would be formed in Poland. The prime minister of the Polish government in exile, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, resigned his post and, with several other Polish exile leaders, went to Lublin, where a provisional government had been established at the end of 1944, recognized by the Soviet Union. It was headed by Osóbka-Morawski, a socialist, but the communists held a majority of key posts. In April 1945, the provisional government signed a mutual friendship, alliance and cooperation pact with the Soviet Union.
Because of the continuing disagreement on the composition of the government of national unity (a proposed compromise unification of the existing pro-Soviet and pro-Western government centers), Churchill convinced Mikołajczyk to take part in a conference in Moscow in May 1945, where he and other Polish democrats agreed with Stalin to a temporary (until the elections promised to take place soon) deal excluding the government in exile.
Based on the Moscow understanding reached by the three powers with Mikołajczyk's help, the Government of National Unity was constituted on 28 June with Osóbka-Morawski as prime minister, Władysław Gomułka and Mikołajczyk as deputy prime ministers. The new government was quickly recognized by most countries. The formally coalition government was in reality controlled entirely by Gomułka's Polish Workers' Party and other politicians convinced of the inevitability of Soviet domination. The government was charged with conducting elections and normalizing the situation in Poland.
The communists' principal rivals were Mikołajczyk's Polish People's Party (PSL) and the veterans of the underground Home Army and of the Polish armies which had fought in the West. The communist PPR, under Gomułka and Bierut, held the most power, controlled the army and the police, and was supported by the Soviet army. Potential political opponents of the communists were subjected to Soviet terror campaigns, with many of them arrested, executed or tortured. At least 25,000 people lost their lives in labour camps created by the Soviets as early as 1944.
In June 1945 a trial of Polish underground leaders was staged in Moscow. Post-German industrial and other property was looted by the Soviets as war reparations, even though the former lands of eastern Germany were coming under permanent Polish administration. As the Soviets and the pro-Soviet Poles solidified their control of the country, a political struggle with the suppressed and harassed opposing forces ensued, accompanied by a residual but cruel armed rebellion waged by the unreconciled elements of the former, now officially disbanded underground and the nationalistic right wing.
A "Democratic Bloc", comprising the communists and their socialist, rural and urban allies was established. Mikołajczyk's PSL, which refused to join the Bloc, was the only legal opposition; they counted on winning the promised legislative elections. Other contemporary Polish movements, including the National Democracy, Sanation, and Christian Democracy were not allowed to function legally and were dealt with by the Polish and Soviet internal security organs. The postwar Poland was a state of reduced sovereignty, strongly dependent on the Soviet Union, but the only one possible under the existing circumstances and internationally recognized. The Polish left's cooperation with the Stalin's regime made the preservation of the Polish state within favorable borders possible. The dominant Polish Workers' Party had a strictly pro-Soviet branch, led by Bierut and a number of internationalist in outlook Jewish communist activists, and a national branch, prioritizing the Polish national interest, led by Gomułka.
As agreed by the Allies in Yalta, the Soviet Union incorporated the lands in eastern Poland (Kresy, east of the Curzon Line), previously occupied and annexed in 1939 (see Territories of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union). Deferring to Stalin's territorial schemes, the Allies compensated Poland with the German territories east of the Oder–Neisse line, parts of Pomerania, Silesia and East Prussia (in Polish communist government's propaganda referred to as the Recovered Territories). The deal was practically, but in principle not permanently, finalized at the Potsdam Conference (17 July to 2 August 1945). The entire country was shifted to the west and resembled the territory of Medieval early Piast Poland. Per the Potsdam agreement, several million Germans were expelled and forced to relocate their families to the new Germany. A large proportion of them had already fled not waiting for the Potsdam decrees. Davies wrote that the resettlement of Germans was not merely an act of wartime revenge, but a result of decades old Allied policy. The Russians as well as the British saw the German East Prussia as a product of German militarism, the "root of Europe's miseries", and the Allies therefore intended to eradicate it.
The new western and northern territories of Poland were repopulated with Poles "repatriated" from the eastern regions now in the Soviet Union (2-3 million people) and from other places. The precise Soviet-Polish border was delineated in the Polish–Soviet border agreement of 16 August 1945. The new Poland emerged 20% smaller (by 77,700 km² or 29,900 mi²). Eastern poorly developed regions were lost and western industrialized regions were gained, but the emotional impact for many Poles was clearly negative. The population transfers included also the moving of the Ukrainians and Belarusians from Poland into their respective Soviet republics. The Polish communist authorities and the Soviets expelled especially hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians into Soviet Ukraine, and then in 1947 to the Recovered Territories during the Operation Vistula, ensuring that postwar Poland would not have any significant minorities to contend with. After the war, many displaced Poles and some of those living in Kresy, now in the Soviet Union, did not end up in the new Poland. The population within the respective official borders decreased from 35.1 million in 1939 to 23.7 million in 1946. The war destroyed 38% of Poland's national assets.
Poland's western borders were soon questioned by the Germans and many in the West, while the planned peace conference did not materialize because the Cold War replaced the wartime cooperation. The borders, essential to Poland's existence, were in practice guaranteed by the Soviet Union, which only increased the dependence of Polish government leaders on their Soviet counterparts.
The Western Allies, and their leaders Roosevelt and Churchill in particular, have been criticised, by Polish writers and some Western historians, for what most Poles see as the abandonment of Poland to Soviet rule. Decisions were made at the Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam conferences and on other occasions that amounted, according to such opinions, to Western complicity in Stalin's takeover of Eastern Europe.[a] According to Czubiński, blaming the Western powers, especially Winston Churchill, for a "betrayal" of the Polish ally, "seems a complete misunderstanding".
- List of Polish cities damaged in World War II
- Polish culture during World War II
- World War II casualties of Poland
- History of Poland (1945–89)
a.^ According to Davies, the Grand Alliance (Britain, USA and the Soviet Union) decided in the meetings of its three leaders that the unconditional defeat of the Reich was the Alliance's overriding priority (principal war aim). Once this definition was accepted, the two Western powers, having obliged themselves not to withdraw from the conflict for any reason (including pressuring the Soviets), had lost their ability to meaningfully influence Soviet actions.
b.^ PKWN's land reform decree was issued on September 6, 1944. The Polish communists were reluctant to get going with the land reform, a fundamental departure from old Polish legal systems (they claimed adherence to the 1921 March Constitution of Poland). Polish peasants were reluctant to take over landowners' possessions. Joseph Stalin summoned to Moscow in late September the KRN and PKWN leaders, including Bierut and Gomułka, and inquired about the progress of the land reform. The Soviet leader asked how many estates had already been parceled and was very unhappy to find out that the answer was zero. He repeatedly lectured the Polish leaders, appealing to their communist convictions and patriotism. Stalin urged them to start implementing the land reform without any further delay, not to worry excessively about legal proprieties, because it was a revolutionary action, and to take advantage of the fact that the Red Army was still in Poland to help.
c.^ Marshal Rydz-Śmigły made a final radio broadcast to Polish troops from Romania on September 20. He stressed the Polish army's involvement in fighting the Germans and told the commanders to "avoid pointless bloodshed by fighting the Bolsheviks".
f.^ Kochanski contradicts Czubiński, stating that the exile government did consider itself at war with the Soviet Union. Sikorski's position was that Germany was the principal enemy and that cooperation with the Soviet Union was conditionally possible. There were rival factions in the government and probably no official proclamations on that issue.
g.^ The British wanted the Polish forces moved to the Middle East, because they expected a German offensive in that direction, through the Caucasus. Sikorski was opposed to the removal of Polish soldiers from the Soviet Union, but eventually relented. Sikorski wanted Polish armies engaged against Germany in Western Europe, in the Middle East and in the Soviet Union, because of the uncertain outcomes of military campaigns and because of the need for a Polish (exile government affiliated) military presence, fighting along whichever power would eventually liberate Poland. Anders insisted on taking the Polish formations out of the Soviet Union and opposed Sikorski. Eventually he demanded a dismissal of the government led by Sikorski, his commander-in-chief. When it was decided that the Polish Army would take a southern route out of the Soviet Union, it was not yet apparent that the war with Germany would be resolved mainly by a victorious Soviet westbound offensive on the Eastern Front, and that other war theaters would be relegated to a more peripheral role. In particular, it was not known that Poland would be liberated by the Soviets.
j.^ After the abortive Dieppe Raid in Normandy in 1942, the Allies exercised extra caution and would not risk any more failed operations. In general, the Americans demanded accelerated offensive action in Europe, while the British wanted to delay the landing in France, judged impractical, and focus instead on the much easier to execute Italian Campaign.
k.^ Expecting the arrival of the Red Army, in December 1944 the Nazis at the last moment closed down the Auschwitz slave labor operation, demolished the main compound and force-marched some 60,000 prisoners toward camps in Germany. A smaller number of sick people remained on the premises until the Soviets arrived.
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