Poland was liberated, not by the Americans or the British, but by the Soviet Union. For the Poles this was a bitter irony. Having had to endure the onslaught of the Nazi invasion on 1 September 1939, Poland underwent a second invasion at the hands of the Red Army just sixteen days later. These two events – and the devastating occupation that followed – were to set the scene for Poland’s liberation five years later.
Kraków and southeastern Poland
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Hitler’s pretext for invading Poland was Germany’s claim to the port of Danzig (modern Gdańsk). In the aftermath of World War I, when Poland re-emerged as an independent nation, the country’s redrawn borders provided access to the Baltic via a “corridor” that separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Danzig stood at the top of this corridor, neither Polish nor German, but a free city under the protection of the League of Nations. Many of its citizens, most of whom were German, resented this arrangement.
Hitler used the corridor dispute to try and force the Polish state to hand over Danzig to Germany, but the Poles refused any territorial concessions. For Hitler this was reason enough to invade. The German assault came from several points simultaneously and employed a new tactic, Blitzkrieg (lightning war), in which attacks were fast, intense and co-ordinated. The Polish Army was outnumbered and its forces spread out, and despite valiant counteroffensives, was only staving off the inevitable. Poland’s military command ordered a retreat to the southwest of the country, at which point the Red Army invaded the country from the East, claiming to be protecting Poland’s Ukrainian and Belorusian minorities. After nearly a month of incessant aerial and artillery bombardment, resulting in around 40,000 civilian deaths, Warsaw, Poland’s capital, finally surrendered to Nazi invasion on 27 September 1939.
Following the two invasions, Poland was divided into three main areas under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact: the west of the country was assimilated into the German Reich, with the ultimate aim of full “Germanization”: the removal of all Slavs, Jews and other “undesirables” and their replacement with German colonists.
The east of the country, known as Kresy to the Poles, was handed over to the Soviets (though Hitler was to renege on his agreement, invading the Soviet Union in June 1941). This included parts of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, many of whose inhabitants were nationalists who resented rule by Poland, the Soviet Union, or anyone else.
The central territory – the rump of Poland – became a German protectorate, renamed the General Government, with Kraków as its capital. A “dumping ground” for Poles removed from the west of the country, it was to be economically exploited for the benefit of the Reich. It was also where the first death camps were built in the spring of 1942.
Potential opposition was targeted by both invading powers. It is estimated that the Nazis killed a third of all Catholic priests, the same proportion of doctors and around fifty percent of Poland’s lawyers. Similarly, the Soviets imprisoned or executed anyone they thought of as ideological enemies, most infamously thousands of Polish army and police officers who were shot and buried in Katyń forest and other sites.
Many of those killed by the Nazis died in concentration camps, labour camps, or in extermination camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. In addition to enslaving the Poles, the Nazis aimed to annihilate Poland’s entire Jewish population, murdering them in gas chambers and mass shootings, or working them to death. Those who hid Jews were also executed, as were those who failed to report someone doing so. Little wonder that some turned a blind eye to the fate of former neighbours or, worse, colluded in their persecution.
Several Polish politicians and members of the armed forces managed to escape and establish a government-in-exile in London, which had strong links to the underground government and the Resistance, including the Home Army, or Armia Krajowa (AK), in Poland. For the war's duration, Poles made a major contribution to the Allied cause in Europe; in Britain thousands served in all the armed forces.
Five years after the catastrophic events of 1939, it was the Soviets – having suffered a brutal Nazi invasion of their own – who managed to push the mighty German army all the way back to the border with Poland. Polish armies – formed with soldiers released from Soviet jails and camps – supported the Red Army in its final drive against the Nazis.
While the Armia Krajowa did everything they could to liberate the country themselves, in the end their efforts simply assisted the Red Army in their defeat of the Germans in Poland. The Poles were about to replace one occupier with the another, paving the way for 35 years of Soviet domination.
Top image: Entrance to Auschwitz Concentration Camp © GagliardiPhotography/Shutterstock