The German Zones
Poland was partitioned by Russians and Germans on 28 September. Hitler considered the idea of setting up a small Polish satellite state, but gave it up after it became clear that Britain and France are not ready to accept the German fait accompli. He thus announced in two decrees of 8 and 12 October the annexation of not only the territories Germany had lost in 1918. – 1921., but also of the west and north-west Poland, specifically the Pomeranian and Poznan Voivodeships as well as most of the Lodz and northern area of the Warsaw Voivodeship – a total of 94 000 square kilometers with the population of 10 million. The remainder of the territory was administered by the General Government and had a starting population of about 12 million, which increased as the Jews and the Poles were deported from the annexed areas to the General Government. In both territories, Hitler intended to eliminate the Polish elites so that the independent Poland would never emerge. Jews and the Poles would be both cleansed.
The General Government area quickly became lawless as the conquerors, fueled by the anti-Polish propaganda, were given a free hand to murder, persecute and torture both Jews and Poles. The area was “governed” by the civilian administration under Hans Frank, who sat in splendour at Wawel – the former palace of the Polish monarchy – at Wawel. Jews and Poles were arrested and beaten for the most minor offenses, and in both areas both priests and teachers were arrested. In Krakow, the whole teaching staff of the Jagellonian University was rounded up by Gestapo and sent to Sachenhausen concentration camp. Priests, landowners and secondary school teachers were also arrested en masse. All real estate was confiscated and their owners interned in the concentration camps or sent to Germany. By December, some 5 000 people had been shot in the Silesia alone. In June 1940 3,500 intellectuals were executed by the Gestapo in Palmiry forest, outside Warsaw.
All of this had been seen before, in other socialist regimes – including the USSR and the Nazi Germany itself. The aim was to destroy the Polish people, their culture and language. In the annexed areas, all skilled jobs were reserved for German speakers (Russians did the same in the USSR, and Serbs would proceed to do similar thing in the SFRJ). All Polish names of streets and buildings in the annexed areas were Germanized. In Lodz, Piotrkowska – named after the Russian Tsar Peter the Great – became Adolf Hitler Strasse. Polish children were forbidden from any kind of education, and instead had to rely on illegal tutorial groups.
Racial hierarchy was created in Poland. On top were the Reichsdeutsche or the Germans from the Reich, followed by the Volksdeutsche or Germans from Poland. Both groups had German citizenship. Third group were “state members”, which included Germans married to ethnic Poles and people of “intermediate nationality”, such as the Kashubians, Mazurians and Silesians. The fourth group was made up of “renegades”, Poles who looked like Germans and could gradually be re-educated as such. At the bottom of the list came the Poles and then the Jews.
The Jews were expelled from the annexed areas and forced into ghettos in big cities. They had no legal protection and could be beaten up by anybody, and were exposed to various ways of humiliation and even torture. It was not unheard of for German officers to use Jews in lieu of draft animals.
Not everything was negative, though. Some old-school German officers, brought up in the Imperial tradition, attempted to alleviate the suffering and treat the Poles and even the Jews with magnanimity. Dr Rost, the German Kreislandwirt – the official in charge of the county’s agriculture – was an exceptionally humane and efficient man, so much so that in the final year of the war the resistance issued him with a free pass. It was even not unknown for the German Army personnel to help Jews escape persecution.
The Russian Zone
The Russian (Soviet) zone was hardly any better than the German zone. The only major difference was that it was the class, rather than race, which motivated the purges and the persecution. While initially things were indeed better than in the German zone, within weeks situation deteriorated to the point that it was even worse than in the German-occupied Poland. The Russians stripped the eastern zone of all stocks of clothing, pharmaceutical products, foodstuffs and even articles like needles, thread and knives, and dispatched them into the USSR which – being a socialist economy – was incapable of producing enough for its own needs. Private traders were discouraged and private shops closed. When rouble was introduced on 23 December, the Polish zloty could only be exchanged for the new currency at one-tenth of its original value.
On 22 October a plebiscite was held to endorse the integration of the eastern provinces into the USSR. From then on the eastern Poland would experience all the “benefits” of the Communist rule. The unemployed and the refugees were sent to work in the Soviet interior. When the new civilian government was set up in early 1940., Soviet officials and their families descended like a plague of locusts on the Zone. To provide housing for the bureaucrats, those deemed bourgeois or anti-social were evicted from their flats and houses in the cities, towns and even the countryside.
Re-education programme was introduced in educational institutions, and Russian and Ukrainian became official languages while the Polish was suppressed. All new teaching had to follow the Communist ideology. Many leading priests were arrested and the theological college at Stanislawow was closed. The new regime was determined to purge the Polish landowners or ‘Pans’, the officer class, the clergy and the intellectuals. It was possible to denounce anybody with just a note, and arrests were regular. Between February and May 1940., some 1,5 million people were seized, loaded on cattle trucks and deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan. The Polish-Soviet Agreement of July 1941 (a month following the German invasion of USSR) led to the release of the deportees, and eventually, in two large evacuations, some 114 000 soldiers and civilians were able to emerge from their prolonged period of hell and reach Iran, where a new Polish Army was built up.
Prisoners of War
With the collapse of the Polish Armed Forces the Germans took some 587 000 Polish troops into captivity, and the Soviets some additional 250 000. Prisoners suffered, especially in the early weeks, from food shortages, overcrowding and exhaustion. They were given bread and undrinkable coffee, and quartered in appaling conditions in Blonie – in barns, cattle sheds, stalls, stables, haylofts. The local population was allowed to bring provisions to camps, but these were often insufficient.
By the late autumn, majority of those held in captivity by the Germans had been transferred to 35 Prisoner of War camps in Germany. Prisoners were used to work on land or build roads or fortifications, while officers were confined to camps. Many officers were shot for “violence against German populations”, while prisoners worked on minimum rations.
Nevertheless, their conditions were still better than those of their comrades who had ended up in the Soviet captivity. The Russians separated men from the officers, and officers were then transferred to camps in the interior. Some managed to save their lives by pretending they were NCOs. The men themselves were confined in 99 camps established from September 1939. to June 1941. and were used for heavy manual labour.
Camps were rapidly evacuated when German invasion of USSR in June 1941. commenced. Thousands died as they were marched eastwards towards Zlotonosze in Soviet Ukraine. From there they were taken to the camp at Starobielsk. It was there that they were found by Colonel Wisnioski at the end of August 1941., to be organized into Polish Army in the East.
In early October 1939. all the Polish officers were sent to the camps at Kozielsk, Ostashkov and Starobielsk. There the NKVD attempted to find officers sympathetic to Communism, who could be used to set up the post-war Communist regime in Poland. It was however found that vast majority were deeply unsympathetic to Communism, and would be a major obstacle to creation of the post-War Communist Poland. Only 448 were identified as sympathetic.
On 5 March 1940., Stalin approved a proposal by Lavrenti Beria for executing 25 421 Polish PoWs. The pro-Communist Poles were sent to a new camp at Pavlishchev-Bor, while the rest of the officers were shot during the April – May at three secret locations. Those from Kozielsk were marched out in groups of 50 to 360 men and shot in the back of the head by NKVD guards in the Katyn Forest. Those from the two other camps were also shot and their bodies buried in mass graves in Miednoye and Kharkov. In the spring of 1943. the Germans discovered mass graves at Katyn, but the Soviets – supported by Britain and USA – denied all knowledge of these crimes. It was only in 1990 that Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, admitted that the NKVD was responsible for the massacre of nearly 15 000 Polish PoWs.
Preparations for the clandestine resistance began to be organized even before the fighting ended. SZP (Service for Poland’s Victory) was set up to coordinate remnants of political parties as well as various resistance groups springing up throughout the country. In December the new Government in Exile replaced SZP with the ZWZ (the Union of Armed Struggle). In German-occupied Poland its commander was Colonel Stefan Rowecki, while General Karaszewicz-Tokarzewski commanded the organization in the eastern zone.
Its initial task during the winter of 1939. – 1940. was to plan for an insurrection once Germany had been weakened by the Western powers. But while preparations were well underway, the underground commanders were well aware that USSR would likely try to exploit the vacuum created by the German defeat. In other words, the events of the 1918. were likely to be repeated. Bolsheviks would definitely use internal subversive elements to gain control over Poland and would use their own forces to support these elements from abroad.
Resistance in the immediate aftermath of Poland’s defeat consisted of distributing propaganda, reporting on German and Soviet military movements and occupation policies and, where possible, sabotage and assassination. Main aim was to construct a broad coalition to resist against the Soviet and German occupation. Backbone of the resistance was the younger generation, especially peasants, workers and professional classes. German brutality helped persuade many to join the resistance.
Even after the surrender, there were still armed groups in forests. The best-known was led by Major Henryk Dobrzansky, known as “Hubal”. Together with fifty volunteers he decided to cross the Hungarian frontier, but after encountering strong German forces he decided to stay in the deep forests in the Kielce area and wait until the Allies attacked western Germany. Avoiding Germans with help of the local population, he eliminated the entire battalion of German infantry in March 1940 near the village of Huciska. On 30 April 1940. the Germans managed to ambush his headquarters and kill both “Hubal” and the majority of his troops. “Hubal’s” corpse was mutilated and displayed in the local villages.
In the Soviet zone, guerilla groups continued to fight against the occupation all the way until the June 1941. Anti-Soviet groups were springing up already by October 1939., and the resistance had organized a secret bureau for the collection of military information, which boy scouts and other volunteers reported to them. Already by early October Soviets were suffering losses in clashes with the resistance. Several partisan groups were also present to the north of Lwow. Polish Colonel Dombrowski led troops active in the provinces of Bialystok and Wilno. Operating near the Lithuanian frontier, his troops were burning bridges, cutting telegraph wires, raiding provincial centres of the local Russian administration, harassing the new police and officials, skirmishing with the Red Army outposts, but eluding pitched engagements.
Most of these groups were destroyed by the Red Army during the 1940., but isolated bands did manage to survive until the German attack on the USSR in June 1941.
As can be seen, it is likely that Germany would have invaded Poland regardless of whether Nazis had come to power or not, so long as there was Soviet Union at Poland’s eastern border, equally willing to invade from the other side.
Poland only reemerged as a state in the winter of 1918./1919. because the Central Powers had been defeated and the Russian Empire had collapsed. Yet the process of determining frontiers was drawn out, and it was not until 1921. that the borders of the new Polish state were set. But the Polish militarism and the attempts to seize German territory by force inflamed relations between the two states, which were already precarious thanks to the ethnically mixed populations in the borderlands.
In the East, Poland first used the Russian Civil War to sieze as much territory as it could, but then had to fight for survival against the expansionist Soviet Union and its Red Army. The Treaty of Riga led to the annexation of considerable areas of Byelorussia and western Ukraine, in which ethnic Poles were a minority. This historical anachronism was not only a sore spot for the Soviet Union which would seize them back at the first opportunity, but also served to destabilize the new Polish state which was now an artificial, highly diverse and multiethnic creation.
Inter-war Poland was a creation of the Versailles, and being positioned between Germany and USSR, was vulnerable to both German and Russian imperialist ambitions. While in 1921. the Franco-Polish and Polish-Romanian alliance made sense against the USSR, Pilsudski’s agreement to Polish-German non-agression pact neutralized Polish alliance with France. Two years later Beck and Rydz-Smigly rejected French offer of alliance between France, Poland, Czechoslovakia and USSR. While rejection of alliance with USSR was a reasonable choice as the time would show, it did leave Poland isolated and Czechoslovakia vulnerable to Germany.
While both Britain and France failed to uphold the peace treaties as well as the mandate of the League of Nations, Poland failed in its duties as well. Czechoslovakia, which had a major armaments industry, a far more modern army than Poland and also shared with Poland a border of 600 kilometers, was surrendered to Germany in 1938. – with full Polish agreement. In fact, during the Munich crisis in September 1938, the Polish Government went so far as to informe the French that Poland had no obligations to come to the help of Czechoslovakia and seized the chance to demand the return of Teschen. Yet that was extremely short-sighted policy, as German seizure of Czechoslovakia made Poland acutely vulnerable to German attack. And that attack could not be countered as the only allies Poland had were to west of Germany and would thus be delayed in sending help, if they could have sent it at all.
At any rate, while Britain and France did declare war on Germany on 3 September, they did not do even the bare minimum to relieve pressure on Poland. Poland faced German forces numbering 1,5 million men – a total of 85% of German military at the time, and basically entirety of German combat power. During the period of 1 – 3 September, Germans lost 217 tanks (25% of total) and 400 aircraft (20% of total). British and French forces were supposed to attack Germany no later than 16 September, but they never did. During the entirety of the Polish campaign, some 110 British and French divisions remained inactive in face of 23 second-rate German divisions. The only thing done in the West was French occupation of a few square miles of worthless forest in Saarland. In fact, involvement of the western Allies was actively to Poland’s detriment, as mobilization had been delayed to well after the last moment under Western pressure which aimed at attempting to not provoke Germany.
Poland did have its share of mistakes. Rydz-Smigly was an ineffective commander, and his centralized command style was completely inappropriate for countering the German application of maneuver warfare. Polish armies were concentrated too close to border, especially the Armies Pomorze and Poznan, and Polish communications proved insufficient and too dependant on fixed telephone and telegraph lines that were easily cut off by bombardment. A system of liaison officers was too slow and hampered by the frequent dislocation of the headquarters.
Despite these flaws, Poland gave a good account of itself. Polish Army fought for five weeks against the Wehrmacht despite being outnumbered in men, tanks and aircraft, and later attacked from east by the Soviets. By contrast, Western Allies outnumbered Germany in every material measure during the 1940. campaign, had major mobile armored reserves and faced Germany alone, yet France fell in six weeks – only one week more than Poland.
In fact, German invasion of Poland had a real chance of failing. The Poles managed to inflict considerable casualties on the Germans: 16 000 killed and 32 000 wounded, as well as 217 destroyed and 457 disabled tanks. The small Air Force flying biplanes managed, with support of the ground defences, to destroy some 220 Luftwaffe aircraft. Cavalry too was used effectively, fighting dismounted and proving able to surprise and destroy German armored units.
Colonel Beck and the Chief of Staff, General Stachiewicz, were convinced that by 16 September the momentum of the German advance was slowing down. German supply lines were overstretched, and their motorized vehicles were suffering from wear and tear. Mud and rain were also beginning to hamper the German advance. Orderly retirement of Polish forces into the Dniester-Stryj bridgehead thus could be hoped to be able to stop the Germans and allow for the smaller but more effective Polish Army to be reconstructed, possibly prolonging the fight for few more weeks and buying the Western allies time to intervene. Any such hopes however had to be abandoned because of the Soviet invasion.
During the campaign, Germans had shown themselves slow in adapting to changing circumstances, and their armored divisions lacked sufficient firepower to break well-fortified strongpoints. German light tanks were vulnerable to 8 mm anti-tank rifles, while Polish 37 mm anti-tank gun could destroy any German tank. German conscripts lacked battle experience and discipline both, and there was a widespread tendency towards looting.
While German propaganda portrayed the Polish performance as pitiable, even the Nazis knew the truth was completely different. French military report in fact correctly observed that “with equality of material the Polish troops were always superior to the enemy”. In June 1940., the 1st Polish Infantry Division fighting in France managed to drive back four German divisions.
Despite a devastating defeat, Poland managed to organize the fifth largest Allied force in the war. Polish troops saw service in North Africa, Italy, and North-West Europe, while Polish pilots in 302 and 303 Squadrons brought down 130 German pilots in the Battle of Britain. The German invasion of the USSR led to the Polish-Soviet Agreement of 30 July 1941., which enabled evacuation of 114 000 soldiers and civilians to Iran. Remaning 400 000 joined the Polish People’s Army and fought their way across the Eastern Europe.
But at the end of the war, Poland – along with the entire Eastern Europe – was again betrayed, and occupied by the Soviet Russia. In deference to Stalin’s wishes, Polish units in Britain were excluded by the British Government from participation in the great Victory parade in London in 1946, despite all that they had suffered and contributed to victory. Poland would only leave Soviet yoke in 1989.-1990. Whether even that meant freedom for Poland is outside the scope of this article or indeed the blog.
9 thoughts on “Attack on Poland – The Aftermath”
The Russian zone taken from Poland in 1939 was largely the area up to the Curzon line boundary between polish speaking and Ukrainian speaking areas that was decided at Versailles Peace Conference to be part of Russia. For various reasons Poland wanted to retain the old Ukrainian speaking provinces of Austria- Hungary empire and there was a series of wars with Russia in 1919 and 1920 where Poland took this land by conquest.
The Allies ignored this boundary war between Russian and Poland as they were involved in their own interventions in Soviet Russia including the US , France, Britain
LikeLiked by 1 person
That is true as far as it goes, but Poland only conquered these areas after it repelled Soviet invasion of 1920. and after Pilsudski’s plans for creation of the independent Ukraine failed. It is possible that without formation of the Soviet Union, Pilsudski will have seen no need for expanding Poland’s territory so much. And remember that Leon Trotsky had already proposed carving up Poland between Germany and USSR even before those wars you mentioned. I wrote more about it here:
So yeah, it is a rather complex topic.
Thanks for the interesting response. Quite a few different nationalities were invited to and made presentations to the Versailles conference on post war borders. The Kurds for instance , who were unsuccessful of course and the Poles were hoping for an expanded country in the east, remembering this was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ( in practice Poland was the major player).
Versailles recognised the Baltic states and Finland as independent, if Lenin was really pushing to take back lost territories these would have an easier war and seemingly more important strategically than Poland. Poland as well had border wars with the new Czechoslovakia and Lithuania as well as the new Soviet Russia so we can see Poland had sharp elbows when it came to what Versailles awarded them in the east. The western allies were only insistent militarily on the german borders , including its break with the self determination rule in awarding the german speaking Sudetenland to the Czechs, and also ignored the challenge to the new Turkiye republic to some of its borders resulting in a complete new treaty.
Historically its a certainty that end of empires will result in border wars and new conflicts, the Russian-Ukraine war and a number of similar border conflicts came from the end of the Soviet empire . The British Empire in India ended and wars followed , the German, Austrian, Russian and Turkish empires dissolution being a prime example
LikeLiked by 1 person
But Lenin did.
USSR attacked the Baltic states and Finland at the same time it attacked Poland – Soviet-Lithuanian war lasted from 1918 to 1919., and then Lithuania was attacked by Poland, and that war lasted from 1919. to 1920.
In fact, Soviets attacked Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine at the same time. They overstretched themselves significantly, but Poland in particular could not be avoided – others could, but conquest of Poland was a key for Lenin’s plans for world socialist revolution because he hoped to link up with socialist revolutionaries active in Germany in particular at that time (Communists raised a revolution in Germany in 1918. – 1919. – and this directly led to Hitler later, but I guess that isn’t written in history books!).
And yes, not settling borders right away would lead to trouble later – Poland expanded significantly from what it should have been, to the point that Poles were only some half of the population of Poland. Multiethnic countries are never stable unless they are effectively federalized or feudalized, and Poland was neither.
I actually mentioned a lot of what you wrote here:
Regarding the Russo-Finnish border conflict in early 1920s ( not the later full conflict of 1940) seemed to be more related to the ethnic Finns living inside the Russian East Karelia border region who wished to unite with the new republic. Some towns had been occupied by Finlands troops as well.
Lenin had his hands full with the civil war with the White army so doesnt add up that the Red army would invade the former territories at this time . Finland had its own White v Red civil war and the White side -who won- could have been seen to want to expand the original borders and support the russian white army who were active nearby . Finland gained Petsamo when the dispute ended
I forgot to mention Ukraine was one of those nationalities that represented themselves at Versailles for an independent nation – much larger than the modern Ukraine. They like some others didnt succeed but it seems that Poland could see advantage in supporting them as a buffer state to Russia and reclaim non polish speaking areas, but historically controlled by a Polish landowners and aristocracy the Szlachta, in western Ukraine. Which is what happened except for the independent Ukraine part . Strange that
Soviet forces invaded Estonia in November 1918., Ukraine also in November 1918., and in fact conquered Ukraine by summer 1919. And in summer 1918., they even created the Polish Communist Government in Moscow, so the wish to conquer Poland was clearly serious. Latvia was invaded in December 1918., Lithuania in December 1918., and Finland and Georgia in Feburary 1921.
Keep in mind that Soviet government wanted to remain in the Tsarist borders. Lenin saw no difference between the White Army and the separatist provinces. He also hoped – and in fact, largely managed – to receive support from local revolutionary forces. All these invasions were either preceded by or coincided with uprisings by local Communist movements.
Not sure where you sources are for those 1918/19 invasion claims come from.
I looked into the Finnish situation more closely and it was definitely a Karelian uprising to join Finland and their occupation of some border towns. Remember too Britain had forces there too in Petsamo area I think.
The Ukraine situation involved a whole lot of groups, including White russians , Ukrainian Bolsheviks , Ukrainian nationalists and even included the remnants of the Imperial german army and the Allied forces of Romania and France. As there was no Ukraine state recognised by Versailles or even existed in the Russian empire it was , for a short time, a self proclaimed state with no real substance. Its unfortunate but self determination only gets lip service then and now. Ask Kosovo which isnt allowed its independence from a Nato occupation, or Somaliland in Africa
Your earlier article about Polands western borders seems to mix up Austrian Silesia with the different Austrian Galicia. The Silesian region had plenty of border conflict with Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
As well Poland later participated in the carve up of Czechoslovakia by Germany in 1939 before WW2 began. How will you spin that ?
I’m not going to spin anything – in fact, I specifically pointed out in one of the articles in the series that Poland participated in division of Czechoslovakia.