Date: 1 March 2018    Authors: Bogusław Kopka PHD, Paweł Kosiński PHD

The Criminal Nature of the German and Soviet Occupations

All of the political and military actions of the Poles to regain independence and sovereignty, conducted in 1939–1945, took place in conditions of unusually brutal war campaigns rolling through Polish lands and cruel occupations of Poland’s territory.

Warsaw, Poland, September 3, 2010. During the signing of the contract transferring digital copies of photographs of American filmmaker and photographer Julien Bryan to the Institute of National Remembrance, the presentation of the album “Siege of Warsaw in the photographs of Julien Bryan” took place. © Paweł Supernak (PAP)

Regular military operations conducted by the Wehrmacht and the Red Army in Poland were characterized by numerous attacks on public infrastructure (even hospitals) and the mass murder of prisoners of war and the civilian population; these were in violation of the laws of war and regulations on the treatment of prisoners adopted at the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1929.

The American journalist and filmmaker, Julien Bryan, found himself in besieged Warsaw from September 7–21, 1939. After returning to the United States, his unique and shocking photographs were published in Life and Look magazines, and then later in the form of an album. They are piercing images of massacred, dead and desperate people, who lost everything that was most important to them in a matter of moments, and also the destroyed buildings of the city by German bombing. A photo of Kazimiera Kostewicz, crying over her sister’s lifeless body, became one of the symbols of September 1939. The short documentary Siege, filmed by Bryan in Warsaw, was released in 1940.

Before the suppression of the last centers of resistance of regular units of the Polish Army, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Demarcation on September 28, 1939 (an amendment to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in August). In it they assert that the Polish state had ceased to exist as result of its disintegration, proceeded to determine the new shape of the territory, and also promised each other the closest cooperation in combating all Polish aspirations for independence. During the first weeks of occupation, breaking all the rules of international law and war, Germany and the Soviet Union decreed the annexations of Polish territories and of the Free City of Gdańsk, and the Reichstag passed a law on the legal recognition of reunification with the Reich. On October 8, Chancellor Adolf Hitler issued a decree on the division and administration of the eastern territories. A further decree was issued on October 12, on the administration of the occupied Polish territories (creation of the General Government). On 1 November the Supreme Soviet of the USSR adopted a resolution to join “Western Belarus” to the Belarusian SSR. In addition, the two aggressors transferred parts of the Polish territory to third countries: on October 26 the USSR signed an agreement with Lithuania to incorporate the city and region of Vilnius (on August 3, 1940, all of Lithuania was annexed by the USSR), and on November 21, Germany signed an agreement with Slovakia on the incorporation of 52 communes in the Spiš and Orava regions. It can be said without exaggeration that it was the fourth partition of the Republic of Poland (the first three were carried out from 1772–1775).

Within a few weeks of the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, the entire territory of the Republic of Poland came under German occupation: Białystok District was incorporated into the Reich; Lwów, Stanisławów and Tarnopol Voivodships into the General Government as the District of Galicia; finally, the remaining areas to the Reichskommissariat Ukraine and Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories. This situation lasted until the beginning of 1944, when the Red Army gradually began to occupy Poland. By early May 1945, the entire territory of the Republic of Poland was under the control of the USSR. The eastern boundary was dictated by Stalin to the Polish puppet government, the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN), and codified in the “Agreement on the Polish-Soviet Border”, signed in Moscow on July 27, 1944, although the PKWN had no authority to conclude such an agreement. Another agreement on the course of the Polish-Soviet border was concluded by the PKWN in Moscow in August 1945. The new border of western Poland was then arbitrarily drawn by the Soviets, Americans and the British during the Potsdam conference on August 2, 1945.

The entire German and Soviet occupation of Poland was marked by violence and crimes. In 1946, the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg described the German crimes as: planning, commencing and conducting an aggressive war; murders carried out on prisoners of war and civilians; mass extermination in camps; demonstrative executions; street roundups; slave labor; displacement of the population; deliberate demolition of cities, villages and housing estates; plundering of cultural property and destruction of the treasures of national culture; denationalization and Germanization; political, racial and nationalist persecution; destroying all traces of Polish culture and art.

The long-term goal of German policy in the occupied and annexed territories of the Republic of Poland was their Germanization. The process would start in areas incorporated into the Reich, then move to the General Government region, then to more economically attractive areas further to the east. The Germans divided the citizens of Poland according to Nazi racial criteria: at the bottom of the ladder were Jews, on the second rung were ethnic Poles, next were Belarusians, followed by the artificially categorized Goralenvolk (Polish Highlanders), Lithuanians and Ukrainians, and highest, the Volksdeutsche, non-citizen Germans living outside of the Reich.

According to this division, the Jewish citizens of Poland were the first ones destined for mass extermination, ethnic Poles were mainly to be exploited as forced laborers, and subsequently resettled to some unspecified east. Slavic minorities, Highlanders loyal to Germany, and Lithuanians, found themselves under special protection. On the other hand, the Volksdeutsche (depending on the category) were to receive the full rights of citizens of the German Reich (Herrenvolk) in the future. The development of events during and after the war was foreseen in the Generalplan Ost (Master Plan for the East). It was set into motion by virtue of a decree by Hitler on October 7, 1939, creating the office of Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of German Nationhood, with SS chief Heinrich Himmler at its head.

The Germans began to implement their plans for the Polish territories with massive secret executions — without any court rulings — of the population. They especially targeted the intelligentsia, political and social activists of Pomerania, Silesia and Greater Poland. The executioners were members of the Einsatzgruppen of the German police, local Germans from Selbschutz, and even soldiers of the Wehrmacht. Later, overt and secret executions — mainly members of underground organizations — intensified in the General Government (including in Warsaw and the surrounding areas). Executions were also carried out during pacification actions in villages (sometimes people were burned alive).

The most important role in implementing of the German policy of the extermination of Polish society was played by the system of camps, which after the outbreak of the war began to develop quickly and acquired a genocidal character. The camps were subordinated to the Reich Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt), the SS and Main Economic Management Authority (Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt) and the Concentration Camp Inspector (Führungs und Aufsichtshauptamt – Inspektion der Konzentrationslager). In occupied Poland, the Germans established four concentration camps: the Auschwitz-Birkenau-Monowitz complex, Majdanek, Płaszów and Warsaw. While Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek were both extermination and labor camps; four separate extermination centers – Kulmhof, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka; as well as many detention, resettlement and transit camps, forced and special labor camps, were introduced.

The first transport of 135 Poles from Gdańsk reached the new German Stutthof camp on the same day that it opened, September 2, 1939. A completely unheard-of German action carried out at the beginning of the occupation was the arrest and deportation of over 170 professors from Kraków (mainly from the oldest university in Poland, the Jagiellonian University) to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. Some of them were murdered or died of exhaustion. These were but a fraction of a large number of Polish intellectuals targeted by the Germans (victims of the Intelligenzaktion) and also included the Catholic clergy[1]. The Germans were vicious towards the Poles who most strongly identified with their nation, representing its ruling class.

Founded on the initiative of the SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, Konzentrationslager Auschwitz was built in spring 1940. In the following years, this camp was transformed into a complex, which grew to unprecedented proportions. Its first prisoners were 728 Poles arrested for political crimes as part of the “emergency pacification action” (Ausserordentliche Befriedungsaktion) carried out in the General Government. One of the prisoners of KL Auschwitz was later canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church, Franciscan friar, Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe, who sacrificed his life for a fellow prisoner.

Another prisoner, Witold Pilecki, allowed himself to be arrested in September 1940 in order to get into Auschwitz and establish a military conspiracy there. Its main task was to prepare a great revolt of prisoners. Pilecki, who was in the camp under an assumed name and constant threat of discovery, escaped the camp in the spring of 1943. As a Home Army soldier, he fought in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. After the capitulation, he was held in German POW camps in Lamsdorf and Murnau, and after the war he joined the Polish II Corps in Italy. There, in 1945, he wrote down his famous report on his nearly three-year stay in Auschwitz. In 1946, as a captain, he returned to Poland with a secret mission of establishing contact with the independence underground. He was arrested by operatives of the Ministry of Public Security, and after a long period of interrogation and torture, was sentenced to death and murdered with a shot to the back of the head in the Mokotów Prison in Warsaw.

The fate of the majority of Polish Jews ended in the German camps from 1942–1944. They were usually murdered immediately after arriving, while a small remnant was temporarily allowed to live to work on disposing of the bodies and cleaning up the things left behind. Many Polish Jews also died in individual and mass executions in homes and in ghettos. A similar fate befell Polish Roma and Sinti and all mentally ill and old people[2]. Mass killing of people took place within the framework of the powers granted in the form of oral or written orders by the leaders of the Third Reich with Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, or Heinrich Himmler in the lead. Germany derived concrete financial benefits from the procedure of organized plundering of their victim’s wealth.

The discovery of the graves of Polish officers by the Germans in spring 1943 and the amplification of the Soviet crime committed in the Katyń Forest, made them realize how important it was to hide the truth about their own crimes from the world. Crematoria served this in the camps to eliminate the bodies of those killed. Other masking activities were conducted as part of an extensive campaign marked with the code name 1005. The verbal camouflage of the crime used by the German bureaucracy also served to blur its traces. In classified documents, the mass murder of people was referred to as “special treatment”, “purge”, “exclusion”, “executive activity” or “direct action”. To the same end, operational codenames were used, such as: “Malaria Action”, “Harvest Festival”, “Altona”, “February” or “Nuremberg”. The bodies of the murdered were called “figures”.

A particularly refined racial crime was to take away children deemed suitable for Germanization from their parents. Of about 200,000 of the children kidnapped during the war, only about 30,000 were found after hostilities had ended. The German resettlement was coordinated by the Office for the Displacement of Poles and Jews (Amt für Aussiedlung von Polen und Juden), renamed the Resettlement Center (Umwandererzentralstelle). The Germans massively displaced Poles from Silesia, Greater Poland and Pomerania, from the regions of Radom, Dębica and Lublin, as well as from the Zamość region. Another manifestation of the German terror against the inhabitants of Polish cities were random round-ups, in which victims — like slaves from Africa centuries earlier — were sent to forced labor in the Reich. Among the deportees were many juveniles, some as young as twelve.

The Germans planned to liquidate Warsaw as the center of Polish identity and transform the capital city into a provincial German city. The preliminary stage was the ban on the reconstruction of buildings destroyed during the siege of the city in September 1939, followed by the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto after the suppression of the 1943 uprising and the rest of the city after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The Germans interfered with religious practices and persecuted the clergy, plundered and destroyed cultural goods, liquidated centers of intellectual and artistic life, and transformed Polish lands into an international cemetery where the ashes of most European Jews rest, along with many hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers, thousands of Italians, and several thousand French and British prisoners of war.

German racial policy and occupational lawlessness led to the phenomenon of szmalcownictwo — blackmailing and extorting ransom from Jews in hiding or reporting them to the Germans. The Polish Underground State treated this phenomenon as ordinary banditry. It was clearly written in the underground press that “Every Pole who cooperates with their [German] murderous action, whether by blackmailing or denouncing Jews, whether exploiting their terrible position or participating in looting, commits, a grave crime against the rights of the Republic of Poland and will be punished immediately”. Underground courts that issued sentences on behalf of the Polish state sentenced these criminals to death, carried out by special units of the Home Army. The racist German system and the application of the “divide and rule” principle, contributed to the mass murders committed on the Polish population by Ukrainian nationalists in Volhynia and Galicia in 1943–1944. As a result of this barbaric “wild genocide”, tens of thousands of people were killed. The anti-Polish action of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was an ethnic cleansing, which led to permanent changes in the national structure of the south-eastern areas of Poland.

The long-term goal of the USSR’s policies in the occupied and annexed territories of Poland was their Sovietization and de-Polonization. In the areas occupied and annexed by the USSR, all Polish citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, were subjected to brutal repression, especially on the basis of: political views (loyalty to the Polish state and all anti-communist attitudes), affluence (the wealthier the worse), the place of residence (the border zone along the demarcation line between Soviet and German spheres of influence), and profession (policemen, judicial employees, professional soldiers, foresters). Stalin’s apparatus of violence tried to break social morale and destroy all forms of resistance at the root.

At the beginning of the war, about 250,000 Polish soldiers and policemen were taken into Soviet captivity. Approximately half of the prisoners (including all police officers and army officers) were transferred to NKVD concentration and labor camps, a small number were murdered on the spot, and the rest released. Shortly after the Red Army occupied the eastern provinces of Poland in September 1939, Polish citizens who were considered a “counter-revolutionary element” or “undesirable”, began to be sent to Soviet prisons and camps, sentenced under paragraph 58 of the Criminal Code of the USSR. As in the case of the German invader, political and social activists, officers, and especially the Border Protection Corps, were first in line for arrest. Up until the outbreak of war between Germany and the Soviet Union, about 100,000 people had been imprisoned.

Acting on the recommendation of the highest state authorities (decision of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of March 5, 1940 — signed personally by Stalin), the NKVD began the systematic execution of prisoners from camps in Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkov and from prisons in West Belarus and Ukraine. They were all either captured policemen and Polish Army officers (mostly reserve officers, i.e. people enlisted into the army in connection with the outbreak of war, and civilians from various professions requiring at least secondary education). In total, at least 25,000 people were murdered: over 14,000 prisoners from the aforementioned camps were killed and buried in Katyń, Kharkov and Kalinin (today Tver) and about 10,000 prisoners in Bykovo near Kiev and Kurapaty near Minsk. Mass murders also occurred during the evacuation of Soviet prisons in summer 1941. The tragic fate of many prisoners remains unknown to this today.

From 1939–1941, the Soviets carried out four mass deportations to the East to Siberia and Central Asia. It started in February 1940 with military settlers, state officials, then through to April 1941 it covered civil servants, military officers, police officers, and other public workers, social activists, merchants, industrialists and bankers. Families were not spared either, especially of those persons previously arrested by the NKVD, or detained while trying to illegally cross the Soviet border. In that summer, deportations were extended to refugees from central and western Poland who came to the East during the war of 1939. Finally, in May–June 1941 attention turned to intellectuals (including people with at least a secondary education), other refugees, railway workers, skilled workers and craftsmen. According to Soviet data, in total about 325,000 Polish citizens were deported: 210,000 Poles, 70,000 Jews, 25,000 Ukrainians and 20,000 Belarusians.

The Soviets persecuted churches regardless of religion, although mainly Roman Catholic, as a mainstay of Polish identity. To this end, about 150 priests were murdered, and twice that many were transported to the East. Also, all priests were subjected to surveillance, numerous churches were desecrated, worship was limited to only the inside of churches, teaching religion before the age of 18 was banned, and church institutions were robbed. In 1940 and 1941, about 150,000 Polish citizens of draft age were forced into the regular units of the Red Army and sent to war against Finland in 1940, and then against Germany. About 100,000 people were incorporated into the engineering battalions of the Red Army.

As a result of the signing of the agreement between the Polish and Soviet governments (Sikorski-Majski Agreement of July 30, 1941), the remaining Polish citizens were released. This action was halted in mid-1942. In 1943, as a result of “passportization” (the re-enforced imposition of Soviet citizenship), several thousand Poles were sent to labor camps again. After the Red Army crossed Poland’s pre-war border in January 1944 and in the following years, the Soviet apparatus of repression continued the policy of 1939–1941. The victims of these actions were mainly soldiers of the underground Home Army. In the so-called “Augustów manhunt” in July 1945, about 2,000 people were arrested, of which 600 went missing without a trace. It is estimated that about 50,000 people were deported to the labor camps from the territories incorporated into the USSR and about 40,000 from post-Yalta Poland. Some of those who survived did not return home until a few years after Stalin’s death in 1953. No Soviet criminal was ever tried for the deaths of Polish citizens.

Warsaw, Poland, April 13, 2018. National Day of Remembrance for Victims of the Katyń Massacre. Personal belongings of those murdered, presented at the Katyń Museum in Warsaw. © Leszek Szymański (PAP)

The Scale of Losses Suffered by Poland During World War II

Although Poland belonged to the victorious, anti-Hitler coalition, it emerged from the Second World War as a country without its sovereignty and territorially truncated. It became a client state of the Soviet Union for decades and irretrievably lost the cities of Lwów and Wilno, both extremely valuable to the national culture and heritage. As a result of war and occupation, Poland suffered huge losses in people, national wealth and cultural achievements. If they are taken proportionally to the size of the population, Poland suffered the largest losses among all countries in the Second World War. Almost all Polish Jews died, the intelligentsia (doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers) was painfully decimated, and large landowners practically ceased to exist.

To this day, there is no precise data on this subject, which results from many reasons. These include the mass character of the crimes, the anonymity of the victims and the obliteration of the evidence by the perpetrators; the extreme example of which is the victims of gas chambers, immediately burned in crematoria, then their remains obliterated in industrial grinders. The shifting of borders was another factor especially given that the borders from 1939–1989 were heavily guarded, and foreign contacts limited as much as possible. There also was large-scale population displacement — apart from resettlements and deportations, after the war there were “repatriations” of Polish citizens from East to West and vice versa. Finally, the communist political system itself played a role, by limiting the freedom of research, access to archival sources and censoring publications, and also sowing fear in witnesses against the disclosure of facts uncomfortable for the communist authorities.

The regaining of freedom and sovereignty after 1989 allowed Poland to finally begin formerly banned studies on Soviet crimes, however the passage of time meant that many witnesses were already gone. Therefore, despite the efforts made in recent years, many victims of Nazi and Stalinist regime repression are still unknown. This is also the case for material losses. The only wide-ranging study on Polish war losses prepared by the Bureau of War Compensation and issued in January 1947 (Report on losses and war damages of Poland in 1939-1945), is far from exhaustive. Whereas later studies on losses and war damage are an important supplement to our knowledge, they refer only to specific issues. These include the “Report on the War Losses of Warsaw” from 2004, developed by the team headed by Wojciech Fałkowski; the “Report on the War Losses in Poznań in 1939-1945” from 2008, edited by Andrzej Sakson and Andrzej Skarzyński and “Personal Losses and Victims of Repressions under Two Occupations” in 2009, edited by Tomasz Szarota and Wojciech Materski. A report prepared by a team of historians and architects commissioned by Warsaw’s then Mayor Lech Kaczyński clearly shows that the capital of Poland “suffered the highest percentage of losses during World War II of all European cities.” According to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, in 1939–1945, the total loss of Polish citizens under German occupation amounted to about 5.5 million people (including about 2.8 million Polish Jews, of which nearly 1.9 million were killed in concentration camps). Estimates of the Polish victims of the USSR amount to no less than 150,000 dead.


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[1]Particularly those sent to Dachau — out of 2720 Catholic priests imprisoned in the camp 1,780 were Poles, and 868 of them died.

[2] For example, those staying in institutions in Chełm, Kobierzyn, Choroszcz, Dziekance, Kocborów, Kochanówek, Obrzyca and Zofiówka

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