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History of Poland (1939-1945)

 This article is part of the
History of Poland series.
 Early history of Poland (until 1385)
 The Jagiellon Era
 The Noble Republic
 Partitioned Poland (1795-1914)
 Independence of Poland Regained
 History of Poland (1939-1945)
 People's Republic of Poland 
 History of Poland (1989-present)

Table of contents
1 Invasion and occupation
2 Dismemberment of Poland
3 The General Government
4 The Holocaust in Poland
5 Governments in exile
6 Resistance
7 Soviet Occupation
8 Aftermath of the War
9 External link

Invasion and occupation

On 1 September 1939, without a formal declaration of war, Germany invaded Poland. Its pretext was that Polish troops had committed various "provocations" along the German-Polish border, but the real reason was that the occupation of Poland was a necessary first step in Adolf Hitler's plan to conquer eastern Europe to create "living space" (Lebensraum) for the German people, and to exterminate the large Jewish populations living in Poland and the Soviet Union.

It was intended from the beginning as the war of extermination, as Hitler in person said to his commanders: "I have issued the command — and I'll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad — that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion , men, women, and children of Polish race and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians? "

The Polish armed forces resisted the German invasion with great tenacity and heroism, but their strategic position was hopeless since Germany and German-occupied Czechoslovakia surrounded Poland on three sides. In Poland the Germans first used the tactics known as the Blitzkrieg or "lightning war:" the rapid advance of the Panzer (armoured) divisions, the use of dive-bombers to break up troop concentrations and of aerial bombing of undefended cities to weaken civilian morale. The Polish Army and Air Force had little modern equipment to match this onslaught.

Britain and France honoured their pledge to Poland by declaring war on Germany, but there was no practical assistance they could render. The Soviet Union could have assisted Poland, but the Poles feared Stalin's communism nearly as much as they feared Hitler's Nazism, and during 1939 they had refused to agree to any arrangement which would allow Soviet troops to enter Poland. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 had ended any possibility of Soviet aid.

The Polish government apparently believed that Germany may launch only a limited war, to seize the disputed territories. To defend these territories, the Polish military command compounded their strategic weakness by massing their forces along the western border, in defence of Poland's main industrial areas around Poznan and Lodz, where they could be easily surrounded and cut off. By the time the Polish command decided to withdraw to the line of the Vistula, it was too late. By 14 September Warsaw was surrounded. On 17 September the Soviet Union began to occupy the eastern areas of the country under the terms of the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

The Polish government and high command retreated to the south-east and eventually crossed into neutral Romania. There was no formal surrender, and resistance continued in many places. Warsaw was bombed into submission on 27 September, and some Army units fought until well into October. In the more mountainous parts of the country Army units began underground resistance almost at once.

Dismemberment of Poland

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 1918 Treaty of Versailles, such 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 Lodz.

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

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

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

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

The future fate of Poland and Poles was decided in Generalplan Ost.

The General Government

Hans Frank

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 Cracow. The General Government was subdivided into four districts, Warsaw, Lublin, Radom, and Cracow. (For more detail on the territorial division of this area see General Government.)

A German lawyer and prominent Nazi, Hans Frank, was appointed Governor-General of the occupied territories on 26 October 1939. Frank oversaw the segregation of the Jews into ghettos in the larger cities, particularly Warsaw, and the use of Polish civilians as forced and compulsory labour in German war industries.

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

It was German policy that the (non-Jewish) Poles were to be reduced to the status of serfs, and eventually replaced by German colonists. In the Government All education but primary education was abolished and so was all Polish cultural , scientific, artistic life. Universities were closed and many university professors arrested and sent to concentration camps. In 1943, the government selected the Zamojskie area for further German colonisation. German settlements were plannned, and the Polish population expelled amid great brutality, but few Germans were settled in the area before 1944.

The Holocaust in Poland

Persecution of the Jews, particularly in the urban areas, began immediately after the occupation. In the first two years, however, the Germans confined themselves to stripping the Jews of their property and herding them into ghettoes and putting them to work in war-related industries. During this period the Jewish community leadership were able to some extent to bargain with the Germans. After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, special extermination squads (the Einsatzgruppen) were organised to kill Jews in the areas of eastern Poland which had been annexed by the Soviets in 1939.

At the Wannsee conference near Berlin on 20 January 1942, Dr Josef Buhler urged Reinhard Heydrich to begin the proposed "final solution to the Jewish question" in the General Government. Accordingly, in 1942 the Germans began the systematic killing of the Jews, beginning with the Jewish population of the General Government. Six extermination camps (Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka) were established in which the most extreme measures of the Holocaust, the mass murder of millions of Jews from Poland and other countries, was carried out between 1942 and 1944. Of Poland's prewar Jewish population of 3 million, only about 50,000 survived the war.

The role played, or not played, by Poles in these events is the subject of considerable debate. Since the fall of Communism in Poland, it has become possible to debate this issue openly, and Polish political parties, the Catholic Church, and Jewish organisations both inside and outside Poland have contributed. This debate has released long-repressed anger and resentment among both Poles and Jews.

Before the war there were 3 million Jews in Poland, about 10% of the population. Poland was a deeply Catholic country and the presence of this large non-Christian minority had always been a source of tension, and periodically of violence between Poles and Jews. There was both official and popular anti-Semitism in Poland before the war, at times encouraged by the Catholic Church and by some political parties, but never by the government. There were also political forces in Poland which opposed anti-Semitism, but in the later 1930s reactionary and anti-Semitic forces had gained ground. The events in Poland during the war should be seen against this background.

During the German occupation, most Poles were engaged in a desperate struggle for survival: it is estimated that 3 million non-Jewish Poles died during this period. They were in no position to oppose or impede the German extermination of the Jews even if they had wanted to. There were however many cases of Poles risking death to hide Jewish families and in other ways assist the Jews (Only in Poland death was standard punishment for person and his whole family, sometimes also neighbours, for any help given to Jews). In September 1942 the Provisional Committee for Aid to Jews (Tymczasowy Komitet Pomocy Zydom) was founded on the initiative of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka. This body later became the Council for Aid to Jews (Rada Pomocy Zydom), known by the code-name Zegota. It is not known how many Jews were helped by Zegota, but at one point in 1943 it had 2,500 Jewish children under its care in Warsaw alone.

There was no Polish collaborationist government in Poland, and very little active collaboration by individual Poles with any aspect of the German presence in Poland, including the Holocaust - certainly less than in France, for example. This was partly because the long-term German plan was to resettle Poland with Germans, and the German authorities were not interested in recruiting Polish collaborators. The non-German auxiliary workers in the extermination camps, for example, were mostly Ukrainians and Baltics, not Poles. The Polish underground movements, the nationalist Home Army (AK) and the Communist People's Army (AL), opposed collaboration in anti-Jewish persecution and punished it by death. In 1943 the AK sent Jan Karsky to report to the western Allies that the Polish Jews were being exterminated.

Nevertheless, the Germans were able to exploit popular anti-Semitism in some cases. Some Poles betrayed Jews in hiding to the Germans, and others made their living as "Jew-hunters." Anti-Semitism was particularly strong in the eastern areas which had been occupied by the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1941. Here the local population accused the Jews of having collaborated with the Soviets, and also alleged that Jewish Communists had been prominent in the repressions and deportations of Catholic Poles of that period. This was the background to the massacre of Jews that took place at the village of Jedwabne in the Bialystok area in July 1941, immediately after the village was captured by the Germans from the Soviets. The responsibility for this incident is hotly disputed, although the Polish government has officially apologised for the role Poles played. (see Jedwabne for more on this incident.)

Governments in exile

Wladyslaw Sikorski

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

This government in exile, based first in Paris and then in London, was recognised by all the Allied governments. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the Polish government in exile established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, despite Stalin's role in the destruction of Poland. Tens of thousands of Polish soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Soviet Union in eastern Poland in 1939 were released and were allowed to leave the country via Iran. They formed the basis for the Polish Army led by General Wladyslaw Anders that fought alongside the Allies at Cassino, Arnhem and other battles.

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

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

During 1943 and 1944 the Allied leaders, particularly Winston Churchill, tried to bring about a resumption talks between Stalin and the London Poles. But these efforts broke down over several issues. One was the massacre at Katyn and the fate of many other Poles who had disappeared into Soviet prisons and labour camps since 1939. Another was Poland's postwar borders. Stalin insisted that the territories annexed in 1939, which were mainly Ukrainian and Byelorussian in composition, should remain in Soviet hands, and that Poland should be compensated with lands to be annexed from Germany. The London Poles, led by Mikolajczyk, refused to compromise on this issue, even when Churchill threatened to cut off relations with them. A third issue was Mikolajczyk's insistence that Stalin not set up a Communist government in postwar Poland. Fundamentally, the issue was that the Poles did not trust the Soviets, while Stalin was determined that he alone should determine Poland's future.


Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski

Resistance to the German occupation began almost at once, although there is little terrain in Poland suitable for guerilla operations. The Home Army (in Polish Armia Krajowa or AK), loyal to the Polish government in exile in London, was formed from a number of smaller groups in 1942. From 1943 the AK was in competition with the People's Army (Armia Ludowa or AL), backed by the Soviet Union and controlled by the Polish Communist Party. By 1944 the AK had some 200,000 men, although few arms: the AL was much smaller. The AK killed about 150,000 German troops during the occupation.

In April 1943 the Germans began deporting the remaining Jews from the Warsaw ghetto, provoking the Warsaw Ghetto Rising, April 19 to May 16, on of the first armed uprisings against the Germans in Poland. Some units of the AK tried to assist the Ghetto rising, but for the most part the Jews were left to fight alone. The Jewish leaders knew that the rising would be crushed but they preferred to die fighting than wait to be deported to their deaths in the camps.

In August 1944, as the Soviet armed forces approached Warsaw, the government in exile called for an uprising in the city, so that they could return to a liberated Warsaw and try to prevent a Communist take-over. The AK, led by Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, launched the Warsaw Rising. Soviet forces were less than 20km away but on the orders of Soviet High Command they gave no assistance. Stalin described the rising as a "criminal adventure." The Poles appealed for the western Allies for help. The Royal Air Force, and the Polish Air Force based in Italy, dropped some arms but, as in 1939, it was almost impossible for the Allies to help the Poles without Soviet assistance.

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

After Bór-Komorowski's surrender the AK fighters were treated as prisoners-of-war by the Germans, but the civilian population were ruthlessly punished. About 500,000 people were sent to labour camps, while over 245,000 died. The city was almost totally destroyed after German sappers systematically demolished the city. The Warsaw Rising allowed the Germans to destroy the AK as a fighting force, but the main beneficiary was Stalin, who was able to impose a Communist government on postwar Poland with little fear of armed resistance.

Soviet Occupation

As the Soviets advanced through Poland in late 1944 the German administration collapsed. The Communist controlled Committee of National Liberation, headed by Boleslaw Bierut, was installed by the Soviet Union in Lublin, the first major Polish city to be liberated, in July, and began to take over the administration of the country as the Germans retreated. The government in exile in London had only one card to play, the forces of the AK. This was why the government in exile was determined that the AK, and not the Soviets, would liberate Warsaw. The failure of the Warsaw Rising marked the end of any real chance that Poland would escape postwar Communist rule. Until 1946 there was regular civil war in Poland, and some of AK and NSZ soldiers continued fight well into 1956.

Aftermath of the War

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

In 1945, Stalin carried out a major redrawing of Poland's borders. The eastern territories which he had occupied in 1939 (minus the Bialystok region) were permanently annexed by the Soviet Union, and most of their Polish inhabitants expelled: today these territories are part of Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania. In compensation, Poland was given former German territory (the so called Regained Territories): the southern half of East Prussia and all of Pomerania and Silesia, up to the Oder-Neisse Line. This entailed the expulsion of millions of Germans. These territories were repopulated with Poles expelled from the eastern regions. The defence of this frontier made Poland dependent on Soviet support.

External link