Daily Archives: 30 May 2009

Poland’s Double Decapitation, 1939

From The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 417-419:

Central Europe had a mirror-image quality after September 1939. For it had not only been Hitler who had ordered his troops to invade Poland. Under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact signed in Moscow that August, Josef Stalin had done the same, on September 17. To conservatives like Duff Cooper or Evelyn Waugh, it seemed a moment of revelation, laying bare the essential identity of the two totalitarian systems, National Socialism and ‘socialism in one country’. The signatories themselves appreciated the irony of their partnership. When he flew to Moscow to sign the pact, Ribbentrop had joked that Stalin would ‘yet join the Anti-Comintern Pact’, Hitler and Mussolini’s anti-Communist alliance. Nevertheless, the partition of Poland did not produce exactly identical totalitarian twins. The Soviet zone of occupation was in many respects a mirror image of the German zone but, as with a true mirror image, right and left were transposed.

On September 15, several days after the Germans had taken the town, the 29th Light Tank Brigade of the Red Army rolled into Brest. They had seen little action since crossing the frontier, for the Poles had concentrated their efforts on resisting the invasion from the West. Indeed, most of the fighting was over by the time the Soviets arrived on the scene. The demarcation line between the two occupation zones was, under the terms of the Boundary and Friendship Treaty signed ten days later, to pass just to the west of the fortress. After an amicable joint parade, the Germans therefore withdrew back across the River Bug and the Russians took over. On the Soviet side of the line, thirteen million Poles – including 250,000 prisoners of war – were about to discover for themselves the distinctive charms of life in the workers’ paradise.

The Germans and Soviets had pledged in their latest treaty ‘to assure to the peoples living … in the former Polish state … a peaceful life in keeping with their national character’. Actions on the German side of the new border had already given the lie to those fine words. The Soviet approach was slightly different. At first, attempts were made to woo a sceptical local populace, many of whom remembered all too clearly the last Soviet invasion of 1920, when the Red Army had advanced as far as the Vistula. Soviet soldiers received as much as three months’ salary in advance, with orders to spend it liberally in Polish villages. This honeymoon did not last long, however. Soviet officials lost no time in throwing Poles out of choice apartments in Brest and elsewhere, commandeering them without compensation. Meanwhile, Soviet promises of plentiful jobs in the Donbas region proved to be illusory. Worst of all, Poles soon came to know the Stalinist system of organized terror. ‘There are three categories of people in the Soviet Union,’ people were told: ‘Those who have been in jail, those who are in jail, and those who will be in jail.’ Soon Poles began to joke bleakly that the initials NKVD stood for Nie wiadomo Kiedy Wroce do Domu (‘Impossible to tell when I will return home’). Incredibly, a substantial number of Polish Jews who had fled East at the outbreak of war sought to be repatriated to the German zone of occupation, not realizing that it was only Volksdeutsche who were wanted. This speaks volumes for their experience of nine months of Russian rule.

From Stalin’s point of view, the Nazi vision of a Germanized, western Poland, denuded of its social elites, seemed not menacing but completely familiar. Stalin had, after all, been waging war against the ethnic minorities of the Soviet Union for far longer and on a far larger scale than anything thus far attempted by Hitler. And he regarded few minorities with more suspicion than the Poles. Even before the outbreak of war, 10,000 ethnic Polish families living in the western border region of the Soviet Union had been deported. Now the entire Polish population of the Soviet-occupied zone was at Stalin’s mercy. Beginning on the night of February 10, 1940, the NKVD unleashed a campaign of terror against suspected ‘anti-Soviet’ elements. The targets identified in a set of instructions subsequently issued in November of the same year were ‘those frequently travelling abroad, involved in overseas correspondence or coming into contact with representatives of foreign states; Esperantists; philatelists; those working with the Red Cross; refugees; smugglers; those expelled from the Communist Party; priests and active members of religious congregations; the nobility, landowners, wealthy merchants, bankers, industrialists, hotel [owners] and restaurant owners’. Like Hitler, in other words, Stalin wished to decapitate Polish society.

Esperantists and philatelists are such a menace to society!

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Filed under Germany, nationalism, Poland, USSR, war