September 1939 and the consequences for Poland
Why is it so difficult for the west to understand how big a catastrophe September 1939 was for Poles and how far-reaching its consequences were? The history of twentieth-century Poland is not only difficult, but it is also an uncomfortable topic for the leading countries in the world – writes prof. Wojciech ROSZKOWSKI
On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, not only fighting against the Polish army, but also bombing civilian targets and murdering prisoners of war. Despite earlier agreements on mutual assistance with France (1921) and the United Kingdom (1939), and formal declaration of war on Germany (September 3, 1939), Poland’s allies decided not to take action against the aggressor under the Abbeville agreement (September 12, 1939). Fifteen days after the declaration of war, France did not attack Germany, as required under a military agreement with Poland. Thus, on September 17, 1939, Poland was invaded by the Soviet army from the east. In line with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939, the Third Reich and the USSR divided the territory of Poland among themselves. The Polish state authorities first moved to France and then to the United Kingdom. In occupied Poland, Germany and the USSR exterminated citizens of the Second Polish Republic, mainly of Polish and Jewish origin. Mass executions of Polish prisoners and civilians were carried out, for example, in the Katyn forest and in Palmiry.
The continuity of the state was represented by the Polish government in exile in London, which fought against the common enemy from the beginning. The Polish army was reconstructed from Polish refugees and the Polish diaspora in France, but it ceased to exist after the French defeat of 1940. The Polish army was also reconstructed in Great Britain (1st Corps) and, after Germany’s invasion of the USSR and the Polish–Soviet agreement of 1941, it consisted of Poles released from Soviet labour camps (2nd Corps). After the German aggression against Russia, the occupiers of Poland clashed against each other. A new anti-German coalition was formed, called the Big Three (the United Kingdom, the USA, and the USSR). The Polish government in exile supported it politically and militarily.
Meanwhile, in occupied Poland, various political parties consolidated as part of the Underground State authorities, under the political leadership of the Government Delegation for Poland, while the Home Army (AK) became the main armed force. The plan involved carrying out armed uprisings upon the Germans withdrawing from Polish territories. The western allies wanted to liberate Europe, whereas the USSR was aiming to spread its sphere of influence to the west. The fate of Poland was decided during a conference in Tehran in 1943 when the USSR practically gained a monopoly on operations on the Eastern Front. Western allies were to enter Germany from the west, and the USSR from the east through the Polish territories. The Big Three agreed to move the territory of Poland to the west: it was to lose part of the area to the USSR and get compensation in the west at the expense of Germany. This was a violation of the second article of the Atlantic Charter.
Previous experiences, such as the aggression of September 1939 and the cruel treatment of Polish citizens, indicated to the Poles that an ally of their western allies, but an enemy of independent Poland, would enter the country. Nevertheless, the Polish government in London and the Home Army command decided to fight the Germans when the Red Army entered Poland to demonstrate their will to oppose the common enemy. This was one of the goals of the Warsaw Uprising. By taking up the fight against the Germans on August 1, 1944, the Home Army sought to liberate Warsaw and receive the Soviets as hosts. Meanwhile, Stalin stopped the offensive near Warsaw, allowing the extermination of the Uprising and the Polish capital. In contrast to the Paris insurgents, who at the same time received help from western allies, Warsaw did not receive any help, and the Soviets entered the ruins of the city in January 1945, establishing their puppet government there. In Yalta, the Big Three confirmed the changes in the territory of Poland, and the special committee of the Big Three determined the shape of the new Polish government. This was a violation of the Atlantic Charter and permission for further Sovietisation of Poland.
Poland was the first country to resist Nazi Germany in 1939 and was on the side of the anti-Hitler coalition until the end. Nevertheless, at the end of the Second World War, Poland suffered defeat in the winners’ camp. That is why May 8, commemorated around the world as the anniversary of victory in the Second World War, is not remembered as a positive day in Poland. Poland lost six million of its citizens, including three million citizens of Jewish origin, murdered by the Germans in the Holocaust. A part of the Polish political elite died, and more remained in exile. Poland suffered gigantic material losses, for which it received virtually no reparations. The communist system imposed on Poland by the USSR meant the loss of independence, a revolution that brought new colonial social elites to power, and a slowdown in economic development. The sacrifices that Poles suffered proved ineffective. It caused a deep spiritual crisis. Despite being on the winning side, the Poles felt as if they had lost and perceived the Allies as aggressors or false friends. Furthermore, the defeated Germans did not have to treat Poland seriously. How to keep hope in a hopeless situation – this is the challenge Poland had to face under communist rule. It turned out that it was possible, as evidenced by the Polish uprisings of 1956, 1970, “Solidarity”, and the “year of miracles” – 1989, when once again we could proudly sing our national anthem.
Prof. Wojciech Roszkowski