1918-39

Quick note: This blog was originally meant to be a single entry, indulging my passion for 20th-century history by revising some of the misconceptions and oversimplifications surrounding the Second World War in Poland. However, having ignited this long-dormant interest of mine, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to stop writing… so to make this entry more palatable, I’ve decided to split it into two: ‘1918-39’, covering the lead-up to the war as well as the long-term historical and geopolitical factors involved; and ‘1940-5’, covering the Nazi occupation, the largely unknown but hugely significant Warsaw Uprising, and the tragic and treacherous outcome forced upon the Poles at war’s end.

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1939. Those four figures immediately conjure up, in my mind, tanks rolling over hills at the crack of dawn; Stuka bombers diving from the sky to the terrifying wail of sirens; and before long, columns of Wehrmacht troops goose-stepping down the boulevards of Warsaw. Most people know that 1939 is the year Nazi Germany invaded Poland, thus triggering the Second World War, but few know much beyond that. The basic what, where and when might be familiar enough to those who studied history at school or uni, but there’s generally very little knowledge as to why – why it happened, and why it happened the way that it did. Myths such as Hitler’s mass hypnotic powers, or foolhardy Poles charging tanks on horseback, are probably more prevalent than the fascinating and, at times, equally bizarre and unlikely facts. This is what I want to blog about today.

As someone who developed an intense interest in World War II from an early age, the first thing that strikes me about it – when I step back and look at it from a detached, ‘big picture’ perspective – is the unlikeliness of it unfolding the way that it did. A second world war was almost inevitable considering the outcomes of the first – the humiliating and ill-willed reparations clauses, the controversial territorial arrangements, and above all the October Revolution, transforming the vast expanse of Russia into a zealous Communist behemoth. Interwar Europe was full of grand plans and political  intrigue, engineered by the extreme Left and Right, and most of the cards in play prophesized a ‘hot’ expression of the Cold War – much like the scenario that drove the hit computer game series Red Alert.

It very nearly happened too, almost as soon as the Great War and Russian Civil War ended. In 1921, following heated skirmishes in the Ukraine, the Soviet Union invaded Poland, with the express intent of marching all the way to Berlin and setting up a Moscow-backed republic in the heart of Europe – the natural end goal of Lenin’s internationalist vision of Communism. But this time, history did not favour Lenin or his Red Army, still buzzing with revolutionary fervour and their success against the White armies in Russia. The resurrected state of Poland was not about to roll over and disappear into oblivion again, and through some daring military strategy and characteristic fighting spirit, the Poles splintered the Soviet spearhead at the gates of Warsaw. Had the city fallen, and the Red Army trampled on to Berlin – as was to happen some two decades later – Germany, its social fabric in chaos and on the brink of anarchy, would’ve almost certainly become a socialist republic as Bavaria did for some time. And considering France and England were willing to send battalions to Russia to extinguish the Bolshevik fire there, there’s no doubt they would’ve done the same had it spread to their own neck of the woods.

It therefore seemed only a matter of time before the White armies of Europe once again either attacked the Soviet Union in an effort to stomp out Communism, as happened in 1919, or the Red Army attacked the West in an attempt to disseminate Communism, as happened in 1921. Yet what ended up happening in 1939 was that Nazi Germany – a hostile reaction to the Communist-fuelled instability of Weimar Germany; a self-styled pan-European crusader against so-called ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’; and the Slavic world’s age-old chief antagonist – hooked up with that bastion of Communism and Orthodox Slavdom to take out the state that had, less than two decades earlier, protected central Europe from the incoming Reds and still represented, for many at that time, the outpost and bulwark of Western Latin civilization. Of course, as most people know, the Nazi-Soviet honeymoon wasn’t to last, but that the next war even began with such a configuration is remarkable.

It can’t be denied that despite being at opposite ends of the political spectrum, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had a lot in common. Both were totalitarian, militaristic with imperialist ambitions, and utterly convinced of their own self-righteousness and ideological superiority – which justified taking any means to achieve their ends. Both had also lost vast swaths of territory with the collapse of their empires in 1918 – virtually all of it in Poland. Historically Polish or not, this land was valuable if not vital to their future plans – as Lebensraum for the German Volk, or as the key artery through which to forment revolution in the West.

Early members of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – the NSDAP or ‘Nazi Party’ – tended to sympathize with the Soviets, a workers’ state that, like Germany, was treated like a second-class citizen of Europe by the spiteful, arrogant and power-hungry elites of France and England, as represented by the harsh and damning Treaty signed in the opulent Versailles Palace. In the many street brawls and protests that wracked Germany in the 1920s, the Nazis and Communists even teamed up on occasion, contemptuous of a common enemy represented by the stagnant and ineffectual Weimar Government, overtly installed and backed by the Western Powers.

However, Hitler’s rise to prominence in the Nazi Party saw this attitude promptly switched around. Although France continued to be vilified as a pompous sore winner that needed to be cut down to size, the Anglo-Saxons were, in Hitler’s view, a brilliant if currently stagnant and mismanaged group of people – ancient kin and natural allies of the Germans. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, became the embodiment of all the Nazis disapproved of: a hulking, devious Frankstein state, stitched together from a mish-mash of Mongoloids and dreg Slavs and lorded over by a Jewish ruling class – a waste of space and human resources that would be put to better use under the efficient and visionary administration of a new German Reich. Dull and meandering as it is, anyone who’s read certain chapters of Mein Kampf would undoubtedly recognize that Hitler dreamed of seizing “the fertile lands of the East” since his early days in politics. What nobody could’ve predicted, from the time of Mein Kampf’s dictation all the way up to mid-1939, is that the Soviet Union would become a willing partner in Hitler’s first move eastwards. But the truth, as they say, can stranger than fiction.

Interwar Poland – the victim of Hitler’s first swift, knock-out blow against free Europe – was, in fact, probably the best-suited partner for Nazi geopolitical and ethnic cleansing on the continent. Unlike Hitler’s buddies in Fascist Italy, the Poles appreciated and shared Germany’s ‘problem’ of huge Jewish minorities. Poland was in fact the first nation to come up with a ‘Jewish solution’, of deporting Jews to a newly-established homeland in Madagascar – a plan the Nazis themselves initially adopted then replaced with their own ‘Final Solution’, following obvious logistical difficulties and an increasingly war-hardened attitude. Poland was also fiercely anti-Communist – probably even more so than Nazi Germany – and, like the Nazis, the Poles were deeply suspicious of the Godless Red dragon that lurked beyond their Christian parishes.

At Poland’s helm throughout most of the interwar period was Marshal Pilsudski – a national-socialist World War I hero whose strategic brilliance won the Polish-Soviet War, and whose no-bullshit attitude to politics saw him take over Poland’s Parliament by force of arms – something Hitler had tried himself in the 1920s, and failed. Hitler held Pilsudski in the same sort of esteem as Mussolini, and tried – albeit unsuccessfully – to meet him several times. Even after the merciless 1939 invasion, he took the time to pay his respects at the late Marshal’s tomb in Krakow – perhaps wondering what might’ve been had the old trooper stayed around for a few more years.

Essentially, Pilsudski was Poland’s Otto von Bismarck. Of Polonized Lithuanian heritage, with socialist leanings counter-weighted by an aversion to Soviet Communism, Pilsudski was above all a pragmatist who wanted to see a return to the old Polish Commonwealth – and was happy to conduct his foreign affairs according to whatever might help bring about that reality. Pilsudski made Poland the first country to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler – in 1935, just two years after Hitler became Chancellor and the rest of Europe still didn’t know what to do about it. In subsequent speeches up to 1939, Hitler referred glowingly to his friendship with Poland as “one of the most reassuring factors in the life of Europe”.

And indeed it was. Pilsudski was a canny man, finely tuned into his times – he recognized that Germany was a volatile force, rapidly on its way up again, that either had to be patted on the back as a mate or punched in the face before it got too strong. With France, Poland’s traditional ally, positively phobic of any military action after its 1914-18 experience, Pilsudski realized that it was in Poland’s best interest to engage rather than snub this new face across the fence. And while Pilsudski still strived for equilibrium in Poland’s regional relations, also signing treaties with the Soviet Union, Jozef Beck – Poland’s Foreign Minister right up until the outbreak of war – grimly stated that while the Germans might deprive Poles of their freedom, a Russian occupation would rob them of their very souls.

So how did 1939 come to be the year that these friends turned into such bitter enemies, whilst two bitter enemies became best of friends? Why, in spite of these common factors with Poland, did Hitler ruthlessly wipe it off the map in collaboration with Stalin, condemning more than half the country to Soviet obscurity and plunging Europe into continental war? The answer can be summed up in one word: Danzig.

‘Danzig’ was (and still is) the German name for Gdansk, a city on Poland’s Baltic coast. Part of the Polish Commonwealth for some 800 years of its history, it became heavily Germanized during the 19th century as part of Bismarck’s attempt to integrate that part of Poland into Prussia. At the time, Poland had ceased to exist on official maps, having been jointly invaded and partitioned by its neighbours Prussia, Russia and Austro-Hungary – the latter, ironically, having been saved from certain extinction by Polish forces some 100 years earlier, during the Ottoman siege of Vienna. When Bismarck’s Second Reich, like Europe’s other continental empires, collapsed under the four-year barrage of mortars and mud known as the Great War, Gdansk emerged as a politically autonomous ‘Free City’ – but the German population remained, now a clear majority, and abruptly finding itself residing within foreign borders.

More so than liquidating Jews, conquering Europe or banishing Communism from the face of the earth, Hitler’s number-one goal was to unite the German people into one state under his leadership – ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Fuhrer. As most people know, he began by annexing his homeland Austria (the ‘Anschluss’), then moved onto the Sudetenland (a German-heavy portion of Czechoslovakia), promptly followed by the rest of the country, with a small portion left for the Slovaks to enjoy as a German satellite (see map). Despite the myth of Czechs putting out welcome mats for the Germans, the Munich Crisis could have actually been the beginning of World War II, had the British and French leaders of 1938 shown more metal and respected the population’s wishes.

Emboldened by an endless stream of daring gambles paying off since their ascent to power, the Nazis had boldly threatened to send in tanks and bomb Prague from the air should their demands not be met – their threats so morbid and vivid that the ageing Czech President reportedly had a minor heart attack. But the Western Powers, unwilling to take up arms again over a small strip of central Europe, sold the Czechs out – a situation they would experience again soon enough, together with the Poles and other Europeans of the region, in 1945. In doing so, England’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain – who declared it “peace for our time” – merely succeeded in forestalling war rather than preventing it. If anything, the whole experience convinced Hitler that he was dealing with “little worms” – to use his own description – who hadn’t the spines to face up to a bold and ambitious new Germany.

Though Hitler declared the Munich Crisis “his last territorial concession in Europe”, he couldn’t ignore the thorn in Germany’s right shoulder. Having Danzig within Polish territory (see map) was particularly aggravating because it actually divided Germany from East Prussia, a Teutonic enclave below the Baltic States which formed part of what is now known as Kaliningrad. Although the ‘Polish Corridor’ that cut through the province of Pomerania had hundreds of years of precedence, forming the north-western frontier of the old Polish Commonwealth (map), in this new age of more logical, ethnic-based borders it seemed out of place – and represented a final and unignorable obstacle to Hitler’s dream of a unified Reich.

It’s worth noting at this point that Hitler was, all things considered, comparatively amicable and open-minded vis a vis Poland. Hatred of Poland was, after all, a staple of most Right-wing Germans’ diets at the time. After a long 120 years of partition, occupation and Kulturkampf (systematic imposition of German culture over Polish culture), Germany had come to see all of Silesia and Pomerania as its rightful backyard. An important but little-known fact is that, barely had the guns gone quiet on the Western Front, than they began blazing in these hotly contested territories as tensions between the two ethnic groups came to a head.

Back from the trenches in France, psyched on nationalist propaganda and with no clear purpose in peacetime society, many demobilized German soldiers formed Right-wing paramilitary units called Freikorps, which set about terrorizing these peripheral areas and attempting to rid them of Poles. The Poles, true to their historical record, promptly responded by forming their own armed bands and fighting back. The issue became so difficult and heated that even a League of Nations peacekeeping force, sent to settle the issue, ended up fracturing and fighting each other – the British contingent supporting the Germans, the French adamantly backing the Poles. The spilt blood led to a great deal of animosity between the two nationalities, and while the Poles prevailed in asserting these areas as their own, the Germans moved out looking back, muttering darkly that they’ll be back soon enough.

In this context, then, Hitler was more open to Poland than some old-school German conservatives, who wanted a straight, uncompromising return to the glory days of Prussia – and to hell with those upstart Poles. For Hitler, these upstarts ticked two very important boxes – firstly they were anti-Communist, and secondly, though not ingrained with the same rabid anti-Semitism as the Germans, they were not enthusiastic about their Jewish minorities either.  While these traits might not be relevant to a bygone world composed solely of bloated monarchies, they were certainly important to him in this daunting new world of crumbling values, radical ideologies and racial defilement. Moreover, Hitler recognized in the Poles a yearning to create permanent security in eastern Europe – i.e. multilateral containment if not removal of the Communist menace – and, more importantly to an “actions first, words later” man of the National Socialist movement, the Poles had the grit to back it up.

Nevertheless, the Danzig issue needed resolving. Over the summer of 1938, as the Reich digested its Czech meal, the Nazi and Polish leaders flirted. In Warsaw, Hermann Goring was repeatedly treated to his two favourite things – lavish banquets and hunting trips. With everything cosy and buttery, Hitler took the opportunity to make his first move in the delicate diplomatic chess game that was to follow – Danzig, he suggested around the start of 1939, should “revert” to Germany. Of course there would be token concessions, and juicy hints were dropped of possible joint action against the Soviets, with territorial prizes in it for Poland should they agree to take part.

But the Poles, despite their daydreams of Commonwealth glory, did not really have an appetite for war, and unlike the Nazis had not modernized or significantly expanded their military. More to the point, Poland needed an outlet to the sea for economic reasons – and having endured 120 miserable years of partition, was unwilling to relinquish one of its key urban centres in exchange for some hollow benefits and promises. It soon became clear that there was very little scope for compromise – either Gdansk remained Poland’s one and only access point to maritime trade, or it reprised its 19th-century role as a Hanseatic link between Stettin and Konigsberg. And while Hitler took the first rebuttal with surprising calm, before long, the hunting trips stopped, diplomatic exchanges went from cool to tense, and finally to threatening – with the Poles counter-warning the Germans that they were not Czechs. A coup was plotted to take over the Free City “in a lightning strike”, but when it became clear that the Poles would smash any interference in the bud, the senior Nazi leadership made the decision to start work on a much bigger and bolder project – ‘Operation White’, a full-scale military invasion of Poland.

As the first plans were drawn up for the 1939 offensive, things took a very strange turn, though the sequence was logical enough. Finally realizing that Hitler’s appetite for land was insatiable, and knowing that he would resort to brute force if necessary, England and France abandoned their appeasement policies and suggested – then pleaded – for Poland to join a Franco-Anglo-Soviet alliance, against which even this overgrown and extensively remilitarized Germany stood no chance. Poland refused. Though relations with Germany had deteriorated – and perhaps because of this – it did not want to antagonize its neighbour any further. Just as importantly, such an alliance would mean allowing Soviet troops onto Polish soil – and as was confirmed less than six years later, the Poles knew such ‘allies’ would arrive with their own agenda and not leave once they did so.

In the meantime, Hitler became determined to complete the final piece in his new Reich by any means possible. Though he held England and France’s resolve to fight in contempt, he knew he’d exhausted their goodwill. Poland, meanwhile, had proved itself just as determined to stand by the territorial status quo as Hitler was in reshaping it. His ally Italy was of no use to him in this northern European affair, leaving one other major player – the Soviet Union. Sweeping 20 years of anti-Bolshevik rhetoric under the Reichstag’s carpets, Hitler sent out tentative feelers to the Kremlin, knowing that Poland had to be isolated in its upcoming battle with the Reich. Stalin’s acute hyena instinct smelt meat, slowly but surely took the bait, and within weeks Hitler’s English-loathing Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was sitting in the Kremlin with a drunk and jolly Stalin, the two assuring each other of much cooperation and friendliness going forward – over Poland’s dead body.

As incredulous as the European community was when the news broke, it made perfect sense to Stalin. A young and ambitious general in the Polish-Soviet War, Stalin harboured a particular spitefulness towards the Poles for foiling his record as the man brought Communism to Europe (something he finally did, of course, in 1945). He was also wary of the powerful and hungry new Reich Hitler had created. This was a perfect way to kill two birds with one stone – take revenge on the Poles, and form an unexpected but formidable friendship with a potential predator. And so when the time came to clink shotglasses with Ribbentrop, not only was a Non-Aggression Pact signed between the two nations, but a secret protocol added – a death warrant for Poland, relegating it back to the history books with a new and permanent partition (see map).

Around the same time as Nazi Germany hooked up with Soviet Russia, England and France signed a treaty with Poland guaranteeing its independence. This move infuriated Hitler so much that in hindsight, it probably only strengthened his resolve to go to war – though interestingly, his venom was reserved more for the Brits than for the Poles, whom he regarded as meddling in regional affairs in which they had no relevance. Once the war was underway, pamphlets were even dropped over Poland (see here) showing a Polish soldier desperately crying out to Chamberlain, as rubble and dead bodies fill the background, “Anglio! Twoje Dzielo!” (“Englander! This is your doing!”)

When it came to the crunch, the Western Powers’ guarantee proved worthless. From day one, the Poles fought according to a strategy that assumed help would come from the West – holding on to difficult-to-defend areas instead of falling back to more secure, long-term defensive positions. Hitler, on the other hand, hoped if not assumed that the West would resort to haggling rather than fighting for peace again – so an integral part of the blitzkreig rationale was to take over as much Polish land as possible in as short a time frame as possible, so that if the armistice siren were called again, Germany would be in the most advantageous bargaining position possible. Of course, both sides were proved wrong: on 3 September, Britain and France did declare war – much to Hitler’s fury – but subsequently did nothing to assist the Poles.

As everyone knows, the blitzkreig itself was a roaring success – possibly the most well-planned and executed campaign of the Second World War, further aided by an abnormally dry and clear summer as well as bonus Slovak contingents on the German side. Although the Poles resisted fiercely – a tiny outpost on the Hel Peninsula delayed Hitler’s victory speech in Gdansk by eight days, and 720 men in Wizna held at bay a mechanized juggernaut of 42,200 – by 25 September, it was all over. Poland’s fate had already been sealed on the 14th, when, to the surprise and dismay of the rest of Europe, the Soviets – now confident they’d allied with the victors-to-be – moved in to take their share of Poland (see map), meeting almost no resistance in the ensuing confusion, and tricking thousands of Polish military personnel into imprisonment and, eventually, execution.

It’s rarely considered but had France and England acted on their treaty with Poland, World War II could have been wrapped up there and then, sparing Europe five long years of grief and devastation. Hitler threw virtually everything he had at the Poles, leaving Germany’s western border (and skies) wide open to attack. Yet not a single French foot soldier stepped forward, and during the so-called ‘Phoney War’ that followed, Germany had more than enough time to absorb and exploit its new acquisitions in the east, re-group and revitalize the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, and lay fresh plans for the tense but inactive west. Luckily for these subsequent victims, many Poles managed to escape to the west through Hungary, where they would re-emerge as some of the most resilient soldiers in the North African campaign and most talented pilots in the Battle of Britain. Those who stayed back wasted no time in forming Europe’s biggest and most well-organized underground army – the Armia Krajowa or Home Army – whose exploits and significance to the war’s big picture I’ll examine in the second entry.

An interesting postscript to Part One is that Hitler initially intended to keep a Polish ‘rump state’ following the September invasion – what later became the General-Government zone of the Nazi sector. It was Stalin who insisted that no trace of Poland or Polishness survive the Fourth Partition, immediately outlawing the very expression “Poland”, and ensuring that wholesale elimination of Polish culture and leadership become the norm once again. And while much has been made of the suffering and atrocities that took place in Nazi concentration camps and the Warsaw Ghetto, the Poles’ own saddest chapter took place deep in Soviet territory, in a fog-shrouded forest called Katyn where some 22,000 officers were shot in cold blood and hurled into pits. Ironically, it was the Germans who brought this to the world’s attention, having stumbled across the graves during their invasion of Russia, and who were declared by the Western press to be the perpetrators – a charge quietly dropped from the Nuremberg trials due to glaring evidence to the contrary.

Clearly, the Second World War was no simple matter of Allied good versus Nazi evil… and that’s a myth I’ll deconstruct more closely in Part Two, 1940-45.

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