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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 2, 2009
Marking 70 years since WWII broke out
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Tragic Aftermath
September 2, 2009 By W.¯.    
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During the almost six years that World War II lasted, Poland sustained colossal losses. Millions died. The country's borders shifted dramatically as a result of decisions made by the victorious powers.

As a result of military operations, famine, diseases and above all the mass killings carried out by the country's occupiers between 1939 and 1945, Poland lost around 16 percent of its population, the highest proportion of any country involved in World War II. Historians disagree over how many Polish citizens died in the war. The communist authorities after the war falsified the data to such an extent that establishing the truth is extremely difficult today. For example, history books first put the number of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp victims at almost 6 million, then the figure gradually dropped to 4.5 million and 3 million and at present, it is estimated at 1.1-1.3 million people. The communists were also silent about the victims of the Soviet occupiers, including people murdered by the NKVD secret police and other Soviet institutions, and those who were sent to labor camps in the Far North and who never returned. A precise assessment of how many such people there were is difficult and the fate of Polish prisoners in gulags is in many cases a mystery. As long as Soviet archives are inaccessible, this is unlikely to change.

According to rough estimates, a total of 160,000 Polish soldiers were killed on all fronts during the war. The number of civilian victims of the war and the number of victims of mass killings is much higher at well over 5 million, including around 3 million Polish citizens of Jewish descent. Economists, in turn, estimate the war damages sustained by Poland at $50 billion, according to exchange rates from 1939.

The political future and Poland's borders were sealed not only on the battlefield, but at meetings of the Big Three Allied leaders: U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The Yalta Conference held Feb. 4-11, 1945, was of key importance. It took place after the Tehran Conference in November and December 1943 and before the Potsdam Conference in July and August 1945. By the Potsdam summit, Roosevelt had died, succeeded by newly elected American President Harry Truman, while Clement Attlee had taken over from Churchill as British prime minister.

The Yalta conference resulted in practice in yet another partition of Poland. With approval from its Western allies, the Soviet Union seized almost half of Poland's pre-war territory.

Meanwhile, at the Soviet Union's request, as it was said, the parties agreed on "historical compensation" for Poland in the form of swathes of West Pomerania, East Prussia and Silesia which had been part of Germany before the war. It was decided the native German population would be expelled.

The big powers also approved a Provisional Government of National Unity with headquarters in Warsaw, obliged to "hold free and unhampered elections based on universal suffrage." Such elections however never took place, because all ballots that took place at in the late 1940s and early 1950s were entirely controlled by Moscow. The Soviet Union assumed de facto control over the new Poland, helped by subservient Polish communists and the security machine of the NKVD -whose officers arrived in Poland together with the Soviet army and, in some cases, would stay until the mid-1950s. Their task was to consolidate the Soviet hegemony, oversee local communists and thwart all signs of opposition against the new system.

On June 30, 1946, Poland held a referendum to demonstrate how popular the ruling communists and their allies were. Polish citizens were asked three questions:
"Are you for the abolition of the Senate?" (the upper house of parliament);
"Do you want a future constitution enshrining an economic system established through agricultural reform and nationalization of the fundamental branches of the national economy, but preserving the statutory rights of private initiative?";
"Do you want the western borders of the Polish State to be consolidated on the Baltic Sea and the Oder and Lusatian Neisse rivers?"

In order to conduct a rigged vote, the Political Bureau of the Polish Workers' Party (a communist party formed in the Soviet Union and entirely dependent on its Soviet overlords) in March 1946 appointed the State Security Committee. The tasks of the new body included crushing the pro-independence underground movement and eliminating politicians from the opposition Polish Peasants' Party. The operation was supervised by a team of officers from the Soviet Ministry of State Security, who were also tasked with falsifying and fabricating referendum documents. The Soviet officers rewrote 5,994 protocols from district electoral commissions and forged around 40,000 signatures of commission members.

According to official results announced July 12, 1946, most Polish people said "yes" to all three questions, that is, the way communist propaganda wanted them to vote. The "yes" results were given as 68, 77 and 91 percent respectively. According to analyses by Polish historians after the collapse of communism, the real figures were 27, 42 and 67 percent. The "successful" referendum helped the communists to eliminate the Polish Peasants' Party as a contender for power and to start to gradually take over the entire country, which would soon be marked on official maps as the People's Republic of Poland.

The first attempts to soften the Soviet dictatorship took place after Stalin died in March 1953. Under Nikita Khrushchev 1953-1964, the Soviet Union followed a more lenient policy towards its satellite states. As a result, some Soviet military and security officers left the country, supporters of the Stalinist terror could be removed from power and the gradual democratization of life in Poland could begin.
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