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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 2, 2009
Marking 70 years since WWII broke out
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September 1939: End of the Dream
September 2, 2009 By W.Ż.    
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The German and Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939 came as a huge shock to Poles. Their country had regained its independence just 21 years earlier, following 123 years of occupation and partition-a period during which Poland had disappeared off maps of Europe.

The German and Soviet invasions were preceded by a tense period in which Berlin made attempts to gain control over Poland by forcing it to make territorial and political concessions. When these efforts failed, Germany concluded a political pact with Moscow. Partly secret, the pact divided up Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence in the run-up to a planned war. The pact was respected by both sides until the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

In the autumn of 1938, the Third Reich officially put three demands to Poland. It demanded that the Free City of Danzig be incorporated into Germany, that a motorway and railway line under German jurisdiction be built across Polish territory to link the main part of Germany with East Prussia, and that Poland join the Anti-Comintern Pact directed against the Soviet Union. In exchange, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop offered Poland mutual recognition of the Polish-German border, the extension of the Polish-German non-aggression pact from a period of 10 to 25 years and German consent to territorial changes in the east to Poland's advantage.

The German demands were firmly rejected by Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck. Speaking in the Polish parliament May 5, 1939, Beck pronounced the famous words: "We in Poland do not recognize the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the lives of men, peoples and countries that is priceless. That thing is honor."

After the attempts to force Poland into concessions failed, the inevitable happened-the Third Reich and the Soviet Union formed an alliance against Poland. The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, named after German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, was concluded in the Kremlin on the night of August 23, 1939. Under a secret protocol to the treaty, the Vistula river was defined as the border between the German and Soviet spheres of influence. In practice, the Soviet Union agreed to a German invasion of Poland and declared its readiness to take part in this operation.

On Aug. 31, 1939, Adolf Hitler, commander-in-chief of the Third Reich's armed forces, signed the order setting the invasion date at Sept. 1 at 4:45 a.m. The Germans mobilized 1.8 million soldiers, 2,800 tanks, around 3,000 aircraft and 10,000 cannons against Poland.

Poland had around 1 million soldiers, 880 tanks, 400 aircraft and 4,300 cannon.

On Sept. 1, the German armed forces started the invasion. Polish President Ignacy Mościcki informed the nation about the unprovoked German aggression and called on Poles to defend their freedom and independence. Earlier, the public had been told for many months that Poland, in alliance with France and Britain, was able to repel German aggression. But this was merely propaganda-the Polish armed forces, despite their courage and determination, were doomed to defeat. None of the allies came to Poland's assistance, although they were obliged to do so under agreements on mutual assistance in case of military invasion by a third party. France and Britain formally declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, but took no military action.

On Sept. 17, the Red Army, with up to 650,000 soldiers and over 5,000 tanks, invaded Poland from the east, fulfilling its obligations stemming from the secret protocol to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The official pretext was presented in a diplomatic note delivered to Polish diplomats in Moscow. The note referred to "the disintegration of the Polish state, the escape of the Polish government, the need to protect the property and life of Ukrainians and Belarusians living in eastern Poland and free Polish people from war." Soviet historical materials still refer to the Soviet invasion of Poland as "assistance to the people of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus who asked in September 1939 to be incorporated into the Soviet Union due to the disintegration of the Polish bourgeois state."

Poland's Commander-in-Chief Edward Rydz-Śmigły issued a directive instructing Polish units not to engage in fighting with Soviet forces. The Red Army interned thousands of Polish officers, most of whom were later murdered (see next page: The Katyn Massacre). The Soviets also started a carefully planned operation of displacements, persecution, transportation to Soviet concentration camps and the murder of the Polish elite including the intelligentsia, state officials and artists.

In the face of inevitable defeat, President Mościcki and the Polish government with Prime Minister Felicjan Sławoj Składkowski were evacuated to Romania on Sept. 17. Fighting continued on the German front, but the situation of Polish units was deteriorating every day.

The 1939 campaign lasted from Sept. 1 to Oct. 6. Around 63,000 Polish soldiers and 3,300 officers were killed, and 133,700 were wounded. Around 400,000 became German prisoners of war. Some 230,000 fell into the hands of the Soviets.

Poland again found its territory divided between its neighbors. An underground resistance movement started in both parts of occupied Poland soon after the end of military operations.
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