Author: Karol Wołek, PhD
Poland was the first country in Europe to experience World War Two, which begun on 1 September 1939. Poland was also the first country to engage in armed combat with the joined forces of Nazi Germany and the USSR in their attempt the change the world order.
In their struggle to regain independence, Poles established a clandestine movement known as the Polish Underground State. Polish soldiers were ceaseless in their efforts to liberate the country both over the course of World War Two, but also well after its end. For the year 1945 did not mean the end of the war in Poland. The struggle for independence continued on Polish territory until the 1950s while the last known partisan was killed by the occupying Soviet forces as late as 1963. The last hiding partisan, however, is reported to have stayed active until 1982. He stayed in battle throughout the Nazi occupation and well into the Soviet occupation.
An outline of Poland’s geopolitical situation feels compellingly necessary if one wants to understand the situation of the Polish nation after 1945.
World War II began with a coordinated attack on Poland conducted by the Third Reich and the USSR, led by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin respectively. As of 1 September 1939, the very first day of World War Two, both totalitarian regimes held joint military action against Poland. Starting from 1 September, German bombers were guided onto their targets in Poland from a radio station located in Minsk, then in the Soviet Union.
In accordance with the secret protocol as to Hitler-Stalin Pact, also known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the new allies – Germany and the Soviet Union – were to jointly invade Poland. Red Army troops were to march into Poland three days following the Reich’s attack. Joseph Stalin, however, did not adhere to the protocol, with his troops advancing into Poland only 17 days after the Germans hit. The delay was caused by concerns over the propaganda discourse in the West, which Stalin wanted to focus on Germany solely.
For 17 days the German troops were facing Polish soldiers without expected support. This resulted in one third of its tank fleet being destroyed. A quick victory, as intended by Adolf Hitler, required a mighty ally. Without it, the invasion of Poland might have proven to be risky. The secret protocol appended to the alliance agreement concluded between the Soviet Union and Germany divided Poland into two occupation zones and, more broadly, it divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. Under the agreement, the German troops, which had attacked Poland much earlier and, therefore, had seized more land, had to recede. Polish territory was thus split in two halves. The Polish government was forced into exile. First in France, and following its surrender, further in the UK.
The Soviet Union – an outline
The Soviet Union was the world’s first communist state. Its political elites were driven by communist ideology when it came to both foreign and internal affairs or establishing economic and social policies. Understanding the Soviet Union, its nature and policies, would not be possible without comprehending what goals communist ideology had set for the world’s first communist state. The state emblem of the Soviet Union embodies those goals.
It depicts a hammer and a sickle over a globe. The hammer and the sickle are symbols of communism, of communist revolution, and of the USSR itself. The reasons behind the state’s creation were as follows: world revolution and the inevitable class struggle. Both are key elements of Karl Marx’s ideology as well as the ideology of the Soviet Union.
World revolution means taking over the world by the communist state. According to communist ideologues capitalist states could not peacefully coexist with communist states. The Soviets’ goal was inducing a world war. After the capitalist states would annihilate one another, the Soviets would take over the entire world. This was why the Soviet Union had always had strategic attack war planning, but had never prepared a plan for a defensive war.
The class struggle is a cornerstone of Karl Marx’s philosophy. It requires a restructuring of society in accordance with communism. When put in practice, this brought about genocide: the killing of 10 to 15 percent of a given society as well as annihilating its elites and those strata of society that were unwelcome in a communist state. Predominantly, this hit entire families and the most educated, who, when alive, acted as guarantors of culture, of national and state traditions, of knowledge and of faith. For communists they stood in the way of communist rule and of harnessing entire societies under a totalitarian regime.
The Soviet Union and the independence of Poland
Poles were the first nation to have been subject to extermination in the Soviet Union solely on grounds of nationality. Over the course of the Polish Operation, conducted between 1937 and 1938, nearly 140,000 were persecuted, with 111,000 suffering immediate death. The sole criterion of repression was Polish nationality. It was the first nationally-motivated act of genocide in a communist state, as opposed to mass killings carried out on political, social or classist grounds.
After the joint invasion of Poland, the two allies cooperated closely for nearly two years. Both Germany and the Soviet Union manifested equally hostile attitudes towards the Poles. It included mass killings, the annihilation of Polish elites and the extermination of Poles in concentration camps, often after having exploited them through forced labour. The Soviets methodically deported the Polish populace into forced exile in distant parts of the USSR, characterized by a hostile climate – semideserts, taigas or tundras. The deportation process was halted by Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, thus saving millions of Poles from eastern parts of the former Polish state from being sent off. Suddenly, the entire Polish territory was under Nazi occupation.
Following the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, the communists, who suddenly found themselves behind the front, were ordered to organize a partisan movement. Until 1941, it would have been impossible due to the close Hitler-Stalin alliance. The Soviet partisans and communist organizations manifested an openly hostile attitude towards the Polish Underground State. Polish resistance organizations, which were in a continuous anti-Nazi struggle since 1939, had lured most of Poland’s youth into their ranks. This meant that the communists recruited chiefly from hoodlums and mobster gangs. They offered political protection, but demanded full loyalty to communist authorities. The communists allowed for the continued criminal activity of these groups, henceforth known as partisan units of the People’s Army and of the People’s Guard.
The Home Army, the Polish Underground State’s biggest military organization, regarded it as rather unfortunate to fight against units answering to Joseph Stalin, since the Soviet Union was allied with the UK, then home to the Polish Government-in-exile. It was the second biggest military organization within the Underground State, known as the National Armed Forces that fiercely tackled communist banditry. Communist partisans were not very successful, but for the countless acts of plundering, rape, and killings that they subjected civilians to. They were usually poorly skilled and depraved individuals. Predominantly, they were tasked with collecting intelligence, especially with regard to those involved in the structures of the Polish Underground State. The information gathered was subsequently passed to the central headquarters in the USSR by way of radio transmission, and was used to identify and to disband the Polish resistance movement.
Given their poor skills and munitions, the communist units were rarely fought against the Germans. They chiefly focused on blowing up rail tracks in order to slow down German provisions sent to the eastern front. The Germans slaughtered civilians in retaliation. For the communist partisans the German troops and the Polish Underground State were equal enemies. They were both seen as an obstacle in the way of bringing worldwide revolution. For this reason, under the Nazi occupation, communist partisan units often murdered Poles involved in the resistance movement or attacked Polish partisan groups.
In 1944, the front-line was pushed back into pre-war Poland. As the German troops retreated, the Red Army soldiers were advancing into Poland. They were joined by the NKVD units. As seen by Poles, it was the same Red Army that had attacked Poland back in 1939 as Hitler’s ally. The Soviets by no means changed their approach to Poles and their struggle for independence. The NKVD units, following the advancement of the Soviet soldiers, were tasked with methodical searches, arrests, investigations, murders and deportations of Poles involved in the resistance movement.
The following events ensued across the entire Polish territory. Polish partisan units engaged in armed combat with the Germans under Operation Tempest. It was aimed at liberating cities and territories in Poland before the onset of the Red Army. Some units disbanded before the front-line advanced, thus avoiding saturation of a given area with regular military forces, which makes it impossible to engage in partisan warfare. As the Soviet troops advanced into Poland, they arrested and disarmed units of the Home Army, which revealed themselves during Operation Tempest. Polish officers were murdered or deported eastwards to Soviet concentration camps. Privates, however, were incorporated into special units created especially for them within the Red Army.
The NKVD used the intelligence that the communist partisans had gathered to target members of the Polish resistance movement. It was aimed at a total liquidation of those who had confronted the Germans in the struggle for Poland’s independence. For the USSR, they were a major threat to the advancement of communist ideology and to the final conquest of Poland, because of their great attachment to the Polish state and national values as well as to the idea of freedom in general. Consequently, mass terror ensued in the territory occupied by the Soviets. Following the end of WWII, over two hundred concentration camps for Polish civilians were put up in Poland. The Soviets also used existing camps, which had been in use under the Nazi occupation.
Soldiers of disbanded partisan units were chased down and murdered. In no time, the forests had filled up yet again with fugitives, evading capture and terror by the occupier. Partisans, who had previously fought with the Germans, were forced to return to combat combat and fight against the Soviets in self-defence. Many new partisan groups were formed. Their total number was higher than that under the Nazi occupation. This was the response to the mass terror and killings to which the Soviets resorted.
It is estimated that following the end of WWII over 200,000 people were involved in partisan warfare. They fought for independence and against mass terror. It is commonly referred to as the Polish anti-communist insurrection. The years 1944–1947 saw the fiercest combat between pro-independence partisans and the Soviet occupier. On the Soviet side, the NKVD mechanized brigades were predominantly engaged in the combat. They were special units, specially designated to fight partisan groups, armed with fast-firing heavy machine guns and AFVs. This made for an overwhelming advantage over lightly-armed partisans.
Organized combat continued on Polish territory until the 1950s. The last Polish organized military units revealed themselves and ceased their activity in 1954. The National Military Union was among the largest military forces that had fought the occupier for the longest time. The last Polish partisan died in combat against Soviet-led forces as late as 1963: Sergeant Józef Franczak, a soldier of the Polish Army and a partisan fighting both German and Soviet troops. In his eyes, the war did not end in 1945. He continued his partisan struggle for 18 years on end. In the last years, he was mostly in hiding, as he knew that if he were to be captured by the Soviets, he would be murdered.
Warrant officer Antoni Dołęga was the last soldier of the Polish Underground State who did not surrender. He stayed in hiding while being continuously chased down by the communists until 1982. A Polish soldier before the war, he fought in Poland’s defensive war in 1939. Then he was involved in the Polish conspiracy movement under the Nazi occupation. During the Soviet occupation, he was a partisan unit leader. After he was left with a handful of soldiers, he made them go home while he stayed in activity until his natural death in 1982.
Partisan units and soldiers of the Polish Underground State would not have survived in combat against the Soviets, if it had not been for the overwhelming support of the Polish populace. While Western societies went on to rebuild their homelands after the war, the UK saw the onset of Beatlemania, and Elvis Presley’s career was in its infancy, gunshots were still being heard in Poland. The struggle for its independence was far from being over. The Soviets had established their military bases. And through imposed terror they exerted total control over Poland, its economy, politics and society.
Poland did not regain its independence after World War Two. After the great conflict, the Soviet Union, which had first attacked Poland as Hitler’s ally in 1939, seized the entire Polish territory, with the open connivance of the triumphant Allies.
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