Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
World War II and its aftermath (1939-1947)
During the Second World War Poland had a dubious distinction of facing two enemies: the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Unlike most of the rest of the Intermarium, Poland remained faithfully on the side of the Western democracies, refused to collaborate with Germany, and actively fought against all enemies of freedom: chiefly the Nazis but also the Communists. Nonetheless at the end of the carnage it found itself under the yoke of the Kremlin. The Communist goliath won and became the sole hegemonic oppressor of the Poles after 1945.
No country bore heavier losses proportionally to its population and assets. Demographic tallies after 1945 showed a shocking loss of 11 million citizens out of circa 30 million in 1939. Between 5 and 6 million of them were killed, including about 3 million Polish Jews. The rest were displaced, deported, expelled, and missing. The Germans were responsible for the bulk of the murder. The rest perished because of the Soviets. Ultimately, although the Polish found themselves on the winning side, they lost the war because their country was occupied by the totalitarian USSR for the next half a century. A Polish diplomat succinctly called this paradox: “Defeat in Victory.”
The September Invasion
The Second World War commenced in September 1939 when Hitler and Stalin jointly attacked Poland. The Nazi dictator pounced on September 1 and the Soviet tyrant followed on September 17. No Allied help materialized, as the French focused on “fighting” the Phony War, and the British lacked the resources to come to Poland’s rescue.
After a few initial setbacks at the border the Third Reich’s war machine roared into Poland. Shocked and mauled by the German Blitzkrieg, the Poles failed to regroup in the eastern regions of the country because of the Russian invasion, however. Despite that, the regular Polish armies fought a two-front war, sometimes interchangeably against the Communists and the National Socialists, until October 6. Poland’s struggle lasted 36 days. That was longer than it took Hitler to overrun almost all Western European nations combined: Denmark (1 day), Norway (3 days), Holland (10 days), and Belgium (18 days). The might of France, assisted by Britain and others, crumbled in about 34 days, but the French officially surrendered to the Third Reich after 42 days (May 10-June 22, 1940). And Western Allies did not have to fight a two front war against both the Nazis and Communists.
Two Occupations: The Soviets
Upon defeating Poland Stalin and Hitler divided the spoils between themselves. The master of the Kremlin incorporated the eastern part of the Polish Commonwealth into the USSR. The south-eastern part became a portion of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the north-eastern regions accrued to the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic (with a slice later added to the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic). At a break neck speed, the Soviet dictator hoisted the insanity of Marxist-Leninist ideology, “laws”, and practice onto a bewildered, shocked, and terrorized population. This included a complete destruction of the institutions of the Polish state and its functionaries, collectivization of agriculture, and wholesale confiscation of all state and most private property from tiny mom-and-pop stores and small farms through vast landed estates and major industrial enterprises.
The population had to endure special taxes and obligatory contributions as well as forced food quota and corvee labor for the Soviet state. Churches and synagogues were greatly curtailed; religion was persecuted, and at times even suppressed with the clergymen and rabbis arrested, deported, and even executed. Children were subject to Marxist indoctrination in state run schools. To resist meant to maintain one’s identity, chiefly Polish and Christian, as well as sabotage the orders of the Soviet authorities. There were Polish underground cells and even guerrilla bases, but the resistance structures remained in an embryonic stage. Therefore the people relied on their faith and looked up to their traditional leaders, priests, teachers, and others, to conduct themselves decently. If caught defying the occupation law, they were imprisoned, tortured, and deported to Arctic concentration camps. Some were shot.
The Kremlin destroyed virtually everything pertaining to the Polish state because it wanted to project a carbon copy of the Soviet system onto the newly conquer lands. The hierarchy established by Moscow in the occupied territories was simple: the Soviet occupiers (the NKVD secret policemen, Red Army men, and other party personnel, in particular) were at the top. They were followed by the local Communists and other collaborators. The so-called “people” were placed next, especially among the minorities: Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, and others. At the bottom were “the bourgeois bloodsuckers” – an assortment of class enemies, chiefly the Poles.
Driven by class and ethnic hatred, the Communists targeted primarily the Poles as their main adversaries. Ethnic minorities were pitted against the Polish majority. Ukrainian, Belarusians, Jews, and others were eulogized, while the Poles vilified, discriminated, oppressed, and repressed as “Polish lords.” This was a very commodious category including anyone from a grass-roots village activist to the Prince Radziwiłł himself. The chief criterion of the harshness of oppression was not one’s financial status, but rather the degree of one’s commitment to Polish patriotism. This phenomenon often transcended ethnicity: if a Jew or a Belarusian showed loyalty to “former” Poland, as the Soviets put it, he or she was reclassified as in collusion with “the Polish lords” and repressed.
Basically, traitors were welcome and embraced. The most active patriots with the most developed leadership qualities suffered the most. They were captured and punished, including physical extermination. Tens of thousands were shot, most infamously at Katyn in Spring 1940; hundreds of thousands were shipped off to the Gulag, where many of them perished. The Soviets aimed at a total liquidation of the Polish elites so as to turn the common people into slaves: homines sovietici.
However, the application of the principle of the class struggle ensured that anybody better off and better educated also became suspect for Stalin. Hence, all property holders suffered confiscation, which, aside from largely Polish landed nobility, singled out chiefly the Jewish minority as it was mainly an urban middle and professional class in Poland’s east. Ukrainian and Belarusian nationalist intelligentsia were repressed, though some of them collaborated with the Soviets against the Poles in the early stages of the occupation. Thus, soon, many of the minorities joined the Poles in jail cells, execution pits, and transports to Siberian exile. For example, Jewish refugees from central and western Poland were overrepresented among the deportees because the Soviets suspected them of being unreliable Westerners. Morbid spymania of Stalin imagined them as colluding with the Nazis.
The first Soviet occupation persisted until June 22, 1941, when it was terminated by Berlin’s lightning attack on Moscow. Within about a month the Third Reich captured a dozen times as much territory as Germany and Russia had jointly conquered in their war on Poland in 1939. On their way out, the Communists massacred tens of thousands of prisoners they had failed to evacuate. The Nazis would soon outmatch them.
The German Nazi Occupation
Meanwhile, in 1939, Hitler split his share of the Polish spoils into two sections. The westernmost and northern Polish provinces were incorporated directly into the Reich. Central Poland became a Nazi colony which was run autonomously by German officials as the Government General (Gouvernmentgeneral — GG). The very name of Poland was banned. After mid-1941, the GG was expanded to include a slice of the south-east called the District of Galicia. In the north-east, a sliver called Bezirk Bialystok accrued to the Reich’s East Prussia. And the rest of Poland’s areas further east became subordinated to the Reichskommisariat Ostland, a large entity covering, roughly, the territories of contemporary Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
In the Polish lands incorporated into the Reich, the Nazis confiscated all Polish state property and large and medium size Christian private real estate, industrial possessions, and landed estates as well as selected small size holdings. Jewish property was stolen totally with no exceptions. The Polish elites were either killed or deported. The people were subject to repression, exploitation, and Germanization. Then, the Germans deported over a million people to the GG, most of them Polish Christians.
In the GG, all Polish state properties were confiscated along with most of the large estates and enterprises as well as some of the medium ones. Many of the remaining economic entities were forced to accept German commissars to supervise them. Of course, all Jewish property was confiscated. Incidentally, if an enterprise had a single Jewish director on its board, it was also subject to seizure. Further, the occupiers imposed special taxes, forced food quota, and periodic contributions. Next, there was labor exploitation. The Christians were required to perform obligatory forced labor duty. The Jews were ordered to report for slave labor. They were also gradually ghettoized.
The population universally resisted all onerous and oppressive measures. The most widespread form of popular disobedience was cheating and slacking. Both were, of course, treated as sabotage and severely punished. Beating, shooting, and working people to death were the norm.
Because it lacked a collaborationist government, Poland experienced the worst form of a direct German occupation. Thus, it bore the full brunt of the insanity of the Third Reich’s morbid racial fantasies. The Nazi hierarchy was simple: the German functionaries of the occupation regime born in the Reich (in its pre-war borders) were at the apex. Ethnic Germans born outside of the Reich came next. These so-called Volksdeutsche were further subdivided according to their degree of national consciousness, commitment to the principles of national socialism, and loyalty to Hitler and the NSDAP. The fanatical Nazis and the ruthless opportunists among the Volksdeutsche were privileged in jobs and goods distribution. The unwilling and recalcitrant were treated as cannon fodder for the Wehrmacht. Next on the racial ladder there came non-Jewish ethnic minorities and other “foreigners.” Relatively speaking, the Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Lithuanians were privileged over the Poles and Jews as far as cultural activities. The Nazi coddling of the minority integral nationalists resulted in their participation in the abuse and savagery vis-à-vis Poles and Jews. Some minority nationalist activists participated in the Holocaust. Later, from the spring of 1943, many Ukrainian fanatics embarked upon an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Poles in Volhynia and elsewhere in the south-east, resulting in perhaps 100,000 Polish deaths.
Thus, Nazi policies in occupied Polish lands combined the elements of race and ethnic struggle with national socialist class struggle. Initially, the main target of the Hitler’s executioners were Polish elites: grass-roots activists, clergymen, lawyers, doctors, teachers, landed nobles, military officers, and others. In a manner similar to the Soviets, the Nazis focused on extirpating broadly understood active Polish patriots. Anyone who showed any initiative and leadership potential was to be eliminated. Until the mid-1941 tens of thousands were shot, mostly Christians. This policy was particularly fiercely pursued until the invasion of the USSR and the onset of the Holocaust. The Nazis never abandoned their policy of extermination. Their savagery returned cyclically throughout the occupation.
Thus, the bouts of “ordinary terror” against the Polish Christian elite became casual hallmarks of the German sojourn in Poland. The common people suffered only occasionally at first. Eventually, however, the “ordinary terror” metastasized and spilled systematically onto the Polish population at large. Throughout the German occupation, tens of thousands of ordinary people died in street executions and so-called pacification actions where hundreds of villages were destroyed along with their inhabitants just in the GG (not counting the eastern borderlands). In February 1944, for example, in a single day the Germans and their Ukrainian auxiliaries killed about a thousand civilians in the hamlet of Borów and its environs. The suppression of the Rising in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, resulted in a minimum of 150,000 civilian losses in August and September 1944.
Further hundreds of thousands Christians died in Nazi concentration camps in German-occupied Poland and elsewhere. Most notably, Auschwitz was initially established as a killing center for Polish Christian political prisoners: over 70,000 of them perished there. About a million Poles were shipped off to the Reich as slave laborers, where some lost their lives. Countless others succumbed to maltreatment, hunger, and diseases without even having to experience actual incarceration. After they would have been further greatly reduced in numbers through deportation to the east, starvation, and mass death, the remnant of the Poles was slated to become Nazi slaves: the subhumans (Untermenschen), as envisioned by the infamous Generalplan Ost.
Jews did not even have that option. They were all slated for wholesale extermination: every single man, woman, and child. Thus, the Jews fell victim to “extraordinary terror.” Occasionally, the categories of victims overlapped. Some prominent, assimilated Jews were treated from the beginning as their Polish Christian counterparts and suffered the same fate. For example, the members of the Jewish leaders were proportionally represented among the Polish elite hostages shot beginning in the fall of 1939. However, the subsequent ghettoization of the Jews with its overcrowding, dismal sanitary conditions, appalling maltreatment, lack of food, and forced labor resulted in rampant diseases and death rates far exceeding those of the Christian population outside. Then, in mid-1941, the Holocaust commenced with the mass shootings in the east. Later, the German occupation authorities ordered mass gassing in several pre-existing concentration camps, most notably at Auschwitz, where over 1 million mostly non-Polish Jews died, and in newly constructed death camps, including Treblinka and Bełżec, where the bulk of Jews from central Poland perished.
There were Jewish acts of desperate armed resistance, most notably the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, but they simply reflected the Jewish will to choose a way to die, rather than strategic undertakings to achieve victory and self-liberation. The most prevalent act of non-armed resistance was, first, to cheat and, next, to flee. Most Jewish fugitives in the countryside wanted to survive, and not wage guerrilla warfare. The greatest impediment to rescue was the Nazi threat a mandatory death penalty for any assistance to Jews, including not only providing them with shelter and food, but even sharing a cigarette or pointing out a way to escape. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of Jews escaped death, which would have been impossible without some form of assistance by local Christians. Anti-Semitism played a secondary role in this horrific game of choices.
The losses inflicted by the German Nazi occupation were staggering. But they also helped greatly the Communists who consequently met much less Polish resistance as the Red Army pushed its way into Nazi-occupied Poland from January 1944 to January 1945, and then settled down for a new occupation.
Fighting at the Allied Side
In 1939 few could predict a nightmare scenario of the Nazi genocidal occupation and a ruthless Soviet one, the latter becoming Poland’s reality for almost half a century afterwards. Most Poles expected the war to conclude swiftly with the victorious French and British armies sweeping into Germany as Poland self-liberated. After the fall of France, the Poles dug in for a longer haul but they were convinced that the Allies would be victorious, in particular after the United States was pushed into the fray at the end of 1941. The Polish simply could not fathom that they could lose the war and their freedom, despite fighting on the righteous side. They were also convinced that, in congruence with their historical tradition, the armed struggle was the key to the resurrection of their nation from the Nazi and Soviet nightmares.
Therefore, in the fall of 1939, although individual Polish soldiers and regiments did lay down their weapons, there was no official capitulation. The order was to fight until victory. Almost automatically selected regular army units turned into guerrilla outfits and, reinforced by local volunteers, engaged the enemies both in the German and the Soviet zones of occupation. Most active duty military either created a multitude of all-volunteer underground forces or escaped abroad to join the Polish army in the West.
The Free Polish Army (Polskie Siły Zbrojne — PSZ) reconstituted itself first in France and, later, in Great Britain. The PSZ fought against the forces of the Third Reich on the land, sea, and in the air. Polish infantrymen, paratroopers, tankers, pilots, and sailors clashed with the Germans and their allies everywhere: in Europe, Africa, Middle East, and even China. Characteristically, the Poles refused to surrender even when the situation was seemingly helpless. For example, after the collapse of France, most Polish units either fought their way to Switzerland, or crossed over into the un-occupied Vichy France, or escaped to Great Britain. One Polish brigade in the Middle East rejected the Vichy French command and departed to join the English in Palestine.
Some of the most notable Polish engagements on land included Narvik (1940), Mountbard (1940), Tobruk (1941), Monte Cassino (1944), Falaise (1944), Arnhem (1944), Breda (1944), Bologna (1945), and Wilhelmshaven (1945). The Polish Air Force, as an integral part of the Royal Air Forces, became famous for its pilots’ stellar performance in the Battle of Britain in 1940. One hundred and forty five Polish fliers constituted barely 5% of the RAF but they accounted for an astonishing 12% of the Luftwaffe’s cumulative losses: 157 planes shot down, and 36 damaged. The masterly 303 Polish Kościuszko Squadron alone clocked 126 enemy planes down. The performance of the Polish wing of the RAF bomber command was almost as impressive against Germany’s industry and navy, including the U-boot force in particular. Meanwhile, the Polish navy and merchant marine fought chiefly in the Atlantic. It was active in particular in the defense of the Allied convoys to Soviet Murmansk.
The Poles also led the way in the secret war against the Third Reich. The Polish spy net in Nazi occupied Europe constituted over 95% of all of Great Britain’s intelligence assets from mid-1940. It consisted mostly of Polish underground operators both at home and elsewhere in Europe. Brilliant Polish intelligence victories included locating the secret laboratory and production facility of the V-1 flying bomb so it could be leveled by the RAF as well as stealing an intact V-2 missile from a Nazi testing grounds and delivering it to England. The Polish intelligence operatives further prepared the way for the Operation Torch, the American-British assault on Africa in 1942. They also penetrated into the Balkans, undermining the will of Hitler’s satellites to remain with the Axis via sabotage and perception management operations. Polish long range reconnaissance and demolition units operated behind the German lines as far east as the outskirts of Moscow, within the Reich itself, and in occupied France, stealing war secrets, sabotaging industrial production, and plotting bombing raids.
The single greatest Polish contribution to the Allied victory was, of course, the cracking of the German secret coding machine, the Enigma, which had happened already before the war. The Polish intelligence handed over the replicas of the device to the French and the British in August 1939. Later, Polish operatives continued working on the project in Bletchley Park. But the Poles deserve credit for other significant and unique technological breakthroughs, including individual mine sweeping equipment, aerial fighter combat techniques, and paratrooper personal kit rigging – all duly adopted by the British forces.
The Free Polish armies in the West took orders from the Polish Government-in-Exile. It consisted of a broad coalition of Polish parties from left to right that reemerged under émigré leadership in the West. The weakest spot of the government, headquartered in London from 1940, was its reliance for funds and political support on the British. In other words, the Polish exiled authorities were not sovereign. They and their troops, as well as their compatriots at home, became pawns in the great Allied game. Eventually, they all were betrayed and their country handed over to Stalin by Roosevelt and Churchill.
The Second World War broke out ostensibly in defense of Poland’s independence and integrity. This was confirmed by the Atlantic Charter (1941) and other Allied normative acts and declarations. Whereas Hitler was named explicitly as the enemy of freedom, the Allies unfortunately kept silent about Stalin. After the Third Reich renounced the Stalin-Hitler Pact and Germany invaded the USSR, the British and, later, the Americans courted the Kremlin. For the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt it was a matter of finding a progressive partner compatible with his liberalism to run the post-war world. For the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill it was a matter of survival and cynicism. He wished to spare his own troops but he wanted to see Hitler defeated.
The Soviet soldiers bore the brunt of the fight against the Nazis and their dictator did not mind having them perish by the million. The Red Army barely survived the initial assault. Afterwards, amply supplied by the Americans and overwhelmingly superior in numbers, it took Stalin’s divisions three years to recoup the lost positions from the Germans. And then the Soviets pushed west even farther. To maintain their onslaught against Berlin, Washington and London were willing to pay Moscow virtually any price at other people’s expense. In 1943 Churchill and Roosevelt looked the other way when Stalin used German discovery of the Katyn Forest massacre of Polish officers as an excuse to break Moscow’s diplomatic relations with the Polish Government-in-Exile.
Ultimately, therefore, as the price of the Kremlin’s contribution to the anti-Nazi war the Western Allies gave Poland and half of Europe away to the USSR at the conferences in Teheran (1943) and Yalta (1945). The Poles were not consulted, of course. The craven Allied acquiescence to the replacement of Hitler by Stalin as their hegemon in the region cost tens of millions their freedom, paved the way to the spread of Communism around the globe, and launched the Cold War.
The Polish Underground State
Although largely impotent as an Allied hostage in London, the Polish Government-in-Exile was universally recognized in occupied Poland, where it maintained both civilian and military clandestine structures. They were referred to collectively as The Polish Underground State (Polskie Państwo Podziemne — PPP). It enrolled perhaps as many as 300,000 secret operators, including around 250,000 volunteers in its military arm.
The Government Plenipotentiary (Delegatura Rządu – DR) was an underground administration which, gradually, replicated all pre-war ministries and government offices from the village level up. Among other things, it maintained a department of justice, industry, agriculture, and education. Its operators secretly continued the functions of the pre-war Polish state that had been destroyed the occupiers. The DR was most robust in central areas of the country but its off-shoots existed everywhere, even as far afield as Silesia and Volhynia. In addition to the regular technocratic employees, the DR worked hand in glove with the politicians.
All main Polish political orientations – the National Democrats, the Socialists, the Populists, and the liberal Democrats — maintained their representations in a clandestine parliament. They also supervised the activities of the underground administration. Curiously, even though a few elements of the covert political scene remained in opposition to the leadership of the DR, most notably the National Radicals, they recognized and deferred to the Polish Government-in-Exile. Therefore they participated in the mainstream clandestine structures as technocrats and various experts, including in banking, intelligence, and education. Simply, all Polish pro-freedom options considered themselves to be the independentist camp (obóz niepodległościowy). They all wanted Poland to be independent, even if they disagreed on the nature of the system to emerge after the war. This is what differentiated all Polish patriots from the Communists, who wanted Poland to become either a Soviet republic or a Moscow puppet at best.
The Military Underground
The structures of the military branch of the underground, eventually dubbed the Home Army (Armia Krajowa – AK), were even more robust than the civilian ones. From 1939 the military clandestine authorities embarked upon the task of unifying a myriad secret groups that sprang up spontaneously throughout Poland. Some of them were local initiatives, and others were nation-wide actions. The latter were usually connected to political parties which continued to operate covertly. The best organized and the most numerous were the National Democrats. The Populists were divided into too many groups and their main potential appeal was in the countryside, where they eventually fielded the Peasant Battalions (Bataliony Chłopskie — BCh). The Socialists showed strength in industrial and urban centers.
However, most underground volunteers mistrusted the Piłsudskite military which dominated the secret High Command of the Union of Armed Struggle (Związek Walki Zbrojnej – ZWZ), renamed the Home Army (AK) in February 1942. It was the only military group officially countenanced by the Polish authorities in London. The Sanacja had most of the high ranking cadres, but their pre-war detractors had the bulk of junior and reserve officers and the rank-and-file volunteers. The drive to centralize the armed forces proved a bumpy one. The crucial breakthrough came when most of the Endek National Military Organization (NOW) subordinated itself to the AK. Others followed suit sooner or later.
The AK’s main competition emerged as the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne – NSZ). It was established in September 1942 as a confederation of a plethora of hard right organizations. However, the majority of the NSZ derived from the dissident Endeks of the NOW and the National Radicals. Eventually, in the spring of 1944, most of the NSZ joined the Home Army. The National Radicals continued alone under the same name, remaining in opposition, albeit tactically cooperating in battle with the mainstream underground as they had since 1939.
Initially, the Polish resistance focused on setting up clandestine cells, distributing underground press, military training, stashing weapons, hiding people, and gathering intelligence. Ubiquitous propaganda and small size sabotage picked up steam after a while. Targeted assassinations of prominent collaborators and the most vicious German officials, secret police functionaries in particular, proceeded apace afterwards. By mid-1943 the countryside was aflame and Nazi transit and transportation capacity seriously compromised. Yet, generally speaking, the AK and the NSZ husbanded their resources awaiting the call for a general uprising, code-named Operation Tempest (Burza), which was scheduled to break out at the first sign of the Third Reich’s military collapse.
Meanwhile, the German occupiers responded to guerrilla actions with fierce “approximated terror.” They targeted individuals and areas suspected of collusion with “the bandits.” Entire divisions were delegated to “pacify” the Polish countryside. Some of the German reprisals resulted from a conscious campaign of provocation by the Communists.
Stalin’s Underground in Poland
In August 1941 the Soviet dictator decided to form a new Communist party in Poland to replace the old one he dissolved and destroyed in 1938. Stalin dubbed it the Polish Workers Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza — PPR). He envisioned the PPR as a deception operation. Thus, he ordered it to pretend to be a Polish “patriotic” initiative, albeit – oxymoronically — supportive of the Soviet Union. Some of the top operatives of the PPR worked simultaneously for the Soviet intelligence: the NKVD or the GRU. The “Polish” party was supposed to toe the Moscow line strictly. This truth was concealed not only from the rank-and-file but also from the Poles at large.
In January 1942, after a couple of abortive attempts, the NKVD dispatched emissaries to Warsaw who informed a small remnant of the red stalwarts about Stalin’s decision. Some of them initially suspected a provocation because they were unable to fathom a Communist party embracing nationalism even as a mobilizing tool. But most, after a sanguinary fratricidal bout of assassinations and mutual denunciations to the Nazis in the course of an inner-party power struggle, fell in line.
They created a People’s Guard (Gwardia Ludowa – GL) in 1942, which initially sported Soviet badges and ranks. Later the unsavory accoutrements were dropped in favor of “patriotic” symbols. The GL was renamed the People’s Army (Armia Ludowa – AL) to increase its appeal by deceiving the naifs and ignoramuses, who confused it with a Peasant Party populist military initiative. Nonetheless, the Communists never attracted more than 9,000 people to their ranks. Initially, the bulk of the force consisted of the NKVD operatives, escaped Soviet POWs, fugitive Jews, and local criminal element combined with a sprinkling of native reds. Later, amply supplied with weapons by Moscow, the People’s Army lured to its ranks a number of revenge thirsty Polish peasant boys, who, by mid-1944, constituted majority of the fighters.
Nonetheless, the Communists failed to achieve popularity for several reasons. First, the memories of the Polish-Bolshevik War still ran strong among the population and prejudiced most against the reds. Second, the Poles resented the USSR’s attack on Poland in September 1939 and the subsequent brutal occupation of the eastern part of their state. Third, an overwhelming majority was furious at the open embrace of Stalin and the Soviet Union by the Communist propaganda. Fourth, the Communists were the last clandestine group to appear on the scene, after nearly two years since 1939, and, thus, they unable to find new volunteers since the most active element had already joined other resistance groups. Fifth, most Poles found the strategy and tactics of the Communists to be odious, inimical, and even lethal to the Polish interest.
This was not only about the professed Communist desire to see Poland as a Soviet republic. More immediately, the Kremlin posed an existential threat for the Poles under the Nazi occupation in 1942. Namely, Stalin tasked the PPR with relieving Moscow which was at that time under siege by the Third Reich. The Communists were supposed to start an uprising in Poland so that the Nazis would re-rout their divisions to contain the situation with fire and sword. To launch an insurrection, the Communists were supposed to radicalize the population first. The best way to do so would be to stage minor acts of violence in the cities and the countryside. This invariably incensed the Germans and drove them to magnify their reprisals. The Nazi terror killed civilians, mostly elderly, women, and children, while young men tended to survive as fugitives and outlaws with nowhere to go but the Communists who would subsequently enroll them in their units and offer them a means to avenge their families. This caused more chaos and disruption, including as far as food supplies forcibly collected by the occupier. Seething anarchy would further force the Germans to increase the size of their military garrison in the occupied Polish territories and to step up their police terror measures even more ruthlessly. (This, by the way, was a standard operating procedure of the agents of the Kremlin everywhere: from China to Yugoslavia).
In addition, Moscow ordered the PPR to attack, openly and clandestinely, the assets and personnel of the Polish Underground State. Sometimes the Communists denounced Polish underground operatives to the Gestapo. At other times, they attacked them directly. This was dubbed in the party parlance as the “cleansing of the territory of the reactionaries.” Thus, the Communists targeted priests, teachers, doctors, foresters, landed nobles, and even charity workers in a campaign of assassination. Further, the killing of the elites was often coupled with routine expropriation actions. Simply put, the Communists lacked the infrastructure and support among the people so they resolved to rob supplies to maintain themselves in the field.
Violence entailed in robberies often spiraled into torture, rape, and murder. The peasants and others complained about this “revolutionary banditry” to all and sundry. The Germans mostly left the people at the mercy of the bandits, red and otherwise, as well as individuals and groups perceived as such. When the Nazis did intervene, their reaction was usually so ham-fisted that the victims would be victimized again as suspected abettors of “the bandits.” Thus, the village preferred the Polish guerrillas to protect them. The armed partisans tended oftentimes to be the sons and other relatives of the victimized peasants. And they thus went after the perpetrators with a vengeance treating the criminal bands and Communist units interchangeably, in particular because there was indeed a high degree of overlap between them.
Although the Communists appeared to have gained the upper hand in the countryside in 1942, by the following year they were put on the defensive. This was true in particular in north-eastern Polish provinces of Wilno-land, and in central Poland. (Incidentally, in Volhynia the AK tended to cooperate with the Soviet guerrillas because their mutual enemies were both the Ukrainian nationalists and the Nazi Germans.)
At any rate, the Home Army led the way in eradicating the scourge of “revolutionary banditry,” although the NSZ excelled in this field very much. The AK was constrained by the diplomatic considerations since the Western Allies heard complaints from Moscow about those protective actions and pressured the Polish Government-in-Exile to make the Polish underground desist from self-defense. On the other hand, the NSZ openly fought the PPR and the NKVD as malevolent agents of Stalin, and not just as bandits.
Nonetheless, the Communist units, often under the guise of “patriotism,” persisted in their campaign of “revolutionary banditry” as an irritating nuisance until the arrival of the Red Army in 1944-1945. At that point they emerged from the forest to avenge themselves on the independentist Poles and to occupy prominent positions in the red terror apparatus and administration.
Tempest and Its Aftermath
In January 1944, the Red Army crossed the pre-war frontier of Poland in Volhynia. This triggered the Home Army’s Operation Tempest. A rolling insurrection, it was both an anti-Nazi and an anti-Soviet affair. The aim was, first, to defeat the Germans and chase them out of an area as the Wehrmacht withdrew. Second, the objective was to re-establish the Polish government institutions by emerging from the underground to welcome the arriving Soviets, or, in the convoluted, yet official parlance of the Polish leadership, “the allies of our Allies.”
The Polish intention was to signal to Stalin that his troops entered independent Poland, which self-liberated, and, thus, the Red Army, the NKVD, and others had to behave and respect the nation’s sovereignty. The facts on the ground were supposed to force the Kremlin to recognize Poland’s freedom despite the lack of any diplomatic relations between the Poles and the Soviets. The Polish leadership at home thus deluded itself that the Tempest’s feeble fait accompli would thwart the Soviet Politburo’s designs on Poland. The Poles also deceived themselves that the Western Allies would back their bid for independence. They were horribly wrong on both counts. Stalin dashed all their hopes.
The eerie scenario repeated itself multiple times all over eastern and central Poland. The Home Army attacked and harried the retreating Germans. Sometimes the AK cooperated tactically with the Red Army. The Poles liberated a number of small, medium-sized, and large towns, most notably Wilno and Lwów. They hoisted their white-and-red flags. In most places, the Polish administration re-took over the government offices and commenced its work; the underground police revealed itself to keep order. Polish guerrilla units paraded triumphantly either alone or, sometimes, with the Soviet companies to the cheers of the local population.
And then after a few hours or a day or even two, the Red Army and, more commonly, the NKVD would seize the officials and invite the AK officers to a “conference,” where they would be arrested. Some Polish commanders were shot, while others imprisoned and, subsequently, dispatched to Siberia. Most of their units were disarmed unless they fled. Of the rank-and-file Home Army men and women who resisted induction into either the Red Army or Stalin’s “Polish” army led by Soviet officers, they were either executed, if they resisted, or likewise shipped off to the Gulag. In some cases several units, after having cooperated with the Soviets in fighting the Nazis and, subsequently, faced disarmament and imprisonment, preferred to fight their way through the German front lines into central Poland. This included most notably the 27th Volhynian AK Division, as well as several Wilno-land regiments.
The reports of the Soviet treatment of the Polish officials and soldiers promptly reached the Home Army High Command in Warsaw as well as the Polish Government-in-Exile. By mid-July the fiasco of the political objectives of the Tempest in the east became obvious to all. Thus, it boggles the mind that the AK leadership, against the wishes of the Supreme Commander of the Free Polish Forces and the government in London, decided nonetheless to launch the Tempest in Warsaw.
This was a terrible mistake. Even had the Poles liberated the Polish capital from the Germans, they would have experienced the same treatment by the NKVD accorded to their brothers and sisters in Wilno, Lwów, Lublin, and hundreds of other localities. And the Western Allies would have done nothing to help. Just like they did very little to assist the bloody Warsaw Rising. In August and September 1944 the Germans crushed the Polish insurgents exacting terrible revenge on the civilian population. And the Soviets stood by watching Warsaw burn, the Varsovians die, and the Home Army fighters perish.
The AK units from all over Poland hurried to the rescue of the capital. Some were thwarted and disarmed by the Soviets. Others were halted and destroyed by the Germans. The survivors returned underground. In November 1944, the Endek NOW and the NSZ withdrew their units from the AK. Instead, they created an all-nationalist National Military Union (Narodowe Zjednoczenie Wojskowe – NZW), which, by the beginning of 1946, also absorbed the National Radical part of the NSZ as well as many other, non-Endek units of the Home Army.
Meanwhile, in January 1945, the Polish underground leadership officially dissolved what remained of the Home Army. Initially, most of the junior officers and much of the rank-and-file volunteers refused to acknowledge their organization’s demise. They persisted in referring to themselves as the AK. Later, however, they flocked to the NZW or a succession of Piłsudskite-led formations, most notably the Freedom and Independence (Wolność i Niezawisłość – WiN). Many created a plethora of local anti-Communist resistance organizations. They hoped for the Third World War and an Allied liberation of Poland. They were ready to assist. Theirs was a hopeless fight.
Initially, in the spring of 1945 the post-Home Army grass roots re-launched what amounted to a spontaneous Operation Tempest II. The local Communist forces were swiftly routed. The red power was limited mostly to government buildings, military garrisons, and secret police headquarters. But then the victorious Red Army returned from Germany and pounced on the Polish insurgents. The Soviets did so again when the armed resistance activities flared up again in 1946. Meanwhile, there were more NKVD divisions stationed in Poland than in Soviet-occupied Germany. And, initially, they were bore the brunt of the fight against the Polish independentist insurgents throughout 1946. The Soviet NKVD advisors were withdrawn from the field and county secret police headquarters only in March 1947.
The countryside was not secured by the reds until the early 1950s. Meanwhile, the secret police also destroyed the civilian remnant of the underground which converted from the massive machine of the Government Plenipotentiary (DR) into an isolated collection of skeletal outfits focused mostly on self-help and intelligence gathering. Meanwhile, the insurgent ranks were whittled down by terror, defections, and fake amnesties (June 1945 and March 1947). However, the stalwart hardcore remained in the field, fighting into the 1950s. The last insurgent squads were wiped out systematically. Afterwards the few survivors went into deep hiding. The last insurgent to be captured was discovered in his bunker in 1961. The last anti-Communist guerrilla to be killed perished in a firefight in 1963. The armed resistance was officially over. None was left standing.
Note: Original content of poloniainstitute.net. Permission to republish with a valid reference to Polonia Institute publication is hereby granted.
Categories: History of Poland