75th Anniversary of Soviet Invasion on Poland and Lessons for the Future

Seventy five years ago, on September 17th, 1939, Soviet Union invaded eastern regions of Poland, effectively dividing the country between two totalitarian aggressors – USSR and Nazi Germany. Such an act was unexpected by the Poles who were on a brink of a collapse at hands of Wehrmacht. However, this stab-in-the-back was nothing more than implementation of Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty from August 23rd, 1939. In this treaty Berlin and Moscow divided not only Poland, but also a handful of other Central and Eastern Europe countries into their spheres of influence.

What followed the Soviet invasion was a purge of Polish intelligentsia. Just as the Nazis under Hitler, the Soviets prepared and executed a plan of a physical elimination (extermination) of Polish elites, beheading the nation with the aim of subduing it. This extermination took various forms, but one became more infamous than the others – the Katyn massacre of more than 20.000 Polish officers and intelligentsia members, done by a shot in the back of the head, at point-blank range. It was done barely after six months from invading and dismembering Poland. The Soviets could have not foreseen that in a few years the site of the massacre would be in German hands and the truth about the fate of thousands of missing Poles would be revealed. Soviet propaganda denounced findings from Katyn and tried to held the Germans responsible for the mass murder. Only before the USSR collapsed Soviet leadership claimed responsibility for Katyn massacre. However, until now Russia (a successor to USSR) make it impossible for Polish historians to gain access to all the files that are held in Russian archives. Katyn became a symbol of what totalitarianism is all about.

A Lesson From History

It is very important to remember the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 as we hear today pretty similar explanations for Russian aggression on Ukraine. Now and then the Soviet/Russian propaganda tried to legitimize its actions as a necessary step for protecting Russian-speaking minorities. Seventy five years ago the Soviets claimed to act as saviors to Russian-speaking minorities living in eastern regions of Poland – they were taking control over Polish territory to protect people from fascists, the propaganda went. Sounds familiar? What do we hear from Russia about post-Yanukovich Ukrainian government? It is a fascist junta! President Putin and his subordinates are playing on Russian trauma of the WW II – called in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. Now and then Moscow is besieged by the fascists and has to defend itself. In reality Russia is not under any attack and Ukrainian revolt against president Yanukovich was not against Russia. It was against a corrupt regime that lied to its own people and failed time and again to fulfill its promises. However, Russia felt obliged to intervene and its appetite grows with what it feeds on – Moscow took Crimea without shooting a bullet, thereafter it settled on dismantling Ukraine by stripping it of its industrial heart, the Donbas. Read more about this conflict in my previous article.

Going back to what happened 75 years ago and to the Katyn massacre, one shall not be surprised that Poles do not think about the Soviets/Russians as liberators – Soviet army rolled through Poland in 1944 in its pursuit after retreating Nazi forces, liberating the country from German occupants. However, the country was not to be free, as after the war was over in 1945, the Soviets began installing the government subdued to Moscow. As a result of negotiations between the Allies, Poland was left on the eastern side of what was to become the iron curtain, described by Sir Winston Churchill in a famous Fulton speech. From the Polish perspective the Soviets were just another occupying force, replacing the Nazis. Warsaw fall from one totalitarianism to another. Soon after the WW II was over the Soviets and its Polish surrogates began another purge of Polish intelligentsia and officers, mainly members of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), the resistance movement directed by a London-based Polish government in exile. The same Home Army that was dumped by the Soviets during the Warsaw uprising in the summer of 1944, to bleed itself at hands of the Nazis. As Soviet troops amassed at the eastern side of the Vistula river, the Nazis were destroying Warsaw and conducting a massacre of its populace. Hundreds of thousands of people, mainly civilians, were killed. It is a subject of historical dispute, if the Soviets could have helped the Poles in their struggle against the Nazis. From Soviet perspective it was comfortable to see the Germans doing all the damage, especially killing Home Army members. Moscow already knew that III Reich would fall and Poland was going to be in Soviet sphere of influence. This course of events is plausible.

The Uncomfortable View

Do not get me wrong, Russia is not another Soviet Union, although it has a deep trauma after the dissolution of USSR. Decades of Soviet propaganda and now the Putin-era propaganda present false view of what the USSR was and what it did. And not only Poland suffered from the Soviet purges and massacres, they are a part of history of Ukraine (Holodomor), the Baltics or the Tatars from Crimea. And all those countries and nations remember that. For sure this is why Central and Eastern European states are much more wary of Russia and can decipher the real intentions of the Kremlin, read between the words of Russian statements and understand what is really going on. It is wise to take their voice into consideration as this countries are usually dismissed in Berlin, Paris, Rome or London with disregard of the famous proverb by Indira Gandhi, former prime minister of India, who said that “History is the best teacher with the most ignorant pupils”.

Piotr Wołejko*

*Piotr Wołejko is Warsaw based analyst, Polish voice on international affairs & security, lawyer, University of Warsaw graduate. BlogDyplomacja.pl is the only place where the author publishes his articles. The blog operates since December 2006


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