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When Poland was lost: The Soviet invasion 80 years ago

Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat
September 17, 2019

Only 16 days after the Nazis invaded Poland, the Soviet Union followed suit and marched into Poland on September 17, 1939. The event burdens Polish-Russian relations to this very day, and reconciliation is not in sight.

A Soviet tank comes over the Polish border (1939)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Fedor

Eugeniusz Sajkowski was in his mid-20s when the Soviets invaded Poland on September 17, 1939. "When I saw the Germans coming from the West and the Russians from the East, I thought to myself that this was probably our end," he recalled in a TV special for German public broadcaster ARD. Sajkowski remembers thinking that "our Poland will once again be imprisoned for more than 120 years. Our people are lost."

From 6 a.m. onwards, more than 4,000 Soviet tanks rolled into Poland. Stalin sent more planes than Nazi Germany. The invasion took place without a declaration of war and the battle was far from even, particularly since Soviet troops outnumbered the Polish ones, who were also mostly busy with the Germans.

Until then, people had hoped the war would not be a complete disaster for Poland, historian Zbigniew Wozniczka said. Troops still stood their ground in the valley surrounding Warsaw, and the major cities of Lublin, Vilnius and Lviv, all part of Poland at the time, had not yet been conquered, Wozniczka said. People wondered whether the Western powers would come to the rescue after all, perhaps saving parts of Poland.

But on September 17, people were robbed of their last vestiges of hope. Fighting came to an end in the East, with Poland's military Commander-in-Chief Edward Rydz-Smigly ordering the military cease the fight against the Bolsheviks. The defeat was was all the more painful as Soviets celebrated together with the Nazis. Once again, Poland had become a victim of its neighbors. 

Joachim von Ribbentrop and Josef Stalin sit next to one another
Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop (L), and Josef Stalin (R) met to sign the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet UnionImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

 Stalin's legacy continues

"It has always been claimed that Poland suffered the most from the Germans," said Wozniczka, who teaches at the Silesian University. But it's not that simple, he added. The generation of Poles who could remember the division [under various European empires until 1918] saw not Germany but Russia as their worst enemy, the historian argues. "Czarist rule, quashed uprisings, exile in Siberia — the September 17 invasion brought all the memories back." It soon became clear that the Germans also posed a deadly threat this time. But while the Nazi occupation ended at some point, Stalin's legacy continues to this day.

The Polish people still mistrust Russia, and relations between the neighbors are burdened by more than just the 1939 invasion. People have not yet come to terms with the 1940 mass executions of thousands of Polish officers and other officials by the Soviet NKVD secret police in what is known as the Katyn massacre. This was denied by the Soviets well into the Gorbachev era of the 90s. In 2009, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin unexpectedly called the Katyn murders a crime during a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII and suggested Russia and Poland deal with it together.

Read more: 'Russia is the only conceivable threat to Poland'

Poisoned ties 

Many observers called Putin's meeting on April 7, 2010 with then-Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the Katyn graves a historic encounter. For a moment, reconciliation seemed conceivable. It was the first time a high-ranking Russian state representative visited the scene of Stalinist crimes to pay tribute to Polish officers — and also the last time to date. Just three days later, a Polish government plane crashed near Smolensk with 96 passengers on board, including Poland's President Lech Kaczynski. The plane was headed to the Katyn massacres commemoration event.

The accident once again shifted the political coordinates into an emotionally charged realm where matter-of-fact politics are hardly possible. Poland is split over how to process the crash, and its relations with Russia were poisoned.

Read more: Smolensk: The tragedy that defined Polish politics

People carrying Polish flags mark the 7th anniversary of the Smolensk plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski, whose photo they carry
People mark the 7th anniversary of the Smolensk plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski, whose photo they carryImage: Reuters/K. Pempel

Russia still holds parts of the plane wreck, which has given rise to conspiracy theories. It is easy for Poland's current right-wing conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government to reproach Tusk for his close ties with Putin at the time. This year, Putin, now president, was not invited to events commemorating the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. Polish state TV ran footage without accompanying written or spoken text that showied Tusk and Putin hugging at the ceremony 10 years prior.

Russia and Poland's shared history taboo

Katyn and Smolensk are critical moments in the most sensitive chapters of Polish history, and they are inextricably linked to September 17, 1939, the day it all began. The Germans attacked first, but Stalin's Soviet Union made that attack possible though its non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. The Soviets later grabbed their share of the spoils when Poland was as good as defeated. "September 17 is a symbol of great misfortune," Wozniczka said.

While reconciliation between Poland and Germany has gradually taken place over decades, the shared history between Poles and Russians, a sensitive topic, was pushed aside to allow room for the compulsory Socialist love among brothers. Even after the fall of communism, the issue remained taboo and was never really discussed openly. The gestures of 2010 seem forgotten. Even today in Russia, few people know that the Soviet Union stabbed Poland in the back.

 Reinterpreting the past

Praise for the Red Army as the "liberator of Europe" always rung untrue in Poland due to the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin. In the end, even propaganda failed. In 1953, the year Stalin died, Polish filmmaker Erwin Axer tried to reconcile the event and the ideology through his film House of Cards. According to Polish film scholar Piotr Zwierzchowski, "Erwin Axer's film portrays September 17 as the moment of Poland's liberation from its own oppressors." Poland in the interwar period is portrayed as a weak state, a veritable "house of cards," Zwierzchowski argues, adding it was an attempt to reverse collective memory.

Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda's 2007 feature film Katyn also focused on September 17, but relied on the memories and feelings of eyewitnesses like Sajkowski. A dramatic scene at the beginning of the film shows two groups of Poles running into one another from opposite directions on a bridge. One group is fleeing the Germans, the other the Russians. The bridge symbolizes the Poles' deeply rooted historical fears that raise the question: Must one be more afraid of the neighbor to the east, or to the west? On September 17, 1939, the question was moot because the two had colluded and Poland was — for the time being — lost.

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