THE FIRST TO FIGHT
-George H. W. Bush
In September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War. Before this time, the world had been upset by but done nothing as Germany had annexed and quietly invaded several other portions of Europe that they claimed had been stolen from their nation in World War I.
Part of the reason for this is that Germany sort of had a valid complaint. After the First World War, in the treaty of Versailles, the European powers had sat down and carved up Europe into various nation states. Many of these countries had little or no say in how they were crafted, and in the process Germany was trimmed down to a smaller country out of a sense of punishment and annoyance from the rest of the world.
So when Germany started taking some of these areas back, the rest of Europe seemed to not be that concerned; maybe they’d gone too far. And some of these areas such as Austria welcomed German takeover.
But when German tanks and troops rolled into Poland, France and England had drawn a line. That was too far, so war was declared. And Poland was the first military in the world to fight Nazi Germany. Before that point, German forces had menaced or posed impressively and the nations had quailed before them.
It is not hard to blame Europe for being so very reluctant to fight; even after declaring war it took almost a year for actual fighting to take place against Germany. WWI had been such a ghastly meat grinder just two decades earlier that people were still scarred and horrified by the memory. To put this into perspective, think of a war in which 37 million of people died using new and terrifying technology and weapons back in the Clinton administration. One out of every ten men in Europe had died on the battlefields of Belgium and France.
Europeans just did not want to go back to war, and some at least had thought WWI was the “war to end all wars” which made the entire concept so unthinkable that humanity had evolved beyond it. So people just did not want to fight. The Polish did, though. They were the first to fight Nazi Germany.
The Polish people held off Germany, fighting bitterly for their beloved homeland for nearly a month, but their old military and weaponry was no match for the new technology and brilliant, experienced soldiers of Nazi Germany. They had studied long and hard what went wrong in WWI and had learned their lessons.
Poland finally was defeated. This is not a small nation, especially since at that time it was partly made up by territory claimed by Germany. It took a while for Germany to get through the whole country and pacify it, and in the meantime, the Soviet Union had invaded from the East and been fighting there as well. By the time the German forces got to Krakow, the war was all but over and Poland knew it. Polish mayor Stanisław Klimecki met the German army outside the city and offered himself hostage if the city would be spared.
He got his wish; bombs and artillery did not touch Krakow. The city was peacefully taken by the Germans and occupied. Millions of Germans moved into Poland to take over the area they called the Reichsgau Wartheland. The other section was called the “General Government” and was run by a man by the name of Hans Frank.
Frank was the friend and lawyer of Adolph Hitler, the man who had defended the Nazi party when it was put on trial years before Hitler rose to power. He was a very clever and effective lawyer, so much so that despite his evil he did not face the noose in the trials at the end of the war.
Hans Frank looted Poland like a Viking. He stripped museums, he stole from the churches, he took treasures and golden religious implements from the cathedral and basilica of Krakow, and he got rich in the process. Officially, on paper, the art treasures were cataloged and “stored” in Wawel Castle where Frank governed his section of Poland. In turn, Hitler stole from Frank by taking art treasures like the beautiful golden Altar from St Mary’s Basilica, Paintings by Rembrandt, and others.
Frank despised the Polish people and the Roman Catholic Church. He seemed to have no personal animosity with the Jews like other Nazis, but official Nazi doctrine and a shared dislike of Jews led him to horrific atrocities nevertheless.
Overall, about three million of Jews were killed in Poland in concentration camps such as Amon Goethe-run Plaszow and of course the more infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. But the Jews were not the only people to suffer under Nazi rule of Poland. In fact, more Poles were slaughtered by the Nazis than any other nation. A total of six million of Poles were killed by Germans and Soviets during the war.
Frank’s hatred of the Poles led him to have a scheme, likely shared y the Nazi High Command, to obliterate Polish culture and people. By 1975 he had it planned out that there would be no more Poland whatsoever. No songs, no literature, no stories, no language, no names, no memory of the nation. He wanted the Poles to serve as slave labor for the Germans who moved into and began living in Poland.
But this does not even begin to describe the terror that the Polish people lived under. Their lives and culture were literally meaningless to the Nazi command. Rape, murder, theft, and brutality were common and rarely punished. Old grudges led to people being denounced and turned in just to deal with them. That competitor you hated across the street? Now you can eliminate him, permanently. The Nazis didn’t care if the charges were true or not, what difference does it make?
Homes were invaded to find hidden Jews. Universities were shut down. Cultural centers such as museums and libraries were closed and destroyed. Education for children was extremely limited, as Governor-General Frank put it: “The sole goal of this schooling is to teach them simple arithmetic, nothing above the number 500; writing one's name; and the doctrine, that it is divine law to obey the Germans. I do not think that reading is desirable." A portion of Krakow was walled off and turned into a Jewish Ghetto where Jews were isolated and later taken off to be killed, as depicted so powerfully in Schindler’s List (mostly filmed in Krakow). The mentally disabled and victims of diseases like epilepsy were taken out and shot.
Meanwhile, Himmler began taking hundreds of thousands of children he deemed sufficiently Aryan from Polish families and relocating them with Germans. There was a sort of contradictory, even schizophrenic attitude toward Poland among the Germans. On one hand, they were largely deemed unfit to live and their culture a corruption.
On the other hand, Poland was considered largely Aryan, and its history and culture very laudable. Poland was home to many Teutonic Knights in the Medieval period, and was very much like Germany in culture and history. Many Nazis deemed Krakow as the “ur-Deutschland,” a sort of glimpse of ancient Germany.
When the Soviets were attacked by Germany, they lost control of any of Poland, expanding Frank’s region. The Germans pushed through the Ukraine and Byelorussia, taking control. Frank and the other Nazi commanders looted this region as well, and the people there suffered terribly under Nazi control. After all, these people were going to cease to exist anyway, they only were useful as slave labor.
Eventually, the Germans began to lose and withdrew back across the borders and finally were defeated at home. Adolph Hitler shot himself, and the high command, including Hans Frank, were captured.
But Poland’s nightmare was not over. While Western Europe was celebrating, Eastern Europe had simply exchanged one brutal dictator for another. Stalin was every bit as evil as Adolph Hitler, with the added terror of not being insane. Stalin was paranoid and cruel, but not crazed and simplistic.
Even before the Germans originally pushed the Soviet Union out of Poland, there was a hint at what Poland had to look forward to. The defeated Polish Army had many leaders and skilled soldiers in it, men who had learned how to fight the Germans from failure. The Soviet Union took these officers, along with policemen and "intelligence agents, gendarmes, landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials and priests" and imprisoned them.
You see, Stalin had long term goals. He had in mind exactly what Hitler did, but for Communism, not National Socialism. He wanted to turn the whole world Communist, and instead of seeing things along ethnic and racial boundaries, he saw the along cultural and ideological; he didn’t kill Jews because they were Jewish, he killed Jews because they would never submit to Communism. The end result is the same: dead Jews.
And Stalin knew all along he wanted to control Poland. The problem was all these leaders and military types, just waiting to lead an annoying resistance movement. How to deal with that? Stalin’s solution, cooked up along with NKVD (later KGB) leader Laurentiy Beria, was Katyn Forest.
When the Nazis took over that portion of Poland, they found a very large area of graves in a forest. What was this? In 1943, the area was dug up and they found a lot of bodies. At first, the number wasn’t clear, so it wasn’t investigated very closely, but it soon became clear. A small city’s worth of people were lying in mass graves.
In all, the Soviets had bound the hands and shot in the head 22,000 men and buried them in mass graves in Katyn Forest and other nearby areas. Then they had the men conscripted to dig the graves shot by NKVD men and buried, too.
And the story gets worse. When this was discovered, the Germans gleefully shouted it to the world; look at the evils of the Communists, we’re only trying to liberate countries from these monsters!
But the Communists were fighting very hard to stop the Germans from their ‘liberation’ program and were keeping divisions of German soldiers busy in Russia. And with the invasion of Europe on the table being planned, Eisenhower, Churchill, and FDR needed those Communists to be fighting the Germans.
Afraid that the Soviets would reach a deal with Germany and stop fighting – something Hitler might have signed, thus releasing all those troops, tanks, and planes to defend Europe – the Allies chose to believe the very plausible story that the Germans had killed all those Poles. After all they were murdering Poles already, and people shrugged, believing it to be plausible. They were Nazis after all.
But report after report came out, with eyewitness comments and evidence. The Katyn Manifesto was published by Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk in 1943, showing the evidence that this was a Soviet, not German atrocity. He was imprisoned for the duration of the war by Scotland Yard.
In America, Navy lt Commander George Howard Earle III was ordered to compile information on the massacre. In 1944, he published his findings: the Soviets were responsible. FDR rejected it and ordered the report suppressed. When Earle tried to get the report published through legal means, he was stripped of his position as Special Envoy to the Balkans and reassigned to American Samoa.
The International Red Cross wasn’t fooled. They condemned the Soviet Union for the massacre, and the Soviet Union withdrew support and membership in the organization. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia finally admitted that yes, it had been them who did it, but they not only admitted to only 1,803 Polish citizens killed, but claimed it was not a war crime, the work of people who were already conveniently dead.. It was not until just a few years ago in 2010 that finally the Russian government admitted full responsibility and Stalin’s personal orders. By that time, there were few if any living relatives to the slaughtered men, only elderly children and descendents.
Poland lived under Soviet control and Communist rule until 1989. They were behind the Iron Curtain, living under a tyranny that killed at will and destroyed freedom, faith, and hope all those years. For the Polish, along with Hungary, Romania, Albania, and the rest of Eastern Europe, the nightmare didn’t end with Hitler’s death. It just shifted character slightly to a different sort of evil.
Today, Poland is a free country that holds America, and especially Ronald Reagan along with Margarget Thatcher, in extremely high regard. The consider the USA the most important force in their eventual liberation from Communist dictatorship. They love the free market, having lived under the crushing darkness of socialism for decades enjoying its full reality. Poland, for example, has a flat tax (like most of Eastern Europe).
Poland has not yet recovered to its heights of cultural, literary, and scientific glory it held before WW2. Poland was truly a world power to be reckoned with, a source of music, art, literature, and especially chemical advancement then. The Nazis almost succeeded in obliterating Polish culture and identity. The thing most people in the west associate with Poland now is Polack jokes, Solidarity, and a pope.
Poland is a very beautiful country and I would love to one day visit, although I don’t see it happening on this earth. The people there will recover, eventually, from the half-century horror they were put through. And I wish them all the best. Just give the Polack jokes a rest, okay?