Stalin’s stab in the back – September 17, 1939

Before dawn of September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered his Blitzkrieg to smash across the borders of Poland from the north, west and south. The Polish armed forces bravely resisted the overwhelming might of the world’s most powerful army. Thus, the Polish nation was the first to courageously resist the Nazi Fuhrer’s territorial demands.

For three days the Polish army fought alone. It waited for the entry into the conflict of their British and French allies.  By formal treaty they had promised to come to Poland’s aid in case of attack.

Finally, while the world anxiously waited, the Western leaders reluctantly declared war on Nazi Germany. The Second World War had begun. In fact, these “allies” never fired a single shot to help the embattled Poles.  Sadly, they had never intended to, nor could they, extend any military aid to Poland.  Their “guarantee” of Poland’s independence given in March, 1939 was intended to scare Hitler.

It is a myth that the Polish army collapsed without a fight. It was not intended to defeat the Nazi Wehrmacht. It had been agreed with the French that two weeks after a German attack, the formidable French army would launch an offensive against Germany. England was to bomb German industry in the Ruhr.  Neither ever happened. Poland was abandoned to fight alone.

Then, on September 17, 1939, while the Polish army was still resisting the German onslaught, the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, ordered his Red Army to attack Poland from the east. Poland was now caught in the jaws of a vise. The Polish nation had suffered a fatal blow.

At 3:00 A.M. of the 17th, the Soviet foreign ministry summoned Polish Ambassador Wacław Grzybowski to receive a note. “The Polish-German War”, said deputy foreign minister Vladimir Potemkin“, has revealed the internal bankruptcy of the Polish state. The Polish government has disintegrated and no longer shows any signs of life”. Stalin justified his hyena attack as a move to “liberate” the Ukrainians and Byelorussians of the Eastern Marshes from the Polish yoke.

Now, horrified Europeans realized the true intent of the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement, concluded in Moscow just one week prior to the war’s outbreak. A secret clause of that pact provided for a Fourth Partition of Poland between her historic antagonists, Berlin and Moscow.

The Poles were of course completely surprised by the Soviet invasion, since they had a non-aggression treaty with the Soviets.  Understandably, the Polish military response was light and disorganized, with even some confusion that the Russians were intervening to fight the Germans.  Essentially, the Muscovite attack administered the coup de grace to Poland’s hope for further resistance.  The only saving factor would have been the promised offensive in the west.
At September’s end, a Russo-German agreement split defeated Poland in half.  The boundary was fixed at the Bug and Narew Rivers.

The immediate effect of the Soviet Communist occupation of Eastern Poland was the start of a massive, brutal Ethnic Cleansing. Red commissars and NKVD operatives roamed the countryside seeking out political leaders, priests and intellectuals, many of whom were shot on the spot.

But most inhumane was the peremptory uprooting of one and a half million Polish people – men, women and children – from the conquered territories.  The deportations were most often carried out in the dead of night with scant notice to the terrified victims.  Whole villages and entire families were emptied.  They were loaded, in mid-winter, into freight cars with only the possessions they could carry.

Countless thousands perished during the long frigid journey into the depths of the Siberian Gulag.  Once they arrived at their many remote destinations in the frozen taiga and desiccated steppes they were notified of their sentencing to years at forced labor.  Their only crime:  being Polish.

By the time they were granted an “amnesty” for their crime, in 1942, their number had been reduced by sickness and starvation by half.

The perfidious Russian attack of September 17th also created serious far-reaching political problems for the Polish Government-in-Exile under General Władysław Sikorski, notably in the Allied camp.  It enjoyed the full official recognition of the Western Powers.  Yet, it could not impress its major concerns on them.  In particular it could not persuade them to take note of the fact that the USSR, no less than Nazi Germany, was responsible for the extinction of Polish independence and for the outbreak of the war.

The two most vital questions as far as the London Poles were concerned were:  what kind of government would Poland have, and where would the Polish-Soviet border be located after the defeat of Germany?

On both these issues, the Polish interest lost out to the workings of Real-politik.  For half a century Poland would become a Soviet Communist satellite.  Secondly, the 250 mile-wide borderland of eastern Poland seized by the Red Army on September 17, 1939, was incorporated into the USSR. Lost also were the historic Polish cultural enclaves of Wilno and Lwów.

One must recognize the emotional attachment of Poles to the Eastern Lands, or Kresy. For hundreds of years they were intimately connected to Poland’s history.  They were the birthplace of many of its revered sons:  Sobieski and Kościuszko; Piłsudski and Paderewski. The epic works of Słowacki, Mickiewicz and Sienkiewicz became part of the nation’s lore, known to every schoolchild.

In sum, Stalin’s lust for empire and distrust for all that was Polish led to his decision to stab Poland in the back during her darkest hour. The result was a time of extreme agony for untold numbers of innocent victims of the Soviet tyrant.  For Poland, a world war begun to guarantee its independence, ended in a defeat-in-victory.

Dr. Wallace J. Kosinski

Forum, 9/2002