1939-1948

Decade of calamity. WWII was an unprecedented disaster for Poland. The country lost not only most of what it had achieved in the previous 20 years, but also lost 16% of its pre-war population - the highest rate of all states involved in the conflict. Poland was at war from the moment it broke out in Europe until its final day; yet the war did not end for Poland with the fall of the Nazi regime. Although the country was formally among the victorious Allied states, it fell into the Soviet zone of influence following a series of agreements between the USSR, USA and UK, eventually becoming a puppet state of one of its 1939 invaders.

WWII started in September 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west, followed soon after by the USSR from the east in accordance with the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, concerning the partition of Eastern Europe. Pictured above are Red Army troops chatting with Wehrmacht soldiers during a joint victory parade in the Polish town of Brześć Litewski, where the two invading armies met on 22 September 1939. Right: Both invaders started a campaign of expulsions and ethnic cleansing on the conquered territories. Pictured is one of the mass graves of the 22,000 Polish officers executed by Soviet forces in 1940 in the forest of Katyń. The Polish intellectual leadership was the primary target for both the Soviets and the Nazis.

As the country was unable to withstand two totalitarian regimes at once, the Polish government fled west in late September 1939 with a significant number of troops, while all its structures in Poland went into in conspiracy mode. The Home Army - estimated to have 400,000 members at its peak - carried out direct actions against the invaders, but the underground state was not purely military in its structure. It also provided various civilian functions such as education, civil courts, culture and social services. It is estimated that Polish agents provided British intelligence with over 50% of its data from the continent.

Pre-war Poland was home to the biggest Jewish population in Europe (around 3.3m people), thus occupied Poland became the major site of the ‘final solution’ orchestrated by Nazi Germany. Around 90% of the local prewar Jewish population did not survive the Holocaust, making up half of Poland's total six million loss in population. Pictured is the German death camp in Auschwitz, built in 1940 initially for ethnic Poles, where over 1.1m people (mostly of Jewish ethnicity) lost their lives until its liberation by the Red Army in January 1945. 

The first official account of the Holocaust was a report addressed to the United Nations issued in 1942 by the Polish government in exile. It was based on intelligence data from occupied Poland gathered by Jan Karski.

According to the Nazi ‘Generalplan Ost’, ethnic Poles were second after Jews in the queue to extermination. Ultimately, 85% of Polish nationals were to be eliminated, while the remaining 15% were to be left as slave labour. Pictured left are Germans during an execution of civilians in the town of Bochnia (1939).

Internal ethnic tensions, although present in prewar Poland, broke out anew during WWII, often orchestrated by the Nazis. It resulted in multiple pogroms of Jewish population by their Polish neighbours, as well as in the massacre of Poles in Volhynia carried out by Ukrainian nationalists.

In the aftermath of the Nazi attack on USSR, Stalin agreed to release thousands of Polish prisoners in an attempt to use them against Hitler. As a result, in early 1943 the Soviets established the Polish People's Army, a military force under strict Soviet command. They also created the Union of Polish Patriots, which later became a communist puppet counter-government to the Polish government-in-exile operating from London. Pictured right is the signing of the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement (London, July 1941) which recognised Poland and USSR as formal allies in the struggle against Hitler and paved the way for the release of Poles detained in Soviet Gulags.

The most notable act of partisan warfare undertaken by the Polish Underground State was the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. It was part of Operation ‘Tempest’, attempting to seize control of areas occupied by the Nazis while they were preparing their defenses against the advancing Red Army. Polish underground authorities aimed to take power before the arrival of the Soviets and thus prevent a Soviet puppet government from being installed. The uprising lasted 63 days and eventually failed at the cost of an estimated 150-200,000 civilian casualties and Warsaw being razed to the ground.

Poles fought not only at home but also on all European fronts and beyond. Polish soldiers took part in campaigns in France (1940), Norway (1940), the Battle of Britain (1940), the Battle of the Atlantic (1939-45), Northern Africa (1943), Italy (1944-45), the Western Front (1944- 45) and the Eastern Front (1943-45). Over two million Poles took part in the fight, be it within regular army units or partisan units. Pictured is a soldier of the Polish People's Army holding a Polish flag above the Victory Column in Berlin (May 1945).

The fall of Berlin in May 1945 did not mark the end of WWII for Poland. Due to agreements signed in Yalta in February 1945 between the USSR, USA and UK, Poland fell into the Soviet zone of influence. Although the Soviets managed to install a loyal government in Warsaw, its authority over the country had to be enforced, as most did not view it as a legal successor of Poland's pre-war government. A new wave of arrests and deportations took place, similar to those during the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1939-1941. Despite the fact that WWII had formally come to an end, the new Soviet-backed Polish authorities had to face armed anti-communist insurgency groups known as ‘cursed soldiers’ that carried out raids on communist prisons and encampments. They killed scores of Soviet agents and freed countless political prisoners. The last known ‘cursed soldier’ was killed in an ambush as late as 1963, almost 20 years after the Soviet takeover of Poland. Pictured above are Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin during the conference in Yalta.

In March 1945, the Soviets invited 16 leaders of Poland's wartime Underground State - including the Home Army and civil authorities - to Moscow to negotiate their possible participation in the Soviet-backed provisional government of national unity for post-war Poland. The Polish politicians were presented with a warrant of safety, but instead they were arrested and given a show trial, having been charged of illegal activity against the USSR. Pictured is General Leopold Okulicki, head of the Home Army, after being arrested by the NKVD.

By 1946, the newly established Soviet-backed provisional government held a fraudulent national referendum that approved economic nationalisation, land reform and a unicameral parliament. A pro-regime coalition of left wing parties was established to participate in the first parliamentary election in postwar Poland in 1947, eventually winning it by fraud. By 1948, the victorious coalition morphed into the single communist party (PZPR) which kept control of the country for the upcoming decades. Pictured is a propaganda poster promoting the referendum.

Compared to its pre-war borders, post-war Poland was moved west by Stalin into formerly German territories. Meanwhile, Poland lost its pre-war eastern provinces, which were predominantly populated by Ukrainians and Belarusians. The border shift included the expulsion of two million Germans from the newly acquired territories, as well as a forced resettlement of three million Poles living in the areas that became incorporated into USSR. Post-war Poland lost 19% of its prewar territory, yet it became almost entirely ethnically homogenous.

December 11, 2018
Looking forward
Decade of calamity. WWII was an unprecedented disaster for Poland. The country lost not only…
December 12, 2018
1949- 1958
Decade of totalitarianism and relief. After the Soviets installed their administrative structures in Poland and…
Written by: Bartosz Stefaniak