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Wars in Europe have simultaneously been periods of social revolutions, and the Second World War is a good case in point.1 Indeed, one could argue that in Eastern Europe the entire decade from 1939 to 1948—despite the clear divide of 1945, which saw the defeat of the Third Reich—was one continuous epoch of radical transformation toward a totalitarian model of society, imposed first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets.2
While the war, it is true, had an enormous impact on every European society, producing both a new map of Europe and a new paradigm of European politics, Poland’s case was unique among the belligerent countries because of the scale of devastation and upheaval under the impact of Nazi occupation from 1939 until 1945 (supplemented by the Soviet annexation of eastern Poland from September 1939 until June 1941).* As a
*On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union concluded a treaty of nonaggression, known in historiography as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact after the names of the foreign ministers who signed the document in Moscow. A week later, on September 1, 1939, World War II began. As agreed between the signatories, the Red Army marched into Poland soon after the German attack. In the secret protocols attached to the August treaty, the Soviet Union reserved for itself a “sphere of interests” including Bessarabia, Estonia, Latvia, and the better part of Poland. The original demarcation line between the Nazi and Soviet zones of occupation—splitting the capital city, Warsaw, in half along the Vistula River—appeared in the September 25, 1939, issue of the main Soviet newspaper, Pravda.
On September 28 in Moscow, the German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty was signed and a somewhat modified territorial division of recent conquests was agreed upon. Stalin settled for only half of Poland’s territory and drew the frontier eastward,
result of the war, the country suffered an unprecedented demographic catastrophe. It lost its minorities—Jews in the Holocaust, and Ukrainians and Germans following border shifts and population movements after the war. A third of its urban residents were missing at war’s end. Poland’s elites in all walks of life were wiped out. More than half of its lawyers were no more, along with two fifths of its medical doctors and one third of its university professors and Roman Catholic clergy. It lost its choice civil servants, army officers, and sportsmen. Several million people were displaced, either because they were deported, or because their domiciles were destroyed, or because the frontiers were changed. Somewhere between 41\2 million and 5 million Polish citizens lost their lives during the war (including 3 million Polish Jews), and several million more experienced imprisonment, slave labor, or forced resettlement.* The scale of material devastation matched the volume of population loss and trauma. Virtually every family in Poland was victimized in one way or another, and many catastrophically.
Particular devastation was suffered by Poland’s Jews, an ancient community that was physically destroyed as a result of the war. No more than 10 percent survived the Nazi onslaught—some in German camps, some hiding among Gentile neighbors, most in the Soviet interior, where they fled or had been deported earlier by the Soviet secret police. While half of Poland’s prewar territory was under Soviet control from mid-September 1939 through June 1941, a direct result of collaboration between Hitler and Stalin at the time, more than one million Polish Jews (out of the total of approximately 3.5 million) lived in the Soviet zone.
following what used to be known as the Curzon Line (a demarcation line suggested by the British foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, in a message to the Soviet foreign minister, Chicherin, during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920). In exchange for giving up a good chunk of Poland, including half of the capital city, he consolidated his grip on the Baltic states by bringing Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into the fold. Two secret protocols were included with the treaty. The first one amended the boundaries agreed upon in August; the second, barely two sentences long, eliminated for the next two years the anti-Nazi Communist underground in Poland: “Both parties will tolerate in their territories no Polish agitation which affects the territories of the other party. They will suppress in their territories all beginnings of such agitation and inform each other concerning suitable measures for this purpose.” We need to know these preliminaries to begin our story, which is embedded in the war experience of Poland’s inhabitants.
*The often quoted estimate of total demographic losses—6 million—advanced immediately after the war was certainly an exaggeration. Dzieje Najnowsze devoted an entire issue to the study of Polish casualties during the Second World War. An eminent economic historian, Czeslaw Luczak, surveying the present state of research in the introduction to the issue, proposed a more likely total of 5 million—2 million Polish non-Jews and 2.9 to 3 million Polish Jews (pp. 12, 14). I am grateful to Professor Antony Polonsky for this reference.
Some 100,000 to 120,000 Jews were deported in 1940–1941 and forcibly settled in the Soviet interior, as part of broader repressive measures aiming at Sovietization of this area. It was the irony of Jewish fate that being subjected to Soviet repression had saved many Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis. In Polish historiography, the Jewish fate was usually presented as a separate story from that of the rest of Polish society. There was a kernel of truth in this approach, since the Nazis did indeed single out Jews for “special treatment,” but it conveniently enabled historians to pass in silence over the complex phenomenon of interaction between Polish Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors throughout the period of German occupation. Polish neighbors had witnessed up close the extermination of the Jews, and they often availed themselves of the opportunities afforded by their attendant spoliation. The story of this opportunistic complicity with the Nazis is only now being told in Poland, and I plot it into the narrative as we go along since it provides a crucial background for understanding postwar anti-Semitism.3
The Underground State
Despite the violence of foreign invaders, it will be noted in the historical annals that Polish society confronted the horrors of the Soviet and Nazi occupations with heroism and resilience. According to Nazi racial doctrine, Poles were considered “subhuman” (Untermenschen). Unlike the Jews, however, the Poles were not scheduled for extermination but were relegated in the Nazi vision of the “New Order” in Europe to the status of slaves fit only for utilization as physical labor. In response to policies of occupation that denied them rights and material resources necessary for survival, Polish society mounted the most formidable and complex resistance movement that the Nazis had to face anywhere in occupied Europe.
In addition to an underground military organization, the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK), which at its peak boasted over 300,000 sworn-in members, an elaborate network of institutions was set up in occupied Poland, which together came to be known as the Underground State (Panstwo Podziemne). This “state” included clandestine versions of prewar political parties and a shadow government administration (Delegatura) headed by a representative of the legal Polish government-in-exile, which resided first in Angers and then, after the defeat of France in 1940, in London. A skeleton parliament functioned in the underground, bringing together representatives of the four main political parties—the National Democratic Party, the Peasant Party, the Polish Socialist Party, and the Labor Party, liberal in outlook—who regularly consulted with each other and the government delegate. Political leaders, the government, and the army command in London maintained contact with the home country through a clandestine network of couriers and radio operators.
The Underground State was funded by the government-in-exile, from London. Apart from supplying secret military and political organizations, this money was also used to sustain civil society including, for example, an illegal school system, a welfare network, and an organization, Zegota, that was set up in 1942 in order to aid Jews who were hiding from the Nazis. More than 2,000 underground newspapers and magazines were put out in Poland at one time or another during the occupation. Several made only an ephemeral appearance, with limited circulation, but others were published continuously for a number of years. The most important weekly of the Home Army, the Information Bulletin (Biuletyn Informacyjny), reached a hefty circulation of 43,000 copies. During the period of its most intense activity, the Warsaw office of the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the Home Army used five tons of paper monthly.4
Henri Michel, the doyen of French historians of the resistance, could hardly be suspected of playing to a domestic audience when he concluded that the Polish underground had enjoyed a strength and a scope unparalleled in Europe.5 The story first became known in the English-speaking world when one of the most courageous couriers of the underground, Jan Karski (who brought direct evidence to Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Nazis were exterminating European Jewry), wrote his slightly fictionalized Story of a Secret State.* It became a best-seller soon after its publication, by Houghton Mifflin, during the winter of 1944–45.6
The Underground State was the product of a broad mobilization of societal energies. It came about as a result of myriad individual initiatives, which were then institutionalized and put in a broader organiza-tional framework. One could have expected that such a remarkable
*Film and television audiences all over the world remember a lengthy interview with Jan Karski from Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, in which he describes the circumstances of his mission and meetings with leading politicians in England and the United States, whom he informed about the tragic fate of the Jews.
collective achievement would provide a good foundation for postwar reconstruction. But it was not to be. As a by-product of Great Power politics and the division of postwar Europe into spheres of influence, all the efforts and sacrifice that had gone into the creation of this contested realm, this civil society that had defied a ruthless regime of occupation, were soon dismissed as a misguided and wrongheaded enterprise. Once Poland had been liberated by the Red Army in 1944–45, any earlier association with the so-called London underground was labeled a stigma and a liability by the emergent Communist organizers of the public order. Soon after liberation the Home Army was portrayed in propaganda posters as “a spittle-bespattered dwarf of reactionary forces” (“AK—zapluty karzel reakcji”) and its veterans had to either hide their past or else risk arrest, internment, censure, or humiliation.* How did this situation—which led to a pervasive sense of historical injustice among a significant majority of the Polish population—come about?
Discovery of the Katyn Mass Graves
In the concluding stages of the Second World War, the Germans were being pushed out of Poland by the rapid advance of the Red Army. For the leaders of Poland’s underground state, this was far from a desirable outcome. The Soviet Communists were regarded as the historic enemies of Polish independence. Twice since the October revolution of 1917, they had asserted their ambitions of westward expansion in military terms. In 1920, the course of the Polish-Soviet war “miraculously” turned at the outskirts of Warsaw, with fighting continuing until the eventual peace
*On September 15, 1944, the Political Bureau of the Polish Workers’ Party (as the CP was known at the time) accepted the following text of a declaration that Home Army soldiers were supposed to sign: “I, . . . , having been sent to an internment camp on suspicion of negative attitude towards the only legal organizations of the Polish state—the KRN and the PKWN [Communist Party–sponsored organizations, whose genesis I later explain] and the supreme command of the Polish army, declare from my own unforced and free will the following: 1. I appreciate the activity of the KRN and PKWN as indispensable for our nation and in my further work I will remain loyal and obedient to all their regulations, as befits a Polish soldier; 2. I understand and condemn the abominable activity of the leaders of the AK and other affiliated organizations, who helped the Hitlerite occupier, and weakened the Polish army and the unity of the Polish nation by their diversionary activity . . .” and so on, in the same spirit, for two more paragraphs, promising in the end to aid “the KRN and PKWN” in combating these “pernicious influences” (Krystyna Kersten, Rok pierwszy, p. 49).
I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to Tim Snyder and Marci Shore for their efforts to come up with an English translation of the bizarre phrase zapluty karzel reakcji. We settled after a long discussion on “spittle-bespattered dwarf.”
treaty of Riga.* And in 1939, the Red Army invaded Poland in collusion with Hitler, resulting in Soviet occupation of approximately half of Poland until June 1941. When Nazi Germany launched its assault on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and the USSR finally joined the Allied cause, the Polish government-in-exile renewed diplomatic relations with the USSR.
The Soviet Union initially buckled before the onslaught of the Nazi war machine and welcomed all the assistance and friends it could muster. A period of intense Polish-Soviet engagement ensued. A treaty was signed between the two governments, and several hundred thousand Polish citizens were “amnestied” in the Soviet Union. A welfare network was established in the USSR to provide for the needs of destitute Polish citizens just released from labor camps and forced settlement in the Soviet interior. At designated assembly points, able-bodied men could join units of a new Polish army, which the Soviets agreed would be formed on their territory.†
But as the fortunes of war gradually turned and as the Soviet Union proved a formidable member of the anti-Nazi coalition, Churchill and Roosevelt developed an ever greater sympathy with Soviet territorial claims and security guarantees in postwar Europe. During their Big Three meeting with Joseph Stalin in Teheran late in 1943, they agreed that after the war the Soviet Union’s border could be moved far to the west, at Poland’s expense, roughly to the Curzon Line. In this manner, without consulting or informing the Polish government-in-exile in London, they sanctioned a territorial expansion reminiscent of what the Soviet Union had acquired as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in 1939.
As an emboldened Stalin began to maneuver for a postwar settlement that would eventually lead to the Communist subjugation of East-
*In Polish folklore and historiography, Jozef Pilsudski’s counteroffensive, which pushed the Bolsheviks back from Warsaw, has been referred to as “the miracle on the Vistula” (“cud nad Wisla,”). August 15, the day he opened the counteroffensive, was celebrated during the interwar years as a national holiday in Poland.
†Prime Minister General Wladyslaw Sikorski signed the treaty with the Soviet Union in the face of vigorous protests by leading Polish politicians in London. The reason for their opposition was Stalin’s refusal to guarantee Poland’s territorial integrity in its prewar borders by renouncing the territorial acquisitions made by the Soviet Union in 1939. The pretext for Soviet reluctance was that the population of the occupied territories had allegedly expressed a sovereign wish to join the Soviet Union in a referendum held on October 22, 1939. (On the manner in which this “referendum” was conducted, see my Revolution from Abroad, chapter 2.) Nevertheless, Sikorski decided that he must sign the treaty without delay, for while territorial disputes could be settled in the future, hundreds of thousands of Poles lingering in Soviet captivity were in danger of death each day from mistreatment and destitution. To save their lives he thought he had to act immediately.
ern Europe, Polish-Soviet relations soured. Indeed, the deterioration had begun even before the Teheran conference. In the spring of 1943, the USSR severed diplomatic relations with the Polish government following the discovery of mass graves in Katyn.