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Tag: September 1939

Vilnius 1939

When on September 17, 1939, the Soviets attacked Poland, Vilnius (now – the capital of Lithuania) defended itself for one day. The Joachim Lelewel Foundation is making a film on this subject.

During the staging of fights

The key reason for making this film is the need to refute the Russian and Belarusian narrative, according to which there was no aggression by the USSR in 1939 and only “brotherly help” for Belarusians and Ukrainians. The propaganda of Moscow and Minsk proves that on September 17, Poland no longer existed, and the Polish Army was in disarray – and did not fight. Meanwhile, the defence of Vilnius (Wilno in Polish), although short-lived, proves that these claims are false.

Fighting in the city took place on September 18-19. On the Polish side, there were forces equal to three infantry regiments with a dozen cannons and an armoured train; on the Soviet side – three armoured brigades and two cavalry divisions. The defence could have lasted much longer, but General Józef Olszyna-Wilczyński, commanding in this area, ordered to stop fighting and withdraw to Lithuania. Some Polish soldiers did it; others reached the city of Grodno, where the defence lasted from 20 to September 22.

An interview with a historian, Agnieszka Jędrzejewska PhD

Of course, defending against two enemies had no chance. But the Polish commanders wanted to demonstrate that there was no consent to aggression and that the army resisted. As a result of chaotic fighting, the Soviets lost several tanks and armoured cars and many dead. How many are unknown because the official Soviet data is contradictory.

The film is also supposed to show the behaviour of the Lithuanians in September 1939. Despite Berlin’s pressure, the country remained neutral, and all accounts speak of an excellent reception of Polish soldiers and good internment conditions.

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The Third Reich and the USSR in 1939. Together against Poland

Historians will long argue how it happened that Polish military intelligence did not access the secret protocol attached to the non-aggression agreement concluded on 23 August 1939 between the Third Reich and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  This situation meant that both the Polish Army High Command and the state authorities were surprised by the entry of Soviet troops into Polish territory on 17 September 1939.

  

Wacław Grzybowski and Vladimir Potemkin. Photo: public domain

The Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły, did not even receive the contents of a note from the USSR government, which the Deputy Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, Vladimir Potemkin, tried to hand over to the Polish Ambassador in Moscow, Wacław Grzybowski, at 3 a.m. shortly before the aggression. The Soviet authorities, in breaking the non-aggression pact with the Polish state concluded on 25 July 1932, argued that:

The Polish government has disintegrated and shows no signs of life. This means that the Polish state and its government have effectively ceased to exist.

Ambassador Grzybowski resolutely refused to accept the document. He was, however, unable to notify the Polish government. The Soviets, however, circulated the note and Polish Foreign Minister, Józef Beck, learned about it from the Romanians. Confused by the whole situation, Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły then issued a politically debatable directive:

The Soviets have entered. I am ordering a general withdrawal to Romania and Hungary by the shortest routes. Do not fight the Bolsheviks, except in the event of an attack on their part or an attempt to disarm the troops.

Such a decision by the Commander-in-Chief gave rise to the serious question, still under consideration today, of whether Poland was at war with the USSR in 1939. Regardless of how it is judged legally and militarily, there is no doubt whatsoever that the Soviets, in alliance with Nazi Germany, carried out the fourth partition of the Polish state. Afterwards, they co-operated closely with the Third Reich. NKVD and Gestapo officers exchanged experiences in the application of various repressions and in the conduct of investigations. The meetings took place in Zakopane, Kraków, Lwów (Lviv) and Przemyśl.

A few years ago, the Centre for the Preservation of Historical and Documentary Collections of the Russian Federation discovered the text of Joseph Stalin’s speech to members of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union(b) on 19 August 1939, i.e. even before the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which Stalin set out his views on the USSR’s foreign policy at that time. He said at the time:

“If we conclude an agreement on mutual assistance with France and Great Britain, Germany will detach itself from Poland […] the war will be averted. If we accept Germany’s proposal to conclude a non-aggression pact with them, they will certainly attack Poland […]. Under these conditions, we will have a chance to stay out of the conflict and we can hope to enter the war favourably at the right time for us. We should accept the German proposal and politely send back the Anglo-French mission. The first advantage we will gain will be the destruction of Poland up to the outskirts of Warsaw, including Ukrainian Galicia… By remaining neutral and waiting for its time, the USSR will provide aid to today’s Germany. It is in the interests of the USSR that war should begin between the Reich and the capitalist Anglo-French bloc. Everything must be done to ensure this war lasts as long as possible and exhausts both sides.”

This statement leaves no doubt that Stalin did not intend to enter into an anti-Hitler alliance with France and Great Britain, as he was keen to bring Germany to war with Western Europe as quickly as possible, and also to destroy the Polish state. Even Russian historians admit this.

After signing the alliance with Hitler’s Germany, the Soviet leadership was faced with the need to inform not only the general public, but also the communist elite. They had to answer questions as to why the German fascists, who had been so criticised for many years, had suddenly become allies of the Soviet proletariat. This was done as early as 31 August 1939 by the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, at the Fourth Extraordinary Session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, who categorically stated in his speech:

“Yesterday the German fascists pursued a hostile foreign policy towards the USSR. Yes, yesterday we were enemies in the field of foreign relations. Today, however, the situation has changed, and we are no longer enemies.”

On 1 September 1939, the German army attacked Poland. The ensuing war had tragic consequences not only for Poles, but also for the national minorities who were Polish citizens, including Ukrainians. Suffice it to say that Ukrainian soldiers made up 10-15% of the Polish army. They were killed, wounded, and taken prisoner by the Germans.

The Soviet authorities hoped that the Ukrainian population would mount an anti-Polish uprising, which they tried to encourage. The leaflets scattered from aeroplanes and signed by the commander of the Ukrainian Front, Sergei Timoshenko, read:

“Use guns, scythes, pitchforks and axes, to fight your eternal enemies – the Polish lords!”

A similar appeal was made in the pages of the newspaper Czerwona Ukrajina, (Red Ukraine) distributed to the population by the invading Red Army on 17 September. It said:

“Enough of suffering hunger and poverty, national lawlessness and oppression! Enough of carrying the Polish masters on your hunched shoulders… Take the master’s lands, pastures, meadows into your hands! Overthrow the power of the landowners, take power into your own hands, decide your own destiny!

The population in the Eastern Borderlands, however, did not allow themselves to be provoked by the Soviet aggressors. Nevertheless, part of the population, especially the poorest, hoped for an improvement in their fortunes. News of the famine in Soviet Ukraine which had taken place in the early 1930s was scarce at the time or was not even believed to have happened. A certain section of the population succumbed to communist propaganda in the interwar period.

In general, however, the entering “liberators” were received with fear and even hostility, not only from the Polish population, but also from the Ukrainians.

In Moscow, however, there was writing about the success of the Soviet troops and their enthusiastic reception by the local population. This was most emphatically expressed by People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, who, in a speech delivered on 31 October 1939 at a meeting of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, not only enumerated Soviet successes, but also praised the cooperation with the Third Reich.

Disregarding the fact that the Polish army was still fighting the Germans, the governments of the Third Reich and the USSR had already signed the Treaty of Borders and Friendship in Moscow on 28 September 1939. On the Soviet side, a new border was quickly marked out on the ground (based on the so-called Curzon Line of 1920) and manned with NKVD border troops and military fortifications. Also, efforts were made to integrate as soon as possible the occupied territories of Volhynia and Eastern Galicia into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Already in the first days after the invasion of Polish territory, the liquidation of Polish authorities and state institutions had begun, as well as the creation of their own on the Soviet model. Through “intensive sovietisation”, attempts were made to “eradicate the old” as quickly as possible, i.e. the multi-party democratic system, to decisively limit private property, bourgeois customs, religious life, work organisation, social structures, and to eliminate Polish traditions and culture.

People’s Assembly of Western Ukraine. Photo: public domain.

From the end of September 1939, the Soviets in all cities began to form a militarised Workers’ Guard. In the villages, there were armed Rural Teams, which were subordinate to the peasant committees established there. These subdivisions were not only tasked with maintaining order in the towns and villages, but also had certain judicial functions; their task was to detect and confiscate weapons, to catch Polish army officers in hiding; also former policemen, settlers and other “enemies of the new order”.

On 7 October 1939, the Law on Elections to the Ukrainian People’s Assembly of Western Ukraine was published. On the same day, resolutions of the Lwów (Lviv), Łuck (Lutsk), Tarnopol (Ternopil) and Stanisławów (Stanislav) now Ivano-Frankovsk, committees were published on the start of preparations for the elections scheduled for 22 October 1939.

The press was subjected to severe censorship. Many active Polish state and social activists from the interwar period, classified as ‘enemies of the nation’, were arrested. From the very beginning, the Soviet authorities were very keen to give a Ukrainian character to the actions they undertook, strenuously emphasising, contrary to reality, that the Ukrainians were the owners of their land and that all initiatives in the public space were initiated by them. In Volhynia, much more than in Eastern Galicia, efforts were made to fuel the national conflict between Ukrainians and Jews and Poles.

An expression of the will of the population of the territories occupied by the Red Army was to be the election of the People’s Assembly of Western Ukraine. After ‘adequate preparation’, elections for predetermined candidates who were often brought in from outside were held on 22 October 1939. Party-Komsomol and militia activists were directed to the polling stations.

The votes were counted so that the candidates put forward by the authorities received more than 90% support. As a result of these falsifications, 92.4% of Ukrainians, 4.1% of Jews, and only 3.0% of Poles were elected to the People’s Assembly of Western Ukraine, while 0.5% were representatives of other nationalities, including Russians. The Assembly met on 26-28 October 1939 in Lviv. A number of documents were adopted without any possibility of debate. The most important of these were: Declaration on the Establishment of Soviet Power in Western Ukraine and Resolution on the Entry of Western Ukraine into the Ukrainian SSR. At the same time as these two documents, the Declaration on the nationalisation of banks and large industrial enterprises, landowners and monastery lands was adopted.

The resolutions of the People’s Assembly were approved by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. 17 September was established as a Ukrainian national holiday.

By the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of 29 November 1939, the population living in the incorporated territory automatically became citizens of the USSR. As early as 4 December, a new administrative division was created, with districts divided into oblasts (regions) on the Soviet model.

Full integration was to be achieved through unification the economic system by the state taking total control over the production of material goods, which was to be achieved through a radical overhaul of property relations. First of all, landed estates were nationalised, as well as those belonging to offices and religious institutions. The land seized by the state was allocated for the creation of kolkhozes – collective farms   and sovkhozes – state farms, but a certain part of it was distributed to landless peasants. In the plans of the authorities, this individual ownership of land was to be only temporary. Already by the spring of 1940, programmed collectivisation had begun. This was accompanied not only by insistent propaganda, but also by various “incentives” in the form of increasing taxes and various quotas.

On the other hand, rapid changes were made in the sphere of industrial and craft production. Already in the first months after the occupation of Volhynia, banks and large and medium-sized enterprises were nationalised. Small producers, on the other hand, were urged to group together in cooperatives and producers’ artels. The new regime attempted to completely subordinate the spiritual life of the population to its control. Ideological pressure and strict control was extended to the sphere of art. The population, both Polish and Ukrainian, was subjected to intrusive atheisation, religious instruction was removed from all schools, and young people under the age of 18 were forbidden to practise religion in public.

Soviet methods of manipulating society based on the duty of ‘revolutionary vigilance’, i.e. denunciation and collective responsibility, were used to consolidate Soviet statehood and gain total control over the population.

The first and largest mass deportation began on the night of Friday to Saturday, 10 February 1940, during a heavy snowstorm and bitter frost. It involved mainly representatives of the better-off rural population, categorised as the aforementioned “enemies of the people”, the vast majority of whom were Poles, including military settlers and forest service workers. They were mainly deported to special settlements administered by the NKVD in the northern areas of the European part of Russia, to the Urals and to Siberia.

The second deportation took place as early as 13 April 1940. The third deportation concerned the so-called “bieżeńcy”, i.e. refugees from the German-occupied territories of central Poland, mainly Jews (84% of the displaced). This deportation took place on 29 June 1940 and was directed, like the first, to special NKVD settlements in northern Russia. The fourth and final deportation took place just before the outbreak of the German-Soviet war. It was carried out in May and June 1941 and this time mainly targeted the Ukrainian population.

The fate of the population of the Eastern Borderlands after the outbreak of the Second World War and the illegal incorporation of the Ukrainian SSR was tragic. According to the calculations of Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Baran, in the four deportation actions mentioned, a total of 190.1 thousand people were displaced from these lands, including over 100 thousand Poles (over 50%), 60 thousand Jews (approximately 30%), and Ukrainians – 25.5 thousand people (over 13%). In addition, many people were arrested, and many traces disappeared.

Stanisław Stępień

The author, Professor Stanisław Stępień, is Director of the South-Eastern Scientific Institute in Przemyśl.

Two weeks in jail for twenty murders

A shocking document has been found in Belarus. It’s a note drawn up by Alexander Voloshin, the Deputy Chairman of the personnel department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Belarus, concerning the unlawful execution of Polish prisoners of war after the taking of the city of Grodno by the Red Army in September 1939. The punishment for this crime was two weeks imprisonment for the perpetrators.

Document signed by Alexandr Voloshyn, courtesy of A. Poczobut

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Grodno – a symbol of resistance

In the deliberations of Polish historians and journalists, the topic of Grodno in September 1939 and the lonely struggle of its inhabitants against the Soviet invasion returns every year. This is because it was the longest defensive fight during the aggression of the Red Army against Poland.

Parade of the 81st Regiment of King Stefan Batory’s Grodno Riflemen

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If it were not for Russia …

We hear: on September 1, 1939, Poland was invaded by the Germans, and on September 17, the Soviets “entered” eastern Poland. Meanwhile, this “encroachment” was also an act of aggression, with battles and crimes committed by this aggressor, which ended with the annexation of this part of the territory of the Republic of Poland. We are irritated when stories appear rom the German side that the aggressors were some nationally undefined “Nazis”. it is taken as obvious the that in the case of the second aggressor we were dealing only with some “Soviets”. We have also come across the opinion that the Soviets were a conglomerate of various ethnicities in which the Russians did not in fact play the main role. It is overlooked that these “other ethnicities” were  indeed Russified people, and therefore Russians; Stalin – himself a “Georgian” – was a Russian imperialist, the “Pole” Dzerzhinsky (Dzierżyński in Polish) is still a model for the Russian,  and not Polish, secret services. The orders launched on September 17 for the “Soviet” troops, issued by Stalin (who is still revered by the Russians) were in Russian, and that language was used by the aggressor from the east.

On September 1, 1939, “brown” Germany invaded Poland, and on September 17, “red” Russia invaded Poland.

Soviet-German parade in Brześć nad Bugiem (Brest)

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The Soviet capital of West Belarus

After September 17, 1939, the USSR took over the areas inhabited by Belarusians and Ukrainians, who, according to Soviet declarations, were oppressed by Poland. Meanwhile, in Bialystok Voivodeship (province), which was almost fully incorporated into the Soviet Union (Suwałki was taken by Germany), as much as 72% of the population were Poles, 12.5% Belarusians, and 12% Jews. That is perhaps why Białystok was intended to be the capital of the new Polish Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) – eventually, however, it became the seat of government of the so-called West Belarus.

Soviet Army entering Białystok. Photo – public domain

The Soviet occupation of Bialystok began on September 22. The NKVD installed itself in the Voivodeship Office building at Mickiewicza Street and began to spread terror without delay. Arrests and repressions targeted state officials, policemen, foresters, veterans of the Polish–Soviet War of 1920, people known for their patriotic activities, entrepreneurs and owners of factories and land estates.

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The facts must match the thesis

Michael Jabara Carley, professor of history at the Université de Montréal, has written about Poland’s guilt in unleashing World War II. Only, he “forgot” some facts and simply distorted others. Here are excerpts from his article “What Poland Has to Hide About the Origins of World War II”, with comments from “Kresy 1939”.

 Soviet poster

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Polish answer to Putin’s words

In an official statement, Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki answered the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin about the alleged responsibility of Poland for the outbreak of World War II.

The 20th century brought the world inconceivable suffering and the death of hundreds of millions of people killed in the name of sick, totalitarian ideologies. The death toll of Nazism, fascism and communism is obvious for people of our generation. It is also obvious who is responsible for those crimes – and whose pact started World War II, the most murderous conflict in the history of humankind.

Unfortunately, the more time passes since these tragic events, the less our children and grandchildren know about them. That is why it is so important that we continue to speak out loud, telling the truth about World War II, its perpetrators and victims – and object to any attempts at distorting history.

The memory about this evil is particularly important for Poland – the war’s first victim. Our country was the first to experience the armed aggression of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Poland was the first country that fought to defend free Europe.

However, resistance to these evil powers is not only the memory of Polish heroism – it is something much more important. This resistance is the legacy of the entire now free and democratic Europe that fought against two totalitarian regimes. Today, when some want to trample the memory of these events in the name of their political goals, Poland must stand up for the truth. Not for its own interest, but for the sake of what Europe means.

Signed on 23 August 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was not a “non-aggression pact.” It was a political and military alliance, dividing Europe into two spheres of influence – along the line formed by three Polish rivers: the Narew, Vistula, and San. A month later it was moved to the line of the Bug river, as a result of the “German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty” of 28 September 1939. It was a prologue to unspeakable crimes that over the next years were committed on both sides of the line.

The pact between Hitler and Stalin was immediately put into effect: on 1 September 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west, south and north, and on 17 September 1939 the USSR joined in, attacking Poland from the east.

On 22 September 1939 a great military parade was held in Brest-Litovsk – a celebration of Nazi Germany’s and Soviet Russia’s joint defeat of independent Poland. Such parades are not organised by parties to non-aggression pacts – they are organised by allies and friends.

This is exactly what Hitler and Stalin were – for a long time they were not only allies but in fact friends. Their friendship flourished so much that, when a group of 150 German communists fled the Third Reich to the USSR before World War II broke out, in November 1939 Stalin handed them over to Hitler as “a gift” – thus condemning them to a certain death.

The USSR and the Third Reich cooperated closely all the time. At a conference in Brest on 27 November 1939, representatives of both countries’ security services discussed the methods and principles of cooperation to fight Polish independence organisations on the occupied territories. Other conferences of the NKVD and SS officers on their cooperation were held inter alia in Zakopane and Krakow (in March 1940). These were not talks on non-aggression – but on liquidating (that is murdering) people, Polish citizens, and on joint, allied actions to bring about a total destruction of Poland.

Without Stalin’s complicity in the partition of Poland, and without the natural resources that Stalin supplied to Hitler, the Nazi German crime machine would not have taken control of Europe. The last trains with supplies left the USSR and headed for Germany on 21 June 1941 – just one day before Nazi Germany attacked its ally. Thanks to Stalin, Hitler could conquer new countries with impunity, lock Jews from all over the continent in ghettos, and prepare Holocaust – one of the worst crimes in the history of humankind.

Stalin engaged in criminal activities in the east, subduing one country after another, and developing a network of camps that the Russian Alexander Solzhenitsyn called “the Gulag Archipelago.” These were camps in which a slave, murderous torture was inflicted on millions of opponents of the communist authorities.

The crimes of the communist regime started even before the outbreak of World War II –the starvation of millions of Russians at the beginning of the1920s, the Great Famine which led to the death of many millions of inhabitants of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the Great Purge during which nearly 700 thousand political opponents and ordinary citizens of the USSR, mostly Russians, were murdered, and the so-called “Polish Operation” of the NKVD in which mainly the USSR citizens of Polish descent were shot to death. Children, women and men were destined to die. In the “Polish Operation” alone, according to the NKVD data, over 111 thousand people were shot to death deliberately by Soviet communists. Being a Pole in the USSR at that time meant a death sentence or many years of exile.

This policy was continued with crimes committed after the Soviet Union invaded Poland on 17 September 1939 – the crime of  murdering over 22 thousand Polish officers and representatives of elites in places such as Katyn, Kharkiv, Tver, Kyiv, and Minsk, the crimes committed in the NKVD torture cells and in forced labour-camps in the most remote parts of the Soviet empire.

The greatest victims of communism were Russian citizens. Historians estimate that between 20 and 30 million people were killed in the USSR alone. Death and forced labour-camps awaited even those that every civilised country provides care for – prisoners of war that returned to their homeland. The USSR did not treat them as war heroes but as traitors. That was the Soviet Russia’s “gratitude” for prisoners of war – soldiers of the Red Army: death, forced-labour camps, concentration camps.

Communist leaders, Joseph Stalin in the first place, are responsible for all these crimes. Eighty years after World War II started, attempts are made to rehabilitate Stalin for political goals of today’s President of Russia. These attempts must be met with strong opposition from every person who has at least basic knowledge about the history of the 20th century.

President Putin has lied about Poland on numerous occasions, and he has always done it deliberately. This usually happens when Russian authorities feel international pressure related to their activities – and the pressure is exerted not on historical but contemporary geopolitical scene. In recent weeks Russia has suffered several significant defeats – it failed in its attempt to take complete control over Belarus, the EU once again prolonged sanctions imposed on it for illegal annexation of Crimea, the so-called “Normandy Format” talks did not result in lifting these sanctions and simultaneously further restrictions were introduced – this time by the US, significantly hindering the implementation of the Nord Stream 2 project. At the same time Russian athletes have just been suspended for four years for using doping.

I consider President Putin’s words as an attempt to cover up these problems. The Russian leader is well aware that his accusations have nothing to do with reality – and that in Poland there are no monuments of Hitler or Stalin. Such monuments stood here only when they were erected by the aggressors and perpetrators – the Third Reich and the Soviet Russia.

The Russian people – the greatest victim of Stalin, one of the cruellest criminals in the history of the world – deserve the truth. I believe that Russians are a nation of free people – and that they reject Stalinism, even when President Putin’s government is trying to rehabilitate it.

There can be no consent to turning perpetrators into victims, those responsible for cruel crimes into innocent people and attacked countries. Together we must preserve the truth – in the name of the memory about the victims and for the good of our common future.

Mateusz Morawiecki

Prime Minister of Poland

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