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.

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