The last part of my series on Poland’s forgotten contributions to World War II. You can find the the others through the search bar.
All Polish specialists will be exploited in our military-industrial complex. Later, all Poles will disappear from this world. It is imperative that the great German nation considers the elimination of all Polish people as its chief task – Henrich Himmler, leader of the SS.
Even before the war began, the Nazis had horrific intentions for Poland. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, in his 1926 book Mein Kampf, aimed to turn Eastern Europe into part of Lebensraum (“living space”). Nazi ideology held that Slavs, such as the Poles, were a racially inferior group, barely a step above Jews. They were almost literally held to be like monkeys, at best. During the invasion ofPoland, Hitler gave explicit permission to his commanders:
“…. [kill] without pity or mercy, men, women, and children of Polish descent or language”
There was a systematic genocide perpetrated against the Poles, who more or less faced the same fate as the Jews. Early into the invasion of Poland, one of the Nazi’s top leaders, Reinhard Heydrich, stated that all Polish nobles, clergy and Jews are to be killed; a few days after that, the Polish intelligentsia were added to the list, and by the end of 1940 Hitler demanded liquidation of “all leading elements in Poland” – politicians, artists, intellectuals, professionals, and so on.
So aside from being a battlefield for the bloodier Eastern Front of the war, Poland was a direct target of extermination. Subsequently few participants in World War II suffered as much as the Polish people. Poland was believed to have lost between 4.9 and 6 million citizens at the hands of the Germans, with another 150,000 to 1 million more killed by the Soviets. So in total, anywhere from 5 to 7 million Polish citizens – split almost evenly between Ethnic Poles and Jews – were killed, the vast majority being civilians – that comes down to a horrific 16% of the population.
On average, close to 3,000 Polish nationals died each day of the war, with Poland’s professional, artistic, and intellectual classes suffered suffering particularly higher fatalities: 45% of doctors, 57% of lawyers, 40% of university professors, 30% technicians, and 18% of clergy.
In addition, the Nazis turnedPolandinto a giant extermination center and graveyard for its enemies. All the major death camps were based in occupiedPoland, and so many people were sent there to die that estimates still vary wildly. One figure holds that 2 million people from 29 countries died inPoland, including 1 million Jews moved to the camps and 784,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war.
The Invasion of Poland
In addition to the 66,000 troops killed-in-action against the Germans, another 150,000 to 200,000 Polish civilians died by the end of the month-long campaign, victims of indiscriminate or even deliberate targeting of civilians by both the Nazis and the Soviets.
From the very first day, many Poles were rounded up and summarily executed, as were several thousand Polish POWs. The Soviets operated along the same lines, most infamously in the Katyn Massacre. The Luftwaffe led an explicit operation of terror bombings, most infamously Frampol and Wieluń. These and other towns were subject to large-scale air raids, even though they had no discernible military targets. The brutality was such that even caravans of Polish refugees fleeing the fighting were systematically targeted by fighters and bombers.
During the 1939 German invasion of Poland, “special action squads” of the SS and police, known as the Einsatzgruppen, were deployed behind the front lines to arrest and kill civilians considered potential resisters. This intensified soon after the fall of Poland, in a year-long extermination effort known as Operation Tannenberg, which followed a list of 61,000 Poles (compiled before the war by Germans living in Poland) that were identified as high-value targets: former government officials, military officers, landowners, clergy, intellectuals, and anyone else deemed a threat to German occupation.
All this was in turn an early measure of the Generalplan Ost, which among other things was to prepare Poland for annihilation and annexation into Greater Germany. Poles and Jews were either murdered in the spot by death squads or sent to prisons and concentration camps. These efforts were carried out during the rest of the war according to detailed plans such the AB-Aktion Operation, which included the infamous massacre of Lwów professors.
Campaigns of Terror and Pacification
The Nazis already had intentions to eliminate the Poles, but their insolence would only make things worse. As I mentioned before, the Poles led one of the largest and most sophisticated resistance movements in the war. Unsurprisingly, they suffered particularly harsh retribution by the occupying forces, and endured the harshest laws and penalties of any occupied nation: for example,Poland was the only country in occupied Europe where the penalty for hiding a Jew was death for everyone living in the offending house.
Communities were often subject to collective responsibility for Polish acts of sabotage or attack, and several mass executions were conducted in revenge. For every German killed by Polish partisans, 50 to 100 civilians – often randomly chosen, other times made up of the intelligestia – were executed. In an event known as Bloody Sunday, around t 10,000 non-Jewish Polish civilians were murdered within the first four months for various acts of insurgency and disobedience. About 20,000 villagers, some of whom were burned alive, were killed in large-scale vengeance operations that targeted settlements suspected (note, not proven) of aiding Jews or resisters. A total of 75 villages were completely wiped off the map. Aside from the conventional German armed forces, paramilitary unites composed of ethnic Germans living in Poland also participated in executions of civilians.
Remember that all this was part of official German (and Soviet) doctrine. It didn’t stem from the chaos of war, or from the isolated actions of a few psychopaths. There was the łapanka policy for example, in which German forces would indiscriminately gather civilians from the street to be executed for no reason. In Warsaw alone, between 1942 and 1944, approximately 400 were killed in this way every day. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of people were murdered in random mass executions of this kind, including within the prison system.
Recall that the Nazis aimed for Poland to be completely annihilated. Not only would the Polish people be physically destroyed, but every trace of their culture, language, and intellectual contributions would be liquidated, as if they had never existed.
Thus, the Germans engaged in what could only be called cultural genocide: they destroyed or closed universities, high schools, libraries, museums, national monuments, and scientific institutes. Millions of books were burned, including an estimated 80% of all school libraries and 75% of all scientific libraries. Furthermore, Polish children were forbidden from receiving education beyond the elementary level, in order to prevent the formation of a new intellectual and political leadership.
The Poles responded with a campaign of underground education known as Tajne Nauczanie or “Secret Teaching” that was rather successful, considering the odds. The government-in-exile, as well as members of the Polish Diaspora, lead efforts to keep the culture alive outside of Poland, just in case the Germans couldn’t be vanquished.
Part of this effort also included Germanization, in which the annexed territories ofPoland were to be politically, culturally, socially, and economically assimilated into Greater Germany. This went beyond the mere teaching of German culture and language, since it was in conjunction with the systematically elimination of anything Polish: the Polish language could not be taught, streets and cities were renamed in German, and tens of thousands of businesses were taken over, from corporations to small shops.
There were crimes against Polish children, were often targeted as part of an effort to eliminate the future generation of Poles. At least 20,000 children in occupied Polandwere selected for their “racially valuable traits,” kidnapped, and sent to special homes to be Germanized and indoctrinated. Afterward there were to be adopted by German families so as to eliminate any trace of “Polishness;” many of them remained convinced that they were German long after the war ended. The children of those forced into labor were placed in compounds called Ausländerkinder-Pflegestätte, where thousands of them died and thousands more were abused.
Finally, there were crimes against the Roman Catholic Church, was a major cultural and political institution within Poland. Churches were systematically closed, and most priests were killed, imprisoned, or deported to the General Government. The Germans also closed seminaries and convents while persecuting monks and nuns throughoutPoland. Between 1939 and 1945, 2,935 members of the Polish clergy – nearly 1 out of 5 – were killed in concentration camps. Some cities, such asWrocław and Chełmno, saw almost half their clergy eliminated.
Mass rapes were committed against both Jews and ethnic Poles since the start of the war. Even during mass executions, many girls and women were raped before being murdered. During the course of the war, Polish women were periodically and explicitly rounded up in mass raids in order to serve as prostitutes for German soldiers, both within and outside of Poland. Girls as young as 15 years old were often slated to serve this role.
The Polish Final Solution
Generalplan Ost included plans for the mass transportation of up to 20 million Poles into massive camps, where they would be penned up like cattle to by periodically conscripted for heavy labor during the length of the German empire. Germany planned to completely remove the indigenous population of Poland, replacing them with military and civilian settlers. During the occupation, more than one million Poles were expelled by German authorities; these expulsions were carried out so quickly that many Polish homes had half-eaten food left on their plates. German children were utilized for this effort as well, as members of the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls were tasked with making sure that deported Poles left behind most of their belongings behind for the settlers to use.
During the war, at least 1.5 million Polish citizens (if not more) were forced into labor in Germany, including many adolescents. Although the Nazis conscripted laborers from all over Europe, those considered racially inferior, such as Poles and other Eastern Europeans, were subjected to even harsher treatment. Poles were forced to wear tags identifying their “race,” subjected to a strict curfew, and were banned from taking public transportation. Most Polish laborers were compelled to work longer hours for lower wages than their western European counterparts, and in many cities they were forced to live in segregated compounds lined with barbed wire. Social relations with Germans outside work were forbidden, while sexual relations – considered racial defilement – were punishable by death.
Aside from hosting all of the death camps (and most of the major labor ones), Poles were themselves direct victims of Nazi extermination. Auschwitz, the largest and most infamous of the concentration camps, ended the lives of 150,000 Polish nationals, many of whom were starved, experimented upon, or worked to death. An estimated 30,000 Poles died at Mauthausen-Gusen, 20,000 each at Sachsenhausen and Gross-Rosen, 20,000 at Stutthof, 17,000 at Neuengamme and 10,000 at Dachau; 17,000 Polish women died at female camp called Ravensbrück. Tens of thousands of Poles were killed in prisons, detention centers, and other facilities that were set up ad hoc specifically to liquidate them. Disturbingly, there was even at least one camp for children, in Potulice. Later in the war, the Germans set up the Warsaw concentration camp, which was to be used to completely depopulate the Polish capital.
Extermination of Psychiatric Patients
In the summer of 1939, just a few months before the invasion of Poland, the Nazis had a secret program called Action T4 , whose purpose was to exterminate people with mental and physical disabilities (though people with chronic and terminal diseases were also targeted). After Poland was conquered, this program was put into practice on a wide-scale. Psychiatric hospitals and mental institutions were raided of their patients (and often their staff) to be systematically murdered. The total number of victims was estimated to be more than 16,000, with additional 10,000 perishing from malnutrition and neglect. Nearly half the members of the Polish Psychiatric Association were killed as well. It was during this time that “gas vans” were first tested and perfected, allowing the Germans to herd undesirables into mobile killing units to be poisoned. After two years of these morbid test runs, these techniques were applied to the extermination camps.
The Destruction of Warsaw
You can read more about the Warsaw Uprising and its consequences in my earlier post., German forces committed many atrocities against Polish civilians in order to suppress the rebellion. The most notorious of these took place in Wola district, where at least 40,000 men, women, and children were methodically rounded-up and executed by the Einsatzkommandos of the Sicherheitspolizei, the German police and intelligence force, and the Dirlewanger, a penal unit made up of German criminals (and formed specifically to terrorize the Polish and Soviet populations).
Similar massacres took place in the Śródmieście (City Centre), Stare Miasto (OldTown) and Marymont districts; when Stare Miasto fell, 7,000 seriously wounded hospital patients and their caregivers were executed or burned alive. Similar atrocities took place in several other sections. Ochota district was subject to a horrific spate of killings, rapes and lootings carried out by the Kaminski Brigade, made up of Russian collaborators..
The suppression cost the lives of 150,000 and 180,000 civilians, not including the thousands of insurgents that were captured and executed, since Polish resistance fighters were not considered combatants (meaning the rules regarding prisoner treatment were discarded). An additional 215,000 civilians were sent to labor camps or concentration camps, while the devastated and once beauty city was systematically demolished brick by brick, along with its ancient monuments, universities, libraries, and other historical centers.
As if Poland didn’t suffer enough during six years of conflict and brutalization, it was made to endure even more hardship. For one thing, Poland has been “liberated” by the Soviet Union, which for all its vital contributions to the Allied war effort was still run by the sociopathic Joseph Stalin. Having endured tremendous losses of their own, the Soviets used their subsequent influence as leverage in post-war plans forEurope (see Yalta Conference).
Among their actions was the imposition of drastic territorial changes on Poland that reduced its size by 20%; in addition, the numerous postwar migrations that followed and the destruction of Poland’s Jewish community drastically changed the country’s demographics and culture: it was no longer the multicultural and multiethnic nation it had been for centuries. To this day, it remains a homogenous rump state.
Furthermore, Polandwas subjected to a communist regime beholden to the USSR, and would remain a satellite state until 1989, when, appropriately enough, it would be the first to lead efforts to freeEastern Europe from Soviet domination (through peaceful means I might add).
Still, the Poles have always had a history of struggle and perseverance, and World War II, for all its unprecedented horror, was just one of a long-line of such calamities. Indeed, attempts to destroy Polish culture – and the Polish people themselves – may have only reinforced their sense of identity. As Norman Davies noted in his excellent book, God’s Playground, the untold sacrifices of surviving Poles made their attachment to nationhood and culture stronger than ever. The experience created what was known as the “Generation of Columbuses,” denoting those who came of age during World War II, and whose cultural output was subsequently based on a drastically changedPoland.
To this day, various polls and surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of Polish people place great importance on World War II to the Polish national identity. Unsurprisingly, many works of art are greatly influenced by the conflict. As Polish historian Tomasz Szarota wrote over a decade ago:
Educational and training programs place special emphasis on the World War II period and on the occupation. Events and individuals connected with the war are ubiquitous on TV, on radio and in the print media. The theme remains an important element in literature and learning, in film, theater and the fine arts. Not to mention that politicians constantly make use of it. Probably no other country marks anniversaries related to the events of World War II so often or so solemnly
Indeed, givenPoland’s tremendous contributions and tribulations, I could see why.