The war that began at daybreak on September 1,1939 with the German Third Reich’s invasion of the Republic of Poland was the most barbaric and genocidal conflict in the history of the world. It is unparalleled both because of the tens of millions of its victims, its enormous material losses, but also on account of the complete breakdown of all moral and ethical norms.
On August 23 the same year, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union had signed a neutrality pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. A secret protocol within this agreement included a plan to divide Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. A week later, Germany invaded Poland, which was the beginning of the World War II. The Soviet Union committed itself to supporting Germany in its military operations against Poland. On September 17, the Soviets assaulted Eastern Poland. Adolf Hitler, a few days prior to the invasion, said to his army commanders: “Destruction of Poland is our primary task … show no mercy. Be brutal”. Poland’s fate was unavoidable. The result of its defence was tragic – 77,000 Polish troops were killed in battle while fighting against Wehrmacht and the Red Army; 670,000 became prisoners of war.
Poland was the first country to resist Nazi Germany in 1939. Several countries, including France, Great Britain, New Zealand, and even Tonga, in a spirit of solidarity with Poland, declared war on Germany. In material terms, however, Poland, left alone in its struggle, would suffer more than five years of brutal occupation and terror, with nearly six million victims of genocide and massive persecutions.
Poland was Adolf Hitler’s first victim. Nazis murdered three million Polish Jews and three million other Polish civilians. They designated the Poles “subhuman Slavs”. In concentration and death camps established and administrated by Germans – Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek or Sobibór – most of the victims were Jews, including Polish Jews and Jews from many European countries occupied and controlled by Nazi Germany, but those killed also included hundreds of thousands of Poles, and people of other ethnicities, people with disabilities perceived in an evil doctrine as “subhuman” too. In death camps – Bełżec and Treblinka – prisoners were often killed in less than 30 minutes upon arrival.
Under Nazi German occupation in Poland the death penalty was imposed not only for joining the underground movement or hiding Jewish countrymen; even trading was punishable by death. Racial segregation, humiliation, food shortages, the fear of being sent to labor camps – that is what people had to deal with every day.
On the other side, in former Eastern Poland incorporated into the Soviet Union, with regular army troops arrived special NKVD units, whose role was to eliminate the Polish state structures and any potential resistance. To this end, mass-scale arrests and executions of intelligentsia were carried out in the Soviet-occupied territories. It is estimated that in 1940-1941, Soviet Russia was responsible for deporting 1.5 million innocent Polish civilians into slavery; they were forcibly taken to labour camps, called gulags in Siberia and other parts of Russia, where many of them perished.
In 1940, 22,000 Polish prisoners of war, the majority of Polish Army officers, were taken into captivity by the Soviets and shot to death in Katyń and other sites, in violation of war-time customs and conventions. The Katyń Crime was a long-kept secret of the Soviets’ atrocities. However, it was discovered during the war and the memory was preserved – in secret in Soviet-occupied Poland and openly abroad, also here in New Zealand. Forty-two years ago, at the church of St Mary of the Angels in Wellington, the Polish Community founded a memorial plaque dedicated to the victims of the Katyń massacre.
The Soviet invasion of Poland speeded up the Polish government’s decision to leave the country on the night of September 17. This led to organising state and military structures of the Republic of Poland in Exile. Continuity of institutions was thus preserved, enabling the Polish Armed Forces to carry on fighting abroad – in all campaigns across Europe until the very last days of the war – in France, Norway, Battle of Britain, Africa, Italy, Normandy, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.
Polish pilots, numbering 144 persons (roughly 5 percent of all RAF pilots), gained great fame through their participation in the Battle of Britain between July-October 1940. The best airborne unit in the Battle of Britain was the Polish Squadron 303; it reportedly shot down 126 German planes. New Zealanders made up the second-largest foreign contingent.
In early 1944, the Italian town of Cassino was the site of a devastating World War II battle. Polish and New Zealand soldiers were part of the Allied forces who struggled to capture the Gustav Line and the German-held Monastery of Monte Cassino. With several offensives failing, only in May 1944 did the Polish Second Corps succeed to capture it. The Monte Cassino battle helped forge the reputation of the Māori Battalion as well as the fame of the Polish Second Corps under General Władysław Anders. Anders was one of the finest Polish commanders in history. He died many years after the war, but his will was to be buried among his fallen soldiers at the Polish Cemetery in Monte Cassino in a symbol of his greatness and unconditional loyalty to the troops he had commanded.
Many Polish soldiers in Anders’ Army were earlier released from the Soviet prisons after Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941. Anders’ Army, who as the Polish II Corps captured Monte Cassino, had saved thousands of Polish civilians, including orphaned children, when the Polish Army left the USSR in 1942. Seven hundred and thirty-three of those children and 102 caregivers came to New Zealand on November 1,1944. On these shores they found shelter and eventually made their new home.
In the last months of 1944, after the failure of the Warsaw Uprising, Hitler ordered Poland’s capital to be razed to the ground and transformed into a frontline fortress, to be known as Festung Warschau. Governor General Hans Frank’s diary was clear: “After this insurrection and its suppression, Warsaw will meet a deserved fate – total destruction”. Warsaw’s war losses on the left bank of the Vistula river amounted to 80 percent of all buildings. Mass-scale exterminations of the population in the occupied Polish lands followed and were continued until the last days of the war.
After the war, Poland was enslaved again, this time to brutal Soviet communism. Communists took over the country and carried out the Kremlin’s orders. The Soviet political police eliminated the structures of the Polish underground state. The massive persecutions against the freedom fighters of the Home Army began. Also, those soldiers who fought in the West, and after the war returned to their homeland, were monitored and seen as a threat to the communist rule. A communist court sentenced to death Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to organise resistance in the Auschwitz concentration camp, wrote a report on the Holocaust and fought in the Warsaw Uprising. He was executed in 1948. This was the fate of many Polish heroes who survived the war.
Though a nation for 1000 years, since the end of the 18th century Poland has had only 50 years of independence – between the two wars and since the fall of communism in 1989. As a result of 45 years of communist rule imposed by the Soviet Union, Poland was economically and politically bankrupt. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, in less than a decade, we built a democracy and a free market economy – two pillars of a united Europe. Eventually, Poland achieved a historical accomplishment: it became a partner in a united common Europe, built on a foundation of respect for human rights and freedom, on principles of democracy and the right of nations to self-determination.
We have proven that with determination it is possible to turn the tide of history. And today, we are helping to fix problems – in Europe and beyond – as a member of the European Union as well as of the UN family.
In the UN Security Council, Poland demonstrates its commitments as a strong advocate of fundamental freedoms and human rights. The recent attacks on mosques in Christchurch and then the targeting of Christian communities in Sri Lanka have reminded us in a tragic way that that hatred towards religious groups may lead to mass killing of innocent people. In May, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution, initiated by Poland and supported by a number of countries including New Zealand, proclaiming August 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. Also on Poland’s initiative, in June, the UN Security Council adopted its first-ever resolution on the protection of persons with disabilities in armed conflict.
We can’t change our history, but we can work for a better future.