Forced Migrations in Europe, 1938-48
German Occupation Policy in Poland
Following the annexation of Austria and the dissolution of Czechoslovakia Tschechoslowakei in the years before, Germany's attack on Poland on September 1st, 1939 finally caused the outbreak of World War II. During the next five years, German rule was marked by violence, resettlement, and genocide. Poland became the most important "experimenting ground" for the Nazis' Lebensraum ("space to live") and extermination policies as well as the arena where forced migrations took place on an enormous scale.
Pre-World War I Poland
The history of independent Polish principalities, which had dated back to the Middle Ages, ended in 1795 when the great European powers, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, divided Poland's area among themselves. Thus, with the exception of a short intermezzo during Napoleonic rule, no Polish state existed until World War I.
In the 19th Century, a Polish national movement emerged which strove to regain national independence by its own efforts. In their attempts, the Polish nationalists were faced with "Germanisation" and "Russification" policies, especially during the
second half of the century.
The Rebirth of Poland (1917/18)
After World War I, a new Polish national state was created, largely thanks to the support of U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson. Only as late as the early 1920s, however, were the national borders finally decided on. In the east, Poland won armed struggles which allowed it to conquer parts of the Soviet Union and Lithuania. In several disputed regions in the west, either referenda were held to determine whether these regions wished to join the German Reich or Poland or that decision was taken in international conferences. Here, too, armed clashes occurred between German and Polish paramilitary units.
Nearly one third of the population belonged to national minorities, such as the Ukrainian (some 14 per cent), Jewish (some 9-10 per cent) and German (some 3 per cent) minority groups.
The political climate was strongly marked by economic problems, political and social tensions, as well as nationalism. The government's "Polonization policy" worked to the minorities' detriment, for instance in the cases of language policy and land reform. Among other things, this led to about one million ethnic Germans' leaving the country in the inter-war period. After a military dictatorship was established by Marshal Pilsudski in 1926 and later continued by his successors, the minorities' situation deteriorated, especially that of the Ukrainians living in the east of Poland.
Poland and National Socialist Germany
The idea of revising the Treaty of Versailles and the borders stipulated in that document at Poland's expense met with general approval in Germany's conservative intellectual elites, even as early as the Weimar period. Therefore, the German-Polish nonaggression pact of 1934 came as a surprise at first, but it did grant National Socialist Germany the possibility to rearm itself and thus to prepare for the planned conquest of eastern Europe As early as 1938, Poland was able to annex parts of Czechoslovakia, following in Germany's wake.
From the autumn of 1938 onwards, after the Munich Agreement, the threats and claims against Poland intensified, demanding the creation of an extraterritorial corridor through Poland, the reintegration of the Free City of Gdánsk into the German Reich and the factual submission of Poland as Germany's ally. The Polish government rejected the German demands; a repetition of the Munich Agreement of 1938 and the subsequent disruption of Czechoslovakia (in March 1939) was out of the question for France and Great Britain, so on March 31st 1939, they offered a guarantee of Polish independence.
Meanwhile, National Socialist propaganda blew up the German minority's situation for the international public. However, this tactic was not as effective by far as in the case of Czechoslovakia, since the German minority in Poland was much smaller. Ethnic Germans lived scattered around the entire country, were a fairly heterogeneous group and less susceptible to Nazi ideology.
The so-called Hitler-Stalin Pact (August 23rd, 1939) provided for the division of Poland. On September 1st, German armed forces began their attack on Poland. Poland collapsed, politically and militarily, after a mere few weeks. The country's east was occupied by the Soviet army.
Some parts of Poland were annexed to the German Reich, while the remainder of the country formed the so-called "General Government".
The Years of German Occupation
From the outset, Germany's war against Poland was not designed as a traditional war of conquest, but was aimed at resettlement, at gaining "space to live", and at genocide. The war was part of the German "policy of national character", which involved the driving back, suppressing, and killing of other peoples. From the beginning, Hitler envisaged killing large numbers of Polish civilians (see also his secret speech of August 22, 1939)
Consequently, the German "occupation policy" was mostly characterized by terror and the general authorization to persecute and kill the populace. Particularly the leading Polish elite became targets for the occupiers, as Poles were only tolerated on unskilled posts.
The occupied territories were exhausted financially as well as economically (armaments and food production).
The Polish government, which was recognized by the Allies, had gone into exile in London. A Polish underground had emerged, which put up a well organized resistance and was mostly based on Poland's former political parties as well as many social organizations, members of the state apparatus, and former officers. Conflicts arose mostly between the so-called Home Army (AK), which was loyal to the government-in-exile, and the communists. This was due to their respective attitudes towards the Soviet Union, which until 1941 was not an ally, but an occupying power, and later forced Poland to cede its eastern territories.
Forced Migrations during the Occupation
From the Nazi ideologists' point of view, the war constituted less of a conquest and more of a "reintegration" of Polish territories into the German Reich. These territories were to undergo a process of "Germanisation", which was to be seen in the new, German names given to places or streets, or in cultural and educational policy.
From the outset, forced migrations affecting hundreds of thousands of people took place in occupied Poland. Up to 1941, at least 365,000 persons (Jews and Poles) were moved from the territories now annexed to Germany to the General Government, often under appalling conditions.
With the forced relocations, the German occupiers were mostly interested in confiscating and vacating valuable property. This property was often passed on to German resettled persons, who were brought to occupied Poland e.g. under the "Back to the Reich" "Heim ins Reich" programme.
Some 1 to 1.2 million people were taken from Poland to the German Reich for forced labour purposes.
The Soviet occupying power also deported a large number of persons until 1941. Estimates vary between half a million and 1.5 million people.
The Holocaust in Poland
Before the War, Poland had been the European country with the largest Jewish percentage of the population by far. In 1931, a national census turned out a figure of more than 3 million Jews in Poland.
Persecution of the Jews began immediately after the German troops' invasion. Violence and murder, forced relocations to ghettos, imprisonment in concentration camps and forced labour followed.
After the entire country had fallen under German control following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the murdering reached its peak. From 1942 onwards, the inhabitants of Poland's ghettos were deported to concentration and extermination camps, which finally led to the desperate Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began in April 1943 and was crushed four weeks later, in May. Jews from all countries under German rule were deported to extermination camps such as Treblinka, Auschwitz, Sobibór, Belzec, or Madjanek and murdered there by means of industrial methods.
Until today, the role which the Polish population played concerning the persecution of the Jews is a hotly contested and highly controversial subject. Without any doubt, anti-Semitism had long prevailed amongst the Polish nationalist right and the rural population. Poles committed acts of collaboration and of violence against Jews, which were both encouraged and initiated by the occupiers. On the other hand, the victims of persecution were also given both organized and individual help, which, considering the environment marked by arbitrary rule, violence, and a lack of rights, was given by placing one's own life in danger.
German Occupation in Poland - Conclusion
Probably, no other country suffered more from German occupation than Poland did. According to rough estimates, somewhere between four and six million deaths (up to 20 per cent of the population) occurred in Poland alone. Germany's national, racist Lebensraum policy was implemented with extreme toughness; Poland was intended to cease existing as a nation. The destruction wrought by the Holocaust, which was survived by only a very small number of Polish Jews, boggles the mind.
Poland's subordination to the Stalinist Soviet Union after the end of German rule was only supported by the country's communists. This fact was symbolised by the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, which was brutally suppressed by the German occupiers and which was a futile attempt by the non-communist resistance to achieve liberation on its own efforts and thus to gain a say concerning the postwar order.