Remembering Poland's agony and sacrifice: Zbigniew Gniatkowski provides a Polish perspective on the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.

AuthorGniatkowski, Zbigniew

The war that began at daybreak on 1 September 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 not only for the scale of death and destruction but also for the complete breakdown of all moral and ethical norms. Memory of this great tragedy--one of the most traumatic periods in Poland's history--unites generations and reflects the respect for the sacrifice of our forebears. Its consequences still exert a major impact on the Polish nation. Eighty years on, Poland is a special guardian of memory about these events.

In 1939, Poland's fate was unavoidable. On 23 August 1939 the Third Reich and the Soviet Union 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, on 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, which was the beginning of the Second World War. The Soviet Union committed itself to supporting Germany in its military operations against Poland. On 17 September, the Soviets assaulted eastern Poland. Adolf Hitler, a few days prior to the invasion, told his army commanders: 'Destruction of Poland is our primary task ... show no mercy. Be brutal.' The result of its defence was tragic--77,000 Polish troops were killed in battle while fighting against the 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. The 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 administered by Germans--such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek or Sobibor--the most numerous 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--Belzec and Treblinka--prisoners were often killed less than thirty minutes after arrival.

Under Nazi German occupation in Poland the death penalty was imposed not just for joining the underground movement or hiding Jewish countrymen; even those involved in trading were put at risk of being executed. Racial segregation, humiliation, food shortages, the fear of being sent to labour 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 1940-41, Soviet Russia was responsible for deporting 1.5 million innocent...

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