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1 Daniel Bokowski (IH PAN Warsaw) e-mail: domel@zetobi.com.


Together Forever": The Soviet Occupation of Eastern Poland during World War II

On 23 August 1939, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Thirds Reichs minister for foreign affairs and Vyacheslav Molotov, the USSR peoples commissar of foreign affairs, signed in Moscow a pact of non-aggression which included an additional secret protocol setting out Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence in Central and Eastern Europe. On 1 September, the Third Reich attacked Poland, which was the beginning of the war Stalin had anticipated. The Soviet authorities did not rush into the decision of starting military action. Stalin was waiting for the reactions on the part of England and France which had committed themselves to supply Poland with the necessary military aid. He hoped for the armed conflict between Germany and England with France to finally enter the stage of offensive war. It was not until 17 September 1939, when it had become clear there would be no help from the Western superpowers, that the USSR attacked Poland, which meant their road towards Europe and the Baltic states was now open; the latter were the next victims of this new German and Soviet cooperation. The original aggression plan did not only include division of the Polish state but it also took into consideration the creation of Polish Soviet Socialist Republic out of the territory between the Vistula and the Bug, which would have been the crowning achievement of the Soviet Union and their plans from the 1920 war. The proposition of initiating a revolution in the territory of Poland (later to be supported by the Red Army forces) was in itself quite similar to the justifications provided in 1920. The idea of existence of Polish Soviet Republic was discontinued by the Moscow-based authorities on 19 September at the latest, that is on

2 the day when the first units of the Red Army entered Vilnius. The negotiations between the Third Reich and the USSR which started on 25 September 1939 ended with the demarcation of a new border line and the signing of relevant agreement on 28 September. The Bialystok and Lomza regions, which were originally to be included in the Polish Soviet Republic, quite suddenly became Western Belarus, while the people who lived in those regions were dubbed Polonized Belarusians, the victims of the long-term anational policy of the Second Polish Republic. The Red Army entering Poland in order to bring liberation to the oppressed Belarusian and Ukrainian nations put Belarusians and Ukrainians in a very unfavourable position especially because of the fact that many of them did not wish for such form of liberation. The factor mentioned above alongside with the policy of using Jews as another victim of the Second Polish Republic directly contributed to the change in the way Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Jews perceived each other. Nationality-related conflicts, which were smouldering in the eastern regions of the Second Polish Republic until the beginning of the war, had been instigated by the Soviet authorities which had intentionally disturbed the relations between those nations but also between different social groups. In this situation, the economic problems which were impossible to avoid in the conditions of centrally planned economy led to the aggravation of neighbour conflicts on the local level even assuming that the Soviet authorities did not want this to happen because of the fact that in the long run this hindered the process of Sovietisation of society. The most violent anational policy was inflicted upon Poles. Initially it was announced that the Soviet authorities were there to support the oppressed Polish labourers and peasants, however soon enough, that is, after a few months of treading lightly the authorities stopped being gentle. The majority of Poles were considered as the enemies of the Soviet rule, which was followed by the intensification of political persecution towards them and, what is more, different kinds of economic penalties. However, it would be misleading to think that the anti-Polish national policy put the minorities in a more favourable position. A perfect illustration for this are the Belarusians. The process of creation of the Soviet citizen excluded the possible realization of strengthening the national consciousness of Belarusians which had been promised in the propaganda pronouncements in the early days of the war. The collision of the propaganda which proclaimed that the Belarusians and Ukrainians had such easy lives with the Soviet reality brought a massive

3 disappointment. As it soon turned out, the Soviet rule did not trust those whom it was supposed to liberate in the same way as it distrusted the Poles. Furthermore, the activists of the Communist Party of Western Belarus and also those of the Communist Party of Western Ukraine are considered to be dangerous agents, whereas the Belarusian and Ukrainian peasants hardship is comparable to that of their Polish counterparts. Their hopes of social advancement turned out to be a mere illusion, access to official positions was restricted, and the people who managed to get promoted (the most often example of this was membership in village councils the so-called selsoviets) were forced into a complete and ruthless obedience to the new rule. It was also the Lithuanians whose scarce groups were incorporated into the borders of Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic who did not have a chance of developing their national identity either. In the regions where there was no Belarusian element, the role of the substitute minority was played by the Jews. Because of the fact that Poles were thought of as enemies, one had to show who the victim was, the victim, for his part, needed to be given the right to revenge for the suffered damage. The Jews fitted the jigsaw perfectly and in a similar way as the Belarusians were the object rather than the subject who took part in an active way in the changes going down. They were an instrument in the hands of the Soviet administration and they performed their duties conscientiously. Their limitless faith in the slogans of the Soviet propaganda announcing advancement for the oppressed minorities and the opportunity of paying back for years of persecution made many of them die-hard followers of the new authority. To the local party formations, this situation seemed advantageous as it made easy the task of acquiring people willing to cooperate who were not native Poles. Consequently, this also enabled the authority to quickly fill the positions which were necessary to run local administration and trade in an efficient way. The results of such a policy manifested themselves in the form of increasing Polish-Jewish antagonisms. The massive Jewish participation in the local structures of state-level administration was for the most part due to the prospects of material gains and it was perceived as the smoking gun proof of treason. The strangest part of this all is the fact that similarly strong negative feelings were not addressed towards the Belarusian or Ukrainian people. This might have been caused by the fact that Belarusians and Ukrainians were not encountered in state-level offices which were now the domain of Jews who had replaced the Poles who until recently had been the only personnel. The social advancement of the Jews and their boasting of this

4 fact in public caused the consolidation (in the awareness of Polish people) of the still prevalent stereotype saying that they collaborated with the invader on a massive scale. The year 1940 brought the consolidation of the Soviet rule. A framework for the new authorities was created and all the areas of day-to-day life were subjected to Sovietisation. Because of the fact that reality would in no way bend to the Soviet plans, the authorities decided that the one to blame for the then-present state of affairs was the former Polish state and the enemies of the USSR; these for their part could be lying in wait anywhere. All that was Soviet was good, superb, right and serving the people. All that had been created in Poland was deemed antisocial, anational, anti-Soviet and antisocialist. The non-existent Polish state continued taking the blame for the failing authorities even many months after its fall. Any protests and grumbling of labourers over the significant increase in the job cycle times and the decrease in the actual earnings in comparison with the period prior to 17 September were dismissed with the statement that all that was the fault of the Polish government which, being fully aware of the looming defeat, had knowingly raised salaries in order to sabotage the actions taken by the Soviet authorities whose occupation of these regions had been a long foregone conclusion. The reduced job cycle times served as a proof of the fact that the Polish authorities intentionally did not want the labourer to earn more money or to have a better quality of life. The new authority was simply not responsible for anything. If it had not been for its enemies, the regions which had been taken over would have enjoyed a prosperity beyond all recognitionthe very same prosperity that was enjoyed by all the other citizens of the Soviet state. The economic situation affected the social situation in an active manner. It was not always due to the intentional actions on the part of the authorities. More often it was a failed attempt at transferring into the Polish conditions the Soviet mechanisms of the centrally planned economy. When observing the decisions taken by the local authorities, one is under the impression that most of them were just schemes of pure propaganda that was completely detached from reality and merely expecting to be praised by Minsk and Moscow and totally ignoring efforts which might have earned actual gratitude of the citizens whose life had supposedly improved. Whether we consider the question of the nationalisation of industry or the collectivisation of agriculture, it is clear that the new authoritys main aim was to completely take over the means of production and to influence to the greatest degree possible the people who made those means. At the same time, those changes were

5 supposed to abolish the underdevelopment and agricultural backwardness of these regions, which consequently was to bring about the desired social justice. An important element of Soviet policy were repressive measures which were aiming at breaking any resistance of the nation. The 21 months of Soviet occupation of the eastern provinces of the Second Polish Republic saw at least 750,000-780,000 of Polish citizens transferred to the USSR, 530,000-570,000 out of which were victims of different types of arrests and convict transports as well as displacement schemes. These people were: unreleased prisoners of war; people arrested and deported to correction labour camps by virtue of orders given by Soviet courts and the Special Commissions (the so-called OSO); the people who were conscripted for their mandatory service in the Red Army; the people who were forced to go deep into the USSR to seek gainful employment; the victims of the four mandatory deportations, the victims of compulsory displacement schemes deep into the Ukrainian and Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic in the autumn of 1939, the victims of the compulsory displacement schemes into Bessarabia in the summer of 1940; the people deported as part of the so-called complementation of contingents (the deportations of May 1940 from the Bialystok, Grodno and Lwow regions); the people mandatorily evacuated inside the USSR right after the beginning of the Soviet-Nazi Germany war; the people running away from the invading German army after the beginning of the Nazi German-Soviet war; the people arrested after the USSR had seized Lithuania in the summer of 1940; the socalled perebezhchiki that is the people detained by the border control units for attempting to cross the borders illegally; children and youth taken from orphanages; the boarders from vocational schools who were deported to do their labourers practical training; the children captured from summer camps and holiday farms upon the outbreak of the Nazi GermanSoviet; and other so far unaccounted for or undocumented cases. The Nazi German invasion of the USSR put an end to the further plans of integration. Within several weeks, most of the regions of the Second Polish Republic came under the control of German army. Many Poles, Belarusians and Ukrainians welcomed the entering forces as their deliverers. No one wanted to be together forever anymore. Taking advantage of the transfer of power, people launched mutual settlement of accounts. Pogroms of Jews were (in terms of intention and not of their extent) similar to the ones which were afflicted, with the implicit consent of the Red Army, by Belarusian or Ukrainian peasants upon the Polish settlers and landed gentry who were the fiercely hated symbols of

6 the passing era. As for the Belarusians, they were also punished with the implicit consent of Germans for their behaviour under the first Soviet rule by the returning Poles who demanded the restitution of the seized land and lost material goods. Throughout the whole period of military action, the regions of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus were considered to be an integral part of the Soviet state, although Stalin did not see this as the final arrangement. He was willing to allow some changes but these would have to be beneficial for him in terms of politics or territories. In the game he played with the London-based government of the Polish Republic, he never officially admitted that any of the territories located to the east of the border line drawn by the USSR and the Third Reich in the autumn of 1939 are a component part of the Polish state. It was only during the liberation of the present Polands territory that he (intending to give support to Polish communists) decided to yield the parts which had been incorporated within the USSR in order for them to be included within Polands new borders. Belarusian authorities were continuously trying to prevent this from happening but to no avail.