2022 Competition 2022 Essays Competition on the History of Poland Recommended

Ignoring Political Festering can Invoke Global Suffering

Interconnectedness and the Power of Corrosion

Nicaiah Williams

17 September 2022

How Ignoring Political Festering can Invoke Global Suffering. Despite years of strained history and an increase in political tension between the Slavic nations of Russia and Ukraine, the arrival of the ongoing 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war was as unexpected as it was predictable. With the United States, European Union, and various other geopolitical entities currently backing the Ukrainian government, a question has been rising amongst the Western populace: why should our support, aid, and care go to a country seas away? To sufficiently answer this question, it is necessary to look at the current conflict from a broader lens, for the beginning of this issue is not in 2022 with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of the contested Crimean Peninsula. In fact, the core of this war is not isolated to these two nations at all. Rather, the conflict traces back to the 20th century, to a Europe freshly ravaged by a second Great War and succumbing to the expansion of the Communist regime. Thus, by examining the nation of Poland post World War II and its development under Soviet occupation, the importance of aiding Ukraine and its relevance to people globally will be revealed.

To understand the connection between the current Russo-Ukrainian War and the Russian occupation of Poland post-WWII, one must first understand the circumstances that befell Poland during and after the Second World War. Due to its geographic location – bordered by Germany to the West and Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine to the East – Poland was faced with a unique set of disadvantages. The nation’s large Jewish population and immediate proximity meant that it was a prime target for Nazi Germany. This, combined with its adjacency to the Soviet Republics of Ukraine and Belarus, meant that Poland would become partially occupied by Nazis in 1939. The eastern portion of Poland would be taken by Soviet forces on September 17th of that same year, an act that only succeeded due to the amiability between the two regimes. This German invasion would mark both the official beginning of World War II, and a widespread campaign of human rights violations targeting Jewish and other “undesired” ethnic and social groups in Poland. The greater consequences of this campaign were a progressive erosion of local culture and a decrease in the Polish population as the Nazis’ system of ethnic separatism turned into ethnic cleansing and forced exile.

The Polish people would contribute greatly to the Allied Forces despite these occurrences. The government was also present throughout the war, continuing its correspondence with other Allies while exiled to London. This correspondence extended to the USSR, with whom the Polish government made an agreement on July 30, 1941: “The Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics recognizes the Soviet-German treaties of 1939 as to territorial changes in Poland as having lost their validity. The Polish Government declares that Poland is not bound by any Agreement with any third Power which is directed against the U.S.S.R” (Wright 304).

Legacy of Yalta

Despite Poland’s war contributions and attempts at diplomacy, the outcome of the 1945 Yalta Conference would lead to extended Polish suffering. Though the Yalta Conference is typically remembered for the partitioning of Germany and its capital into four zones of occupation, this conference also determined what would happen to the war-torn nation of Poland. The intention of the conference was for the Allied Forces to “[consult] with each other in the common interests of the peoples of their countries and those of liberated Europe” (Department of State 215). This discussion involved the United States of America, Great Britain, and the USSR, but notably did not involve the Polish government, which was still operating in London.

This meant that the Polish lacked the representation needed to push for the reinstatement of Poland’s eastern territories, or discuss their own demands as victors of the war. By February of 1945, the USSR had already obtained the western portion of Poland.

With the entire nation under its belt, the USSR took the upcoming conference as an opportunity to speak on the behalf of the now “liberated” Poland; the proposals made “for Poland” were either not aligned with what the nation wanted, or unfortunately were dropped in favor of requests that served to benefit the USSR.

One such request involved territory. Despite the agreement that the USSR signed with the Polish government on July 30, 1941, the conversation at the Yalta Conference made it clear that they did not intend to return the land that was wrongfully given to them by Germany. This would permanently alter the borders of Poland, with its eastern territories being absorbed into border nations such as the Soviet Republic of Ukraine and Belarus. For this move, Poland was “compensated” by having its territory expanded to the west through German land (Wright 308). In addition to the change in Poland’s border, the government itself would be impacted by the conference.

Despite the Polish government still existing in exile, the USSR proposed the implementation of a “Polish provisional government” on the grounds that “a new situation has been created… as a result of [Poland’s] complete liberation by the Red Army” (Department of State 215). The proposal’s purpose was clearly aimed at undermining the pre-existing Polish government and further isolating the nation from foreign allies. In what would later be described as a “compromise” by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, both himself and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill accepted this proposal without ensuring the autonomy of Poland (Wright 307). In doing so, they hoped to avoid conflict with the Soviets. This sequence of events acts as an eerie mirror to the 1938 Munich Conference, in which Czechoslovakia was allowed to fall under German occupation as a means of keeping the peace. Thus, the conclusion of the Yalta Conference brought with it a new era of deprived sovereignty for Poland instead of acknowledgment of its endured tragedies and wartime assistance.

Oppressing of “Liberators”

The acknowledgment of the new provisional government meant two things for the Polish: any chance of the exiled government being reinstated was now thoroughly shot down, and those that remained loyal to the old institution were now in grave danger. Though the USSR failed to uphold its half of the July 30th, 1941 agreement, it fully expected the Polish side to adhere to their half of not conspiring against it. As the new Polish government, the Polish Government of National Unity, was a puppet government installed by the USSR itself, deferring to any other governing body was akin to rebelling against the Soviets in favor of their enemies. This, unfortunately, would not be overlooked by leaders back in Moscow.

Within just a few months of the conclusion of the Yalta Conference in February of 1945, a widespread campaign of political, militaristic, and civil purging would ramp up across Poland. For these systemic changes, the Soviet Union relied upon its security forces the NKVD. This entity served as the Soviet equivalent to the Gestapo of Nazi Germany, a secret police that would quietly remove anyone deemed an enemy of the state. As with all secret police, the practices employed by the NKVD extended beyond the scope of what was ethical or just, including the torture, deportation, blackmail, coercion, and execution-without-trial of many Poles. Additionally, the NKVD had the power to funnel detainees into various prisons and camps situated throughout Soviet territories and Poland. One such prison was the Fordon prison, which only hosted female political prisoners.

The purpose of prisons like Fordon was to destroy the “inmate community” and use tactics of isolation, deprivation, and reward to achieve the “political purpose consisting in complete isolation and indoctrination” (Machcewicz, Anna, et al. 108). The NKVD’s purpose in Poland was thus to indoctrinate and destroy Poles with total impunity.

One of the objectives of the NKVD and Moscow’s purging campaign was the Polish Underground State. The Polish Underground State was, in essence, the complex culmination of various resisting bodies– political, civil, educational, and military – that still saw the exiled Government of the Republic of Poland as the rightful federal institution. The organization also strived to preserve the quality and quantity of institutions as they were under the exiled government’s reign (Nowak 4). The military units of the organization were the Home Army (initially called the Union of Armed Struggle) and the National Armed Force. These units were formed in the struggle to defend Polish autonomy amidst the German invasion. When the Soviet Union made its appearance as a German collaborator, the efforts of these military units and other armed resistors were painfully crushed by an encompassing vice of totalitarianism.

By the early half of 1945, the organization was already dissolving due to the combined loss of Allied support, manpower, and communication with the exiled government. Additionally, there were internal fears of starting a Polish civil war, which would only serve to benefit the Soviet Union. Despite the organization ceasing its operations, those that had been contributing members were still unknowingly wanted by leaders back in Russia.

Show Trials

This would all come to a head on the 27th and 28th of March, where 16 former leaders of the Polish Underground State would be beaten and arrested by the NKVD and brought back to Moscow, Russia, for trial (Fijalkowski 90). There was only one catch: the charges against them were fabricated, and the trial already had a predetermined outcome. The entire event had been carefully orchestrated, starting with the 16 men receiving an invitation to a public meeting (Fijalkowski 90). By assuming a cooperative front, Stalin and the NKVD were able to bait and switch key figures of the Polish resistance and charge them with various crimes. These key figures included the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army, Leopold Okulicki, and Deputy Prime Minister of Poland (delegate of the exiled government), Jan Stanislaw Jankowski. Excluding the four that were ultimately acquitted, the charges stuck, and the men were sentenced in June to various labor camps.

This trial was not the only one of its kind to occur– various other individuals (typically anti-communist, protesting, or otherwise dissatisfied with occupation) would find themselves in a similar situation; they would have their names smeared in a show trial, be forced to collaborate or support the narrative of the trial despite the evidence being nonexistent or questionable, and then find themselves in either a labor camp, political prison, or awaiting execution. It is for this reason that the most devastating aspect of this trial was the lack of outrage from abroad, though this had long since been anticipated as shown by a conversation between Joseph Stalin and the Prime Minister of Poland, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk:

He talked for a long time, but it was extremely clear just what kind of Poland he wanted after the war. In view of what both he and everybody else already knew about Anglo-American appeasement and indifference, it was also apparent what he would get. Above all, I could see as he talked that he was determined that all Polish resistance, as exemplified by the Polish Home Army, would perish. (Mikolajczyk)

Just as both suspected, there would be no repercussions for Stalin, no push from Great Britain or the United States to make these show trials end, and some of the underground leaders would ultimately meet questionable ends before their sentences were over.

Augustów Operation

With the targeting of the Polish Underground State came the natural decision to also target former Home Army fighters and dozens more groups of armed resistance and/or military personnel. Since the Soviet invasion of Poland, the Red Army and NKVD had already been taking out the armed members of Polish society. Thus, the fight to dismantle these groups of resistance – and consequently suppress the Polish population – carried on. There had already been prior round-ups of Polish armed fighters, the most infamous of which was the Katyn massacre of 1940. In July of 1945, it appeared that the Soviet Union was planning a similar mass execution– this time with the Red Army. Within the area of the Augustów Forest, Soviet intelligence had predicted that there was a hidden base of operation for thousands of Polish guerilla fighters. As such, a plan was devised to encircle the area of the Augustów Forest and dragnet it (Adamski and Motyka 5). Essentially, any Polish guerilla fighter that happened to be in the area was forced to remain there until they were found by the numerous sweeps that the Red Army did through the area:

On 12 July, having spent the entire day combing the indicated areas, Red Army soldiers detained at least 820 suspected individuals, including sixty-two Home Army members. On the next day, another 889 individuals or more were detained. In the following days, Red Army soldiers detained between three hundred and nine hundred individuals daily. This is the lowest estimated number—daily figures provided by the Soviets in their reports are frequently mutually exclusive; the final figures indicated that a total of more than seven thousand individuals were detained during the entire operation. (Adamski and Motyka 6)

After weeding through all 7,000 people, it was concluded that 844 were criminals; 252 of them would be deported to Lithuania as they were Lithuanians, while the remaining 592 (all of which were Polish) were relocated and quietly executed without trial (Adamski and Motyka 9). Without a trial, there was no way to definitively prove if these individuals were truly a part of underground rebellion movements. Considering how the detained Lithuanians were sent off before the mass execution started, the Augustów operation feels less like a tactical attack upon the Soviet Union’s enemies, and more like a large-scale extermination of an ethical group that the Soviets disdained. These interpretations are not mutually exclusive, for this operation did indeed destroy any large-scale fighting in the area and left “small groups of guerrilla fighters only” (Adamski and Motyka 8). At the same time, it also made nearly 600 people disappear off the face of the Earth.

Polish Operation 1937

The continued targeting of resistance and military entities by Soviet officials still does not paint the full picture of Polish suppression under the Soviet regime. As stated earlier, the USSR’s activities in Poland occurred not on a unilateral scale, but on as many levels of society as humanly possible. While counterculture was being dismantled and all Polish Defense entities were being demolished, the people themselves were also under rapid assailment. Despite wanting Polish land, the Soviet Union did not want Polish people. Not even pro-communist Poles were safe, as “Stalin even dissolved the Communist Party of Poland, ordering most of the arrested leaders to be executed” (Musial 99). This was perhaps the lingering effects of the 1930s Great Terror, in which Stalin committed himself to execute thousands; the ethnic Poles were targeted most extensively, with 110,000 Poles being executed, exiled, or otherwise disappearing from Soviet territories (Musial 98).

Though the Great Terror ended in the 1930s, the sentiments of distrust and contempt that fueled the event would be reflected in the Soviet transformation of Polish society (James 751). As established through the Trial of the Sixteen, the USSR’s judicial institutions were less concerned with the truth, and more concerned with the maintenance of Soviet propaganda and public terror. A regime’s power is derivative of the people’s fear and the reaffirmation of their obedience. By infiltrating Polish courts and directing loyal judges to deliver cruel and irregular punishment, the USSR was able to “make an impression on the [people]” and obtain power “over the populace’s public and private lives” (Fijalkowski 85).

General Emil Fieldorf

One such infamous case of cruel punishment involves Polish war hero Emil August Fieldorf. Fieldorf had an extensive military background, serving in numerous battalions and positions before becoming a brigadier general in the Home Army (Fijalkowski 87). When war broke out, Fieldorf traveled to France in order to train himself, and then proceeded to smuggle himself back into Poland in order to aid in the battle against German occupation (Fijalkowski 88). Like various other members of the Home Army, Fieldorf was unaware of the fact that his ties to the Polish Underground State and military experience meant that Moscow wanted him dead. He was surveilled until 1950, as the Soviet Union would, unfortunately, find an opportunity to detain and arrest him. Various corrupt methods were used in every stage of Fieldorf’s trial, starting with the repeated extensions of his detainment, the coercion and torturing of witnesses to build a case against him, and the use of his participation in the 1920 Polish-Soviet War (a war that the USSR lost) and battles against German occupation, to fabricate him into a high position of command and thus attribute the deaths of a thousand people to his name (Fijalkowski 97).

Fieldorf was sentenced to hang despite the court failing to do basic procedure such as the cross-examination of witnesses, or even allowing Fieldorf’s defense counsel to testify; when an appeal with evidence and witnesses supporting Fieldorf was made, the court simply stated that the evidence “had no bearing on the case against the general (Fijalkowski 98). Fieldorf would ultimately be executed on February 24th of 1952 despite the efforts of his family and other parties (Fijalkowski 99). His trial, like many others, served to instill dread into the populace and hammer home the ubiquitous influence of the USSR.

At least one of the overseeing judges, Emil Merz, had direct ties with the secret police while another, Maria Gorowska, had a known reputation of incompetency (Fijalkowski 95).

Thus, through the corruption of courtrooms and the judges presiding over them, the judicial system was no longer on the side of the people. Poland was no longer for the people.

This recollection of events is not meant to condemn the United States or Great Britain for their participation (or lack thereof) in Poland’s transformation into a puppet state. This chapter of history has already concluded, and the men involved have long since perished. To take the time to ridicule President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, or Joseph Stalin is to make empty platitudes. There is no phrase that can be said to bring back those that have already lost their lives or to ease generations of displacement and tragedy.

How Ignoring Political Festering can Invoke Global Suffering

What does exist is a phrase for today, for the ensuing conflict between Russia and Ukraine: to ignore a gaping wound is to die bleeding. The Allied Forces made a conscious decision in 1945 to tolerate the USSR and its atrocities in Poland, even when it became undeniably clear that the Soviet Union was a threat to the vision of a democratic Europe that they were trying so hard to foster.

This policy of looking away was done to avoid the further destruction of Europe through a third World War, but as is now known, this choice would worsen the post-war condition of international politics into a decades-long conflict between the United States and the USSR. The Soviet Union is the “gaping wound” in this case, and no medical intervention was done when the wound festered and began to consume Poland.

No move was done when the infection continued bleeding out of Poland and into the rest of Europe. By the time curative actions were taken, the entire world was bloody. Tolerance of a threat does not make the threat go away. Ignorance does not detract from a threat’s power, and passivity emboldens it. It is for this reason that Ukraine and its fight against Russia have earned the nation widespread financial, military, and political support. The Russo-Ukrainian conflict is not just a conflict between two bordering nations, it is the byproduct of decades-old policies that tried and failed to birth global peace through enabled destruction. To repeat the actions of the 1940s and offer Ukraine to Russia as Poland was given to the USSR would be nothing short of a grave blunder. There can be no coexistence with an entity that enriches itself off the decimation of others. Likewise, one’s safety is not guaranteed simply because their neighbor was eaten first. To quote pastor Martin Niemöller’s 1946 poem:

First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

If one wishes to disregard the historic warning that is the occupation of Poland and the importance of no longer enabling global threats, then one should be prepared to revise this poem with the names of Poland, Ukraine, Europe, and finally, themselves.

 

Bibliography

“Conversation between Stanislaw Mikolajczyk and Stalin,” August 03, 1944, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Mikołajczyk, Stanisław. The rape of Poland: Pattern of Soviet Aggression. (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1972), 72-75. https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/219986

Fijalkowski, Agata. “Politics, Law, and Justice in People’s Poland: the Fieldorf File.” Slavic Review, vol. 73, no. 1, 2014, pp. 85–107, doi:10.5612/slavicreview.73.1.0085.

The US Department of State. The Department of State Bulletin. vol. 12, pp. 215 HathiTrust, #221 – The Department of State bulletin. v.12. – Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library

Adamski, Lukasz and Motyka, Grzegorz. The Last Mass Execution of World War II: The Roundup Carried Out by Soviet Troops in the Augustów Forest in July 1945. SAGE, https://doi.org/10.1177/08883254221093642. Accessed 17 Sep. 2022

Machcewicz, Anna, et al. Political Prisoners in Poland, 1944–56 : The Sources and Strategies of Resistance in the Authoritarian State’s Prison System. Instytut Historii im. Tadeusza Manteuffla Polskiej Akademii Nauk, 2018, http://rcin.org.pl/Content/71879/PDF/WA303_93538_A296-APH-R-118_Machcewicz.pdf.

Musial, Bodan (2013). The ‘Polish Operation’ of the NKVD: The Climax of the Terror Against the Polish Minority in the Soviet Union. Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 99-124.SAGE, https://doi.org/10.1177/0022009412461818. Accessed 17 Sep. 2022.

Morris, James. “The Polish Terror: Spy Mania and Ethnic Cleansing in the Great Terror.” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 56, no. 5, 2004, pp. 751–66. JSTORhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/4147481. Accessed 17 Sep. 2022.

Nowak, Chester M. (1986). The Polish Resistance Movement in Second World War.

Bridgewater Review, 4(1), 4-7. Available at: http://vc.bridgew.edu/br_rev/vol4/iss1/6 Wright, Herbert. “Poland and the Crimea Conference.” The American Journal of International Law, vol. 39, no. 2, 1945, pp. 300–08. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2192348.  Accessed 14 Sep. 2022.

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