How did World War II begin? It didn’t begin on D-Day or at Auschwitz or on December 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. It began 70 years ago today with the German invasion of a newly independent Poland.
The Poles fought valiantly against the Germans and waited for promised aid from the French. The French and British instead sat by as the Polish Army was crushed. Less than a year later the French themselves were overrun by the German Wehrmacht in a campaign more swift than the Polish campaign.
The Poles continued to fight for many years underground against both the Nazis and their erstwhile Soviet allies. It is an inconvenient historical fact that the Soviets invaded Eastern Poland nearly simultaneously with the Germans. The Soviets were not attacked by Germany until 1941, but were instead attacking Finland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia in 1940 in the same fashion as they attacked Poland in 1939. After all that, FDR got many Americans to whitewash the very recent past and call Stalin “Uncle Joe.”
The German invasion, like so many wars, was a war of territorial conquest based on the supposed “natural frontiers” of Germany and alleged offenses against German ethnic minorities in Jozef Pilsudski’s nationalist Poland. The Soviet attack was a bit of opportunism and score-settling going back to the Miracle on the Vistula. After World War I, the Poles saved their newly reborn country from the Bolsheviks and annexed parts of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine from the former Russian Empire during the brief window of opportunity during the early days of the Soviet regime.
After the Nazi invasion, Poland would not form a collaborationist regime, unlike most of Western and parts of Central Europe. Instead, it was subject to government by German rule, in some cases annexed directly into Germany, and in all cases subject to mass privation, ethnic cleansing, and forced labor. Far from being mere “bystanders” to the Holocaust, the Poles suffered mightily from the Nazis’s campaign of anti-Slavism. Some 3 million Polish Christians died at the hands of the Nazis in addition to the more well known mass murder of some 3 million Polish Jews. The Polish people would resist until the very end, when its exile government was secretly sold out to the Soviets at Yalta by the British and Americans.
For those westerners who think of World War II as the “good war,” it’s worth remembering that the story is a bit more complicated. While the Nazis were clearly very evil and a threat to European peace, it’s to their shame that the Allies so frequently subordinated their strategic aims and moral authority to the Soviet Union. The war that began in defense of Polish sovereignty ended with a Soviet land-grab in the East. The Soviet-controlled communist government of Poland soon undertook the liquidation of the Polish leadership and intelligentsia that had been begun by the Soviets during the 1939-1941 interregnum at Katyn. The mass murder and ethnic cleansing undertaken by the Soviets in Eastern Europe was very predicable. The Soviets’ bad faith should have been self-evident 70 years ago when they invaded Eastern Poland in a preplanned destruction of the Polish state undertaken in concert with their Nazi allies.