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Background to the War: Soviet Territorial Motives

Poland and Russia's interactions have been rancorous during much of their history, punctuated by occasional intervals of grudging friendship. From the late seventeenth century up to the end of the Cold War, Poland was largely dominated by its larger and more powerful eastern neighbor, except for a few brief spans of time.18 During the eighteenth century Russia, alongside Prussia and Austria- Hungary, profited from three successive partitions of Polish territory to the point where Poland ceased to exist as an independent state. The Russian regime, whether in its tsarist or later communist forms, thus possessed a long-standing interest in Polish territory.

One of the exceptions to Russian dominance occurred following the First World War when Poland regained sovereign statehood. Taking advantage of internal weakness after the Bolshevik Revolution and ongoing Russian Civil War, an independent and rejuvenated Poland turned the tables and successfully fought a war against its disheveled neighbor from 1919 to 1920. After Polish forces drove back a Russian advance that had reached all the way to the outskirts of the capital of Warsaw, the Bolshevik government sued for peace. The two sides concluded a formal peace treaty, the Peace of Riga, in March 1921 through which Poland secured large tracts of Russian territory in what is now western Belarus and Ukraine. The gains were later ratified in 1923 with some reluctance by the Allied Conference of Ambassadors, which was established by the victorious powers after the end of the First World War and the Versailles Peace Treaty.19 Forfeiting these vast expanses of territory became a great source of grievance for Soviet Russia and contributed to the derisive depiction of Poland by Vyacheslav Molotov, who later became Stalin's foreign minister, as “the monstrous bastard of the Peace of Versailles."20

Map of Soviet special camps for Polish POWs and locations of prisoner executions

Figure 5.1 Map of Soviet special camps for Polish POWs and locations of prisoner executions

During the interwar period, the Soviet Union harbored strong desires to reabsorb the territories now found within the eastern regions of a much-enlarged Poland. The events leading up to the Second World War provided the Soviet Union with a prime opportunity to retake the lost lands, while at the same time ensuring a more permanent solution to what they viewed as their Polish problem. The foreign ministers of Russia and Nazi Germany, Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, signed a nonaggression pact on August 23, 1939. Article 2 of the agreement stipulated that should either partner enter into war against a third party, the other country would not come to the aid of the adversary.21 The agreement is widely accepted as having sealed the fate for a German attack against Poland. One military historian described in a succinct manner the situation facing a country that had enjoyed its return to independence for a mere two decades: “Poland was now doomed."22

The publically released pact contained no specific provisions concerning German or Soviet interests in Poland. This was saved for a secret supplementary protocol, which divided eastern Europe into separate German and Soviet spheres of influence. Article 2 of the protocol explicitly outlined each country's share of Polish territory, though it left to a later date the final decision of whether to maintain a rump Polish state.23 The Soviet Union thus entered into collusion with Nazi Germany to gain territorial spoils at the expense of a soon-to-be-defeated Poland.

The war officially began just over a week after the nonaggression pact was signed with Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany, though they provided few resources or concrete support to a Poland that quickly found itself on the defensive. Stalin waited until Polish forces were sufficiently ground down by the German advance before invading Poland's eastern border just over two weeks later on September 17. In one of the many peculiarities that would take place throughout the wider war, neither Poland nor the Soviet Union formally declared war on one another. The Soviets used a humanitarian pretext to justify its military actions, arguing it was only intervening to protect Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities from the dangers resulting from the collapse of the Polish state.24 For its part, the Polish government was already under siege from German forces and saw the Soviet occupation as an almost foregone conclusion. Wanting to avoid any further bloodshed, Polish military and political leaders did not take any concerted steps to defend eastern portions of their country against the Soviet advance.25 Pockets of resistance by Polish forces continued on both fronts, but the war was essentially over by the end of September. According to some estimates the Soviet Union suffered around eight hundred battle deaths during the fighting, while Polish forces lost around five thousand troops, though this would represent a fraction of the number of Polish combatants who would eventually die in captivity.26

The day after the war ended Germany and the Soviet Union reaffirmed their entente and consolidated their territorial gains with the September 28 Friendship Treaty. The agreement included a few revisions of the initial division of spoils presaged in the August 23 secret protocol, but the overall partition of Poland was put into effect with a German-controlled western region and Soviet-controlled eastern zone made up primarily of lands commonly referred to by Poles as the Kresy Wschodnie (Eastern Borderlands).27 With the conclusion of the treaty the Soviets gained 52 percent of interwar Poland, composed of around seventy-eight thousand square miles of land, and 38 percent of its population, totaling more than thirteen million persons.28 Germany took over large tracts of central Poland and their overwhelmingly Polish residents, yet Soviet claims that its conquered lands were largely composed of Slavic peoples and thus inhabited by few if any Poles are not credible. Demographic estimates based on Polish records suggest almost 40 percent of residents in the Soviet-controlled region at the time were ethnic Poles, amounting to over five million people.29 Figures from the most recent census in 1931 showed that Poles represented the largest and most widespread minority group across various parts of the newly conquered lands.30 Soviet expectations of resistance were thus likely to be quite high given the Polish population's historically strong sense of national identity coupled with their country's recent loss of independence.

Reflecting these concerns over possible defiance, and in a similar manner to the earlier August nonaggression pact, Molotov and Ribbentrop negotiated an additional secret protocol to the Friendship Treaty, which stated in part:

Neither party will allow on its territory any Polish agitation that affects the territory of the other country.

Both shall liquidate such agitation on their territories in embryo and shall inform each other about

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expedient measures to accomplish this [emphasis added].

The exact scope and extent of active German-Soviet collaboration in the suppression of Polish resistance remains an extremely contested issue.32 The secret protocol nonetheless indicates that both countries were acutely aware of the threat posed by any Polish struggle against their respective rule and had already devised a strategy for dealing with this menace. How then did the territorial motives of the Soviet Union influence their decision making over how to treat captured Polish combatants? The Soviets would eventually identify Polish prisoners of war, and especially officers, as particularly dangerous groups deserving of a brutal, yet extremely efficient, solution.

 
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