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The General Treatment of Polish Prisoners

From their first advances across the border into a besieged Poland, Soviet forces did not exhibit much kindness or sympathy in their treatment of captured enemy combatants. The high levels of prisoner abuse that resulted are largely consistent with what would be expected given the Soviet Union's territorial motives in eastern Poland. Polish armed forces were viewed as a general threat, and abuses like torture or execution of prisoners, whether or not they had put up any initial resistance, were a common phenomenon throughout the combat phase of the conflict.33 During the few brief weeks of the war, between 1,000 and 2,500 Polish prisoners were summarily executed on the battlefield.34 In one of the more gruesome episodes, General Jozef Olszyna-Wilczyn'ski, Polish commander of the Grodno military district, ordered his men to stand down in the face of advancing Red Army columns to avoid needless bloodshed. Foreshadowing the fate to befall other military elites, during his retreat Olszyna-Wilczyn'ski was stopped by Soviet forces, roughly pulled from his car, thrown against a barn door, and shot on the spot.35

As callous as those early deaths were, most prisoners were not immediate executed and instead entered into some form of Soviet custody. While the precise number of captives is difficult to determine given the chaotic conditions prevailing in the country at the time, most estimates suggest around 250,000 Polish soldiers became prisoners of war to the Soviet Union.36 Since the bulk of the Polish forces had been deployed to meet the earlier German offensive in the west, it follows that a far greater number of the close to seven hundred thousand troops found themselves under German control.37 Not all Polish combatants fell into the hands of German or Soviet invaders, however, and many were successful in escaping to various neighboring countries. Around forty thousand soldiers were able to cross over to Hungary, while another thirty thousand went to Romania. About fifteen thousand more troops escaped to Latvia and Lithuania, though their relief would be short-lived as most were captured less than a year later when the Soviet Union eventually annexed the Baltic states in June 1940. Finally, 47,000 Polish soldiers, which included 9,200 officers, took various routes in secret to reach Allied-controlled territories like France and those in the Middle East.38 Many of these officers and soldiers formed the core of Polish units who later fought under the command of the Western Allies throughout the rest of the war. Somewhat ironically, the contributions of these escapees to the Western powers would indirectly help the Soviet Union once it had partnered with the United States and Britain against a common Axis foe. However, in the autumn of 1939 the Soviet leadership was more concerned with the capability of Polish troops to undermine their country's control over eastern Poland than they were with Germany's invasion that would come several years later.

For the quarter million or so Polish soldiers who were unable to escape, the war was over, but their deprivations had just begun. Some were fortunate enough to be sent home early on, though this was primarily reserved for soldiers of Ukrainian or Belarusian origin.39 The decision to do this was taken at the highest level of the Soviet government in a politburo meeting on October 2, 1939.— These other groups were largely viewed as less threatening to Soviet control over the recently acquired territories compared to the much more nationalistic ethnic Poles, who would continue to endure captivity for some time. While sparing some prisoners, the politburo meeting also ordered the creation of specific labor camps, as well as sites dedicated to separating and holding officers and other high- ranking Polish officials. As was the case throughout much of the war on the eastern front, the Soviet Union refused to allow the ICRC access to Polish soldiers or holding sites, which meant prisoners could not benefit in any way from the organization's oversight.41

Not long after capture, most prisoners were led on forced marches over vast distances to reach large temporary way stations and then on another arduous journey to their final destinations.42 Since the war ended in late September, the weather became increasingly harsh, especially for those being sent to more distant locations in the Soviet interior. The further lack of adequate food and shelter meant large numbers died even before arriving at their intended prison camp. Although conditions often improved once prisoners got to more permanent facilities, the level of treatment for most Polish prisoners was far below generally accepted standards. After formally incorporating all conquered parts of Poland into the Soviet Union, the central government passed a decree on November 29, 1939, that all soldiers and civilians in these newly administered areas were now classified as Soviet citizens.43 This was then used as a pretext to forcibly conscript over 210,000 persons into the Red Army, many of whom were former Polish combatants.44

Many of those not directly inducted into the military were instead organized into vast labor camps located in remote regions of the Soviet Union. Alongside many civilians, it is estimated that between one and one and a half million Poles were deported over the course of successive waves to various camps in the Soviet Union.45 The grueling work, harsh living conditions, and paucity of appropriate food and shelter turned many of the labor camps into death sentences for prisoners. Rates of mortality across camps differed significantly, with some of the most extreme being those located in the far north and northeastern Komi and Kolyma regions of the Arctic, where around 75 percent of Polish deportees died in the years 1940-41.—

Forcibly removed from their homes to often faraway places, large swaths of Polish society were victimized through the use of mass deportations and labor camps as part of the broader Soviet policy of securing newly annexed territories. Upper estimates suggest that over 10 percent of the Polish citizenry was displaced

or punished in some way by Soviet occupiers.47 Territorial motives clearly played a major role in the overall use of violence by Soviet authorities in Poland. However, the general level of brutality hides important variation in the extent to which different segments of the populace were targeted. Approximately one- quarter of those who were deported, which included both civilians and former regular combatants, died over the course of years of grim living conditions and arduous labor.48 Despite the horrific death rate suffered by deportees, this still pales in comparison to the eventual execution of over 95 percent of the Polish officers held in the lead-up to the Katyn massacre. The Polish civilian and general veteran populations certainly represented a potential threat to continued Soviet rule, since the possibility always existed that certain groups could coalesce and rebel against Soviet authority. The key issue for the Soviet Union remained the degree of threat posed by different elements of Polish society. The deportation of upwards of 1.5 million citizens was already an enormous endeavor in its own right, which involved Soviet authorities expending huge amounts of resources.49 Ridding annexed eastern Poland of its remaining indigenous population representing over ten million more persons was thus not a feasible option.

The decision for the Soviet leadership essentially came down to how best to allocate the scarce resources available to its coercive machinery. Polish officers, who possessed a high level of both military and leadership skills, posed the most palpable threat. The Katyn massacre was thus a shortcut to suppressing the overall likelihood of a widespread rebellion in Soviet-held Polish territories. Surveying the choices facing the Soviet Union after its conquest, one scholar remarked that, “Short of destroying the entire population, a well-nigh impossible task, the next best method of reducing Poland for good was to remove all those in a position of leadership, military or intellectual."50

 
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