The Invasion of Poland in 1939: How It Unfolded and Why the Allies Failed to Respond

History Hit Podcast with Roger Moorhouse

4 mins

25 Sep 2018

Image credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S55480 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

This article is an edited transcript of Hitler’s Pact with Stalin – Roger Moorhouse on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 21 March 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

The invasion of Poland in 1939 should be seen as two acts of aggression instead of one: Nazi Germany’s invasion from the west on 1 September, and the Soviet Union’s invasion from the east on 17 September.

Soviet propaganda proclaimed that their invasion was a humanitarian exercise, but it wasn’t – it was a military invasion.

The Soviet invasion was less of a battle than the Germans’ in the west because the eastern frontier of Poland was only held by border troops who had no artillery, no air support and little fighting capacity.

But although the Polish were outnumbered, outgunned and very quickly overrun, it was still a very hostile invasion. There were a lot of casualties, a lot of deaths, and there were pitched battles between the two sides. It cannot be portrayed as a humanitarian operation.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin redrew his western frontier and as he did so he redrew the old Imperial Russian frontier.

That was why he wanted the Baltic states who had been independent for 20 years by that point; and that was why he wanted Bessarabia from Romania.

The invasion of Poland followed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, agreed the month before. Here, the Soviet and German foreign ministers, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, are seen shaking hands at the signing of the Pact.

The occupation of Poland

In terms of the occupations that followed, both countries’ were equally miserable.

If you happened to be in the east of Poland under Soviet occupation, the chances are that you might have wanted to go west because the Soviet regime was so cruel that you would have been willing to take your chances with the Germans.

There are even Jews who made that decision, remarkably. But the same thing went for people under the German occupation; many considered it so awful that they wanted to go east because they thought it had to be better on the Soviet side.

The two occupation regimes were essentially very similar, though they applied their brutality according to very different criteria. In the Nazi-occupied west, this criteria was racial.

Anyone who didn’t fit the racial hierarchy or anyone who fell at the bottom of that scale was in trouble, whether they be Poles or Jews.

In the eastern Soviet-occupied zones, meanwhile, this criteria was class-defined and political. If you were someone who had supported nationalist parties, or someone who was a landowner or a merchant, then you were in serious trouble. The end result was often the same in both regimes: deportation, exploitation and, in many cases, death.

Around one million Poles were deported from eastern Poland by the Soviets to the wilds of Siberia in that two-year period. That is a part of the narrative of World War Two that is collectively forgotten and it really, really shouldn’t be.

Between 1942 and 1945, the US Army Signals Corp produced a series of propaganda films to be shown to American troops before they departed for overseas. Watch them now – including one on the eventual battle that unfolded between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany – on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now

The role of the allies

It should be remembered that Britain entered World War Two to protect Poland. The question of Poland in the 20th century, how the country still exists and is as dynamic as it is today, is a testament to the spirit of human nature and society’s ability to recover from anything.

Everyone talks about World War Two as this unqualified success, but the Allies failed to guarantee freedom and human rights to the people of Poland – the reason why the British and French originally went to war.

The British guarantee was understood as a paper tiger. It was an empty threat that if Hitler were to go east and attack the Poles then the British would enter the war on Poland’s side. But there was, in real terms, very little that Britain could do to aid Poland in 1939.

The fact that Britain went to war in 1939 to aid Poland, however nominally, is still something that Britain can be proud of. The fact that Britain didn’t actually do anything to help the Polish at that time is unfortunate, however, and remains something to be ashamed of.

The Red Army enters the provincial capital of Wilno on 19 September 1939, during the Soviet invasion of Poland. Credit: Press Agency Photographer / Imperial War Museums / Commons.

The French were rather more questionable in what they said and did in 1939. They had actually promised the Poles that they would come and materially aid them by invading Germany to the west, which they spectacularly failed to do.

The French actually made some rather concrete promises that were not met, whereas the British at least didn’t do that.

German forces were not ready for a western invasion, so the war might have gone very differently if indeed one had taken place. It sounds like a minor point but it’s very interesting that Stalin invaded eastern Poland on 17 September.

The guarantee that the French had given the Poles was that they would invade after two weeks of hostilities, which dates a possible French invasion around 14 or 15 September. That is good evidence that Stalin observed the French before invading Poland, knowing they were due to invade Germany.

When they failed to do so, Stalin saw his way clear to invade eastern Poland in the knowledge that the western imperialists were not going to act on their guarantees. The non-existent French invasion was one of the most crucial moments in the early phase of World War Two.