May Poland Serbia

When Poland was lost: the Soviet attack 80 years ago

"When I saw that the Germans were advancing from the west and the Russians from the east, I thought that would be our end," the contemporary witness Eugeniusz Sajkowski, who was born in 1913, recalled September 17, 1939 in an ARD report. "Our Poles will once again be captured for over 120 years. Our people are lost."

At 6 a.m., over 4,000 Soviet tanks rolled into Poland. Stalin sent more planes than the German Reich. It was an invasion without a declaration of war and an unequal struggle, especially since the outnumbered Polish troops were largely preoccupied with the Germans. Until that date, however, believes the Polish historian Zbigniew Woźniczka, one could at least still have hope that the war would not lead to a complete catastrophe for Poland. Troops remained in the Warsaw Basin; the cities of Lublin, Wilna or Lemberg had not yet been conquered. Would the Western powers seriously come to the rescue after all, perhaps a piece of Poland could be obtained? But September 17 stole the last straw from the defenders. There was no more fighting in the east, and the Polish commander-in-chief Rydz-Śmigły gave the order: "We will not fight the Bolsheviks."

All the more serious, however, are the emotional wounds in the face of a "betrayal", the coming together of such unequal partners against Poland and the joint victory celebrations between the Soviets and the Nazis. Poland, once again a victim of its neighbors. There is often talk of the fourth division of the country.

Stalin with Hitler's Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (left) in 1939

 Stalin's legacy is still felt today

"It is always said that Poland suffered the most from the Germans," says Zbigniew Woźniczka, a historian at the University of Silesia. But it's not that simple. "For that generation of Poles who still knew the time of partition, the worst enemy at the time was not Germany, but Russia. Tsarism, suppressed uprisings, exile to Siberia - everything came up again with the invasion of September 17th." It soon became apparent that this time the Germans, too, posed a fatal threat. But while the Nazi occupation horror ended at some point, Stalin's legacy is still felt today. Poland continues to distrust Russia.

Relations with the "big neighbor" are not only strained by the 1939 invasion. The murder of thousands of Polish officers and other officials by the KGB forerunner NKVD in Katyn near Smolensk in 1940, his long-standing denial in the Soviet Union up to the Gorbachev era, has still not been dealt with, even though Vladimir Putin in 2009 during the celebrations 70 Years after the beginning of the Second World War, "Katyn" surprisingly called a crime and Poland suggested that they should come to terms with it.

Poisoned relationships

Putin's meeting with the then Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the graves of Katyn on April 7, 2010 was what many observers called a historic encounter. For a moment, reconciliation seemed conceivable. It was the first visit by a high-ranking Russian state representative to the scene of Stalinist crimes that paid tribute to the Polish officers - and the last so far. Just three days later, the Polish government plane crashed near Smolensk with 96 passengers on board, including Poland's President Lech Kaczynski, on the way to the commemoration of the Katyn mass murders.

The misfortune shifted the political coordinates again into an area that is so emotional that politics is hardly possible any more to weigh up the facts. Dealing with it divides Poland itself, but also poisoned relations with Russia again, which holds back wreckage and thus encourages the development of conspiracy theories. So it is easy for the right-wing conservative PiS government to blame Tusk for his close contact with Putin at the time. On the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the war, the Russian President was not invited this year. State television illustrated the decision in a kind of wordless commentary with recordings of Tusk and Putin in an embrace around 10 years ago.

Commemoration of the crash of the Polish government machine in Smolensk in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw

Smolensk, Katyn, September 17th

Katyn, Smolensk - the key dates of the most sensitive chapters in Polish history are inextricably linked with that September 17th, their starting point. The Germans attacked, but Stalin's Soviet Union made the attack possible and grabbed their share of the booty when Poland was as good as defeated. "September 17th is a symbol of great misfortune," says the historian Woźniczka.

While a reconciliation between Poland and Germany also became possible because Germany confessed its guilt, bishops exchanged letters and Willy Brandt fell on his knees in Warsaw, the delicate questions of the common history between Poles and Russians only became in favor of the obligatory socialist ones for decades Brotherly love pushed aside, tabooed and never really put on the table even after the fall of the Wall. The gestures of 2010 seem to have been forgotten, and even in Russia few people still know that the Soviet Union stabbed Poland in the back.

Attempt at reinterpretation

The song of praise of the Red Army as the "liberator of Europe" always had a discord that could hardly be overheard in Poland due to the monstrous lie about the Hitler-Stalin pact. Ultimately, the propaganda failed because of it. 1953, the year of Stalin's death, attempts to reconcile event and ideology in Polish film: "Erwin Axer's 'Das Kartenhaus' portrays September 17th as the moment of Poland's liberation from its own oppressors," says Polish film scholar Piotr Zwierzchowski . Poland in the interwar period was portrayed as a weak state, as a "house of cards" - an attempt to turn collective memory into its opposite, as it were.

It was not until 2007 that the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda resumed September 17th for his feature film "The Katyn Massacre" - this time in harmony with the memories and feelings of contemporary witnesses such as Eugeniusz Sajkowski. Right at the beginning of the film, in a dramatic scene from the Germans fleeing Poles meet compatriots on a bridge who are fleeing the Soviets from the opposite direction. This bridge is a symbol of the historically grown primal fears of the Poles, which are in contradiction to one another: namely, on the question of whether one should be more afraid of one's eastern or western neighbor. On September 17, 1939, however, this question was no longer relevant when both made common cause and Poland - for the time being - was lost.