A Forgotten Date

September 17th marked the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland of 1939. A key date in the chronology of the Second World War – marking as it does the USSR's entry into that conflict in collaboration with Hitler's Germany – it slipped by almost unnoticed outside of Polish-speaking circles. Though Poles earnestly declare “Pamiętamy” - the rest of the world, it seems, has forgotten.

On one level this should not be entirely surprising.  After all, the vast majority of people – in all countries – sometimes struggle to recall even the most basic dates in their own history, never mind  events in which they might have little interest, no personal connection and no point of reference.  Though it pains historians to admit it; the canon of popular historical memory can be vanishingly thin.

And yet, on another level, it is a surprise.  Here is one of the most important events of World War Two – the single most seismic conflict of the 20th Century, and one that continues to have a resonance and an influence in the world of 2017 – and yet, beyond Poland, it seems to have been completely forgotten.  One has to wonder how it was that this curious state of affairs came about.

Of course most Poles will know well the sequence of events surrounding the Soviet invasion: the betrayals, the heroes and the villains.  They will probably know the story of the Polish ambassador in Moscow: Wacław Grzybowski, who refused to accept Moscow's typed explanation of its “intervention” – the mendacious claim that the Polish state had ceased to exist – and gamely protested about Soviet dishonesty.  He was lucky to escape Moscow with his life.  They might know, too, that in combating that supposedly non-existent state, the Red Army amassed over 500,000 men, divided into two army 'fronts', and including 25 rifle divisions, 16 cavalry divisions and 12 tank brigades. 

The invasion that followed was chaotic.  Eviscerated by the purges, and given days rather than weeks to mobilise, the Red Army was scarcely prepared to engage in serious combat operations, lacking vehicles, spare parts and effective leadership.  Fortunately for Moscow, Poland's defence of its eastern territories was similarly disorganised, with most units engaged against the Germans further west, and those that remained to face the Soviets lacking heavy weapons and clear instructions.  The resulting confusion was exacerbated by the popular belief – spread by some elements of the Red Army – that the Soviets were riding to Poland's aid, rather than aiding in its destruction.

German and Soviet forces were supposed to maintain a respectful distance from one another – so as to make Stalin's continued claim of neutrality a little easier to defend.  However, when they met they colluded and collaborated.  At Lwów, the German siege was ended by a surrender to an arriving Soviet force.  At Brześć, meanwhile, a joint parade was held – Wehrmacht field grey rubbing shoulders and sharing cigarettes with Red Army olive drab – as the city was handed over to Soviet control.

Nonetheless, despite the collusion and the chaos, there were a few Polish successes.  At Grodno, for instance, the local commander; general Józef Olszyna-Wilczyński rallied a scratch defence force of militiamen and scouts, who held up the Soviet advance for two days, armed with only a handful of weapons and store of petrol bombs.  There were other, fleeting successes, such as at the Battle of Szack, where troops of the Border Protection Corps briefly liberated the town from Soviet occupation, or at Jabłoń and Milanów, where Polish forces broke through Soviet lines to continue their fighting retreat towards Romania.  On the whole however, as with the German invasion, there were not many positives to record, despite the undoubted bravery of the defenders.

There were also, inevitably, atrocities: a foretaste of the horrors to come.  At Mokrany and Helenów, for example, dozens of prisoners from the Polish River Flotilla were shot out of hand.  At Grodno meanwhile, Olszyna-Wilczyński paid for his defence of the city with his life; executed by the Red Army when it finally fell.  He was one of the countless Polish officers who were routinely executed when captured by the Soviets; many of those that were spared would face death at Katyń seven months later. 

So, it is clear from even this brief survey that there is a story here to be told, an integral part of the dark tale of Poland's wartime suffering and of the ambivalent role played by the Soviet Union in the wider conflict.  So, why does it barely register even as a footnote in the Western narrative?

The answer to that lies primarily in the circumstances in which the Grand Alliance was formed in 1941.  When Stalin found his Soviet Union being invaded by German and Axis forces, in June of that year, he quickly discovered a new ally in Winston Churchill, who was eager for anyone to help carry the fight and relieve the pressure on Britain.  Churchill was not choosy; as he joked to his private secretary soon after: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons”.

But, in the event Churchill did more than merely provide warm words.  The creation of the Grand Alliance – and the West's resulting reliance on the Soviet Union to fight on against German forces – effectively meant the Western adoption, wholesale, of the Soviet narrative of the war.  Almost overnight, Stalin, feared and despised by many, became the smiling, child-kissing, avuncular “Uncle Joe”; the USSR became the war's primary victim, and the Soviet invasion of Poland was wished away as a minor police action; an “intervention” to “restore order” in a “failed state”. 

With the creation of the Grand Alliance, therefore, all of the black marks in the Soviet Union's record of the previous two years – the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the cynical division of central Europe with Germany, the invasion of Poland, the invasion of Finland, the annexation of the Baltic States and Bessarabia – were swept under the carpet; wiped clean.  They were collateral damage in a battle in which truth could not be allowed to intrude.  And to its shame, Britain – which had gone to war over Hitler's invasion of Poland – colluded in the airbrushing of Stalin's.

So far, so much grim realpolitik.  But what is perhaps more surprising is that these propaganda flourishes were not only permitted to run on, after World War Two, into a period in which righteous criticism of the Soviet Union's crimes and misdemeanours became de rigueur in the West, but also that they were scarcely challenged in the interim. 

Part of the problem, undoubtedly, was that the truth of that period was simply too complicated: how was a generation of Western, left-leaning, school teachers expected to teach their charges about the Soviet Union's ambivalent role, or about Stalin's blundering perfidy?  Easier by far, they found, to stick to the familiar one-dimensional story and continue peddling the wartime line. 

The truth was also faintly embarrassing, to Western ears at least.  It did not sit well with nations, like Britain, that had a peculiarly moralistic view of the war, to admit that that conflict had only been won by entering into an alliance with a regime that was every bit as monstrous as the one they were trying to defeat.

In addition, with Poland languishing under communist rule, the only voice capable of giving any sort of rival narrative was that of Polish émigrés and the government-in-exile – all of whom were too easily dismissed as so many embittered disturbers of the peace.  Moreover, admiration of Stalin and the USSR – assiduously pushed during wartime – had taken root among large sections of the population, and would tolerate no contradiction.  If this was a propaganda war, it was another Soviet victory. 

And so it was that, in the conventional Western perspective at least, Soviet narratives prevailed, long after the war that had necessitated their invention.  Thus, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was only ever “defensive” in nature, Stalin knew from the outset what Hitler was up to, and, of course, Poland only experienced one invasion in 1939 – the German one. 

Such ideas have proved remarkably resilient, and astonishingly can still be heard to this day, as I discovered when publicising my recent book “Pakt Diabłów”.  Often, I found, the juxtaposition of Hitler and Stalin as the twin devils of the title would be met with tutting, a shake of the head, or even anger, however well I sought to argue my case for a reassessment.  For many in the West, it seems, World War Two still has only one 'bad guy'; for some, Stalin is still “Uncle Joe” – and the Soviet invasion of Poland?  'Never heard of it'.

Author: Roger Moorhouse, British historian and author.

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