The Catholic Thing
September 1, 1939 Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Monday, 31 August 2009

Seventy years ago today, Adolf Hitler started the most horrendous war in the history of mankind by ordering the German Wehrmacht to invade and conquer Poland. The Polish army fought valiantly but they were no match for Germany’s sixty-five highly mechanized divisions and 1.8-million troops. By the time Polish resistance ended on October 5, 200,000 Poles were dead or wounded and 400,000 were taken prisoner. But the invasion also set in motion a moral battle that led to the global moral leadership of John Paul II and the Catholic Church’s rise as an institution opposed to all forms of political religion.

Hitler, who despised Poland and held that all Poles were subhuman, ordered his invading army to kill “without pity or mercy, all men, women and children of Polish descent or language.” In the first thirty days of occupation, the Wehrmacht destroyed 531 towns and villages and murdered over 16,000 civilians. Hitler’s aim was more than expanding Germany’s borders; he wanted the “annihilation of living forces” by means of extermination and enslavement. “All Poles,” Heinrich Himmler declared, “will disappear from the world.” The Nazi Governor General of Poland, Hans Frank, told his henchmen: “The Pole has no rights whatsoever. . . . A major goal of our plan is to finish off as speedily as possible all troublemaking politicians, priests, and leaders who fall into our hands. I openly admit that some thousands of so-called important Poles will have to pay with their lives. . . .Every vestige of Polish culture is to be eliminated. Those Poles who seem to have Nordic appearances will be taken to Germany to work in our factories. . . .The rest? They will work. They will eat little. And in the end they will die out. There will never again be a Poland.”

It was illegal for Poles to have sexual relations. And abortion was compulsory for pregnant Poles. U.S. Ambassador Anthony Drexel Biddle informed Washington that the German intention was “to terrorize the civilian population and to reduce the number of children bearing Poles irrespective of category.”

The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed on August 23, 1939 – eight days before the invasion – included the partition of Poland. The Germans absorbed 189,000 square kilometers and 22-million Poles and the Russians were free to grab 200,000 kilometers and 13.2-million people.

The Soviets, who were driven out of their sector by the Germans in 1941, were as cruel as the Nazis. During their occupation, they deported approximately one million Poles to Siberian slave labor camps. On Stalin’s orders, over 21,000 members of the Polish officers corp were shot in April 1940. Most of them perished in the Katyn Forest.

When the Russians reconquered eastern Poland in 1944, Stalin halted the invasion only miles away from the capital at the Vistula River and for sixty-three days the Russian forces sat by silently as the Germans crushed the Warsaw uprising. Obeying Hitler’s command that Warsaw be nothing more than a point on the map, Himmler ordered “every inhabitant to be killed. . .every single house to be blown up and burned.” Two-hundred-thousand civilians perished, 17,000 of the Polish Home Guard were killed and 95 percent of homes were turned into rubble. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen was to say, Poland had been “crucified between two thieves.”

To successfully eliminate Polish nationalism, which had survived centuries of oppression, the Nazis knew they had to suppress the Church. In the annexed Polish lands, the Nazis were ruthless. Catholic churches, seminaries, monasteries, schools and universities were closed. Five thousand priests and nuns were imprisoned in concentration camps. Over 1,800 priests, 200 monks, 300 nuns and 100 seminarians died in the camps. In the post-war Polish White Book, the government conceded that Catholic life under the Germans was reduced “to what it was at the time of the Catacombs.”

The persecuted Church did, however, play a major role in the resistance. It housed Christians and Jews pursued by the Gestapo and issued thousands of false baptismal records. Convents and rectories printed underground newspapers. Money from abroad was distributed by the Church to fund resistance activities.

Church-sponsored underground seminaries, schools, theater, music, and literary groups, kept alive Catholic and Polish culture. A young seminarian who resisted the Nazis by promoting Polish culture, Karol Wojtyla, wrote his first play, David, which was described as a “dramatic poem, or drama, partly biblical, partly rooted in Polish history.”

In World War II, no conquered nation suffered more than Poland. Six million died – 50 percent Christian and 50 percent Jewish. Historian Richard Lukas reported that “approximately 5.4 million, or 89 percent, of Polish war losses (Jews and Gentiles) were the victims of prisons, death camps, raids, executions, annihilation of ghettoes, epidemics, starvation, excessive work, and ill treatment.”

Despite this massive human destruction, Poland’s Catholic identity survived the war. And the lesson that the battle of moral ideas rooted in a deep faith could win out over violence was not lost on Poles – particularly Karol Wojtyla. He realized the Church did not need divisions to defeat Poland’s totalitarian foes. And for forty-five years, as priest, cardinal-archbishop, and pope, he relentlessly pursued a strategy of cultural resistance that eventually undermined Poland’s Communist government, destabilized Soviet domination throughout Eastern Europe, and brought down the Iron Curtain.

On this day, it’s good to remember the lessons our brother John Paul II learned in that awful crucible, to take hope from his successes, and to remember our duty to remain vigilant about the threats we face in our own day at home and abroad.

George J. Marlin is the author of The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact.

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Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Dan Deeny, September 01, 2009
Thank you for this article. Are there any books that cover Poland during WW II? Our own abortion policy - which targets Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans and is clothed in the language of civil rights, opportunities for women, safety, and freedom of choice - seems to me to be a more cunning and diabolical version of the Nazi policy in Poland.
Thanks again for this informative article.
Once Again
written by Fr Tim, September 01, 2009
Thank you for this. We face the exact same ideology today making its wicked come-back. Nazi/Communist ideology is rampant now in American political halls and the extermination of vast populations is once again seen as a necessity by peer-reviewed scientist and sociologists. Can you actually believe it?
We must once again resist and preserve our tradition and faith for some very dark days are on the horizon. Hold Fast!
Thank you
written by Gayle Miller, September 01, 2009
For this succinct and informative article. God bless those who died in Poland as a result of the Nazis depradations and thank you God for those hardy souls (including Karol Wojtyla) who not only survived but thrived in later years, giving us a wonderful example of steadfast courage under highly stressful conditions - a lesson we all need to follow in the present circumstances!
Repent and prpay
written by Jim O'Connor, September 01, 2009
The solution is in the hands of us Christians. 2 Chronicles 7 -14 "if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." This passage isn't about the pagan Americans, Christians must repent particularly of three sins; 1)contraception, 2 remarriage after divorce, 3) not keeping the sabbath holy. Then pray pray pray since everything depends on it
written by Jacob, September 01, 2009
Wonderful article.
written by debby, September 01, 2009
what a profound lesson.....
makes me wonder if in our "Heavenly Kingdom" will be speaking Polish! i hope so. and i pray our Lord grace me with the privilidge of washing the feet of these brothers and sisters.
thank you!
Not again!
written by Willie, September 01, 2009
Great piece and a review of past history for anyone who might think there is no such thing as evil. In the Nazi lexicon there existed such themes as final solution, eugenics, euthanasia, abortion and elimination of the defective. These things were accepted by some as good for the German people and the Arian elite. As the present day elite espouse abortion and euthanasia and try to impose population control on third world countries, one has to be naive not to be alarmed at present day evil.
What about the USA?
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., September 01, 2009
Certainly Pope John Paul II inspired many behind the Iron Curtain, but there was another anti-Communist who survived an assassination attempt and worked with the John Paul to bring down Communism. While many Western intellectuals, including more than few Catholics, mocked Ronald Reagan for calling the USSR an evil empire, he worked with the Pope to bring down the Iron Curtain, and he and other Americans deserve at least honorable mention.
written by Bradley, September 01, 2009
If you ever have occasion to visit Poland, as I was privileged to do during my European studies, I recommend a Catholic "trifecta": Wawel Cathedral (JPII's see as cardinal archbishop), Jasna Gora monastery (home of the Black Madonna), and Auschwitz. I have never been more spiritually moved than when I stood in the small, candle-lit cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz. All of these sites are powerful symbols of Christian hope against all manner of evil.
Great article!
written by Wil, September 01, 2009
Thank you for this informative and revealing article! It certainly casts suspicion on the present administration here in the U.S...
Poland and Workd War II
written by jedesto, September 01, 2009
Someone pointed out a few months ago I that World War II did not really end until 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of a free Poland for which the western Allies entered the war against Germany.
written by Aelric, September 02, 2009
"Germany’s sixty-five highly mechanized divisions . . ." Er, no. Germany had very few mechanized divisions at this time. Indeed, few of their divisions were even motorized. Throughout the war, most of the Heer (the German army) was traditional infantry and horse-drawn artillery. See, e.g. R.L. Dinardo Germany's Panzer Arm in WWII, Stackpole Books, 1997.

This sort of glaring error (of myth) casts doubts on the objectivity and accuracy of other data cited in the article.
to bradley
written by debby, September 02, 2009
my college daughter was also priviledged to study in Austria & like you visited all the shrines you mentioned. she also went to St. Faustina's chapel where Jesus bestowed His Divine Mercy devotion. she had a profound experience at Auschwitz as she begged God for Mercy to reign in her heart, to forgive any ill she harbored in her heart & for the german soldiers whom she called her brothers. "i now know what my own sin is capable of, mommy. God prevent me from allowing evil to live in me."
written by Michael Gutowski, September 02, 2009
I have been Polish all my life (59) and had no idea of what my praternal grandparents must have gone through, since they lived there during this tumultuous time for most of their lives. It is funny that neither they nor my dad said anything about the atrocities of what Poland went through! I wish you would have included in your article how many Poles survived. I would take this as a strong indication that God loves the Polish people very much because He obviously did a good deal of punishing
Not Needing Divisions ?
written by Chris, September 02, 2009
While taking nothing away from what Poland and Pope John Paul II did in enduring the 20th C, it is important to remember the outside forces that sustained them & drained energy from their foes. The Church and Poland survived Hitler also because other countries had huge armies fighting the Germans, and they survived Soviet domination because America and NATO backed-up their diplomatic efforts with the threat of a mechanized US Army of 1/4 million soldiers, and the might of the US Air Force.
Polish WW2 History
written by Kilroy, September 02, 2009
An earlier correspondent inquired about books about the Polish experience during the Second World War - indeed, there are plenty. I can highly recommend the work of Norman Davis, who writes in English and is a brilliant historian.

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