The Catholic Thing
Poland: Crucified Between Two Thieves Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 12 January 2011

During the Second World War, Catholic Poland was conquered three times: first by Nazi Germany and Communist Russia jointly in 1939; then in 1941 when the Nazis invaded eastern Europe and drove the Russians out of their portion of Poland; and lastly in 1944-1945 when the Russians repulsed the Germans and occupied all of Poland.

The result: Poland’s civilian population suffered more than any other occupied nation. Millions were eliminated – by means of murder, slave labor, torture, starvation, and disease. That may be one reason why the great moral revulsion that dethroned Communist totalitarianism in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact was led by Polish Solidarity and a Polish Catholic bishop named Karol Wojtyla.

There is plenty of scholarship describing German atrocities committed in Poland, less about Russian cruelties. Yale University historian Timothy Snyder’s new work Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin corrects this oversight.  Snyder details how both the Nazis and Soviets were responsible for the deaths of over 14 million non-combatant Eastern Europeans between 1933 and 1945 – 5.3 million of them Polish Catholics and Jews.

Russian brutalities against Poles actually began in the early 1930s. Dislocated Poles detained on Soviet soil at the end of the First World War were scapegoats for failed farm collectivization plans and for Stalin’s policy-induced starvation of millions of Ukrainians.

To seize innocent Poles, the Soviet secret police (NKVD) claimed a secret Polish military organization had infiltrated the Communist Party to wreak economic havoc. Over 10,000 Polish “conspirators” were arrested in 1933, 41,000 in 1935, 69,000 in 1936, and 100,000 in 1938. Most were executed, the rest died in slave labor camps.

Stalin ordered the NKVD to arrest all persons attached to Polish culture or Roman Catholicism. Poles possessing rosary beads were convicted of conspiracy against the state and sentenced to ten years in the Gulag. To intimidate other political prisoners the NKVD employed the “conference method.” Groups of Poles were brutally tortured in front of inmate audiences.

After secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov proudly reported to Stalin that 23,216 Poles were arrested in a two-week period, the Soviet dictator commended him: “Very good! Keep on digging up and cleaning out this Polish filth. Eliminate it in the interests of the Soviet Union.” Poles were 0.4 percent of the Soviet population but 12 percent of purge victims. Snyder characterizes the Polish operations as “in some respects the bloodiest chapter of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union.”

During the 1939-1941 Russian occupation of 200,000 square kilometers of Polish soil, 13.2 million Poles experienced a reign of terror. While the occupying troops may have been ignorant men and women “who were falling off bicycles, eating toothpaste, using toilets as sinks, wearing multiple watches, or bras as earmuffs, or lingerie as evening gowns,” they carried out orders efficiently. In twenty-one months, the Soviets managed to deport 315,000 Polish citizens, arrest 110,000, execute 30,000, and let 25,000 die in custody.

NKVD Chief, Lavrenty Beria, with Stalin’s blessing, set quotas for killing Polish prisoners of war – 97 percent perished. One POW camp surrounded the Optyn Hermitage in Kozelsk, a landmark that appears in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. (The famous fictional conversation between a monk and a Russian aristocrat about whether morality is possible if God does not exist took place there.) “In 1940,” Snyder writes, “the real building where this conversation took place . . . housed the NKVD interrogators. They represented a Soviet answer to that question: only the death of God allowed for the liberation of humanity. Unconsciously, many of the Polish officers provided a different answer: that in a place where everything is permitted, God is a refuge. They saw their camps as churches, and prayed in them. Many of them attended Easter services before they were dispatched to their deaths.”

Most of the 22,000 Polish officers murdered in the Katyn forest in 1940 (the Russian government finally acknowledged responsibility for the slaughter last month) were killed by NKVD commander Vasili Blokhin who “wore a leather cap, apron and long gloves to keep the blood and gore from himself and his uniform. Using German pistols he shot, each night, about two hundred and fifty men one after another.”


Stalin commanded that the history of the war in Poland rewritten. The fact that Soviet citizens staffed and performed most of the crucial work for the Nazis at the Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec death camps was concealed. The 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising was recast as a valiant communist effort.

Also, because Stalin believed Jews were plotting to take over the Kremlin, he deported over 100,000 of them to Poland. To please Stalin, Polish Communists denied the Holocaust and decreed, “To recall one’s own family’s death in the gas chambers [is] bourgeois sentimentality.”

Assessing this dark period, Professor Snyder observes:

Hitler and Stalin both accepted a late-nineteenth-century Darwinistic modification: progress was possible, but only as a result of violent struggle between races or classes. Thus it was legitimate to destroy the Polish upper classes (Stalinism) or the artificially educated layers of Polish subhumanity (National Socialism). Thus far the ideologies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union permitted a compromise, the one embodied in the conquest of Poland. The alliance allowed them to destroy Polish educated classes. It allowed the Soviet Union to extend its version of equality, and Nazi Germany to impose racial schema upon tens of millions of people, most dramatically by separating Jews into ghettos pending some “Final Solution.” It is possible, then, to see Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as representing two instances of modernity, which could emanate hostility to a third, the Polish. 

Modern currents of similar pedigrees are still with us, and it’s a good reminder of their murderous potential to read Snyder’s remarkable book.

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of
The American Catholic Voter.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Bill, January 12, 2011
Thank you for this fine report, Mr. Marlin, but I am somewhat lost as to its point. When I was in high school my father took me to Catholic lectures where the Spanish Civil War was discussed as well as the terrors of Naziism and Communism were enumerated as above. Would you want to be a Rwandan, Sudanese or Palestinian today?
Now, if your intent was to describe what will be happening in THIS country over the next decade(s), then I understand your point.
written by jason taylor, January 12, 2011
If Palestine were anything close to Rwanda, or Sudan, or Poland for that matter there wouldn't be anymore Palestinians, Bill.
written by Bill, January 12, 2011
Interesting comment, Jason. May I suggest you look up Philip Weiss, Adam Horowitz and their site Mondoweiss, spend a half hour reading it, and then make a comment?
written by Yezhov, January 12, 2011
The head murderer and commanding the killing of the Polish officers, NKVD Major Genral Vasili Blokhin, was also the executioner at the Lubyanka. He has the dubious distinction of being the record holding executioner in the 20th century. During his career he is credited with personally killing over 7000 condemned. The good news is that most of them were communists and old Bolsheviks, and even unfortunate NKVD collegues, purged during the stalinist era, including my namesake, Nick Yezhov,who is referred to above. After Stalin's death Blokhin was purged, demoted, kicked out on the street, and died from the ravages of alcohol.
written by Trish, January 12, 2011
Bill, I think Mr. Marlin's point was right there at the end: "Modern currents of similar pedigrees are still with us, and it’s a good reminder of their murderous potential to read Snyder’s remarkable book," i.e. the author recently published this book, and Mr. Marlin is showing how this recent historical work can highlight the "murderous potential" existing today so that we can better understand today for having better understood the past.
written by The Moz, January 12, 2011
If Palestine were 1 one hundredth what Poland was for one weekend in the early 40s it would have disappeared in the 60s.

Sadly many people in the West have forgotten the brutality of the two great atheistic ideologies of the 20th century and today believe that that could never have really happened. Idiots like the New Atheists don't help matters either. Perhaps Poland should issue an International Arrest Warrant for them for inciting hatred and for attempting to re-write history.
written by Bangwell Putt, January 12, 2011
"Lest we forget ... lest we forget".
written by chris in maryland, January 12, 2011
Bill, all:

I think that the main point is made by title - these dead are part of The Body...
written by Jacob Ford, January 12, 2011

May I suggest that you approach things logically.

Nobody enjoys the hardships placed on the Palestinians as a result of the Israeli security measures.
But the Polish, the Sudanese, and the Rwandans were not firing tens of thousands of rockets at their opponents for more than a decade and they were never given free food, water, and shelter EVER.

No one is claiming that the Israelis are perfect angels, far from it, but it's not a matter of opinion as to whether the Palestinians have suffered as much as those other victims of real genocide (in fact the Palestinians themselves are debatably more at fault for the hardships and less responsible for the blessings of common Palestinians.

As to your other question I'm not sure what point you would be able to see if you cant understand Mr. Marlin's purpose in recounting how what we would call leftist ideologies became in a few short decades responsible for more deaths than any other entity in history--even including those which are thousands of years old and far less closely knit than the Soviets were.

As for me I don't see what point is more pressing.
Christians are under threat of extinction in the lion's share of non Christian majority lands. Given past realities, it seems quite wise to me to worry about what are certainly existential threats to Christians everywhere.

I see many parallels between the targeted destruction of the Polish Catholic educated class and the current leftist-atheist-hyper secularist alliance's attempted soft destruction of Christian and especially Catholic educated classes worldwide.

In Canada they're already putting us in jail.
In the US threats are being made about opposition to homosexuality becoming a criminally punishable offense.

I'm a novice on this subject but I'm willing to bet that Stalin didn't start with reigns of terror and gulags, he worked into them after warming up by doing things like making religious belief a criminal offense (and of course they often don't make laws like "being Catholic is illegal" but instead target particular beliefs they know are inseparable from the whole) .
written by Bill, January 12, 2011
Fellow readers: May I beg your indulgence and return to the original point I was attempting to make? Thank you for your comments. I apologize for mentioning the term "Palestinians" as it only confused the issue.
"Unless people repent and amend their lives, Russia will become a great power and spread its errors throughout the world" These words were said to three shepherd children in Portugal in 1917 by the Mother of God. She also promised a war (WW II) worse than this war (WW I)if Her Son's Will was not obeyed. All of Mr. Marlin's piece above, the fifty million abortions in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade, the enforcement of aberrosexual marriage in the world today, ALL reflect the beginning of a punishment which no one can imagine in its broadness and horror. For fifty years we have been living through the Third Secret of Fatima and it continues. Mr. Marlin's piece was a brilliant snapshot of one phase of the punishment
written by James, January 12, 2011
If you read Jerzy Kosinski's novel, "The Painted Bird," often cited as authentic Holocaust history, you'd think all Polish non-Jews were bad people at that time. "What is history but a fable agreed upon" -- Napoleon.
written by Aeneas, January 12, 2011
Wow, that was an eye opener. Because of this article, I think Im going to go buy the book. Its a sad fact today, that whenever the bloody history of the 20th century is taught, the Nazis take most of the blame, when the Soviets deserve equal blame as well. In fact, the U.S.S.R killed more people than even the Nazis did. What's worse, there really are people out there who think a lot of the devastation of that time period was played up by the West, and not how it really was. I know people who think like this. And hey, even the former prime minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, said something to the effect of the old Soviet empire as "the evil empire" (Ronald Reagan said that) was a bit much, that the Soviets were not really that bad. REALLY???

(Also, I have to agree with what The Moz suggested Poland do.)

And lastly Jacob Ford makes some great points, especially towards the end of his post. I have to say that I have the same fears as he does, fears that, I think, are more future realities than just fears.
written by Graham Combs, January 13, 2011
Has no one found it a bit creepy that cultural profiling and demographics and race are now the central obsessions of our schools and workplaces and professional colleges. Talk to an admissions officer or human resources manager or marketer. There's a point where "scientific marketing," "diversity," and "inclusion" become stereotyping (I hesistate to point to this week's media squalor). I joked recently with a fellow Catholic that I may well be the ultimate "minority" in the Church -- a "hillbilly Catholic." Both my parents grew up in the impoverished hills of eastern Kentucky. Either I should be given "special consideration" or obversely I don't really fit the profile and should be discouraged from consuming the Catholic product. Robert Royal's THE NEW MARTYRS is not as alien as some might think. Although in America we marginalize -- or elevate -- in a genteel nonviolent fashion: labeling, court decisions, executive orders, public service campaigns, and congressional acts.
written by Gary Fleming, January 14, 2011
My wife and I went on a tour of Poland last fall and we were impressed with the beauty of Poland and were introduced to its history. One bit of history new to me was the war Poland won against Lenin in 1920.
A short, but informative, read is Adam Zamoyski’s “Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe".
written by Andrew, March 05, 2011
Stalin said to his PolitBureau that conquered Poland was their greatest asset...
during the war of 1920 young Jewish commissars burnt synagogues with Jewish villagers inside...
Soviets POW and slave-labourers in concentration camps were raped and executed on the spot following their "liberation".
NKVD tried to replace [sometimes successfully] Poles from Siberia with their agents nad install them as "residents" after wiping out the whole families.
GRU sent young officers into catholic seminaries aiming to exploit information gathered by them as priest even during confessions!

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