Poland: Crucified Between Two Thieves Print
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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