September 1, 1939

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, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.