Poland, along with Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, became an independent republic after World War I. As a consequence, Russia’s territory in the west shrank, as did Germany’s in the east. Poland was the beneficiary of their losses but later paid for it when Hitler and the Soviet Union signed a treaty that divided Poland. In the meantime, however, Poland’s existence as a democratic republic foiled the Bolsheviks (Communists) from establishing the revolution in Europe they had thought would be inevitable, and so they could do no more than centralize their power and defend themselves from their capitalist enemies. This they did with a vengeance.
From 1928 until 1933, approximately six million died because Stalin’s program of farm collectivization failed, yet he would not acknowledge either its failure or the resulting reality of the famine. Instead, Stalin portrayed those dying of hunger as saboteurs working for the capitalists, trying to discredit the Soviet Union. Starvation was underhanded resistance and rebellion. This was more than Stalin’s idiosyncratic reasoning. It was the ideological line that insisted on seeing the world in terms of a “class struggle” even though the “struggle” in this instance was “the classic example of Soviet genocide” as Rafal Lemkin, the international lawyer who invented the term genocide, described Stalin’s mass starvations.
Stalin’s solution for any problems that beset Soviet policies or his own power was to place the blame on traitors or foreign intervention, even if these traitors were invisible. To this end, he suspended Soviet law and empowered the state police (then called the NKVD) to be judge, jury, and executioner. With forethought, Stalin saw to it that Soviet Jews comprised one-third of the high ranking NKVD; soon their numbers were only 20 percent, then four percent. In the end, the majority were Georgians, Stalin’s “own.” But as Stalin had foreseen, urban legend saw to it that many continued to associate Jews with the NKVD (though the Jews in the NKVD were executed or removed after their usefulness was over.)
Stalin was the pioneer of national mass murder, and the Poles were his preeminent victims among the Soviet nationalities. Being Polish became a crime in itself. Not even party membership could save one. A person could get 10 years in the Gulag for owning a rosary, death for not producing enough sugar. Stalin characterized Poles as “filth” and rejoiced in their elimination. On average, throughout the Soviet Union, 78 percent of Poles arrested were executed; the rest served sentences of eight to 10 years in the Gulag.
Most Soviet Poles lived in westerly Soviet Belarus and Soviet Ukraine, lands Poles had inhabited for hundreds of years because they had been part of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Some Poles had assimilated with the Belarusians and Ukrainians, but the assimilation also worked the other way and because Polish was considered a language of civilization, some Belarusians and Ukrainians presented themselves as Poles. Now they, too, were targeted for arrest and execution. The mass killings here were done in the Kurapaty Forest where 15 hectares of pine had been cleared for hundreds of pits. Here the condemned were shot from behind and pushed into the ditch. When there weren’t enough bullets, the victims had to sit side by side, their heads in a line, so a single bullet could be fired through several skulls at once.
During the ethnic cleansing of the Great Terror of 1937-38, some 85,000 Poles were executed. This is a monstrous number given the fact there were fewer than 0.4 percent (or 200,000) Poles in the entire Soviet Union.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College. All facts are taken from the internationally awarded history “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.”