The outbreak of World War II, which began on September 1, 1939 with the invasion of Poland by the Nazi Third Reich, is one of the events commemorated annually throughout Europe. However, September 17, 1939, the date of the Soviet Union’s aggression against Poland, is not so well known in the West. That is why I believe that this event should be remembered because it not only decided the fate of my homeland and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, but it did so for the entire next half-century. If today we, Poles and other peoples of our region, repeat that we know Russia and understand its imperial ambitions better than the West, it is because of our historical experience symbolized by September 17th.
The incursion of the Red Army into Polish territory two and a half weeks after the attack by the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe was the implementation of the secret part of the Nazi-Soviet pact signed on August 23, 1939 by the leaders of the two diplomats, Ribbentrop and Molotov. Two totalitarian empires have entered into an alliance, planning to divide the independent countries of Central Europe between them. The German sphere of influence was to include western Poland, Lithuania and Romania, while Soviet control was to extend to eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Finland.
For my nation, the most important consequence of the pact was the joint liquidation of the independent Polish state and the division of our territory between two occupying powers, Nazi Germany and communist Russia. Other provisions of the treaty were partially amended over the next two years. Finland succeeded in protecting its sovereignty during the Winter War of 1940. Lithuania, however, after a bout of relative independence, was absorbed into the Soviet Union. But various minor amendments did not affect the critical principle of the pact – the imperialisms of Hitler and Stalin were now to decide the fate of the peoples and states of our part of Europe.
Under German occupation, Poland suffered enormous human and material losses. The Nazis killed 6 million citizens of the Republic of Poland, including nearly 3 million Polish Jews. They destroyed and burned thousands of Polish towns and villages, especially the country’s capital, Warsaw. They stole countless material and cultural assets, both private and public, which were never returned to my country. Only a few of the perpetrators of German genocide, extermination, war crimes, mass terror and plunder were brought after the war before the courts of Nuremberg and Warsaw and suffered the punishment they deserved.
Yet the crimes of Nazi Germany were at least morally condemned by the entire free world. Unfortunately, this does not apply to the crimes of communist Russia, which have gone unpunished and often forgotten.
What did the Soviet occupation of more than half of pre-war Polish territory entail? This resulted in the Katyn massacre – the extermination of 22,000 prisoners of war: Polish army officers, policemen, soldiers, civilian employees and other political prisoners. They were shot in defiance of all international conventions because Stalin considered them patriots loyal to their homeland and implacable enemies of communism. This resulted in the deportation of half a million of my compatriots to gulags and forced settlements in Siberia and the Asian part of the Soviet Union, many of whom never returned from this “inhuman land” and are died in exile. This involved brutal NKVD terror and ideological indoctrination, attempts to crush Polish national identity and tradition, the coercive instillation of communist principles in children, and the requirement to renounce the faith.
We Poles are not the only ones to have suffered from all this. The Baltic nations, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, were also afflicted. The same was true for other nations that fell into the Soviet sphere of influence after Russia’s victory over the Third Reich.
The German-Soviet pact collapsed less than two years after its conclusion, when Germany attacked Stalin’s Russia on June 22, 1941. But the principle that the fate of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe should be decided not by their free peoples but by the rulers of the imperial powers remained in force.
The Soviets defeated the Nazis and in 1945 seized all the territory of Poland and other states further west and south, up to the Elbe, Danube and Drava rivers. Some of them were annexed directly to the Soviet Union as federal states – such was the fate of the Balts, Belarusians or Ukrainians. In others, Russia installed puppet governments made up of local Communists completely subservient to Moscow – this happened in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany.
For our peoples, the defeat of the Third Reich did not bring the long-awaited freedom. Subjection to the Russian Empire continued until the fall of Communism – for half a century!
It was not until the democratic changes initiated in 1989 by the Polish “Solidarity” movement that the Poles and the other nations of Central and Eastern Europe truly freed themselves and regained the sovereignty of their States. Most of them gradually became full members of the European Union and NATO.
However, the independence of any country in our region has always been a thorn in the side of the Russian imperialists. So, as soon as Moscow recovered from the shock of losing its Stalinist sphere of influence, it began to move towards empire restoration. We remember the military assault on Georgia in 2008. We also remember several brutal crackdowns on freedom movements in Belarus and Ukraine. We finally remember Russia’s hostile policy towards independent Ukraine, the military annexation of Crimea and Donbass in 2014 and, above all, the ongoing full-scale genocidal war against the sovereign Ukrainian state unleashed on February 24, 2022.
For the nations of our region, who remember the historic events symbolized by today’s date – September 17 – there is no doubt that Imperial Russia seeks to captivate other countries once again. He wants the same thing he wanted in 1939 and 1940 when he acted in alliance with Hitler’s Germany, and between 1945 and 1991, when he governed our countries alone.
Russia has always wanted power over all of central and eastern Europe. But a free Poland, a free Ukraine and all the other independent states in our region will never accept that. For our peoples, it is a matter of life and death, preservation of identity and survival. It is a question of the future, of security and of prosperity.
Andrzej Duda is the President of the Republic of Poland. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.