Doomsday! 80 years ago today, Stalin invaded Poland. From this moment on, Poland’s wartime fate was sealed

The USSR's Lieutenant-General Semyon Krivoshein (R) shakes hands with Germany's General Heinz Guderian following the invasion. Public Domain

Though best-known for Germany’s invasion of Poland, September 1939 bore witness to a second treachery, one every bit as heinous and underhand as that engineered by Hitler to the West.

With the nation already struggling to keep the full weight of the Wehrmacht at bay, the pre-dawn hours of September 17th saw the country’s porous defences to the East deluged as Red Army forces invaded, thereby fulfilling a secret annex in August’s Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, an agreement that had predetermined a German-Soviet carve-up of Poland. 

From this moment on, Poland’s wartime fate was sealed. 

Numbers vary depending on the source material, but all agree that the Red Army committed anything between half-a-million and a million men to the campaign. These were further bolstered by a minimum of 4,000 tanks and 2,000 aircraft. Public Domain

Demonstrating the full depth of his cunning, Molotov, the Soviet Union’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, issued a declaration to Poland’s Ambassador in Moscow stating that, because Poland’s government had “disintegrated” and was “no longer showing any sign of life”, agreements between the USSR and Poland had ceased to exist. 

The Soviet Union, he argued, had no choice but to cross the Polish border in order to protect the people of Ukraine and Belarus from the threat posed to them by Poland’s collapse. 

It was, of course, all but a pretext. 

Polish prisoners of war captured by the Red Army during the 1939 Soviet invasion.Public Domain

Numbers vary depending on the source material, but all agree that the Red Army committed anything between half-a-million and a million men to the campaign. These were further bolstered by a minimum of 4,000 tanks and 2,000 aircraft. 

The majority of Poland’s eastern forces had already been deployed elsewhere in a bid to halt the German advance, others were in the midst of regrouping as they awaited Allied aid. In accordance with some estimates, Poland’s eastern flank was left defended by just 20,000 troops of the Border Protection Corps. 

After a four-day battle in the town of Kock which saw his troops run out of food and ammunition, on October 6th General Franciszek Kleeberg surrendered thereby becoming the last Polish commander to lay down arms. Public Domain

Crucially, efforts to resist the Soviet invasion were undermined by the confusion of battle. In the informational chaos that followed, some units welcomed Soviet formations as allies. Others followed an order to fallback and only return fire if under direct attack. With communication networks disrupted, yet more Poles simply dug in and fought. 

The chain of command had been effectively severed, leaving a coordinated operational plan impossible to implement. As the sense of untrammelled crisis deepened, the government crossed into Romania the following day having already given orders for Polish armed forces to follow suit in the hope of later regrouping in France. 

Stalin and Ribbentrop shake hands after the signing of the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics pact on August 23, 1939, in which the two countries agreed to carve up Poland. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27337 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

If there is a surprise, it is that the nation did not fold immediately. In some instances, the Red Army had made advances of up to 60 kilometres on the opening day of hostilities, but in other areas they had met with dogged resistance – Grodno held out for four days, while Lwów (modern day Lviv) fell on September 22nd after Germany’s General Guderian handed the siege over to the Soviets. There were, even, token victories, most notably the Battle of Szack on September 28th. 

From the outset of the invasion, the Soviets were guilty of numerous vile actions.  Notoriously, approximately 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia captured in the September Campaign were later executed in Katyń Forest the following Spring, the massacre coming to light when the mass graves were discovered by German forces. PAP

The writing, however, was on the wall. September 28th saw the signing of the German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Demarcation, a pact that ratified a modified border between the two aggressors, and days later, on October 6th, General Franciszek Kleeberg surrendered to the Germans following the four-day Battle of Kock, thereby becoming the last Polish commander to lay down arms in what history now recognizes as The September Campaign. 

The war on two fronts was over. Poland had fallen. 

Under the terms of the Polish-British Common Defence Pact of 25 August 1939, Britain had promised assistance if a European power attacked Poland. However, the country was in no position to go to war in September 1939. As such, Western reaction to the Soviet invasion had been muted and both France and Britain had stopped well short of anything other than mild verbal censure.Public Domain

Defined by its realpolitik, the weeks preceding had left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Poles. Western reaction to the Soviet invasion had been muted and both France and Britain had stopped well short of anything other than mild verbal censure. 

Speaking on the radio in the wake of late September’s demarcation agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union, Winston Churchill declared: “That the Russian armies should stand on this line was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace. At any rate, the line is there, and an Eastern Front has been created which Nazi Germany does not dare assail.”

Undoubtedly already recognizing the importance of the Soviet Union as a future ally against Hitler, his recognition of this new border did not augur well for Poland.

Following the capture of the then-Polish city of Lwów (now Lviv in Ukranie), the Soviets held a victory parade. Public domain

For everyday people, however, the suffering had already begun. Whilst Nazi atrocities are well documented, the Soviets were themselves guilty of numerous vile actions. From the outset of the invasion, commissars had sown troops with stories of a nation in the grip of unjust landowners and a social elite, in the process creating a climate that saw unchecked brutality. This did not rescind with Poland’s capitulation. 

Marketed by Moscow as a ‘liberation campaign’, the ‘Sovietisation’ that subsequently followed saw anything of up to a million Poles exiled to Siberia – and some claim even more. 

Notoriously, approximately 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia captured in the September Campaign were later executed in Katyń Forest the following Spring, the massacre coming to light when the mass graves were discovered by German forces. 

On Saturday Warsaw’s Pl. Piłsudskiego saw the ceremonial lighting of over 20,000 candles set in the shape of the Polish eagle as per its design in 1919 in memory of those who died in Katyń. Marlena Pycka/Facebook

Used as a propaganda vehicle by the Nazis to drive a wedge between the Allies, the bloodbath has come to be seen by many Poles as emblematic of the invasion and all that followed. Fittingly, therefore, on Saturday Warsaw’s Pl. Piłsudskiego saw the ceremonial lighting of over 20,000 candles set in the shape of the Polish eagle as per its design in 1919. 

Complimented by a similar action in Zamość that saw 2,000 candles lit, the evening’s events were paired with speeches, discussion panels and performances by the Polish Army Orchestra and the band Panny Wyklęte. 

Today, the sombre commemorations are expected to continue with a ceremony at Warsaw’s Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East and another evening gathering at Pl. Piłsudskiego.