Today marks Black Ribbon Day and the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact
On 23 August 1939, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov met in Moscow to sign a document that would change the course of history.
Officially known as the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it would become known simply as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, an agreement that would see a German-Soviet carve-up of Poland.
The following day, newspapers Pravda and Izvestia splashed with the pact's public sections, but not the secret protocol, along with a photograph of Molotov signing the treaty, with a smiling Stalin looking on.
The news was met with global shock with France and Britain demanding a meeting with the Soviet military negotiator Kliment Voroshilov, who told them, "in view of the changed political situation, no useful purpose can be served in continuing the conversation".
Hitler told the British ambassador to Berlin that the pact prevented Germany from facing a two-front war, and that Britain should accept his demands on Poland.
Britain refused and signed a defence pact with Poland forcing Hitler to change his invasion plans from August 26th to September 1st.
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.
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.
Poland was now in a war it had no possibility of winning, trapped between two behemoths.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and all that followed.
On 23 September 2008, 409 members of the European Parliament signed a declaration for August 23rd as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.
The declaration said: "The mass deportations, murders and enslavements committed in the context of the acts of aggression by Stalinism and Nazism fall into the category of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Under international law, statutory limitations do not apply to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The remembrance day has been officially recognised by EU countries since 2009.