17th September 1939 – the rape of Poland (2)

On 17 September 1939, sixteen days after Germany invaded Poland from the west in an sudden and unprovoked assault [see our post 2nd September 1939 – the rape of Poland (1)], the Soviet Union invaded the country from the east in accordance with the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,  ,forever know as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. a neutrality pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939, by foreign ministers Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, respectively.

The Red Army vastly outnumbered the Polish army and the undeclared war lasted 20 days and ended on 6 October 1939 with division and annexation of the entire country territory by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Some 320,000 Polish soldiers became prisoners of war and a campaign of mass persecution in the newly-acquired territory began immediately with a wave of arrests and summary executions targeting Polish figures of authority such as military officers, police and priests. In May and June 1949 alone, some 22.000 polish officers, politicians, intellectuals and professionals were murdered in the Katyn Forest.There were other such massacres as the NKVD endeavoured to eliminate the Polish elite. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were transported from eastern Poland to Siberia and other remote parts of the Soviet Union in four major waves of deportation between 1939 and 1941. 

In November 1939 the Soviets annexed the eternity under its control and some 13.5 million Polish citizens became Soviet subjects following  sham elections. Soviet forces occupied eastern Poland until the summer of 1941, when they were expelled by the German army in the course of Operation Barbarossa, and the area was under German occupation until the Red Army reconquered it in the summer of 1944.

This was but the beginning.

Around six million Polish citizens perished during the Second World War about – one fifth of the pre-war population. Most were civilian victims of the war crimes and crimes against humanity during the occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and half of them were Jews.

An estimated 26 million Soviet citizens died during The Great Patriotic War that was to come, including as many as 11 million soldiers. Some seven million were killed in action and another 3.6 million perished in German POW camps.

And then there were the deportations. Some 2 million people were transported to Siberia and the Central Asian republics – ostensibly for treasonous collaboration with the invading Germans and anti-Soviet rebellion. Mere suspicion was sufficient to attract collective punishment.  The Crimean Tartars were deported en masse, whilst Volga Germans, settled in Russia for centuries, and other non-Slavic nationalities of the strategic Crimea, Black Sea coast lands and northern Caucasus were also dispatched eastwards. Whilst many were permitted to return to their homelands in the years and sometimes decades after the war, we’ll never know how many perished in exile from violence or privation.

On the other side of the ledger, the Wehrmacht suffered three-quarters of its wartime losses fighting the Red Army.  Some four million died in action and another 370,000 in the Soviet camp system. Some 600,000 soldiers of Germany allies, mostly Eastern Europeans, died also. In Stalingrad alone, the total Axis casualties (Germans, Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians) are believed to have been more than 800,000 dead, wounded, missing, or captured.

Having sowed the wind, Nazi Germany reaped the whirlwind when the tides of war changed and the Red Army retreated, recouped, stood firm and finally advanced, pushing onwards ever onwards until it reached Berlin. As the Soviets exacted revenge for the carnage and devastation wrought by the Wehrmacht, German citizens paid a heavy price. Civilian deaths, due to the flight and expulsion of Germans, Soviet atrocities and the transportation Germans for forced labour in the Soviet Union range from 500,000 to over 2 million.

These melancholy statistics are but a portion of the millions of lives lost or changed utterly by the events of September 1939.

Lest we forget …

They crossed over the border, the hour before dawn
Moving in lines through the day
Most of our planes were destroyed on the ground where they lay
Waiting for orders we held in the wood
Word from the front never came
By evening the sound of the gunfire was miles away
Ah, softly we move through the shadows, slip away through the trees
Crossing their lines in the mists in the fields on our hands and on our knees
And all that I ever was able to see
The fire in the air glowing red
Silhouetting the smoke on the breeze
Al Stewart, Roads to Moscow

Worldwide, over seventy million souls perished during World War II. We’ll never know just how many …

DEATHS BY COUNTRY  

COUNTRY MILITARY DEATHS TOTAL CIVILIAN AND MILITARY DEATHS
Albania 30,000 30,200
Australia 39,800 40,500
Austria 261,000 384,700
Belgium 12,100 86,100
Brazil 1,000 2,000
Bulgaria 22,000 25,000
Canada 45,400 45,400
China 3-4,000,000 20,000,000
Czechoslovakia 25,000 345,000
Denmark 2,100 3,200
Dutch East Indies 3-4,000,000
Estonia 51,000
Ethiopia 5,000 100,000
Finland 95,000 97,000
France 217,600 567,600
French Indochina 1-1,500,000
Germany 5,533,000 6,600,000-8,800,000
Greece 20,000-35,000 300,000-800,000
Hungary 300,000 580,000
India 87,000 1,500,000-2,500,000
Italy 301,400 457,000
Japan 2,120,000 2,600,000-3,100,000
Korea 378,000-473,000
Latvia 227,000
Lithuania 353,000
Luxembourg 2,000
Malaya 100,000
Netherlands 17,000 301,000
New Zealand 11,900 11,900
Norway 3,000 9,500
Papua New Guinea 15,000
Philippines 57,000 500,000-1,000,000
Poland 240,000 5,600,000
Rumania 300,000 833,000
Singapore 50,000
South Africa 11,900 11,900
Soviet Union 8,800,000-10,700,000 24,000,000
United Kingdom 383,600 450,700
United States 416,800 418,500
Yugoslavia 446,000 1,000,000

WORLDWIDE CASUALTIES*

Battle Deaths 15,000,000
Battle Wounded 25,000,000
Civilian Deaths 45,000,000

*Worldwide casualty estimates vary widely in several sources. The number of civilian deaths in China alone might well be more than 50,000,000.

Postscript

Former Soviet spy, former Ukrainian government minister and author Viktor Suvorov kick-started a historiographical battle royal in the early eighties when he presented controversial evidence that contrary to long-held opinion, Stalin had planned to actually attack Germany in 1941, only to be preempted by Operation Barbarossa.  Read more about it here.

See also, in In That Howling Infinite: Ghosts of the Gulag, The Death of Stalin is no laughing matter, and Thermidorian Thinking

 

“The Death of Stalin” is no laughing matter

When do satire and comedy cross the line and become tasteless? Some find this black comedy hilarious, whilst others think otherwise. Many whose families lived and suffered under totalitarian regimes, and those knowledgeable of the events might have a different view to those whose knowledge and experience is limited. And those who’ve actually lived under the Soviets might display the wry gallows humour of the oppressed. As a Ukrainian friend commented: ‘I think the film is better dubbed into Russian – they really worked on the dialogue. The English version is somewhat farcical. But watching it in Russian, you want to cry and laugh at the same time (not easy to do – it takes practice)”.

In the small, beautiful Art Deco Capitol cinema in Auckland, New Zealand, we watched this blackest of black comedies: the wise-cracking, slap-sticking, foul-mouthed, Machiavellian maneuvering of the Soviet politburo on the death of venerated and feared dictator for life Joseph Stalin in 1953. The shorts promised a cinematic treat, a “comedy of terrors” replete with malice aforethought as great actors have a good time with sharp one-liners, language worthy of The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker (the same script-writing and production team, after all) and gags of dubious taste. The cast includes Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), Michael Palin (Monty Python) and Robert Friend (Homeland’s Peter Quinn). Critics have acclaimed it as uproarious and wickedly irreverent, and devastatingly funny (that’s the Sydney Morning Herald).

But I personally didn’t find it funny at all. A friend commented that there was little difference  between the black humour of this film and that of, say, Black Adder and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Quite so, but it is a matter of degree, content, the descriptions of sexual assault, and the  explicit depiction of violence. From the opening scenes, the NKVD, the all-powerful Soviet internal security service, was a constant, threatening presence. Against a predictable, seedy but picturesque backdrop of Red Square, the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s cathedral, dingy and darkened apartments, incongruously inappropriate rococo dachas, and brooding pine forests, and a soundtrack of soulful Russian music, midnight arrests, brutal interrogations and summary executions were an ongoing leitmotif for this comedy of Soviet bad manners.

The Independent reported in January this year that the film has been banned in Russia. Whilst some commentators see this as symptomatic of th state of democracy in Putin’s Russia, critics and filmmakers supportive of the ban have called it variously unpatriotic, blasphemous and unprofessional; hateful, vile and repugnant; and “insulting our national symbols. The trailer goes out using our national anthem and it shows our great war marshals as … I don’t know how else to put it … idiots.”

My primary emotion was one of sadness – for the victims, so many nameless, who perished during the Soviet Union’s two decades of terror, and for the millions – from the Baltic to ththe Crimea- who were transported to the labour camps of the distant Gulags, to work, to starve, and to die.

By strange symmetry, I had been rereading historian Robert Conquest’s tombstone of a book, The Great Terror: a relentless narrative of arrests, trials, fabricated confessions, hostage-taking, deportations, torture and executions as Stalin consolidated his rule, eliminated enemies real and imagined, and created his own model of a socialist state.

It commenced with the elimination of the Old Bolsheviks, his former comrades in arms, and then expanded to embrace all in the party and society at large who may or may not have shared his vision. Intellectuals, philosophers, writers, poets, musicians, priests, scientists, academics, teachers,  civil servants, workers and peasants, and the Red Army’s Officer Corps – a contributing factor to the Soviet Union’s need to make a pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 and its disastrously slow response to Hitlers invasion in June 1941.

An estimated death toll is difficult to determine. In those dark days, people simply disappeared, and the NKVD covered its tracks well. The official number for the “Great Purge” of 1936 to 1938 stands at 1,548,366 detained persons, of whom 681,692 were shot – an average of 1,000 executions a day. Various historians claim that the real number of victims could be twice as much.

But the the arrests, executions, and deportations commenced as early as 1930 and continued right up until Stalin’s death in 1953. Conquest, in his The Great Terror: A Reassessment does the gloomy math: 1930-36, 7 million; 1937-1938, 3 million; 1039-53, 10 million. The number of deaths in the Soviet Union that were explicitly ordered by someone – in other words, the number of executions – is actually relatively low at around 1.5 million. The majority of the deaths were caused by neglect or repressive policies – for example, those who died in the Soviet gulags, those who died while being deported, and German civilians and Prisoners of War are believed to have perished while under Soviet guard.

The numbers who were transported, exiled, displaced, and scattered to concentration camps or far-eastern towns and villages were likewise incalculable. as the brother of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago comments in the final scenes of David Lean’s beautiful but flawed movie)

There is a myriad of books and films about these events. Wikipedia is as good a place as any to start. Robert Conquests is the most acclaimed – and rightly so. Then there is Arthur Koestler’s chilling novel, Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, which recounts the thoughts of an Old Bolshevik as he awaits death in the execution cells.

As for movies, there’s always David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, which realistically albeit melodramatically portrays the choices and compromises confronting ordinary, intellectual Russians in the years of revolution and civil war. But I would highly recommend the poignant but powerful Burnt by the Sun, a 1994 film by Russian director and screenwriter Nikita Mikhailkov and Azerbaijani screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov. The film depicts the story of a senior officer (played by Mikhalkov) and his family during the purge of the Red Army.

On our return from New Zealand, I retrieved from my archive a paper I wrote as an undergraduate at Reading University in 1970, under the wise tutorship of eminent Sovietologist, historian and former political prisoner Tibor Szamuely, entitled How Rational Was The Great Purge?  My writing style, the content and the conclusions I drew have changed little over the years. I shall publish it soon on Into That Howling Infinite.

You were taken away at dawn. I followed you
As one does when a corpse is being removed.
Children were crying in the darkened house.
A candle flared, illuminating the Mother of God…
The cold of an icon was on your lips
A death-cold sweat on your brow –
I will never forget this; I will gather
To wail with the wives of the murdered streltsy
Inconsolably, beneath the Kremlin towers.
Anna Akhmatova, Moscow 1935

See also these posts: Ghosts of the Gulag, Thermidorian Thinking  and Sic Semper Tyrannis

And first, English songwriter Al Stewart’s tribute to  Solzhenitsyn and those like him who were ill-paid for their service and sacrifice.

I’m coming home, I’m coming home, now you can taste it in the wind, the war is over
And I listen to the clicking of the train-wheels as we roll across the border
And now they ask me of the time that I was caught behind their lines and taken prisoner
“They only held me for a day, a lucky break, ” I say they turn and listen closer
I’ll never know, I’ll never know why I was taken from the line and all the others
To board a special train and journey deep into the heart of holy Russia
And it’s cold and damp in the transit camp, and the air is still and sullen
And the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when I’ll be home again and the morning answers “Never”
And the evening sighs, and the steely Russian skies go on forever