As a result of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers became prisoners of war. Many of them were executed; 22,000 Polish military personnel and civilians perished in the Katyn massacre alone.[1][2]

Soviet invasion of Poland

Further information: Soviet invasion of Poland

Polish prisoners of war captured by the Red Army during the Soviet invasion of Poland
Polish policemen and civilians captured by the Red Army after the Soviet invasion of Poland
A Soviet propaganda poster urging the civilians to beware of spies; in this case a man in the shadows wearing Polish officers parade uniform.
The note from Beria which was signed by members of the Soviet Politburo; it decided the fate (mass execution) of Polish officers, dated 5 March 1940

On September 17, 1939, the Red Army invaded the territory of Poland from the east. The invasion took place while Poland was already sustaining serious defeats in the wake of the German attack on the country that started on September 1, 1939. The Soviets moved to safeguard their claims in accordance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.[3][4]

During the Red Army's rapid advance, about 6,000–7,000 Polish soldiers died in the fighting,[5] 230,000–450,000 were taken prisoner—230,000 immediately after the campaign and 70,000 more when the Soviets annexed the Baltic States and assumed custody of Polish troops interned there.[5][6][7][8]

The Soviets often failed to honour the terms of surrender. In some cases, they promised Polish soldiers freedom after capitulation and then arrested them when they laid down their arms.[2] Some Polish soldiers were murdered shortly after capture, like General Józef Olszyna-Wilczyński, who was taken prisoner, interrogated and shot on September 22, during the invasion itself.[2][9][10] On September 24, the Soviets murdered forty-two staff and patients at a Polish military hospital in the village of Grabowiec near Zamość.[11] After a tactical Polish victory at the battle of Szack on September 28, where the combined Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza (KOP) or Border Protection Corps forces, under General Wilhelm Orlik-Rueckemann, routed the Soviet 52nd Rifle Division, the Soviets executed all the Polish officers they captured.[12] The Soviets also executed hundreds of defenders at Grodno, the exact number of those killed has not been established.

First period (1939–1941)

Some Polish prisoners were freed or escaped, but 125,000 found themselves incarcerated in prison camps run by the NKVD.[13] Of these, the Soviet authorities released 42,400 soldiers (mostly soldiers of Ukrainian and Belarusian ethnicity serving in the Polish army who lived in the former Polish territories now annexed by the Soviet Union) in October.[14][15][16] The 43,000 soldiers born in West Poland, then under German control, were transferred to the Germans; in turn the Soviets received 13,575 Polish prisoners from the Germans.[16][15]

Poland and the Soviet Union never officially declared war on each other in 1939; the Soviets effectively broke off diplomatic relations when they withdrew recognition of the Polish government at the start of the invasion.[17] The Soviets regarded captured Polish military personnel not as prisoners-of-war, but as counter-revolutionaries resisting the legal Soviet reclamation of western Ukraine and West Belarus.[18] The USSR refused to allow Red Cross supervision of prisoners - on the grounds that it had not signed the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of PoWs and did not recognise the Hague Convention. The Soviet military handed the Polish prisoners over to the Narodnyy komissariat vnutrennikh del (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, better known as the NKVD or secret police), they received sentences under clauses in the Soviet penal code relating to crimes including treason and counter-revolution, and were not considered subject to the "Regulations for the Treatment of Prisoners of War" approved by the Soviet Council of Ministers.[19]

As early as September 19, 1939, the People's Commissar for Internal Affairs and First Rank Commissar of State Security, Lavrenty Beria, ordered the NKVD to create the Administration for Affairs of Prisoners of War and Internees to manage Polish prisoners. The NKVD took custody of Polish prisoners from the Red Army and proceeded to organize a network of reception centers and transit camps and to arrange rail transport to prisoner-of-war camps in the western USSR. The camps were located at Jukhnovo (Babynino rail station), Yuzhe (Talitsy), Kozelsk, Kozelshchyna, Oranki, Ostashkov (Stolbnyi Island on Seliger Lake near Ostashkov), Tyotkino rail station (56 mi/90 km from Putyvl), Starobielsk, Vologda (Zaenikevo rail station) and Gryazovets.[20]

Kozelsk and Starobielsk held mainly military officers, while Ostashkov was used mainly for Boy Scouts, gendarmes, police and prison officers. Inmates at these camps were not exclusively military officers or members of the other groups mentioned, they also included members of the Polish intelligentsia. The approximate distribution of men throughout the camps was as follows:

They totalled 15,570 men.[21]

According to a report from 19 November 1939, the NKVD had about 40,000 Polish POWs: about 8,000-8,500 officers and warrant officers, 6,000–6,500 police officers and 25,000 soldiers and NCOs who were still being held as POWs.[22][failed verification][16][23][24] In December, a wave of arrests took into custody some Polish officers who were not yet imprisoned; Ivan Serov reported to Lavrentiy Beria on 3 December that "in all, 1,057 former officers of the Polish Army had been arrested".[15] The 25,000 soldiers and non-commissioned officers were assigned to forced labor (road construction, heavy metallurgy).[15]

Once at the camps, from October 1939 to February 1940, the Poles were subjected to lengthy interrogations and constant political agitation by NKVD officers such as Vasily Zarubin. The Soviets encouraged the Poles to believe they would be released,[25] but the interviews were in effect a selection process to determine who would live and who would die.[1] According to NKVD reports, the prisoners could not be induced to adopt a pro-Soviet attitude.[21] They were declared "hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority".[1]

On March 5, 1940, a note to Joseph Stalin from Beria saw the members of the Soviet Politburo — Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Mikhail Kalinin, Kliment Voroshilov, Anastas Mikoyan and Beria — signed an order for the execution of "nationalists and counter-revolutionaries" kept at camps and prisons in western Ukraine and Belarus. This execution became known as the Katyn massacre, where 22,000 perished[1][2]

Second period (1941–1944)

Further information: Polish Armed Forces in the East

Diplomatic relations were, however, re-established in 1941 after the German invasion of the Soviet Union forced Joseph Stalin to look for allies. Thus the military agreement from August 14 and subsequent Sikorski–Mayski Agreement from August 17, 1941, resulted in Stalin agreeing to declare the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in relation to Poland null and void,[26] and release tens of thousands of Polish prisoners-of-war held in Soviet camps. Pursuant to an agreement between the Polish government-in-exile and Stalin, the Soviets granted "amnesty" to many Polish citizens, from whom a military force was formed. Stalin also agreed that this military force would be subordinate to the Polish government-in-exile. This force was known as the Anders Army. From 1943 Poles were recruited into the Berling Army.

Third period (after 1944)

The third group of Polish prisoners were members of Polish resistance organizations (Armia Krajowa, or 'cursed soldiers') loyal to the Polish government-in-exile and seen by the Soviets as a threat to their establishment of a power base in Poland. Relatively few were sent to the Soviet Union (although there were notable exceptions, see Trial of the Sixteen); most were transferred to the Polish communist security forces and prisons, or enlisted in the Berling Army.

Polish generals killed by the Soviets in 1939–1945

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Fischer, Benjamin B., "The Katyn Controversy: Stalin's Killing Field", Studies in Intelligence, Winter 1999-2000.
  2. ^ a b c d Sanford, Google Books, p. 20–24.
  3. ^ Encyklopedia PWN 'KAMPANIA WRZEŚNIOWA 1939' Archived May 9, 2006, at the Wayback Machine, last retrieved on 10 December 2005, Polish language
  4. ^ Stanley S. Seidner, Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz Rydz and the Defense of Poland, New York, 1978.
  5. ^ a b (in Polish) Edukacja Humanistyczna w wojsku Archived 2007-01-10 at the Wayback Machine. 1/2005. Dom wydawniczy Wojska Polskiego. ISSN 1734-6584. (Official publication of the Polish Army). Retrieved 28 November 2006.
  6. ^ (in Polish) obozy jenieckie żołnierzy polskich Archived 2013-11-04 at the Wayback Machine (Prison camps for Polish soldiers) Encyklopedia PWN. Retrieved 28 November 2006.
  7. ^ (in Russian) Молотов на V сессии Верховного Совета 31 октября цифра «примерно 250 тыс.» (Please provide translation of the reference title and publication data and means)
  8. ^ (in Russian) Отчёт Украинского и Белорусского фронтов Красной Армии Мельтюхов, с. 367. [1][permanent dead link] (Please provide translation of the reference title and publication data and means)
  9. ^ (in Polish) Olszyna-Wilczyński Józef Konstanty Archived 2008-03-06 at the Wayback Machine, entry at Encyklopedia PWN. Retrieved 14 November 2006.
  10. ^ "Śledztwa - Białystok" (in Polish). Archived from the original on January 7, 2005. Retrieved January 7, 2005.((cite web)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link) Polish Institute of National Remembrance. 16.10.03. From Internet Archive.
  11. ^ (in Polish) Tygodnik Zamojskim[permanent dead link], 15 September 2004. Retrieved 28 November 2006.
  12. ^ (in Polish) Szack. Encyklopedia Interia. Retrieved 28 November 2006.
  13. ^ Decision to commence investigation into Katyn Massacre Archived 2012-09-30 at the Wayback Machine, Małgorzata Kużniar-Plota, Departmental Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation, Warsaw 30 November 2004. "[...] some 250,000 Polish soldiers were taken into Soviet captivity. Some of them were released, and some escaped, but 125,400 prisoners were placed in NKVD prison camps in Kozelsk, Ostashkov, Starobelsk, Putivl, Yuzha, Oranki, Kozelshchina, and elsewhere."
  14. ^ George Sanford (2005). Katyn and the Soviet massacre of 1940: truth, justice and memory. Psychology Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-415-33873-8. Retrieved 7 May 2011.
  15. ^ a b c d Alfred J. Rieber (2000). Forced migration in Central and Eastern Europe, 1939-1950. Psychology Press. pp. 31–33. ISBN 978-0-7146-5132-3. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  16. ^ a b c Simon-Dubnow-Institut für Jüdische Geschichte und Kultur (2007). Shared history, divided memory: Jews and others in Soviet-occupied Poland, 1939-1941. Leipziger Universitätsverlag. p. 180. ISBN 978-3-86583-240-5. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  17. ^ See telegrams: No. 317 Archived 2009-11-07 at the Wayback Machine of September 10: Schulenburg, the German ambassador in the Soviet Union, to the German Foreign Office. Moscow, 10 September 1939-9:40 p.m.; No. 371 Archived 2007-04-30 at the Wayback Machine of 16 September; No. 372 Archived 2007-04-30 at the Wayback Machine of 17 September Source: The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. Last accessed on 14 November 2006; (in Polish)1939 wrzesień 17, Moskwa Nota rządu sowieckiego nie przyjęta przez ambasadora Wacława Grzybowskiego (Note of the Soviet government to the Polish government on 17 September 1939 refused by Polish ambassador Wacław Grzybowski). Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  18. ^ Sanford, pp. 22–3; See also, Sanford, p 39: "The Soviet Union's invasion and occupation of Eastern Poland in September 1939 was a clear act of aggression in international law...But the Soviets did not declare war, nor did the Poles respond with a declaration of war. As a result there was confusion over the status of soldiers taken captive and whether they qualified for treatment as PoWs. Jurists consider that the absence of a formal declaration of war does not absolve a power from the obligations of civilised conduct towards PoWs. On the contrary, failure to do so makes those involved, both leaders and operational subordinates, liable to charges of War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity."
  19. ^ Sanford, p. 25 and p. 41.
  20. ^ "The grave unknown elsewhere or any time before ... Katyń – Kharkov – Mednoe", last retrieved on 10 December 2005. Article includes a note that it is based on a special edition of a "Historic Reference-Book for the Pilgrims to Katyń – Kharkow – Mednoe" by Jędrzej Tucholski
  21. ^ a b Zawodny, Janusz K., Death in the Forest: The Story of the Katyn Forest Massacre, University of Notre Dame Press, 1962, ISBN 0-268-00849-3 partial HTML online
  22. ^ Decision to commence investigation into Katyn Massacre Archived 2012-09-30 at the Wayback Machine, Małgorzata Kużniar-Plota, Departmental Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation, Warsaw 30 November 2004
  23. ^ Anna M. Cienciala; Wojciech Materski (2007). Katyn: a crime without punishment. Yale University Press. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-300-10851-4. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  24. ^ (in Russian) Катынь. Пленники необъявленной войны. сб.док. М., МФ "Демократия": 1999, сс.20–21, 208–210.
  25. ^ "The Katyn Diary of Leon Gladun" Archived 2019-03-11 at the Wayback Machine, last accessed on 19 December 2005, English translation of Polish document. See the entries on 25 December 1939 and 3 April 1940.
  26. ^ "In relation to Poland the effects of the pact have been abrogated on the basis of the Sikorski-Mayski agreement".
    René Lefeber, Malgosia Fitzmaurice, The Changing Political Structure of Europe: aspects of International law, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, ISBN 0-7923-1379-8, Google Print, p.101